October 2010

National Grange LogoThe National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (“the Grange”) recognizes seven degrees of membership. The first four degrees are conferred at the local level by one’s home Grange. The fifth degree is administered by the regional, or Pomona, Grange; the sixth, by the State Grange; and the seventh, by the National Grange.

At induction to each level, the Grange imparts various teachings and exhortations about the Grange and the Granger’s duties, as well as explanations of the Grange’s symbolic objects, hand signs, and yes, even the secret handshake. But I can’t tell you about them, or I’d lose the respect of my fellow Grangers and be expelled from the Grange. So you’ll forgive me if I speak only in broad terms!

I was initiated into the fifth and sixth degrees at the state Grange meeting in mid-October. What were the ceremonies like? In a word, awesome. And I mean that in both the “wow, cool!” sense and in the sense of being humbling and awe-inspiring.

Now, I’m fairly susceptible to good ritual. I like the sense of tradition, of rites handed down generation after generation. I appreciate good symbolism, especially tangible, physical, kinesthetic symbolism: walking on a ritual journey, bestowing meaningful objects, and that coveted secret hand gesture.  And I confess to enjoying a bit of theatre – costumes and pageantry, set dressing and lighting effects, shared songs and speeches a bit on the highfalutin’ side of the everyday. It all works together to impress upon one that this is not ordinary time; something special is going on here, and whether or not we  believe all the bits, we’re happy to play along for the joy it brings, and the messages it conveys.

If you grew up celebrating the typical American Santa-centered Christmas, you know all about these aspects of ritual: the fur-trimmed red suit, the twinkling lights, snow and reindeer (real or cartoony), singing “Up on the Housetop,” and the ever-important ritual question, “Have you been good this year?”  Only the youngest believe Santa is a real person with the power to grant wishes, but for those few moments, we indulgently play along. We enjoy the pageantry, remember our own memories of whispered wishes on Santa’s knee, and renew our pledges to try to be very very good this year in the hopes of good returns.

With no young kids in my life these days, I no longer really celebrate “Santamas,” and with it goes one of the last time-honored group traditions from my household.  And you know what? I miss it. I miss feeling like part of something bigger than myself.  I miss the comfort of knowing all the words (even if I don’t totally believe them) and the tune and the “right” clothes to wear.  I march to my own drummer most of the time…but I also miss the Little Drummer Boy.

So the degree conferral satisfied my hankering for spectacular ceremony. But beyond this aesthetic appreciation for the ceremonies, I found – somewhat to my surprise – that these rites really mattered to me. I feel different now, about the Grange, about my place within the Grange, and even a bit different about how I see myself. I admit that before the degree work, I was concerned about the way some of my opinions differ from the prevailing opinions of the National Grange. But after the ceremonies, and after meeting Grangers from across the state, I know for certain that the Grange is a great place for me. Yes, I differ on some points of politics and religion, but I find that I really do agree with the more fundamental issues of growing and preparing of food.  And I see myself as really belonging to this tradition of growers and makers, of sowers and sewers: of Patrons of Husbandry.  It feels really, really good to belong to a group of people who deeply appreciate what I do, in the garden and the kitchen and the Grange hall. And I really like the Grangers I met. They’re just good folks.

Would you find as good a fit within the Grange? If you enjoy bringing food forth from the soil, be it in a garden, on a farm, in an orchard, or on that mythical “back forty” you hope to have someday, you very well may.  If you take pride in the work of your hands, such as needlework, spinning, weaving, or even nature photography, you just might.  If you enjoy shopping at the farmers’ market and turning that bounty into nourishing meals, and appreciate the work that went into coaxing that food from the soil, I bet you would.

Maybe I’ll see you next year, and hand you an apple.  And you’ll understand, and smile just as hugely as I did.

With the talk at the Ypsi Co-op on Oct. 7th, the second year of Preserving Traditions winds down. This seems like a good time to think about where to go with the group in 2011, and I’d love your input.

Recap: What we did this year

It’s been a busy year – a total of 22 workshop, demos, and work days in Ann Arbor. All but five of those were taught by yours truly, and eight were in the peak season of July-September. I also turned down half a dozen offers to teach at other locations; I just couldn’t meet all the need for all the interested folks out there! I really love teaching, and I leave events more energized than I arrive. I do need to remember to pace myself, though; more than two sessions per month (even if I’m just organizing and not teaching) is pretty brutal.

I taught at some new venues outside the Grange this year, including the Re-Skilling Fair, the A2 Farmer’s market, Downtown Home and Garden, and St. Joseph’s Hospital Women’s Center. Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers also led a workshop at her business (Pilar’s Tamales) that sold out in 3 hours.

What’s inspired me this year

  • The Detroit Zymology Guild is a group that gets together to pickle and can all sorts of amazing foods – some of which were “wild”-harvested in Detroit.
  • The concepts of permaculture and edible landscaping.
  • Low-energy cooking, such as solar ovens and rocket stoves.
  • Local foodshed-building projects such as the Farmer Fund, which helps local farmers build hoophouses to extend the local growing season.
  • Rob Frost’s One Straw Revolution and his efforts to put a potato patch and willow coppice in every suburban lot to radically increase home food production – and his observation that we need to dramatically step up home food production, more than one potted tomato at a time.

