the privilege of plenty

The grocery store clerk quickly scanned several items: boop! (10-pound sack of potatoes)  boop!  (loaf of white bread)  boop!  (jar of peanut butter)  boop!  boop!  She scanned several others, but I no longer remember what they were. 

About ten years ago (!), I was waiting in line at the small grocery store three blocks from my apartment in Philadelphia.  It was located at an invisible yet stark boundary in central Philly: on one side of the street, nice brick row houses, eventually leading to poshy Rittenhouse Square.  On the other, much cheaper duplexes lining streets with few trees, a historically African-American neighborhood that was undergoing rapid gentrification thanks to cheaper prices and proximity to the University of Pennsylvania.

As usual, I was spacing out in the grocery line, but then I realized that the clerk and gentleman in front of me were talking about something.  He was asking her to take something off his bill.  After doing so, he handed her a twenty and I heard the rattle of small change as he shoved it in his pocket.  As he walked out of the store, he juggled the sack of potatoes under one arm and a flimsy plastic bag in his other hand.

He hadn’t had enough money to pay for those few groceries. 

The memory has clearly stuck with me.  I’ve never had to ask a grocery clerk to take back one or more items because I couldn’t pay for them.  Of course, in the age of credit cards, some people can’t necessarily afford all the groceries they’ve selected, but a credit card delays the purchase—at great interest and thus expense.  But even when I’ve paid with a credit card, I’ve always had money to cover what I’ve needed—or, more likely, wanted—even when I was a grad student in the Bay Area at the height of the Silicon Valley tech boom and studio apartments were going for over $1,000 per month (and this was, gulp, almost twenty years ago).

I’ve been thinking about this gentleman as I’ve been grumbling lately about the garden’s bounty.  We’re reaching that point in the summer—mid-July to late August—when it’s in boom mode: the early-season greens (arugula, lettuce, spinach) have given way to the all-summer green powerhouses that just won’t quit (kale, chard).  Snow and snap peas are on their way out, but the green beans have leggy fruits dangling under the leaves like can-can dancers.  Beets are ready to pick and roast, and dozens of heads of garlic are waiting to be dried.  The tomatoes are probably two weeks off and I didn’t plant many cucumbers this year because we have plenty of pickles leftover from last year, but I’ve never seen the basil so happy.  I haven’t even looked at the carrots because there’s so much else ripe and ready to eat in the garden.  And then there is the indefatigable squash.  Ahhh, squash.  Plus we belong to a berry-only CSA.  We just picked our last share for this year: 3 pints of black currants, 3 pints of gooseberries, and 8 quarts of red currants.  I quickly made a batch of black currant jam Sunday afternoon (3.5 pints).  Only 20 pints of jam to go.

There’s definitely a lot to pick, wash, sort, chop, steam, freeze, can, bake, and otherwise preserve.

So many people around the world (not to mention in poorer neighborhoods of Ithaca or Philadelphia) would be grateful for the productive—and delicious—bounty of our 48’ by 48’ organic garden.  And here I am grumbling about washing and freezing seemingly endless chard, making jam, whipping up pesto, turning on the oven in the summer heat so that I can bake zucchini bread for fall afternoons when the squash plants are long gone… 

I’ve called three images to mind as I’ve been trying to fight the garden-induced grumpies.

That gentleman in Philadelphia.

Before modern grocery stores, people must have seen dried, frozen, canned, and preserved food they produced as money in the bank.  Or rather, food in the stomach, especially for those lean months of March, April, and May when gardens were not yet growing, but families still needed to eat.  I think Native Americans in New England called it the “lean season.”  Telling, no?

Gardens and preserving are all the rage in middle-class white families these days, but what about 150 years ago?  What was it like for women (and it was women) to dry, salt, can, and preserve food before most modern conveniences?  Imagine “putting by” food without a freezer, refrigerator, modern Mason jars, and plastic freezer Ziploc™ bags.  The recent food movement has too often romanticized going “back to the land.”  Canning jam, for instance, was not such an easy and pleasurable task when you relied on a wood-burning cook stove, fetching water from a well, and probably a half-dozen kids were underfoot.  Those realities sweep away a lot of the romance—and fast.

We have the privilege of plenty.  It’s a first-world problem, which means, of course, it’s not a problem.  I’m going to try a little harder, then, to keep that gentleman in Philadelphia in mind when I look at the overflowing basket of squash, the basil trees, and the plastic bin filled with red currants.

PS: For more on “food dignity,” which seeks to link social justice issues and the food movement, see: http://fooddignity.org/

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