Muscle Memory: a Writing Project by Mike Murray (WR 122, Winter 2015, Writing Project 1)

Muscle Memory

Tomato-Seeds1I was four, or maybe five, the first time I remember my grandmother bearing down on me with a switch and a smile. The switch was because she caught me in the garden with a salt shaker eating the tomatoes right off of her well-loved and manicured vines. As for the smile, I think she secretly relished the fact I was willing to stare down an impending whipping just long enough to get that last succulent bite. There I was with the juices, the seeds, and pure joy gushing down my face and onto my shirt, unable to hide an arrogant little grin until the last possible moment. Just before the switch would have licked my hide, I bolted through the rows of corn, hurdled the cabbage and kale, careful not to step on the turnips. She knew she couldn’t catch me; I could see it on her face when I glanced over my shoulder and saw her standing there with clinched fist on her hip, head shaking, waving her stick, still trying not to smile. That was my father’s mother, the woman that fed me real food every time; she’s the reason that I strive to feed my own children in suit.

My brother and I spent a lot of time on Grandma’s farm in our early years, before we moved to the Bay Area. In the Silicon Valley a lot of things were different; the pace of life, the seasons (or lack thereof), but most of all the food. Food was no longer about who or where it came from; eating was just another chore that we had to do every day. That was the single story of food that I ate up for many years; one kind of lettuce, one color of carrot, and meat from cookie cutter farms raised on cloned diets, based on dollars and very little sense. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I returned to rural Indiana and to the farm. By then I had hair down my back, decent graffiti skills, and skateboard in tow, completely immersed in the culture of my adolescence. I had no memory of eating fresh venison steak and eggs from the coop for breakfast, or of freshly slaughtered fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits.

The first morning back I found myself in the garden, elbows deep in dirt and manure, “earning my keep” as it was explained to me. Begrudgingly, I weeded and tilled, all the while wishing that I was back home drinking the smog colored Kool-Aid. It didn’t take long for me to work up an appetite, which led me back to the tomatoes. I hadn’t eaten a tomato by itself in years, had never seen the point in fact. However, when I sank my teeth into the flesh of one of those ‘maters, the smell hit me, the juices hemorrhaged out, and the muscle memory of my olfactory flooded back. All of a sudden my hand felt far too light without a salt shaker, which I practically ran to get, and I remembered a time when I loved food like it was a friend. No one tried to assault me for my thievery that day but I do recall seeing her smile, always my grandmothers knowing smile. You see, my grandmother had her own story to share and it was told in the garden and at the table. Only hers needed no words, no labels, and no expensive ad campaigns. Her story only asked that you taste.

It was in that moment that I realized I had been lied to. I had been lied to by the corporate grocery store that claimed to have “fresh” food. I had been lied to by television and by nutritional pyramids that were based on the fallacy that their tomato is just like your tomato and just like her tomato. All of it lies, wrapped up in words with questionable definitions. More importantly, I realized I had lost something. The single story of monoculture had robbed me of the pleasure of real, unadulterated food, and the nourishment that comes with it. I don’t know if food like that existed in my hometown at the time, but I do know that I hadn’t seen it. I am not arguing that fried chicken is healthy, simply that a chicken allowed to roam and have a natural diet, consisting largely of protein packed bugs, is far superior to foster farms, on every level.

The smell and the feel of dirt in my hands renewed me that summer and many summers after. While I love the pace and sense of community that comes with living in Portland, I’m feel humbled and more grounded outside its city limits. These days there is an insurgence of real food taking place in our cities. We have farmers markets in most neighborhoods in Portland and more people seem to be conscientious about what their food has been through before it gets to their fork, but that’s here. Unfortunately, there are still many places where the single story of monoculture is still thriving and profiting off of our collective memory loss.

After searching the internet and reading varying degrees of research, it seems that the jury is still out as to whether or not there are “significant” health benefits to eating organic foods. Although it seems that the difference between conventionally grown and organically/sustainably grown foods is marginalized by the media, but that’s my opinion. For me, the choice is clear. I buy local, I grow, and I cook the vast majority of my family’s meals because it taste better. I avoid avocados from Peru because I don’t live in Peru and I don’t want to support the carbon footprint that comes with them. I don’t buy cheap chicken because it’s fed a cheap diet, and it lacks flavor. These ideals may mean that I eat less meat than I once did but that’s not a bad thing; in fact, that’s a healthy choice. This might mean I spend a higher percentage of my income on food than I once did but that’s because it’s high on my priority list. Besides, good food should be more affordable and more accessible, period.

These days my children learn about food the same way that I was afforded, in the garden and at our table. My oldest daughter hated tomatoes until she was about seven. She was “helping” me in the garden one day, when I saw her reach up and pluck a sungold cherry tomato off the vine. She brought it to her nose with an all too familiar skeptical glint in her eye, then tentatively placed it in her mouth. Her eyes popped open and I could almost hear her make the connection between the plant and the taste. That was her moment of realization and that’s the tomato that she will weigh all tomatoes against for a long, long time. She is sharing my story, along with the story of our culture. I can only hope that the insurgence of real food continues to gain momentum and that our grandmothers’ stories are one day told everywhere, especially in our homes.


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