Looking back to move ahead

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by Jackie Alfonso | March 19, 2009 • When I moved into my house, I was quite startled to learn that every single household in the neighborhood had:

a lawn mower, usually gasoline powered
a washing machine
a clothes dryer
a microwave oven and dishwasher
several sizes of ladders

and hardly anyone had

a clothes line
a large family
a vegetable garden

I began searching second-hand stores for reel mowers, to give to new residents – so I could sleep in now and then on a Sunday.

With a couple of sets of neighbors, we eventually were able to encourage several vegetable gardens, share 20’ ladders, and begin to work together on some fun projects. While I would like to see far fewer dishwashers and far more clothes lines, we were also able to make salsa for four families, a once-a-year extravaganza that took a weekend and resulted in 20 pints per household.

As a child I had ample experience of the historical focus on providing for the family.

One of my great grandmothers “did” a pig each Fall, making bacon, ham and sausage to last a year. The other great grandmother split her kindling and pumped her own water into her 90s, and baked 12 loaves of bread a day on the great wood range. Our own garden gave us cucumbers for pickles, green beans, tomatoes, lettuces in variety, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, popcorn, we canned a case each of peaches and pears each September, and foraged after the trucks when the masses of peas were picked and shelled for the cannery.

Somehow this last is a fond memory. However, it was always a hot evening, and the masses of vines were always dirty and in order for this to actually provide for meals, it had to be done quickly before the peas spoiled. It was also, amazingly, the night that the frogs and salamanders decided to cross the highways by the millions.

By the time school started in September, shelves from floor to ceiling were stacked with the breakfasts, lunches and dinners needed until the garden produced next May.

I have done my own pigs, raised the chickens, milked the goats, and pickled, dried and canned. We used to boast that the only foods we bought were butter and anchovies. I still grow many fruits, make jelly, pickles, salsa, chutney. The satisfaction of a room full of great meals for the Winter is immeasurable. I enjoy increasing the variety as well, adding new versions of favorites from many cultures.

Perhaps in a time of crisis, we can look for a renewal of productive gardens, of weekends spent with neighbors making salsa, canning relish. I know I am looking for someone to trade the use of my laundry for jars of red sauce, for someone in an apartment to take on the back 1/3 of my vegetable garden and grow their own tomatoes, herbs, fruits.

Community gardens are available, and they are a wonderful means for meeting the neighbors, developing the community bond that can make all of our lives more friendly.

As recently as 1990, 85% of Minnesota households had vegetable gardens. Today that is 15%. Until 1950, there were 40 nut orchards in Minnesota – today there is one hazelnut farm. Perhaps we can find a way back to some of that.

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