Food Isn't Always About Eating

                  Food Gardens in the Central Highlands of New Guinea     Image credit

Meh, food. I have been known to wish for human kibble, and sometimes eye the 20kg sack of dog food in the porch with a view to its nutritious qualities. Surely the children wouldn't mind finding a tub of that in their lunch boxes? I have a tricky relationship with food. My mother isn't known for her enthusiasm for cooking. Her favourite kind of soup comes in a can. My father can make toast. Once when I was very young and Mum was sick and safely confined to bed he decided to find out how many times he could put the toast back into the toaster to toast it some more. He only stopped when he set the toaster on fire. This is my culinary heritage. But my mum is a trooper. Even though she regards the act of cooking with fear and loathing, she has put a meal on the table three times a day every day of her adult life. I think that deserves a medal, right there. Despite my parents' non-interest in food, cooking or growing it, I grew up in the midst of a permaculture paradise. The highlands of New Guinea are the world's oldest continuously worked gardens, having been cultivated for around eight thousand years. In the 1920s when the first European explorers struggled over the mountains that ring the Wahgi Valley in the centre of Papua New Guinea they were astounded to look down into a valley that resembled the countryside of medieval England, with its squares of gardens edged with hedges and trees and little thatched villages. Fifty or so years later I lived in a small town there in the Highlands with my parents. Our houses were surrounded by gardens and fruit trees and my favourite place to play was inside the hibiscus hedge that surrounded the huge vegie garden in our back yard which was grown by the young local men who worked for my parents' missionary organisation. When I wasn't in the hedge I was climbing trees to eat guavas or stuffing myself with slightly unripe Cape gooseberries. Later we lived down on the tropical coast and Mum cut down bunches of bananas with a machete and stored them in the outside laundry until they were ripe. So although my parents weren't much into food, I grew up knowing that food comes out of the earth and drops down from trees. Much later, as a teenager, I lived in an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory, where again, for tens of thousands of years a small population lived off the land and changed the environment to do that without breaking it. Extraordinary. We didn't do that of course. We went to the supermarket.

Much later again, as a young mum I moved into an old cottage with a big yard full of fruit trees. Peaches and oranges rained down, and I felt that this was how things should be, but I had absolutely no skills or knowledge to do anything with them. It was there that I first attempted to make jam, which turned out to be syrup. I didn't know what to do with that either, so I gave it away, then heard with grateful surprise that my friends loved it and poured it on their porridge in the morning. That was when I learned that almost everything you make is generally edible, but sometimes you have to relabel it. At this stage of my life I was just learning about cooking with actual, real food, instead of eating from jars and packets at the supermarket. It has been a long and interesting journey. Slowly I have learned that the food that drops off trees and springs out of the ground can be the staple part of your diet, and not just an occasional snack. That supermarkets are not really about providing us with the staff of life, so much as providing shareholders with dividends.

Food isn't always about eating. Sometimes it is about making unimaginably large amounts of money for people somewhere far away, who frankly, don't really need it. Ten multinational food corporations own most of the companies which make most of the food in the supermarkets. It is a racket. Most food in packets is made from corn, rice, wheat, soy and sugar. Most of this food contributes in various ways to making us very unwell. On top of this iniquitous peddling of nastiness, all the food in the packets relies heavily on oil - to grow the food, to process it in factories, to make its plastic packets, to transport it the average 1500 miles (2414 km) it takes to get to our plates. Then we have to drive to the supermarket, trudge around a giant ghastly architectural eyesore which is a blight on our urban landscape, shuffling behind a wonky trolley full of nasty food, and then we have to dispose of all the horrible plastic that this food leaves behind it in a trail of unsightliness.

Why do we do it? Because it is the easiest way to get food in a suburb. In Australia the two giant corporations that control 80% of our retail experience have made sure that there is a supermarket in every shopping centre near you. And me. And it's just part of our modern lifestyle.

