Monday, December 28, 2009

My Christmas 2009 Letter

I posted this Christmas letter to many wonderful friends - old and new - whose addresses I was able to procure. Alas, I wasn't able to send a hard copy to everyone I wanted. So here's the electronic version. I've been tempted to edit it as I didn't do so after writing the letter (it took 10 hours...5.5 of which were writer's block), but have fought the urge..so an unedited version!

CHRISTMAS 2009

I have to admit, when I sat down to write this Christmas letter (or is it a novel?), I found myself struggling with what to say. In fact, this is my sixth (and final) attempt. What could I write that I’d not said in previous Christmas letters? How could I avoid the ‘Year in Review’ format, while still giving you a glimpse of the transformative experiences I’ve be fortunate enough to have? And what if you expected me to be funny? How could I pull that off in the context of Christmas without resorting to self-depreciating tales of baking blunders or tree-hunting gone awry? What I really wished was that I could just give you a really, really big, long, warm hug and say ‘thank-you’ for being a part of the mosaic that is my life. In the absence of that, I wanted to give you words that could wrap themselves around you and give you reason to smile. But what kind of words could do that? I was at a loss and after much time spent thinking about what I could say, I decided I could not neglect lunch any longer. One cannot, after all, write on an empty stomach. And as I was making myself an omelet, it became clear that the only way forward with this letter was to invite you to dinner and offer you an ‘A La Carte’ menu of sorts. So please, have a seat, break the bread, pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy the meal.

A Teaser

This past year I’ve been consumed by all things food related, given that it’s the self-selected subject of my graduate research. Really, the love affair with food has been going on for many, many years but it’s only recently that I’ve gone from being smitten with food, to gaining a true appreciation for just how pervasive and important it is to every facet of our lives. At the beginning of the year I was under the rather na├»ve impression that my research of local food systems and sustainable agriculture would, at most, give me the knowledge and insight necessary to write a stellar thesis on the subject, or possibly, test my sanity. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be going on any life-changing adventures to foreign countries in the upcoming year. Instead I’d be interviewing food folks and trawling my way through academic literature. Sure, this educational pursuit seemed worthwhile on some levels, but I doubted it would offer anything especially valuable to the evolution of my perspective of the world, or insight into myself. I mean, come on, it’s graduate school. Enough said. Ah, but now, as the year comes to a close and I reflect on what the past twelve months has brought by way of unique experiences, lasting memories and gifts of insight, it is clear that my forays into ‘all things food’ have done much more than merely feed my hunger for knowledge.

Appertif #1 –Plant Seeds, So That You Can Grow

Until this summer, I’d never gardened, an admission I make with embarrassment given that I am such an advocate of eating locally. If pressed as to why I’d not taken it up in the past ten years I’d cite lack of permanency as the main reason – I mean, really, how easy is it grow a garden when you’re living smack in the middle of downtown Sydney or in an third story apartment in Edinburgh? But the truth is, I’m just not very patient. And as I learned from my mother, gardens take patience … and a lot of weeding. Neither of which really spoke to my strengths. And then this spring I learned that there was a community garden within one block of my house. How could I not garden? I thought, ignoring the fact that I was planning to traipse around the country for the all important planting and weeding months (i.e. May thru July). So I found a gardening partner who also had no vegetable gardening experience. We decided that, given our lack of gardening knowledge, the only thing that made sense was an experiment. And so the Great Tomato Experiment began in earnest. We planted about 24 commercial variety seedlings, as well as three varieties of heirloom cherry tomatoes. I got intermittent updates as to how well our ‘kids’ were doing while I was on the West and East coasts. By the time I came back to Kingston in mid-August, the tomato plants were burgeoning with red fruits. I picked and picked, ands still could not keep up with the supply of deliciousness streaming from our little garden plot. I started giving tomatoes to friends, and searched for recipes that called for ‘many tomatoes’. I had many people predict I would OD on tomatoes, but this was not the case. Instead, as winter falls upon us northerly folk, I find myself going through withdrawal. I cannot eat grocery store tomatoes any more. I’ve been spoiled by the taste of a real tomato. The only reprieve I can see in sight is the next growing season. I’ll be plowing and planting again, no doubt. As it turns out, the rewards of growing something from seed and tasting real food far outweigh any tests on my patience.

At the same time, I also started harvesting at another garden – a CSA to be precise. I’d signed up to do a ‘workshare’ at a Community Supported Agriculture farm on Wolfe Island. So in exchange for three hours of work per week, I would receive a small share of the farm’s harvest every week. On Thursdays I’d take the ferry to Wolfe Island, bike fifteen minutes to Vegetables Unplugged and start picking whatever vegetables were written on the chalkboard that day. It was not, as I’d expected, hard or boring work - quite the contrary in fact. I enjoyed searching out, picking, and bundling up the vast array of garden vegetables and conversing with the other harvesters. Mostly, though, I looked forward to the inevitable quiet that would descend on the day even as the bright sun ascended into the skies, and the chance to contemplate life or something less esoteric, like what to make for dinner that night, without the mighty distractions that I’ve invited into my daily life. It seemed to be an escape of sorts, although in retrospect, I think I’d call it a return to something innately familiar and comforting.


