Celebrating Food Relationships in the Hungry Gap

This week we are celebrating food and relationships and talking about our relationship with food. Right now in my corner of the world in northern Wisconsin we are smack in the middle of a what was traditionally known as the Hungry Gap— where the stored food from the harvest is running out if not gone, the root cellar is getting thin, and the new greens and spring growth hasn’t started yet.

We’re craving fresh nourishment after a long winter.

I went out into the garden the other day once most of the snow had melted, but the ground is still frozen. And I found these little tiny sprouts of lemon balm and garlic and green onions and wild Tansy that had already poked through the soil—which I find magical and amazing. I don't know how that's possible, to grow in frozen soil, but there they were. It's such a celebration to see those green things coming back this time of year, even though we have snow in the forecast again (which isn't unusual here in April), but it got me thinking about seeds, and food, and the stories and relationships connected to all that.

I've always been enamored with seeds. When I was little, every Saturday night as a child we had ham sandwiches and green beans for dinner. My grandma was very devoted to the idea of convenience foods—she loved her frozen foods and canned vegetables and whatnot. But on Saturday nights she always got fresh green beans and I'd sit there in the afternoon with her and snap them in half, snap the ends off, throw them in the big wash tub she held on her lap. It was a really special time sitting with her—a kind of meditative, simple, repetitive thing that we did together. We didn't talk a whole lot. We just snapped the beans and sat together. And I often saved one or two of the beans aside to pick the little seeds out later.

I carefully dried them in the basement. Then planted them in little paper Dixie cups and waited with bated breath for them to sprout. But of course they never did. I knew absolutely nothing about gardening or growing plants back then and didn't realize that snap beans—green beans— have immature seeds inside. Beans with mature seeds that could have sprouted would have been dry and really unappetizing before their seeds were ripe enough to sprout. So those beans never did sprout, but I kept on trying to sprout them because the whole thing felt magical to me and I couldn’t let the idea go.

I also remember my first tomato. My first real tomato was bright yellow, deeply ribbed, warmed in the sun, and dangerously delicious.

Delicious like I'd never even imagined vegetables could be.

We're not talking about your pale winter tomato that tastes kind of like juicy cardboard. This was a completely other beast that I didn't even know existed until then. And I say dangerously delicious because from that moment on I became completely obsessed with gardening.

At the time I was working out on Cape Cod and each weekend I'd visit this place that was the old New Alchemy Institute. In its heyday New Alchemy researched and invented lots of tools and systems and methods for sustainable living. They specialized and pioneered in ecological design and all kinds of cool stuff. But as they say, nothing good ever lasts. Or doesn't it? When I was there the institute was no more, but their property belonged then to a co-housing group. And one fellow ran a CSA from a huge market garden there. Walking around the farm was kind of like walking through ancient ruins. Many of those innovative structures they had built and experimented with—mostly various types of greenhouses for growing food—were by then dilapidated and falling apart.

But the plants had flourished and were bursting the seams on what was left of those old buildings. Groves of young bamboo rustled in the wind and an enormous fig tree fruited voluptuously and messily and pressed against the geodesic dome that attempted to enclose it. Plants gone wild grew through and around all the crumbling foundations. And one devoted, inspired man was left who gardened acre upon acre of vegetables and fruit that supplied the community supported agriculture there.

I would spend hours just walking and munching through the shady chestnut grove and all the peaceful garden paths. And that's where I found that golden tomato. It lay in the sun one lazy afternoon—so ripe that it would have slipped with a splat from its vine if it had been trellised and not laying on the ground already. I took that first luscious, sun-warmed bite of that amazing tomato and that was it for me. I’d never had a garden all my life. I didn't know anything about growing food or flowers and had never even been near a farm market. But this incredible place, and that one luscious tomato held magic for me that I had never imagined existed in this world. I was hooked.

And since then (that was over 20 years ago), I've come to realize that gardening is one of the few pursuits in my life that brings me pure and complete contentment. Things in my garden just make sense, even when the rest of the world seems berserk. Don't get me wrong—my garden struggles with solid red clay, quack grass, grasshoppers, slugs, quack grass, droughts, floods, quack grass, dogs, wind, rabbits, random frosts.

Things in there are by no means easy or perfect. But nothing else speaks to me of the persistence of life to flourish in one way or another, and usually in beautifully unexpected ways.

Hope and faith and determination flower in my garden each year and nothing nourishes me like the satisfaction of providing for myself with my own two hands and being part of these cycles. I always learn something new every year.

Over the years as I've cleaned and set aside seeds for my own tomatoes, squash, kale, etc., I've thought back to that old familiar urge I got every time I snapped beans with my grandma. To plant the seed. To touch the soil. I remember the way that gold tomato glowed in the late afternoon sun and the way the plants pushed through the ruins at New Alchemy. I think of the tansy and lemon balm pushing up through frozen soil right now in my cold garden.

I’m reminded that good things do last. They may grow and change and even lay dormant, but when the time is right—they flourish.

This is all on my mind this time of year as we're coming into this transitional time of year. Spring is coming. We can almost taste it. And those first few little sprouts are poking up through the frozen soil. But it's not quite here yet—it's not quite time to plant the peas and radishes. But we can't help but think and dream about those new beginnings. What's laying dormant, just under the soil about to burst forth?

And I think about our relationships with and around food and how they are broader and deeper than the conversation and experience that we commonly have in our culture around food. So I want to encourage us this week to take a step further away from that more commonly had conversation around food and think about our relationships with food and with each other in relation to food. Go beyond the nutritionism and diet culture and all that jazz. Step a little closer to some of these deeper things around culture, tradition, comfort food, and the nourishing relationships around food. Celebrate and deepen the relationships we have with food via the land and the people who grow it—whether that's us or somebody else. Explore the story of the food we eat a bit more.

I have this quote I want to leave you with, by Rowan white who is an amazing wise woman:

Dakota black popcorn glistening in a basket by the hearth, singing her seed songs as she dreams into winter. She sings the story of kind and loving hands of the kind-hearted Ho chunk Deer Clan woman, Jessica Greendeer, who gifted us these seeds. She sings of her courageous journey through the dark night under the soil, of the breaking dawn of her miraculous sprouting, of growing swiftly underneath brilliant blue skies and hummingbirds dancing overhead. She’s offered shelter to flocks of yellow finches and a sleepy barn cat. She’s stood witness to the spring and fall migrations of sandhill cranes and the changing of the seasons as black oaks turned to golden and the rains came once again. All of this she recounts to us along with the melodies of ancient migration stories of seeds traveling from one village to another and all the nourishment shared along the way. We are thankful to share our lives together, to intertwine our stories and lives here in this time on this land. She will nourish us well into the dark of the winter season and we will keep back seeds to plant her again in the seasons to come.
— Rowen White

So this week I'd like to invite you to sit with:

What are your comfort foods—foods that really make you feel good physically, mentally, emotionally?

What are some of your relationships like that, that really deeply nourish you?

And where do those things overlap, or where could they overlap?

What seeds might you be literally or metaphorically storing away or even planting?

What hopeful things are sprouting for you or are just about to sprout for you in this hungry gap?