In 1970, when I was 17 years old, I bought a book entitled Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel. It was illustrated with beautiful line drawings and the text was handwritten in cursive. Alicia Bay Laurel was a 21-year-old hippie living at Wheeler Ranch, a commune in Sonoma County. Intended to be a guide for sustainable living for others in the commune, Living on the Earth became a best-selling manifesto for the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s.
I grew up in a subdivision outside of Chicago in a 1960s ranch house so close to our neighbors that I could lean out my bedroom window and knock on my buddy’s window. Our little suburban homestead had only enough sunny land to farm some chives, parsley, two tomato plants and four bell pepper plants. (Consequently, Tomato Pepper Beef was my earliest go-to recipe.) We ate Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops for breakfast, PB and J on white bread for lunch, Swanson’s TV Dinners and Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks for supper. The only things we ate that weren’t processed or previously frozen were head lettuce and corn on the cob.
Alicia Bay Laurel described how a self-supporting community could sustainably live off the grid and on the earth. Her writings and drawings were extremely enticing to an impressionable suburban adolescent. I left for college with Living on the Earth in my backpack and a dream to someday find a farm and live off the land.
I first became attracted to Julianne, my future wife, when she told me that her grandparents owned an organic vegetable farm. I shared with her my dream of someday working on a farm and she invited me to her home for spring break.
Spring break 1972 was cold and windy. Julianne’s grandfather took me out to show me the hot beds used for starting his vegetable plants. His hot beds were merely wooden frames surrounded by straw and horse manure and covered by old window frames. The rotting manure gave off heat as it decomposed and kept the young seedlings comfortably warm. If the sun broke through the clouds, we would have to prop open the window frames to cool down the hot beds to prevent scorching. Inside the frames were tomato, pepper, lettuce, cabbage and squash seedlings.
In addition to vegetables, Julianne’s grandparents also raised chickens and turkeys. My official initiation into farming began when Nana wanted an old stewing hen for chicken and dumplings. First we had to catch the chicken without stressing him too much. We then placed its head onto a stump between two nails, stretched its neck slightly, and decapitated it with one swift blow from a hatchet. Separated from its head, the chicken still seemed to be able to run around. That was pretty creepy. And if that wasn’t emotional enough for this city boy, our next step was to dunk our bird in boiling water to help pluck the feathers. We finished by lighting a rolled-up newspaper section and burning off any little feather wisps that remained. After experiencing the decapitation followed the horrible smell of burnt feathers, I pretty much lost my taste for chicken and a bit of my desire to be an off-the-grid farmer.
That spring I would come back to the farm to work any weekend I had available. In preparation for planting, we cut up seed potatoes so that each piece had an “eye” that would sprout into a new potato plant. We stretched strings into straight parallel rows in the field and planted the potato pieces and little onion sets into shallow trenches we made with a hoe. We transplanted lettuce and cabbage plants. We sowed spinach seed. We planted English peas and beets from seed.
As the soil warmed and the days grew longer, the fields sprung to life. It was always the hope to have the planted seeds sprout faster than the preexisting weed seeds. Once the seedlings had sufficient size, we could clean up our rows with a hoe. Slower germinating seeds like beets lagged behind the weeds and had to be weeded and thinned by hand, which required crawling up and down two miles of beet rows on our knees. Later in the season, when our knees were callused, the task would not have been so daunting, but in springtime, it was torture.
As spring progressed, the skin on my knees toughened, my hands developed calluses and the vegetable sprouts morphed into little plants. We soon had lovely rows of Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce, spinach, green onions and radishes. At Nana’s dinner table, the menu reflected what was flourishing at that time. It was then I first experienced the simple pleasures of a traditional wilted lettuce salad, made with a warm bacon vinaigrette.
Just when we were starting to tire of radishes, green onions and wilted lettuce salads, the asparagus spears started emerging from the ground and made their way to our table every day until asparagus season passed. On the heels of the asparagus were the first English peas. Like weeding beets, picking peas was a slow, arduous task best performed from a kneeling posture. A full day of picking peas was followed by a full evening of shelling peas for the freezer. This task, mercifully, was performed while sitting around the kitchen table with the other family members.
As spring transitioned to summer and the other vegetable crops started maturing, our energies shifted from weeding to harvesting. When there were more things to harvest, there was less time to pull weeds and our beautiful clean rows returned to wilderness. Though we were working harder and longer, we couldn’t keep up with the weeding. One day the forecast said we had heavy rains moving in and we realized that unless we weeded our rows now, the weeds would take over. Feeling overwhelmed, Papa said to me “Petey, let’s go to Crow’s Mill School for a drink.”
Crow’s Mill was down the road from the university and was a popular college hangout. We sat down at the bar and ordered drinks. After his second martini, Papa stood up and said, “I’m going to try to find us a couple of whores.” I nearly choked on my beer. By this point I was engaged to his granddaughter and he had the keys to the pickup, so I was stuck in a very uncomfortable and incomprehensible situation and not sure how to diplomatically get myself out of it. To make matters worse, he went to a table where two male students were sitting. They talked for a few minutes and then Papa wrote something down on a napkin and returned to our seats. “Well?” I nervously asked. “They’ll be coming over in the morning,” was his terse response.
I had a restless night, not sure if I should say anything to anybody. At one point I even contemplated packing my duffel bag and quietly slipping out to the highway and hitchhiking back to my boring, uneventful suburban home.
The next morning my angst was quickly quelled when the two young men arrived and Papa handed them hoes and walked them out to the pepper patch. Our “whores” were actually “hoers.”