Appertif #2 - Eat Together So That You May Sow the Seeds of Friendship

The Amish, as I discovered while visiting Pennsylvania, know how to entertain a crowd. Into their modest farmhouse, one Amish family found a way to squeeze 40 adults (academics and students who were attending a food conference) around a very, very long table (their walls are collapsible, so that they can hold church services in the home). I was lucky to count myself amongst their guests. We were served platter after platter of the most delectable dishes – the best mashed potatoes ever, a roast so tender it almost felt wrong to swallow, and apple pie that …but I digress. The best part of the meal came after dessert. That’s when the Amish father/husband passed around music sheets and told us that we’d be singing together - Amazing Grace. So we did. And then he told us that when they get together with new people over dinner, it is tradition for everyone to introduce himself/herself and share a little bit about their family and where they were from and what they did for a living. I was sure he must be kidding – he didn’t really expect all forty of us to share this information – surely that would take forever?? But then we started and it took awhile, but that didn’t matter in the end. What’s time matter when you’re sitting at a table full of strangers who are giving you a glimpse into their lives? I daresay we’d do well to take our lead from the Amish when it comes to eating dinner: eat well, eat with others, sing songs together and if you find yourself amidst strangers recognize that they are just friends waiting to be made.

My Amish meal was not the first or last memorable meal I’ve shared with friends, new or old, this year. The cold, dark winter months in Kingston were bearable only because there were endless potluck get-togethers staggered throughout January, February and March. I didn’t really need to be reminded that I am fortunate to have such a wonderful group of friends in my new, albeit probably temporary, home of Kingston, but the potlucks sealed the deal and, quite possibly, contributed to my decision coming into spring that I needed to train for a half-marathon. Spring and summer was a blur of eating experiences - from being taken to a fantastic Italian cooking class in Vancouver by my wonderful friend, Andrew, to celebrating Memorial Day with a classic BBQ in Pittsburgh with Emily and her family, to toasting my friend Schemida and her husband at their wedding in Halifax, to many welcome home and farewell dinners at various pubs and restaurants in PEI. A big table filled with plates of food and pints of beer is, without fail, the best venue at which to catch up with old friends, celebrate milestones, and shape new memories.

Entree - A Community

Unexpectedly, adventure showed up at my door this fall when I ventured south of the border to a wee state known as Vermont, where I was to spend a month doing data collection on the much-talked-about local food system developing in one of their many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sized towns called Hardwick. I was intent on completely immersing myself in the local food scene during my short stint in Vermont, so I decided upon arriving that I would not shop at any chain grocery stores, and would endeavor to eat only foods that had been grown/processed locally or, at the very least, organically. I also vowed to sample the local restaurant cuisines, indulge in some of the state’s brews and wines, and attend as many food-related events as possible. All of this, of course, in addition to carrying out interviews with all sorts of folks involved in local food development – from agro-entrepreneurs, to government workers, to retailers, to farmers (my favorite group of interviewees in the end).

The weeks flew by as I ate my way from one event to the next, making friends out of strangers across tables filled with lamb dishes of every conceivable kind, rolling out pie crusts in a commercial kitchen so that food pantries would be stocked with pumpkin pies come the holidays, shopping the aisles of Buffalo Mountain Co-op, taking part in the weekly community lunch held in Hardwick, rustling up dinners from local meats and root vegetables, chatting with farmers and foodies, and celebrating my first, but hopefully not last, American Thanksgiving. And somehow, by the end of my stay in Hardwick, I knew that this sliver of time had changed something inside me and would, very likely, shift everything in time.

It’s funny, we’re often led to believe that the pivotal moments in life are the ones Hallmark has cards for, or the ones we’ve been dreaming about for years and years. But the truth is, far more often, your perspective or your life’s direction shifts quietly, bit by bit, being gently pushed or pulled by small, seemingly innocuous encounters and experiences that, individually, amount to nothing more than an anecdote to share on one’s blog or a memory to be tapped when you’re craving some nostalgia down the road. Collectively, however, they might just have the power to shift your thoughts, your actions, even your life’s compass. But you probably won’t realize it’s happening as it is, and when you finally do get time to breathe, when you return to the familiarity of ‘home’, and discover you are not the same as when you left, you’ll have to make a choice to either nurture these delicate new feelings and thoughts that have found their way into your head and heart, or let them wither out before they’ve had a chance to grow lasting roots.

A Digestif
I know, I know. You are feeling STUFFED by now right? Hopefully not over-stuffed, but one more bite would send you over the top to be sure. So, I’m going to hold off on dessert, but would like to offer you a digestif - something to finish off this meal of rather epic wordiness and I do hope you’ll indulge.

Plant a Garden. Feed Old Friendships. Pour Pints. Try New Dishes. Sing Together. Share Food With Strangers. Watch Yourself Grow. Eat With Others. Celebrate at Dinner Tables. Experiment with the Recipe. And Be Open to Changing the Menu.

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And that, my friends, marks the close of this meal.

I do hope you find yourself giving and receiving food, warmth and, of course, love, in all the days that are still to come.

Oh, and please remember to thank those that make it possible for us to enjoy food every day including the cook(s), the bakers, the gardeners and, of course, the farmers.

May the spirit of Christmas rest in your heart throughout the year,
Shannon

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