In late June, my family moved from Manhattan to a house in Pennsylvania with a yard. At three-quarters of an acre, it’s big enough for some reasonable planting, and so my mother-in-law planted tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins with my kids. We later learned that the gigantic weed-ish looking plants growing in various spots around the yard are butternut squash, planted by the previous owner’s children, so we let them stay. The tomatoes are starting to ripen, so yesterday I had the experience of eating tomatoes (or mostly, feeding my toddler tomatoes) grown from my own garden.
In the vast quantity of ink spilled about this concept over the past few years, such experiences are supposed to be transformative. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle landed atop bestseller lists with its odes to vegetables grown on her plot of earth. Edible gardening is such a huge movement that it’s taken over the White House lawn. Ree Drummond’s blog (and books) The Pioneer Woman, spins this fantasy of moving to the country side and finding meaning in growing your own food and making luscious and photogenic salads out of such things. The narrative flow of such stories is that in our detached, modern world, we grow roots as we tend roots, and perhaps our picky eater children will be excited about vegetables grown with their own hands.
What did I think? The tomatoes tasted fine. Not necessarily better than the heirloom ones I’ve bought at Trader Joe’s. Not cheaper either, when you consider the opportunity cost of time. My toddler who loves tomatoes ate the tomatoes; my 4-year-old who’s more of a dinosaur-chicken-nuggets kind of boy declined to do so, despite watching the plants grow in his backyard. Gardening can be a pleasant diversion, and so can other things, like reading blogs or magazines.
So why all the overwrought food writing? America has a long tradition of back-to-the-earth narratives (like Walden Pond), and an equally long tradition of lamenting the alienation supposedly caused by the modern, specialized economy. We construct the image of the corporate zombie, in previous iterations called the Organization Man, commuting to work, manipulating numbers or data or moving papers around, then coming home to watch television while eating bland and mass-produced food. At least your own tomato can be a protest against all that, which I suspect is why we imbue it with such significance.
But the beautiful thing about the specialized economy is that it creates space for creative work as well as other things. The fact that many of us can make reasonable money sharing our observations of the world, including about our gardens — a skill that was probably not much valued at, say, the point in time when our grandparents left school in 8th grade to work on their farms out of necessity — deserves to be far more celebrated than a tomato. That’s what I keep in mind whenever people lament a lost age, or the old-fashioned way of doing things. It is good to feel far enough removed from such more grasping times that we can create such odes to growing our own food.