“There’s magic in this place.”
That’s what I told my 4-year-old son as we walked the 50 yards from my 92-year-old grandmother’s house to the white barn that once housed scores of dairy cows. Today, there’s a black calf named Precious and maybe a dozen cows my uncle watches for another farmer.
I never knew this place in its heyday, when my mom grew up with three brothers — and a pony! — on 225 acres of rolling hills and a crooked stream. Still, as a city boy who came here for family gatherings when it was a fully functioning dairy farm, I always loved it. I loved letting the cows lick my hand with their scratchy tongues; I loved playing Wiffle ball using grapevines for a wall in left field; I loved talking to a pig who answered to the name Arnold — until he ended up on someone’s breakfast plate one day.
Now the grapes and pigs are gone, and so, in many ways, is that way of life. Nearby farms are disappearing, divided into single-family lots. Which is why every visit my family makes to my grandmother in rural Ohio still means so much.
I want my son to appreciate something more than just pastoral beauty in the circular bales of hay sitting in a field or particles of dust floating through shafts of light in a creaky barn. I want him to use this place as a reminder of where food comes from, of our ties to the land.
As Jews, our interest in food goes back far earlier than bubbe’s brisket or even the handing down of our traditional dietary laws. It is there at the very beginning of our story — an apple in a garden that we’re still trying to find our way back to. It is, you could say, at the core of our nature. (No more apple puns, I promise.)
How could it be otherwise, for a people who celebrate the New Year of the Trees, as we did last month? This connection is why we say a blessing every time we eat, why we plant trees in Israel, why we buy Joan Nathan’s cookbooks. And it’s why this issue of TRIBE is dedicated to that favorite Jewish subject: food.
Going beyond recipes and restaurants — although both are included here — this edition focuses on residents who have a unique relationship with the fruits of the earth. Urban farmers, a beekeeper and the brother-sister team behind a vegan food service, they understand what I hope my son will come to learn, even when we no longer have a family farm to go back to anymore: that in today’s world, our lives and the land still go hand in hand.
It’s a lesson conveyed on a much smaller scale by the modest garden that has taken root in my family’s backyard in the San Fernando Valley. There, in little rows, we grow tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, carrots and more. For a while, we even had lettuce, until a neighborhood cat — or a T. Rex, if you ask my preschooler — ate it all.
It certainly is easier to drive a mile to the nearest supermarket to buy some produce rather than grow it, but somehow it doesn’t taste as good.
Maybe that’s because there’s magic in this place, too. [T]