But that is a very tedious and boring reason to do anything. There are much more fun and exciting ways to acquire food. Even if you don't live in the cradle of the world's oldest agriculture. Even in the suburbs. For instance, one of the verge trees at the end of my street is a small walnut tree. I have been keeping my beady eye on it, and now that the walnuts are dropping I come home with a heap in my pockets every time I walk the dog. Yesterday I went walking with a friend and we discovered a patch of blackberries that need a couple of weeks of sunshine to be perfect for picking. I say yes every time someone offers me food. This week I came home from Easter lunch with a bag of home-grown grapes, and a bag of feijoas that I foraged from under my friend Sandra's feijoa tree while everyone else was hunting for Easter eggs. I dried all that fruit to add to my muesli. Then my neighbour up the street gave me some kangaroo meat and some venison from his freezer that he had accidentally thawed thinking it was something else, so he gave it to me for the dog. This week Benson-the-carnivorous-puppy has been eating like a king. Because I had a long conversation with my elderly neighbour about the iniquity of waste, which both he and I disapprove of, he is now intending to send along all the leftovers from the deer and kangaroo carcasses that his mate the hunter brings him.. Benson will be eating well. Sometimes it is just being in the right place at the right time and saying yes. Another friend emailed the other day to ask whether I wanted some pork mince for $5kg because her farmer friends were killing their pigs, which have spent the last weeks of their lives snacking on acorns and strawberries. Oh, yes please. Mind you, I cultivate the right kind of friends..

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of finding sources of local food. This is without really paying that much attention. If I seriously applied myself, I am sure I could feed us all completely from local sources without spending too much. That is the kicker, isn't it? I could feed myself at enormous expense on local gourmet delicacies, because Tasmania is a foodie paradise, but I'm not about to do that, because I can't. But anyone can pick up walnuts from the side of the road..

And there is my garden. I love my garden, and like every gardener ever I am always saying, "Next year, I can grow even more food." And every year I do, but I am nowhere near the limit of the amount of food that an average backyard can produce yet. This week we are eating potatoes, tomatoes, silverbeet, rhubarb, capsicums and lemons from the garden, plus assorted herbs, and the last of the summer's garlic that I grew in pots. I still haven't managed to get a continuous supply of lettuce going, but I should be able to, because there is no month in Tasmania where it is impossible to grow lettuce in the open. It requires regular resowing though, which is my nemesis.

Do you know what I find hardest about eating from the garden? It's eating from the garden. Using what is right out there in the backyard for weeks on end - right now it is a potato glut - and then suddenly there won't be any more for the next nine months. It means having a hundred recipes for everything that is in season, actually cooking it, and not leaving it until next week when it will have gone off, or finding a way to preserve it. This requires a lot more organisational capacity than I actually possess, but I am working on it. At least if food goes to waste in the garden it goes straight into the compost to to be made back into food again, but I do get very cross with myself when I fail to take advantage of nature's mad bounty.

There are lots of ways to eat well and local even if you don't have a garden. There are farmers' markets. These can be expensive, but a lot less so if you stick to buying fruit and veg and stay away from all the lovely cheese and meat and artisan breads that are there to tempt us all away from the straight and narrow. There are fruit and veg boxes from local farms. There is foraging and eating weeds. This year I have started adding weeds to my salads. There are about half a dozen that I use now, and they are everywhere! There is making friends with farmers and food growers, and saying yes! whenever anything is available, and going to help them and buying food from them whenever possible. I buy my eggs from a work colleague who has chickens for much less than buying free range eggs at the shops. Hunting out local and affordable sources of food can be fun. I mean, who knew that I know someone who knows someone with pigs, or who hunts deer? Networking isn't just for people in suits. I also keep my eyes peeled when walking the dog or visiting friends. That's how I found the walnut tree. There are edible trees all over the place when you look out for them. Also, weird bits of them are unexpectedly edible. This week I discovered that new birch leaves are edible and you can add them to spring salads. Amazing!

And why is all this so important, you might ask. Well, of course you know. Less oil, less energy, less plastic, more food security. All that. But for me, what is also important is more life. We have given huge corporations power over the most central need of life. Our food. It is what keeps us alive. I don't know how much life we are getting from those plastic packets though. Even in the highlands of New Guinea there are supermarkets. You can buy frozen peas and beans in cans in a big warehouse there just as easily as you can in my local suburb. But if you want some real fun, go to a market and buy beans from the person who grew them, just like people have done for thousands of years. You may meet your friends and have a good gossip and get out in the fresh air, and make your local community more fun. Or you can have even more fun and plant some baby pea seeds and watch them pop out of the ground and wave their tiny baby tendrils around, and give them some sticks to grow up. Or watch bean vines twirl around their bean poles and wait for the world's most miniature beans to start peeking out of the bean flowers at midsummer.

