Eating on the Road

The sun is setting as I leave my hotel room for a bite to eat. After ten hours in the car today I was determined not to drive any more. I will walk to supper. It is pleasantly chilly—a perfect evening for hoofing it in Peoria, IL, but I’m hungry and tired. I don’t want to walk far. Up and down the street neon lights beckon passersby, hawking too-familiar bites—Panera, McDonald’s, Olive Garden… I needn’t go on. You know them all from every interstate exit, shopping mall, suburban strip, and sadly damn near every downtown in the United States. I am in Nowhere, America, and there is nowhere I care to dine within sight.

At home I eat veggies from the CSA and my own garden. I enjoy meat, eggs and milk from local farms, and honey from a local beekeeper. My sausage and cheese are made with local ingredients by local artisans, and my bread from a local baker. When I want fish, I catch it.

Now I stare down a neon lane wondering where I will find my food.

Behind the hotel is a Kroger. Without a kitchen my options there would be limited, but maybe in the deli, I think. The parking lot is packed with cars and I don’t look forward to the throngs of shoppers stocking up for the weekend. Inside, customers with carts piled high stand four and five deep at every register and down every aisle, more carts and drivers negotiate passage. I turn left and follow the perimeter of the store through the produce, past the bakery, to the deli.

This end of the Kroger is empty. From the deli counter I scan the bakery and fresh produce departments. Beyond the bread, a woman peruses wines. She is the only other customer in sight. While my hard salami and smoked gouda are being cut, weighed and wrapped by a young woman who is very confused by my lack of interest in having either sliced, I sort through a rack of fresh bread for a loaf of rosemary and olive oil loaf. Looking one part apologetic and one part confused, the deli worker hands my cuts across the counter and I head for the mustard aisle.

As soon as I round the corner away from all things fresh, a sea of cart jockeys engulfs me. I look back. The south end of the building is still empty. Moving deeper into the crowd, I am surrounded by carts overflowing with all manner of processed, canned and boxed foods.

I wind my way through the crowd until I find the mustard. Accustomed to mustard that is homemade by a dear friend, today I will settle for Jack Daniels brand. At least it is from Tennessee, I think.

As I reach the front of the store, I overhear an express checker turning back a fully loaded cart. I slip in as she turns away, obviously disappointed. The checker has me rung in a matter of seconds. “Please, no bag,” I say as he reaches behind him.

“You sure?”

“Save a plastic tree.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Have a good night.”

“Thanks. You too.”

A soft glow from a sun I guess must be over the Pacific warms the horizon as I walk back to the hotel. Sitting in the bed, I  turn on the television—a luxury I only allow on the road. I open my penknife and carve into supper. The sausage and cheese aren’t bad (the mustard makes them a little better)  and the bread is passable, but I miss home.

September Thanks

It is September in Tennessee and, unlike in so many of our northern states where the sumacs have been bright red for a couple weeks already, we are still in the dog days of summer. Temperatures are still routinely in the nineties and summer crops, after months of oppression, have mostly given in. If we didn’t take the time to can, tomatoes we were so recently deluged with are gone until spring. Any summer squash remaining in the field is filled with bugs. Basil stands tall, woody and full of seed. For one lacking vision around the corner, looking across a vegetable farm field in September can be a wholly depressing endeavor.

It is a hard time for farms. The farmer tries to milk all she can out of this growing season–stretching it farther than is rational, while sometimes putting fall crops in the ground earlier than she should in hopes of closing the gap between summer vegetables and winter greens.

It is no less difficult a season for the CSA member to trudge through. So recently, a bulging box created wonderful challenges–how to eat it all before the next one arrives, or how to find time in the week for canning, dehydrating, or freezing. Now we look into our lightened boxes and wonder how we will supplement this small yield.

This is the nature of things when relying on farming for sustenance. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold posited a “spiritual danger in not owning a farm…the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery.” How fortunate are we who have the luxury of buying into a farm and having the great reward of someone else’s hard labors throughout the seasons with only a small investment up front! And how much more blessed are we to have the convenience of farmers’ markets with a variety of farmers’ specialties, and grocery stores with trucked in produce to fill in the gaps during these “tween” seasons!

Beginning the season, the CSA farmer projects a value on the weekly yield and tries to meet that week in and week out. There are the occasional boxes that nail it, but the reality is that through most of thee season, and especially when the season is in full swing and crops are bumper, our boxes are nearly always valued greater than the investment we made all those months ago. Unfortunately, it only stands to reason there will be weeks where the value drags behind. I think we can call that time, “September.”

If you question my assertions, do a little experiment next season. When you pick up your box, weigh and list everything in it, then go to the health food store (because you cannot directly compare the quality of the produce in your box with what you find at a conventional grocery store) and figure up what it would have cost you to buy it there. Add that up over the season and compare it to your initial investment. Or, trust me when I tell you that the return is well in your favor.

With that in mind, how many times when your box was full of five or six varieties of tomatoes, heavy with summer squash, or overflowing with kale and collards, did you take time to thank your farmer for giving you so much more than you paid for? I am sure some of you did, but I suspect many of us never really thought about it.

And now it is September and the boxes are thin, but the farmers are still working as hard as ever. So let’s thank them now–now when they must be wishing more than you and me there was more to harvest. Now after working so hard all season long to keep things going. Let’s remember that while we have been able to drive our air conditioned cars from our air conditioned jobs to pick up our food, they have been getting up at the crack of dawn all summer long to plant, prune, harvest, wash, sort and box our food, and they have been doing it without the luxury of climate control. They do it in the rain, in the oppressive heat, in the humidity, in spite of drought, insects, sweat, and fatigue.

Yes, folks, it is September, and I for one am very thankful to still be able to pick up a box of food every week despite all the forces working against that happening.