Don’t get me wrong. I am in support of small farmers and am a regular shopper at farmers markets that have sprung up in many Massachusetts towns near where I live. If I don’t want to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group, it’s mainly because of the randomness of what you receive from week to week. Early in the growing season, for example, you are likely to get four enormous heads of leaf lettuce that go a long way, and so would mostly end up in my compost heap. At another time, bunches of beets, a vegetable I have never learned to like, will turn up, and in the interest of not wasting food I would feel obliged to cook them up and choke them down. Now, I am a capable cook, and don’t mind a challenge now and then, but I don’t like being at the mercy of whatever ingredients show up at my doorstep, since I also happen to be one of those people who decides what’s for dinner before I get out of bed in the morning. When I feel like salmon and peas, I don’t want to be faced with a half-dozen rutabagas.
I have a friend, a pretty good cook, who also does not belong to a CSA, but for reasons different from mine. In her case, she has friends who are members, and they are in the habit of dropping off at her house — whether or not she’s home — whatever vegetables they don’t recognize in their allotments. As a result, my friend has come up with a concoction she calls “CSA stew.” She throws into a pot everything she has been given, seasons and stirs, and winds up with a dish that, she tells me, is different every time, and I believe her. My question to her, a rhetorical one, was whether her children would eat her serendipitous creations and, of course, the answer was “no.” I rest my case.
One time I accompanied another friend to the farm where she picks up her CSA distribution. She showed me around, pointing out the haystack where children were frolicking merrily, and then moving on to the fields where we picked what was being offered that day. I readily admit to being enchanted by the romance of that bucolic scene, since late summer crops were being harvested and the earth felt alive and full of generosity. However, just as I was seduced into thinking about joining a CSA the following year, I was stung by a bee as I reached down to pick a flower. Nature has a way of reminding one of who’s the boss, and the shock of the sting brought me to my senses. There is no doubt that I was captivated, and still am, by the prospect of eating farm-grown food, but I have to be on guard and not get carried away by what I have come to recognize as delusional thinking about the wonders of farming.
Farming utopias run amok
History is filled with examples of utopian schemes involving farming that went awry. In the mid-19th century, a time of zealous reform in America, David Child, an abolitionist and the husband of author Lydia Maria Child, came up with an agricultural plan designed to rid the world of slavery. Unfamiliar with farming, he nevertheless attempted to establish a sugar beet farm in western Massachusetts, fully believing that he would start a trend that would render unnecessary the Caribbean sugar-cane plantations and thereby the need for the thousands of slaves who worked them. Unfortunately, David Child’s noble experiment failed because he knew nothing about farming. Huge debt was all he had to show for his labors.
Another 19th-century reformer, Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, founded Fruitlands, a short-lived, and naïve utopian community that hoped to establish a self-sufficient lifestyle for a group of idealistic individuals who aimed to grow their own food. Alas, they did not break ground until midsummer and were prevented from raising the amount of food they required, especially since their high-minded principles had forbidden the use of farm animals to help with the plowing. Not surprisingly, the experiment ended after seven months when — faced with hunger and a harsh New England winter — the idealists went home. Louisa May Alcott has written about this childhood experience, relating how she went to bed with only apples and water for dinner. Brook Farm, another Massachusetts utopian community, met the same fate because amateur farmers underestimated the work involved in sustaining a community. To make matters even worse, the men in the group preferred to sit around and hash out Transcendental ideas while the women did all of the work. And this, by the way, was also the fate of women who joined 20th century communes so popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Men argued and philosophized about the state of the world, leaving the farming and child-rearing to the women.
More than one way to support fresh, local food
At least with CSAs, the growing of food is left in the hands of people who know what they’re doing. Members simply pay for their shares and carry away the crops, but I have a suspicion that some of them identify with the farmers and persuade themselves that they have had an actual hand in the production of the food they receive week after week. I say this because I am noticing that some members who, I remind you, have taken no genuine part in the growing of food, nevertheless take on a tone of pride if not moral superiority for having joined a CSA. When I told a good friend I had no interest in joining one, she was incredulous. How could I, an avowed foodie and proponent of sustainability, not take part in this noble national effort to help small farmers? Deciding to overlook her holier-than-thou attitude, I simply explained my disinclination toward having to cook food I did not select. She countered by saying she had no time to shop and, anyway, enjoys the surprises she receives each week in her allotment and has a great time throwing things together into a crockpot for unique dinners. So, there it was again, CSA stew. I picture masses of mushy vegetables with blurred flavors and muddy colors — purple if beets are involved — and once again remain steadfast about my choices. To each his own, I say. I like the fact that farmers are getting paid in advance for crops to be delivered later, and I also am happy that so many people belong to CSAs and are eating fresh food and learning about unfamiliar vegetables. I hope this movement continues and flourishes. But, as for me, I will continue to go regularly to my local farmers market and select what appeals to me at any given moment, and, with luck, will have a satisfying show of the vegetables I choose to grow in my very own backyard garden.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Produce in a basket, CSA-style. Credit: Barbara Haber.