Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Blessing of Food

One of my best friends made a dramatic decision a few years ago just shortly after a very brief stint working for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. For reasons unknown and mysterious to me, he decided to become a farmer.

My friend had always been a bit unconventional, which is probably apparent considering his devotion for Howard Dean, but he’d obtained a bachelor’s degree from a very respected liberal arts college and shortly thereafter landed a job as Executive Director of a small non-profit tasked to defend a very grand resource; the Coosa River Watershed. The job followed a canoe trip he had completed of the entire Coosa / Alabama River system, a voyage lasting three months beginning in the mountains of Georgia and ending in the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay, Alabama. Our friendship was born of our mutual passion for rivers, and most of our get-togethers involved paddling, fishing, hiking and camping adventures all across north Georgia.

One of the great pleasures of making friends with eclectic and determined individuals is the opportunity to watch them as they travel down winding and enriching new paths in life. He called me after returning from Iowa and a thoroughly disappointing experience on the campaign trail and informed me that he was going to start farming. After one year of intense training, living and working with a farm family in the hill country north of Asheville, North Carolina, he returned to Georgia and worked out a deal to set to work on a piece of river bottom land near Ranger. What followed was nothing short of miraculous.

For the first four months he lived in a tent underneath a tarp, cluttered about with all his earthly belongings. He had a phone line, and he’d convinced the power company to install a meter so he’d have power, even though there was no house associated with it. Other than that there was nothing but bare ground, a vision, and a whole heap of work. Many hands make light work, and my friend had a knack with people. He’d maintained close ties with his college community and as a result was rarely alone on his little patch of soil. If you dropped by for a visit, he’d have a job waiting for you.

Within just one year the farm was cultivating fruits and vegetables on about three to four acres. He’d invested in a tractor and a beat up pickup, erected a 100 foot hoop house, a seedling greenhouse, and with a lot of help from friends had constructed a pole barn house roughly 30 by 40 foot and 16 feet high with a tin roof. The fact that he had built a house in a matter of a few months impressed me the most. The design was unconventional, but practical and inexpensive. He’d put in subflooring with insulation underneath, and heated the home using a wood burning stove set dead center with the pipe going straight through the tin roof.

His most ingenious idea was constructing the walls of the barn out of inexpensive vinyl billboard sheets. Billboard advertisements are printed on heavyweight, weatherproof, vinyl sheets. He was able to purchase two of these for a couple hundred dollars and fasten them as his walls. When sitting inside the house one of the walls featured a floor to ceiling picture of a Shoney’s Big Boy hamburger and another wall featured a Chrysler 300 sedan. There was no indoor plumbing but there was a wash basin with a bucket underneath. Hot water had to be heated atop the wood burning stove. There were two bedrooms which were actually 8x10 foot lofts sitting above my friend’s library/office on one side and living room on the other. He had an internet connection, and a television, VCR, and stereo. It was one of the coziest, cutest little homes I’ve ever been in, and it was a happy place.

My visits to the farm had a deeper impact on me than I realized at the time. One of the first things I noticed was that the foods my friend was eating were a lot different from the foods I typically ate. The breads and cereals were always whole grain, and often fresh. I remember thinking that the flavors were a lot more complex, I wasn’t sure that I liked them at first, but I could certainly tell that there was a density to these foods that I didn’t feel when eating white bread. Most of the folks on the farm were crazy about salads, and I was exposed to a world of greens I never knew existed. A lot of thought went into the food eaten on the farm. One of my more exciting visits occurred a few weeks after I had hit a small deer on the highway, taken it home and cleaned and dressed it, then carried some of the hams to the farm to be ground up into hamburger meat. It was fun to swap food and swap stories. A woman who lived nearby would bring her farm fresh eggs and trade for fresh strawberries out of the field and other produce of the week.

One of my first visits after the pole barn had been completed, there were about four of us there including my friend’s girlfriend, and we had all pitched in to prepare this great meal of fresh foods now spread out on the table. We were about to sit down and eat when my friend paused and said, “Let’s bless this food.” It was the first time I’d ever heard him suggest such a thing. The brief prayer that followed will always be a moment that I will remember. In a short period of time farming had affected a deep change in my friend’s life. His generous spirit, his strength, his humility, his calm all came into focus in his life as a farmer. I felt so happy for him, so proud of him, and so inspired by his example. Little did I know that moments like this would ultimately penetrate and influence the course of my own life just as deeply.

As his words of thanks put a blessing on the meal, the moment allowed each of us to reflect on the importance of our simply being together and sharing in good work and good food and good company. I’ve thought a lot about why that blessing, that meal, in that house, with those friends was so poignant to me. Since then I’ve sought the occasion to bless a meal. It’s a practice I fail to do everyday, but in the seeking I’ve opened a whole new world of meaning and relationship with the people who daily cooperate with the earth so that the rest of us can have something to eat.

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