What I discovered from my childhood of watching gardens grow, and trees drop food and pigs and chickens running around all over the place is that food is everywhere and is also pretty much a crazy carnival. What makes supermarket grocery shopping disappointing is that it is in no way a crazy carnival. It is dreary, because it is about money. Large corporations making money so that I can eat is just not fun at all.

My relationship with food is still tricky. I am not a natural born cook. I would honestly rather read a book than make soup. But I would rather make soup than eat soup out of a can. Because when you make soup out of vegies you grew in the garden or bought at the markets, or received in a bag over the fence from your neighbour, well, that soup is pretty special. It tastes good, and it is made out of community and life and fun, and not out of money. And now I am learning to make my own dog food so I won't have to buy giant bags of it from the supermarket. My children are probably slightly relieved about that..


fran7narf said…
Just lovely. 'Amen!' :)
Anonymous said…
Beautiful words. So much has resulted from our need/desire for convenience and foods out of season. Not least the impact on the environment and the corporatisation of our food supply.

While I don't enjoy cooking, I do love the effect so I cook. Soup from a can. Never! But I do make too much use of prepared ingredients which I could make from scratch. And starve the supermarkets. It's time I need.

Growing up we always had fruit trees or a veggie patch. One of the regrets of the busyness of my job. I have no energy to do gardening.

Do you have a freezer, Jo? Could you freeze your garden produce?
Jo said…
Fran, :)

Lucinda, if I had more money than time I would definitely spend it on all the gourmet goodies at the farmers' market and all the brilliant food made by small companies sold in all the yummy small food shops. There is so much great food around made locally everywhere you are. If you can afford it, that's fantastic. Me, I choose time over money, which means I have to grow and make my own.. and no, no freezer, because money and space constraints, but I am learning all sorts of other preservation techniques, which is a crazy carnival in itself..
Debbie said…
I love to forage for free food and to also share the food that we have grown in our garden. I am hoping this year to do more canning. In the past I have done jams and pickles but this year I want to try pressure canning.
Tracy said…
You and I grew up so similarly. My mother didn't become more adventurous in her cooking until we lived in PNG. I think I cook more interesting food, because I hated what my Mum cooked. She is a good cook, but she doesn't like to do it, and her food is far plainer than mine. When we lived in PNG we had coconut trees in the front yard, a mango tree behind the house and the pineapple patch ended up being ripped out because of snakes. We had lemon trees and I think a very sad pawpaw tree as well. Without even trying.

I love the idea of growing my own food, but have not the time to keep it up. Right now I have rosemary, chives and rhubarb, all of which do their thing and I just take what I need when I need it. That's my kind of gardening I suppose. And the couple who clean my house almost always leave me something from their garden...pears and figs are sitting on my bench right now.
Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

What an absolute jewel of an essay! It is just superb and I love the topic and how you covered it.

margfh said…
Hi Jo,

Thanks for this!! My mother (of eight children btw) was not a cook either. She said when she got married she knew how to make two things - scrambled eggs and fudge. We grew up eating lots of convenience food - tv dinners though usually we had the much better quality Stouffer Dinners. Boxed cereals, lunch meat, frozen vegetables - well you get the idea. In fact being the oldest she passed on making dinner to me. I was a whiz at cooking frozen dinners and of course all my siblings usually had complaints about it. My father died suddenly quite young (I was the only one out of the house) and for economic reasons she finally had a garden and actually cooked real meals and did quite well at it.

For me I'm happy to just keep it simple most of the time. My husband's family was really into food especially meat and he does much of the cooking - well meat anyway. There is this mindset too that there must always be variety instead of using what's in season. Right now here in No. Illinois there's just asparagus but a lot of it. Funny how you look forward to it for months and then after eating it almost daily your outlook changes. I think people would be much healthier if they just ate in season. After all if you are eating much of the same food you don't tend to overeat. When you do have something different it really becomes special.

