Like many who did not live through it, I always assumed that folks back then had some sort of innate knowledge about how to churn out proliferative tomato, bean, and squash crops. As it happens, however, a concerted public education campaign was critical in teaching citizens what crops to grow, when to plant, how to weed, how to select and start seeds, how much to water. The educational materials used assumed the audience knew nothing about growing food and were written accordingly. And the results were astounding. In these days of a globalized food system, subsidies and shortages, the concept of a populace skilled enough to grow a significant portion of their own food is not only admirable – it should be repeated.
Immediately following the war, victory gardens dried up and weeded over – eventually given to other purposes. In fact, in the first full summer after the war there were shortages of fresh vegetables because a country which had grown so much for itself, suddenly turned over the reins to the burgeoning industrial agriculture, which had yet to catch up.
In the decades that followed, cultural shifts changed our food supply more rapidly than any other time in history. Surplus from petrochemically fed fields was processed and stocked the bursting grocery store shelves. Convenience, efficiency, and technology were the driving forces, and much of our food ended up in a can or the freezer, but not put there by our own hands.
My mother, who has never done a trendy thing in her life, always had a garden. Living on the sand-spit that is Cape Cod, she managed to pump out year after year of lettuce, radishes, carrots, beans, peas, tomatoes, squash and corn. Some things thrived and some fizzled. A friend smuggled her currant seeds from France. More recently she has grown the best tasting potatoes on earth, fennel, and arugula. Seed catalogs and nurseries have improved their choices and her garden has benefitted. During my recent visit East, it was her obsession with berries that benefitted me most. I had been dreaming of red, golden, and black raspberries for weeks, and was pleasantly surprised by red and white currants as well.
I was not always as enthusiastic about her garden as I am today. My older brother and I committed grave sins against produce as we trudged through our finicky years with vegetables. The annual glut of tomatoes led to us flinging them across the yard using a home-built catapult. Only recently were we brave enough to admit that we had poisoned a few zucchini starts by pouring our mother’s famously tart vinaigrette on the young plants. Terrible, I know! But so were the games of backyard baseball with a summer squash that had grown to bat-size overnight and the ubiquitous cherry tomatoes. Despite our wasteful ways, our mom did manage to put up the most amazing pickled green beans and concord grape jelly, and freeze vats of sauce.
The Victory Garden is making a big comeback. Those Americans planting their yards with fruits and veggies are self-consciously using this term. Of course, we are again at war. And once again, this endeavor taxes our resources both human and natural. Ordinary citizens are taking a hard look at our rapacious thirst for oil and attacking the problem by turning over the dark dirt in their yards. The green beans picked from just outside your door are the most local food of all. The deep sense of self care is inescapable. There are backyard beekeepers doing their part, tomatoes in pots, herbs growing between the cracks, community gardens springing up in urban centers.
But the new victory garden can look quite different from its 1940’s counterpart. On the heels of their exodus from Southeast Asia, Hmong immigrants began growing urban gardens in cities like Sacramento. The food production provides an invaluable boost of nutrition and thrift to households struggling with the transition to a new culture, as well as a continuity of traditional agrarian ways. The biodiversity of these gardens is pumping oxygen into the air and new flavors into our culinary understanding.
Yet, many of us feel we don’t have the time to spare to plant and tend a plot of vegetables. Entrepreneurs have found a solution to this problem. MyFarm, a new business in the Bay Area, promises to build, plant, and harvest beds of vegetables in your yard for you. And in an area of microclimates, if your neighborhood gets full sun best for tomatoes, but lacks the cool temperatures suited to growing greens, you still receive multiple kinds of produce. The founder of this business refers to it as “a de-centralized urban farm”. Basically, it’s a home-grown CSA with families and communities benefitting.
This Labor Day weekend an extraordinary series of events are being hosted in San Francisco and dubbed “Slow Food Nation”. It has been called the Woodstock of Food (and I encourage you to check it our virtually, if you can’t be there in person). The three day festival is meant to call attention to the disastrous problems of our current food system and the delicious solutions that are possible. The crown jewel of this event is the Victory Garden that has been planted at the SF Civic Center. I submit the two pictures here; one from the past and one from the present, as a beautiful testament to what is possible, and how good it is to see the green things growing again.
Recent data show that the city of San Francisco is meeting its goal to reduce its carbon footprint. It’s not only delicious, it’s working.