Recently I spoke at a local Slow Food
chapter about the evolution of health food since the time of my memoir in the 1970s. I was inspired by a flyer I saw this fall at Whole Foods Market advertising items for a healthy school lunch. "Gone are the days when it was weird or snooty to show up at school with a natural and organic lunch," the headline announced. "Everyone knows there's been a revolution, so wear your colors proudly!"
And I thought: Wow. When I was a kid, my embarrassingly healthy lunch was often packed in a Ball mason jar. Today kids have these cute reusable sandwich bags called Snack Taxis, "as seen on Oprah!" My family and I lived on an organic farm before we even knew what the word meant, where we grew our own food, used an outhouse, had no electricity, running water, or phone. We weren't trying to be hippies; we were just different. This was around the time of the Brady Bunch. The only people even remotely similar to us were on Gilligan's Island, and they were shipwrecked.
In the early 1970s there was one farmers market in the state of Maine and nearly as few health food stores. Processed foods were the new miracle. There was Spam. Wonder Bread. Hostess products. I think everyone in my class had a Ho Ho or Twinkie in their lunch. Let me tell you, I would have given anything for one of those Ho Hos. I would have traded my Ball jar filled with homemade yogurt and a dollop of homemade jam on top. My jar of sunflower seeds, raisins, and carob chips, and my whole carrot as big as my arm, with fine white roots on it from the root cellar. I would have even traded my sprouted wheat berry bread made from a recipe taught to us by our neighbor Helen Nearing, who with her husband Scott wrote the homesteader's bible, Living the Good Life, and sold us our land. I just wanted to be "normal."
Yes, I've since realized that Ho Hos — once you get your hands on them — taste like crap, and while it's hard to admit mom and dad were right, my parents' passion for healthier food was truly one of the best gifts they gave me. The 1970s back-to-the-land movement may not have survived in its original form, but it started people growing their own food without pesticides, which in turn birthed the organic food movement, which today provides us with an option to chemically-grown food. (And as for fast food, well, see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.) This food revolution we're enjoying today, one that's helping many people lead healthier lives, wouldn't have happened without the vision and struggle of a bunch of weirdos who believed in whole foods when fast food was the next best thing since sliced bread. I'd like to say thank you to all those weirdos out there, my parents included.
Today, I prefer to eat my dad's homegrown vegetables, which he teaches others how to grow in The Winter Harvest Handbook, or those from a local farm or farmers market before organic store-bought, but most of all I'm glad that we have so many options. Kids have a tough enough time eating well without the added stigma of food being weird and snooty, and I'm grateful my own children can enjoy their healthy lunches — packed in SnackTaxis, no less — in relative normalcy.