Saturday, October 11, 2008

Urban Homesteaders

Before Chávez Ravine was razed to the ground to build Dodger Stadium in 1959, it was home to a vibrant, largely Mexican-American community. Zeke Contreras remembers: “Everybody had fruit trees. Fence made out of nopales [edible beavertail cactus]. There was mustard plants growing wild, parsley. I would go up to the hill to pick stuff and dad would cook them. Most everybody had chickens and rabbits and a few people had pigs and cows.” The inhabitants of Chávez Ravine ate mostly what grew or lived in their own yards, and also relied on the plants that grew wild in the hills that surrounded them.

Many Mexican-Americans still do this. A look around L.A. reveals gardens that are overflowing with fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and quite a few of them house chickens as well. But there are others who have turned to what has been brilliantly called “food, not lawns.” My friend who grew up in Salinas, in the heart of California’s farm country, now lives in Long Beach and grows corn, squash, string beans, apricots, blackberries, and gourds in her backyard. Her two little girls grew up loving vegetables because they always had a hand in growing them themselves. Many such agricultural transplants to the city have followed suit.

Standing at the beginning of the 21st century, we are now witnessing a massive food revolution, and California—having never really abandoned the 60s or that pioneer spirit—has a very healthy population of back-to-the-landers and do-it-yourselfers who have turned to urban homesteading as a way of strengthening their connection to the food they eat. Vibrant community gardens are blossoming in unexpected locations all throughout our cities. Avid foragers are roaming hills, fields, and vacant lots for wild edibles. Brewing, canning, preserving, and drying are once again becoming standard kitchen techniques.

Well, with environmental crises looming (indeed, already here), it is clear that cities—where most of California’s inhabitants live—need to become sustainable in the truest sense of the word. Richard Register, in imagining such “ecocities,” asks us to envision a world in which cities “actually build soils, cultivate biodiversity, restore lands and waters, and make a net gain for the ecological health of the Earth.” What if cities became living organisms that not only enriched their local ecosystems but themselves became ecosystems, nurturing the well-being of all living things that lived within their borders?

L.A.’s Hispanic population may teach us all that steps toward self-sufficiency will lead cities in the right direction. Imagine if you didn’t need to drive to the grocery store, but your food came directly from your own yard or those of your neighbors. I have an orange tree, and you have tomato vines: let’s trade. And with the man down the street who keeps chickens and the woman a few blocks over who has honeybees, everyone can have a nice little breakfast with fresh eggs in the skillet and honey in their tea. This weekend, let’s all go out into the surrounding hills and gather epazote, watercress, and acorns.

My San Franciscan friend reports that her city, in honor of the Slow Food Conference, recently replaced the grass in front of city hall with fruits and vegetables. Imagine if trees on the sidewalk were fruit trees, if meridian bushes grew vegetables, if every office building had rooftop gardens. Cities themselves could become farmland, leaving surrounding acres to native habitat.

There is a new word for those who prefer to eat only what grows in their vicinity: a locavore. Locavorism (although it was not called that then) was revived in the 20th century by Alice Waters, the Berkeley chef who founded Chez Panisse. The paradisiacal climate of coastal California was perfect for locavorism because all sorts of radiant delicacies were available from farmers’ markets year-round. Essentially, Alice Waters took these delicacies and created what has come to be known as ‘California cuisine.’ Although ‘California cuisine,’ in the rest of the country, automatically signifies anything with goat cheese, avocado, or sundried tomatoes, it is really a way of eating that celebrates simplicity, the garden, and all that is most beautiful and delicious at any given seasonal moment. The way most Californian tables appear, with their fresh herbs, pure vegetables, and luscious fruit is a testament to the pervasiveness of ‘California cuisine’ and the success of the locavore revolution.

Gratifyingly, this revolution has spread to many other parts of the country as well. In the four years I’ve lived in Rhode Island, I’ve definitely witnessed the dramatic blossoming of locavorism here: new farmer’s markets are popping up, eateries serving local produce are spreading like wildfire, and even Brown University’s dining halls have turned toward local agriculture to supply their kitchens. A return to what is local, fresh, and made oneself—in other words, a return to what California’s Mexican-Americans, hippies, and foodies have indulged in for decades—may well save us all in this time of great economic and environmental uncertainty.

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