I can still remember watching my dad churn the crank that would soon transform our ropes of homemade past into ravioli. Even in kindergarten, I knew the difference between the delicious, mouth watering rustic pasta and the stuff that came in a can. This memory is amongst many memories around the topic of food. Some of my more outstanding memories include helping Dad make beer in our garage and picking and slicing apples for autumn pies. I can gladly thank my parents for shaping me into the foodie I am today.
My family was, and continues to be, big on communal dinners. Not only are we big people size-wise, we have massive personalities. If you wanted anyone to hear you in our house, you’d have to shout. With three girls running around, you can imagine what this might be like. Mom always had to herd us girls to get downstairs for family dinner time. Regardless of Dad’s twelve hour night shifts, the three of us girls and our mom sat at the table with some sort of feast before us.
Later on in life, when friends would spend the night, I was often baffled by the surprise my friends exhibited when they were forced to join us at the dinner table. This idea was foreign to them. It was not infrequent to hear statements such as “we hardly ever did this with my family” or “we always eat on the couch.” Needless to say, I was surprised.
Sitting on the couch with food in your lap all while enjoying some quality TV time?! That sounded like a dream to preteen me. Wishing to experience this new found reality, my sisters and I would beg and beg our parents to let us have TV dinners. This was especially true if there was a good movie on. These efforts were for the most part, futile. Occasionally, we were allowed to watch a show of our choosing while we ate. This usually led to quiet dinners, but I’m not sure what quiet dinners mean.
The youngster I once was did not fully appreciate the conversations, love, and effort that resulted from these family dinners without the TV present. But, of course, we continued with the rhythm of family dinners. And some nights, they enlisted us into the dinner making process. It was from my mom that I learned the proper way to bake a chicken. From my dad, I acquired the chopping, slicing, and flavor pairing techniques needed to make a bangin’, homemade spaghetti sauce.
I was also lucky to be surrounded by friends who loved to cook and EAT as much as I did. The weekend I turned 17, I woke up to find a feast of homemade cupcakes, doughnuts, and fresh fruit before me all thanks to my best friends and their parents. We always found ourselves eating together even with our crazy schedules outside of school.
As I reached the college application period in high school, dinners became more and more tense. On top of this stress, and unbeknownst to us girls, my parents were facing monetary issues. Despite these problems, they carried on with their daily lives and making us dinners.
I quickly learned just how fortunate I was to have parents like mine after my first few weeks of the dining hall food at Christopher Newport University. Whenever I returned home, they always made a point to make my favorite meal. I think they not so secretly hoped to keep me home with these diversions… alas, I always returned to the deprived foodie state of a kitchen-less student at CNU. I found sympathetic roommates and peers especially in Green Team. As a part of the Green Team, I was introduced to the movie Food Inc. As a biology student and self proclaimed foodie, this movie hit home for me.
Not long after this movie viewing, my summer after sophomore year was spent with a great friend of mine, Caroline, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Together, we worked at Open Gate Farm which reignited my desire and passion for food. We fed the very chickens that ended up on our plates at the end of the day, played with the piglets that would one day end up in a soup, and milked the goats whose milk produced the most amazing chev you’ll ever taste.
Every six weeks an event dubbed “chicken processing” occurred. A group of volunteers, us interns, and the owners started the processing of over 120 chickens before the sun even touched the farm. I will not reveal the details of this process, but I will tell you the smell associated with it will never be forgotten.
Grody smells and sights aside, these days were actually a blast. Caroline and I learned how to completely clean and take apart chicken, something not every twenty-some year olds know how to do. They also ran a farm stead camp, “Summer Dayz,” which taught children between the ages of 8 and 12 the basics of running a farm.
I found myself crashing on couches and going to concerts, talking for hours on end and always, always eating with these people.
At the end of the summer, our employers made a decadent dinner and invited both our families and the previous year’s interns. We shared stories and drinks, laughs and, of course, amazing food all from the farm. The night ended with sad goodbyes, hugs, and pictures of the new family I had created. I left the farm with one week to spare before returning to CNU.
Once again, I returned to CNU craving and yearning for the homemade sourdough bread, fresh milk, and applewood smoked bacon from Open Gate. I spent the year attempting to buy produce from CNU’s Farmer’s Markets, but with limited options and a cold spring I was left disappointed.
Knowing me all too well, both a professor and friend suggested that I investigate another summer internship on a farm in the area. Thus, I volunteered my time at New Earth Farm and interviewed with the owners, Kevin Jamison and John Wilson. Thankfully, I was awarded another summer on a fantastic farm, this time in Virginia Beach.
Another CNU intern, Megan, and I spent our Thursdays through Saturdays together on the farm throughout the months of summer. We spent early evenings on the beach with our fellow employees and other nights assisting with cooking classes run by the farm. I make it sound like a fantasy world, but believe me those early evening swims were needed after working with the soil anywhere from 8 to 10 hours in the sun.
Some days we gave tours to excitable children and other days we made lunch for our fellow workers. Despite literal and figurative heat waves, lunch time was always a cooling period. A huge cedar shaded the area used to wine and dine class participants by night and shelter workers during the hottest segment of the day. These lunch periods were a much needed relief and always offered a variety of food options because certain days were designated to specific workers for lunch duties. Every single meal was different: some were more plant based, while others had special meats cooked down with the farm’s variety of spices.
I found myself crashing on couches and going to concerts, talking for hours on end and always, always eating with these people. Megan and I were dubbed the “sturdy girls” and by the end of summer I heard myself calling them my farm family. Again, another family centered around food.
I noticed this trend appearing: food plus people over an extended period of time always seemed to lead to familial ties. But why?? Was it because with each bite of food, we become more sedated, thus open to discussion and bonding? Or perhaps it is something more…these families were formed around good, mostly healthy food. This difference, the quality of the food, is what stood out to me.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know one thing. This hands-on experience enabled me to truly embrace my wants: to create this bond with everyone around me. Not just my relatives and classmates, but the entire community of Hampton Roads, maybe one day beyond. I think going back to our roots, literally, will unleash what has been missing from most of our lives: caring for one another. There’s a difference between knowing your neighbor’s name and actually knowing them. From there, you are able to care for them, you can love them, and share in humanity and community with them.
And it can all begin with a simple, delicious meal.
Colleen Garrison is a biology major and leadership studies minor at Christopher Newport University. Her passions lie within the environmental realm, feminism, food justice, activism, and pretty much any social justice and economic movements. Her motto is: “the environmental movement is a movement of movements.” Issues such as racial inequality, student debt, food deserts all have similar roots that tie them to environmental justice.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.