Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Valley Food Exchange

One thing about being surrounded by farms (and orchards, and vineyards, and...) is that you're surrounded by food--inundated by it, even. And since those who grow it have a vast oversupply when it comes in, as one person/family's cup runneth over all available storage it overfloweth toward everyone in sight. Or maybe, people are just generous. Still, it's kind of cool to watch resources spread all over the place, more or less of their own volition.

Part of it, and maybe the beginning, is the borrowing thing and the helping-out thing. The canonical example there is Jill's trailer. A good trailer is one of those resources that (for most people) doesn't get used enough to motivate the buying of it (I was shocked to find out that a decent trailer--sans engine, sans drive train, sans passenger accommodations, sans a radio even--costs nearly as much as we paid for our little car), but Jill has a good one, and she freely lends it to anyone who needs it. In fact, the main challenge in using the trailer (besides turning it around in her drive) is tracking down who's got it at the time. Huge win--for hauling compost and fence gates and sheep shit there is no substitute--and we generally leave her a pottle of Krys's jam or a bottle of wine in thanks.

Reciprocity also comes into it when you go to someone's house. By some historical convention, rigorously honored, Kiwis will bring their own drinks to dinner, and the first question on everyone's lips when you invite them over is "What can we bring?" For Movie Nights this is a great thing, as it provides us with Michelle's lovely "puddings", a term which, again mysteriously, covers all manner of desserts. Being half-French, she was "in heaven", as she put it, eating the homemade bread and jam that Krys sent her.

Helping out also seems to put people in your debt. I helped Eamon and Wendy sort out their computer problems by finding them a decent used machine and getting it up and running. Before I knew it, I had one of the best scores yet: Eamon rang me up and offered me a whole wild pig that he'd just shot. We trundled over to his brother's coldstore, where indeed there was a 100+ pound carcass, all black bristles and tusks and mean-looking eyes. We spent a half hour or so cutting it up, and before long we had wild boar sausages, guanciale and a prosciutto hanging in the cheese fridge, not to mention a freezer full of random cuts. Back at them, we brought sausages to a barbecue and had them over for a nice chile verde. And so it goes.

We went down to Christchurch last weekend and stayed with Jessica, who is bending under the weight of all the Black Boy peaches falling from her backyard tree, entirely unbidden. (new category of produce: organic by neglect) What could we do but help her out, picking through the groundfall on a cold Canterbury morning, sorting out the bottling/cooking peaches from the pig peaches from the dead loss? And now Krys has sore hands from trimming peaches and we have six or eight big bottles of canned peaches on the pantry shelf.

In general, Krys's jam turns out to be excellent currency for compensating favors and greasing the social skids, but she's ramped up that act by an order of magnitude this year with tomatoes. The polytunnel turned out to be a boon for production. Between that, the number of volunteer tomato plants popping up all over, and her unmoderated tendency to experiment--I'm not sure there's ever been a new variety of tomato she could say no to--we've got tomatoes coming in by the truckload. Fortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had troubles of one kind or another with theirs, so the floodgates are open. This year, Krys is the Tomato Lady. Nobody who comes over gets away until they've taken on a big bag of luscious fruit. Then there's all the surplus eggplant, sweet peppers, eggs and even chickens to dispose of.

...and it comes back, too. Eamon and Wendy come over bearing bags of Asian apples and pears; Uwe shows up with a box of his exotic-variety apples (trust a German to know apples), and more nashis, and quince; Debbie comes with lemons and limes; Janet brings oranges and tangerines; David shares his early apples and pears, and later his own quince; Deborah copes with her raspberry surplus by making, bottling and bequeathing a beautiful raspberry coulis; Dorit comes over bearing cucumbers and pickles. Rowan, the neighborhood's serious farmer, opens his heart and his shearing shed, pulling up great big sections of floor so I can dig out trailersfull of sheep shit for the garden. And Jenny and Jeff invite us over to get groundfall organic apples for the pigs, throwing coffee into the bargain along with a heaping helping of grapes and cherries.

I don't mean to imply that the tit-for-tat is all that rigid. The connection between giving and getting is pretty loose--as it must be, when things don't come in at the same time. But there's no getting around the pleasure of giving, and of getting, and of feeling like people sort of help take care of one another. It's another lovely strand in the social fabric.

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