Friday, August 29, 2008

Becoming Locavores

Peggy and I went a-walking, out in the August morning recently. The sky was a cloudless blue and the air warm with meadow scents as Aurelia pulled us forward with her leash toward the trees across Hanshaw Road. We carried a plastic basket and scissors, in search of rumored wild fruits along the woodland edge.

Peg’s husband Ben had returned with reports of laden blackberry bushes by the path “just beyond the manure pile” in the Cornell field and along the tree line; I had found wild black cherry trees and a fruit-filled apple tree clustered together on the edge of a homely old field tucked into the woods. I had begun roaming through there in the late 1960s dreaming of a quiet retreat, and found an old stove and blue-spotted coffee pot tossed down the slope, suggesting that long ago others had shared my liking for the wooded slopes between creek and fields. Today, though neatened by the Cornell ag school and bordered by the Cayuga Trail, this secluded cove still feels like an old home place. (Is there a New York word for that Kentucky state of mind?)

Although not radical locavores, Peggy and Ben are well on their way. The choices they now make tend to be either local – or not at all. They bike and walk great distances, or use the bus. They sort and recycle every darn scrap, and have a compost heap for the rest. Their house is undergoing a major energy-conserving overhaul. Casual long-distance travel has faded away. Their food choices focus on what is in season and what is produced locally and or with a minimum of industrial inputs.

As part of these life-altering strategies, they have purchased a “harvest share” in Full Plate Farm Collective, the local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Each week they pick up a box of produce at Ludgate Farms, gathered from three local organic farms, and each week they come to terms with chard, spinach, beets, and other crops that ripen as the season rolls forward. This relentlessly fresh array of beautiful foods demands to be eaten, every single day – there is no rest from its neediness: “Eat me while fresh – and before the next box arrives!” Since June, the packaged and processed foods in Peg and Ben’s diet have in large part been replaced by vegetable-focused dishes supplemented with pastas, home made breads, local cheeses and the occasional dab of meat from the Farmers Market. (Not forgetting locally-made Finger Lakes wines and beers!)

Additionally a modest garden was started in the least-leafy, least-wet area of their big backyard. While stealthy gophers have taken the best stuff from under the fence, there has been lettuce, a few beans, cucumbers and one healthy pumpkin; and the promise of many pounds of tomatoes – if they would only ripen.

By mid-August, Peg and Ben were comfortable enough in their new vegetable-based habits to try the wild foods that grace roadsides and woods-edges during central New York’s glorious midsummer.

On this particular morning, Peg and I scrambled into a creekbed to grab green and red apples from the sunnier side of a big old tree on its bank, and snipped a half bucket of ripe wild black cherries. These became, respectively, deeply-flavored applesauce and a small bottle of cherry juice concentrate that shouted good health. Wandering along the woodland edge, we also gathered two cups of sublimely ripe blackberries.

What a haul! And our day of small, gem-like harvests had just begun. Peg and I and Aurelia took my car on the back route across the Cascadilla and Six Mile Creek valleys, up past Ithaca College to the heights where one of the cooperating organic farms, Three Swallows Farm, is situated. Probably the proprietors work far too hard most of the year to appreciate the wild romanticism of their view across the deep hidden valley with horizons of cool blue hills further on, and a glimmer of the deep blue coolness of Cayuga Lake far below.

We were there to pick stuff on our own sweet free time, and could glance up from plucking basil leaves to look at the cows in the field below, or pause between the long undulating rows of jalapeno pepper plants to gaze at other folks like us, ambling and plucking. A mother and daughter gathered a massive bouquet of zinnias, snapdragons and cleome, an outrageous blast of bright colors. The flowers were free after all so we overcame our Puritanical tendencies and collected our own bundle of bright sweet blossoms, laid carefully in our paper bags on top of piles of peppers (four different kinds), basil leaf heaps, and sharply-scented lemon verbena. The rows of beans were done, the okra was not in yet (and difficult for Peg to love), and the masses of hanging cherry and plum tomatoes were, like the ones in the backyard, not yet ripe. But we gathered in plenty for our needs.

Back at the house, scratched and sun-warmed by our day outside, we sorted our goodies, and topped off the collection with a visit to the backyard garden, adding several crunchy green beans and a cucumber to the day’s haul.

None of these beautiful foods were gathered in great quantities. We had enough basil leaves for one big pesto meal on pasta, with leftovers. The cherry juice concentrate was enough for five drinks added to wine or sparkling water (five amazing drinks). The blackberries went into a couple of servings of morning yogurt; the lemon balm made a nice small bouquet as did the fancy flowers. The apples made plenty of applesauce, lasting several days. We did have a heck of a lot of jalapenos. A few went into two fresh salsas that very night; most of the rest were frozen for individual thawing and use.

For all the time spent working at it on that breathlessly beautiful day, we did not collect massive quantities: we gained a few handfuls of most things. But you know, a little bit of intense flavor goes a long way. And, when you become immersed in the collection, harvest and preparation of locally, sustainably grown produce, the preparation becomes part of the meal: actually part of the food value. The entire process nourishes and sustains, so that you do not need as much to eat as when your food comes from packets and boxes and frozen microwave pouches.

Within a few days after our varied harvest, Peg and Ben had gone back across the road with Aurelia to gather another batch of even riper cherries. When I last checked, they had their eyes on apple trees, heavy with fruit, going unharvested across the Cornell campus and the city of Ithaca. There’s one next to the old schoolhouse, one on Triphammer Road next to a fraternity house, one on Campus Road next to frats and dorms, and one on Buffalo Street below Stewart Avenue. The harvest becomes the meal.