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Urban peasantry

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

It was a sunny morning in July, the first good sun of the year. I was feeling renewed, reborn, sorta single (or just separated), and ready for what life would offer. And so, woven plastic Mexican grocery bag in hand, I decided to make my way to the farmers' market. 

I thought I would pick up a little something special that I had not the time, inclination, or space to grow or make. But mostly, it was about the outing. This was the beginning of a glorious summer, and I was going to make the scene. 

I was not more than 10 steps into the joint when I spied a very old and good friend of mine whose name I will keep to myself since, well, I have not asked for her permission and because, well, the conversations we had that day left me perplexed.  

On one level, this person almost single-handedly made the Portland food scene. Back in the 1980s, she wrote restaurant reviews with the sort of narrative that appealed to both your palate and humor. She was bright, insightful, irreverent, and generous. She was rarely cruel, but when required, was pointed and stern. I waited for her reviews, and over the decades she amassed a loyal following of foodies who remember and adore her style. In other words, she has class.  

So when she started talking to me about her latest project, I tried to understand what she was saying, but frankly I could not. Oh, on the surface it seemed to be about the new culture of chefs and food artisans who were defining the Portland food scene, but on a deeper level it sounded like an effort to support a thesis that was more hopeful than foundational. 

I mean, when I hear the word “artisanal,” I think of some old Italian peasants making grappa or prosciutto on their farm in a tradition and lifestyle that has continued for hundreds of years and not, as we like to imagine, the last five in this oh-so-precocious town.   

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Cauliflower at the farmers' market."]

Of course, my image is likely as offensive as any other, since there are few lives and farms like that left in this country or abroad, but the point is, listening to her talk made me nostalgic for the good old days when a person could simply serve real maple syrup and be called an icon of the food world. 

Naïve, perhaps, but a little less presumptuous. Yes, the Portland food scene has grown up, but holy hell if we did not get a bit too big for our britches.  

I blame a lot of the fancy food talk on our distance from any sort of an agricultural life; in truth, I blame most things on our distance from any sort of an agricultural life. Not just here, in Portland, but everywhere. Many a food writer and chef is beginning to backtrack on the reverse logic that invention is the mother of necessity. Molecular gastronomy? Really. We need it? Honestly, the last time I popped a canister of anything into my mouth was at a rave when — well, never mind. 

The point is, I love that Mark Bittman, in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine titled '"The took a stab at what accounts for real cooking when he looked at what a fancy chef feeds his staff.  

Continuing our stroll through the market, my friend and I ran into another well-known foodie in town. She was a person I had known only by name and she, me. Portland is such a small town that we hover over each other's careers, if only at a distance.  

“You’re the one teaching folks how to preserve,” she said. Well, no, not really, or only, but better we don’t get into it. I was trying to warn her. Trying to suggest that it was not a place she wanted to go with me. And I had good reason. I had listened to their conversation, which covered everything I found baffling about food or food lovers or, rather, food lovers of a certain stripe. 

Standing there amid the roots, fruits, berries, and bulbs of farming, I listened to the two of them talk about designer chefs and who could “coax the flavor of the forest floor onto a trend-defying plate of food,” or which chef in this town actually was worth the $125 price of admission. 

At some point in the conversation, the whirling, whining presumption of privilege left me hungering for the guillotine.  

Which is why I tried to warn my friend’s friend that she didn’t want to know what I was really thinking about. Let’s just say I’m not the gal you want to invite to your party, I politely said. Because you’re “tiresome,” she suggested? Ahhhh, well maybe not “tiresome,” I said, maybe just uncomfortably concerned.

Leaving it at that, my friend (who I still love and admire for her capacity to render the zeitgeist of the times) and I continued our stroll through the bustling scene. She was looking for yellow carrots, and I was looking for a bit of groundedness. I felt obliged to speak up, to offer a counterbalance, an admission. I was not of her cabal.  

I admitted that I was confused by the Portland food scene today. That the serving of pickled pig’s ears at a famous Portland food haunt (a food that was discarded as scrap and eaten by a people who could generally afford nothing else) seemed pretentious to me. That I was the one foraging for dandelion greens in spring not because it was in vogue to do so but because it made sense. 

Dandelion greens, as with many wild foods, are a highly nutritious perennial food source that were overlooked for hybridized varieties. Now, of course, along with nettles and ramps, they are becoming hotter than a stock-market tip — which is both good and bad. There are many stories of foragers damaging the land in an effort to sell the goods to restaurateurs who want to “coax the flavor of the forest floor” onto a plate. My oh my.

Groping for a way to explain myself to her — knowing she had not read my book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe — I summed it up by saying I was committed to "urban peasant eating." It was a phrase in a long line of phrases or words I have used to describe my life. Urban homesteader, householder, and now urban peasant. 

Frankly, I knew it had a ring to it. A way of capturing a movement and yearning, but I hated that I knew that. I hated that side of my brain — the one that loved capturing the wild, evolving spirit of a movement in a single catchy phrase. Hated and loved it.    

And just that fast, her eyes lit up. Urban peasant eating. Just so. We both knew a book was being born. She the clever macher, as they say in Yiddish: the one that makes things happen. And me, the conflicted urban peasant that loved/hated the ability to coin a phrase. 

She got what I was saying, if only as a hook for the next trend or analysis of something that is more about a commitment to frugality, the environment, and the coming food-scarcity crisis than a way to sell magazines and books.  

Which is a problem we all face, and don’t I know it. We food lovers, growers, writers, and chefs are faced with a conundrum: How do we capture the simple art of simple living while still managing to pay the bills? How do we balance lives of rural ethics with our big-city cost of living? How do we stay real and significant in our representations of the zeitgeist of food and culture when culture has been rebranded so many times as to be rendered damn near lifeless? 

What do you do when the word “artisan” has a carbon dating to match the shelf life of a bag of Cheetos, or when irony has replaced substance as the milieu of a conversation, and when talking about the privatization of seeds and water and, dare I say it, the root of all civilization has become “tiresome” to those who might rather powder their wigs.?

Yes, what? 

And so after saying goodbye to my good friend and promising to make us a good old-fashioned brisket dinner, I finished my shopping. Two pounds of Rainier cherries that I already knew would be eaten chilled while I soaked in a hot bath (a tradition that is both naughty and nice), a lovely bit of a fresh young cheese for $10 that I would sparingly spread on crusty bread, the last of the season’s asparagus, and two pints of strawberries that would become the evening’s dinner.

Though my mate would never have considered strawberry shortcake acceptable for dinner, on this day, this glorious new day, I would be coaxing the flavors of freedom and vine-ripened sweetness out onto a plate in a trend-defining tradition of its own. For a little less than a dollar per serving, I made and ate biscuits, just whipped cream, and strawberries floating in a sugary syrup. Dessert for dinner — what a revelation! And perfect for my new independent and grateful palate. (Recipe coming soon in the new urban-peasant cookbook.)

reference-image, l