Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Bringing Food to Earth Day (And Every Day!)” was written by Sandra Steingraber for the Spring 2006 edition of Rootstock.
Say the word Thanksgiving and what images come to mind? How about Fourth of July? Mother’s Day? New Year’s? Labor Day?
When I think about Thanksgiving, I see my Aunt Annie’s oyster stuffing. July 4th conjures up not just images of fireworks but of homegrown watermelons so huge they had to be trundled from my father’s garden in a wheelbarrow. Mother’s Day means peonies and five kinds of pie. My own wedding day reminds me of eggs over easy. (My honey and I eloped early one morning, and then went to a diner near the courthouse for breakfast.)
I think it’s safe to say that every proper holiday and commemorative event involves food. More importantly, it involves the gathering of loved ones around the table, picnic blanket, or barbecue grill for a shared meal.
Every holiday, that is, except for Earth Day. Say the words Earth Day, and folks think about picking up trash from the creek bed. Or recycling bottles. Or listening to lectures on the Clean Air Act. Noble gestures, all. But it is ironic, is it not, that the only holiday that celebrates our connection to the earth does not include a special meal of some kind. Eating, after all, is the most ecologically based thing we do every day. At the very least, Earth Day should honor our ongoing relationship to the soil, to the water, to the sunlight, and to the amazing miracle of photosynthesis that makes the whole food web work.
Happily, this oversight is now being remedied. Enter Earth Dinner, the brainchild of the farmers’ cooperative Organic Valley.
Designed to combine the conviviality of the slow food movement (with its emphasis on thoughtfully prepared foods, savored leisurely by congenial dining companions) with the mindfulness of the organic movement (with its emphasis on strengthening the bonds between eaters and farmers and freeing agriculture from its dependencies on toxic chemicals), Earth Dinner is an idea for bringing a meal into an educational, but otherwise foodless, holiday.
I was invited to a premiere Earth Dinner event in New York City this past March. It was a kind of pilot project, with a hundred people or so gathered around elegantly set tables for eight in a quintessential loft-like Manhattan space. Farmers, gourmet food writers, chefs, environmentalists, and assorted others—mostly strangers to each other—took our assigned seats and, over the course of three hours, enjoyed a catered dinner prepared from locally grown, organic ingredients. In between courses, we talked about our autobiographical relationship with food. This conversation was directed—very loosely—by a deck of cards provided to each table that posed food-oriented questions and observations for dining companions to read and consider with each other.
At my table, one of the questions invited diners to comment on their earliest memories of food. This was a wonderful conversational ice-breaker. One man told us about visits to his grandmother’s house in The Netherlands, which always included homemade strawberry ice cream—the cream so rich it was buttery yellow, and the berries deep red. A young Indian woman remembered her first day of kindergarten. Her mother, a neurologist who usually worked all day, stayed home to prepare her daughter a special lunch: curried rice balls that she silently fed to her by hand before seeing her off to school. A farmer told us about setting the big table for her family of ten—laying out the plates and silverware each evening in the quiet moment before the room filled up with pots of steaming food and hungry siblings. Meanwhile, we all studied the menu, which described to us the farms and farmers that brought us the food before us now.
My favorite moment of the evening, I confess, was when one of the food experts at our table wondered aloud about the botanical identity of the sprig on the butter dish. My six-year-old daughter, Faith, who was my dinner date for the night, piped up in between mouthfuls of sea bass, “It’s rosemary!” As though any fool should know. She has been raised on the crops from community supported farms in upstate New York and knows her way around herbs. The idea that individual farmers grew the food on her plate was not a revolutionary idea to her.
And if Earth Dinner really catches on, maybe an entire generation of children will grow up knowing who harvested their food and how the molecules of this harvest rearrange themselves to become the molecules of their own muscles, bones, and blood—in a communion between body and earth that is a daily miracle.
Visit www.earthdinner.org to purchase your Earth Dinner cards and learn out about regional restaurants hosting Earth Dinners, regional chef recipes, and more!