Jo said…
Debbie, I must admit that I am also eyeing off a pressure canner.. we could provide moral support for each other in this endeavour. I am a little afraid of the potential for it to explode all over the kitchen!

Tracy, oh, yes, you reminded me of the pineapple patch! And we also had paw-paw trees at one of our houses. But I never could like paw-paw. It felt a bit too slimy for me. Although now it is the new superfood, so I guess all that paw-paw that I ate in the fruit salad made me immensely healthy :)

Pam, thanks :)

Margaret, if I had eight children I would be serving frozen dinners too! I don't think everyone needs to be fabulous cooks. My mum and I both think that other people cooking is an excellent idea. We are truly appreciative of this world's enthusiastic cooks! However we both push through and feed our family with homecooked meals and make them eat vegies everyday because that's what mums do.. I love the gardening side, but like your mum, have to work hard on the cooking side.

The best thing about garden cooking, is that the food is so good you don't need to do much to it. I am jealous of your asparagus glut now! And you are so right - how happy you will be to see the back of the asparagus and tuck into the peas:) That is the joy of eating from a garden.
Treaders said…
I'm with you 100% on this Jo. I have enough land to potter on but I don't have enough TIME, so I've cut it back to basics until I retire (in about 3 years) when I really want to get into organic gardening. I threw some asparagus into the ground about 8 years ago and through total neglect I now am growing asparagus. Tomatoes are fabulous and also courgettes, but I can't wait to get more into it. We don't have such wonderful growing conditions as you do but I look forward to doing what I can later. And talking about the power of the big corporations, there is a very good book called "Fast Food Nation" that I read many years ago - it really brings home how we are all held hostage. Anna
Jo said…
Anna, well, you have completely convinced me to put in some asparagus. I love vegies which thrive on neglect! I will prowl around to find a suitable spot for it.. Haven't read Fast Food Nation, but it is now on my library holds list :)
GretchenJoanna said…
I loved this line: "...almost everything you make is generally edible, but sometimes you have to relabel it." That's what I've been doing my whole life!

I live in the kind of place where food can be grown for much of the year, and truck gardens and back yard gardens abound. Farm stands and CSA's everywhere...

This year I've been eating snow peas, last year I had kale. Soon I hope to have green beans and tomatoes and basil. And I have flowers :-) I just noticed that one of my ornamentals, the Strawberry Tree, arbutus unedo, is absolutely loaded with immature fruits. Last year I discovered that they are tasty and good to eat. Do you grow those down there?

Thank you, Jo, for your celebratory and inspiring words and example in the realm of food.
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Lovely stuff! Your culinary heritage was not great, but honestly who wasn't raised on the occasional meal (a bit more often in my case) of the single lamb chop and over boiled vegetables (honestly, the water used to boil the veg ended up green and that was just wrong)? How good was the marrow too? The 70's were not good for food.

You've led an interesting life. And to be honest, even now some of my jams turn out a bit runny - blackberry seems to be the worst for that. Alas for the lack of pectin. Anyway, runny jams become fruit syrups (as you quite rightly pointed out) and that is very tasty on fresh bread. What a great idea with the feijoas - I see those trees laden with fruit in Melbourne (they're a bit slower growing up here in the mountains). Incidentally Benson sounds like one happy (and the perhaps also very sleepy) puppy! Go Benson.

The summer sun here is slightly harsher than your location so lettuces are a tough ask in high summer. What a cornucopia of produce you have growing.

That is an astute observation about the organisational challenge. I hear you. I make mistakes too and lose produce, but then sometimes I have to save seed for the following season - like the delectable Chilean Guavas which I had the choice to either eat or save the seeds, but alas both were not possible.

Well said! I tell you a little secret: You know what big corporations fear most? They have only the power that we give them over our lives. So who then does have the power? That is the important question.


Jo said…
Gretchen Joanna, I did not know that the fruits of the strawberry tree are edible! Although it has such an edible sounding name. I will look out for some. I remember seeing some.. somewhere. Isn't it fascinating finding out what we can eat that grows all around us? So much more than we think..

Chris, I love your last comment. It is so true, and it is that power that I am trying to prune out of my life. There is no reason at all to hand that kind of power out to entities that have absolutely no interest in my well-being..

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