Room for refinement

I have learned that I am not cut out for market demos. For one, I’m not great with heat…I nearly passed out while demoing raspberry jam this year. :/ For another, you can’t really learn how to can just by walking by a demo, and that’s all most people have time for. And as I get more requests to teach, I want to focus on maximizing the number of people who can then go home and use the skills I’ve just taught. So I think in 2011, I will reduce the number of “walk-by” events I lead.

I am also wondering about the balance of teaching people how to can, and actually getting jars into pantries. The revelation to me from the salsa work day was that yes, we canned about 80 pints of salsa, but it took 60 worker-hours to do so. We could easily have made as much salsa in that amount of time with half the people. But is the point food in jars, or know-how in heads? (This is one point I’d especially like y’all to help me think through.)

One thing I do know…I can’t teach 8 workshops in 3 months while working full time, maintaining my own garden, canning my own produce, and not taking any extra vacation time. I think I’ll be scaling back the garden next year, as that is the most easily replaceable item, given our excellent markets in this area. I don’t want to cut back on teaching – in fact, I’d like there to be *more* teaching – but stressing out the way I’ve done the last 2 years isn’t something I’d like to make a regular feature of my summers from now on.

Preserving Traditions Boot Camp?

One option, of course, is that I don’t need to be doing all the teaching. I have been toying with the idea of leading a “train-the-trainers bootcamp” for people locally and from afar who want to teach similar classes. I would love to have a network of people in town who could field some of these requests for teachers. I know many folks who are capable cooks, but I don’t know if you want to teach. (If you do, please let me know!) I’m wondering – are there folks out there who are good cooks and canners, but not sure if you’re ready for the teaching aspect? Would you attend a workshop (potentially multi-day) that would teach some kitchen skills and some “how to lead a workshop” skills? With a chance to try teaching in a supportive environment with lots of feedback? (My day job is teaching teachers how to teach, so you’d be in good hands.) I would have to charge for such a workshop; what would you think is a fair price for two and a half days of instruction, plus breakfast and lunch? Take the survey about camp here.

Oh wise friends…help guide me! Leave your comments here or mail them to preservetrad@gmail.com. Together, Yes! We Can!

When I was growing up, Saturday morning and PBS went together like bacon and eggs. Sometimes literally, as many of the shows we watched were cooking shows or cooking segments of other shows. Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet (“The Froog”) and Marian Morash on the Victory Garden were two I remember in particular. I was aware of Julia Child but I don’t remember seeing her regularly on TV.

We also watched Martin Yan in Yan Can Cook and Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Chef show (I forget if that was the exact title). I remember being aware that these shows were different.  Julia taught you French cooking technique. Marian mostly gave recipes for whatever was in season at the moment. Jeff encouraged you to broaden horizons and tastes. Martin and Justin, however, were primarily entertainers. They were filmed with live studio audiences, who laughed at the jokes and gasped at the astounding knife technique. The delivery was, if anything, more important than the food. And while Martin’s slogan may have been, “If Yan can cook, so can you!” but even at the age of 8, I remember watching him chop flawless matchstick carrots faster than a Cuisinart and thought, “Really? Because none of us watching can do that.

I think cooking shows have followed this celebrity trend more and more. It’s not about food, it’s not about teaching, and it’s not about empowering people to do for themselves.

More often than not, it’s about selling stuff. Chefs become brands almost instantly. Put “Rachel Ray” into Amazon, and you 278 results. About 25 of those are her cookbooks; about 120 are cookware. (There are also videos and books about her.) Chefs even have their own lines of frozen food – a clear sign that we are encouraged to eat food prepared by professionals and we’re not really expected to try this at home.

Yes. We Can.I think this professionalization of cooking does us all a disservice. At some level, we take in that if our food doesn’t look like theirs, it’s not good enough and we therefore shouldn’t even try.

Preserving Traditions isn’t like that. In fact, it’s quite intentionally the opposite. With only a few exceptions, the people teaching our classes are your neighbors, not celebrities. (Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers was our big exception this year – everyone in town knows her business Pilar’s Tamales) The point of the workshops is to give you actual hands-on experience so you can, in fact, do that kind of food preparation in your own kitchen. That’s why our slogan is “Yes. We Can.”

Now, you may decide that you don’t want to make all your own pickles, can tomatoes, or make pie crust from scratch with lard…but at least you’re able to make an informed decision instead of just assuming it’s an impossible task.


Is this thing on?

Is anyone still reading this blog? I hope so! Now that the harvest season is winding down, I’ll be writing a bit more here: wrap-ups from our multitudinous summer events and also some thoughts on Preserving Traditions, lessons learned, and thoughts for directions as the group moves forward. Your thoughts are very much appreciated!

Look for posts in the coming days…