These excursions to the farm store were, of course few and far between. Most of the time we lived off the food we grew and the purchases from the coop, to which my parents were early members. It was actually a buying club when it first started, and being wheat farmers and goat herders, we supplied wheat flour, milk, yogurt and cheve. Going to the coop was a looked forward to event. I always relished anytime we got to leave the farm, which was not my mother's idea of fun. I, on the other hand, loved it. My mother's reluctance for outings was well founded. Loading up 4-6 kids all under the age of 8 or 10 to go shopping, now sounds like a trip to hell, but as the fourth child, I cared not one iota what trouble I caused for my mother.
The Community Mercantile, our local food coop, founded by a handful of back-to-the-landers, was located in an old neighborhood grocery store in old West Lawrence across the street from the Lawrence Community Nursery School, which was a cooperative preschool founded to promote integrated schooling. It only had about 800 square feet of space and all of it filled with health food. There was even a little Fisher Price orange plastic cart for kids to push around the store, which I was forbidden to use, as I was told I went to fast and ran into too many things.
The selection was small and familiar. You could get bulk tofu out of a reach in fridge that sat floating in a plastic bag in a five gallon bucket, panda licorice, gourmet cheeses, Mountain High yogurt, bulk beans, grains, spices, carob and raisins. There was a tiny bakery building covered in trumpet vine located in the dirt parking lot of the store to whom we sold flour and the bakers would make delicious whole grain breads and a cookie called a jammy. It was made from wholewheat flour, lightly sweetened with honey that had a depression in the center filled with different kinds of jam and if we were good, and my mom had the money, we would all get one!
Once while shopping at the coop, I asked to go to the bathroom located in the basement. I walked down the narrow stairs into the dimly lit room filled with the bulk bins. After using the bathroom, I then decided to open up the bulk bin chutes, one after another, first black beans, kidney beans, white beans, lentils, and then on to brown rice, white rice, millet, barley, and oats onto the floor. I had a wonderful time swirling all the colors together, until my mother discovered me and my fifteen bean soup mix. This was far from my first offense as I had a tendency to run off as soon as the double doors to the big grocery opened to swallow us all in. My mother, who had at least one other small child in tow, could never run as fast as me, and I was off to explore the store. My sister, who was my bosom friend, was often asked to hold my hand and not let go.
So when I had to go to the bathroom, in another basement at a different store, she came with me. At this store there were huge pipes, with great wheels attached to them. It took both of us to open the pipe enough for a surge of water to pour through. Once the water was running, we could not close it again, so we ran like hell for the upstairs. My sister, although my closest sibling, immediately told my mother that I, alone, had flooded the basement. After this incident I was forced to ride in the cart with my mother.
This was incredibly chaffing to my free roaming spirit, but while confined to the cart, I was pretty innocuous because my mother was usually right in front of me, until it was time to unload the cart. My mother only shopped every two weeks, and the grocery cart would be piled high. She would diligently move all the items to the belt, and while her attention was directed at the piles of fruits and vegetables boxes of crackers and bags of chips, I jumped from the cart, climbed onto the belt and beat my hands rapidly upon the keys of the cash register, jamming the machine and freezing the $200 food order in progress! The agony on my mother's face was plain, and I still remember the thrill it gave me to see my mother upset. I loved to get people riled up, as my hippy lifestyle was just too uneventful and I longed for some action. I was able to accomplish this feat twice before being left with one of my mom's midwife friends who lived in town, while she took the rest of the kids shopping. My mother used to insist that I was demonic, but I was really quite well behaved -when left with other people.
If I was desperate for chocolate, I would try and ride my trike to the farm store, which was three miles away from our farm. Naked, with my black Scottish Terrier, Squeaky, for company, I would head for the mailbox to get some money. My great-grandfather, Alfred, used to send us cards with a few dollars in it. I would get about ½ mile from the house before my older brother, would be sent to bring me back. There were many times when my parents would leave us for extended periods and we would plan an outing to the farm store for candy. We would go through the couch looking for change and if we all pitched in something we would have enough for each of us to get a treat. We would get on our bikes, weighed down by nickels, dimes, pennies and coveted quarters, and ride the three miles to the store. All of our dogs would come with us, how many canines would differ by the year, but anywhere from 5-10. We were quite a sight riding down the road. It was an easy ride until we got to the White Dog's House. He was a large, vicious mongrel and would run after us biting at our tires. Our dogs would get in fights with him and we would pedal as fast as we could to get away while yelling like gang busters for our dogs to follow us. Then it was over the railroad tracks, through the yard of the unused one-room-school house and into the dirt lot of the Midland Farm Store.
The Midland Farm Store is kind of like a trading post, as they sell everything imaginable for the farm family. You can buy hay, feed for cows, horses, chickens, pigs, get your tire fixed, find a replacement belt for your pants or your engine, pick up a fly swatter, a new set of coveralls and a gallon of milk. The folks who owned the store knew our rag-tag bunch, as we stopped in often for gas and feed, but we were not the good ol' boy crowd who was the usual clientele. It is a store where people didn't come to just shop, but to stand around the counter chewing the fat about the weather, how the crops were fairing, and any decent gossip concerning tractor accidents or illicit affairs. I can still remember their smiles and chuckles as we rode in covered in dust surrounded by a pack of dogs.
The best time to go to Midland was the summer. We had no air conditioning and temperatures in the Kansas summers can often be in the triple digits. There was something so sweet about riding through the summer heat all sweaty and sticky to open the big black door with the old brass handle, where a blast of cool air would envelope and welcome us in. It would smell of hay, tobacco smoke, and rubber and hum with sound of coolers. It wouldn't matter if we had $5 or $.50, we would look at everything the store offered. From the cold pop to the 3 cent Jolly Ranchers, our eyes would take it all in-imagining the feel of the chocolate on our tongues or the fizzy bubbles of the Sunkist. We were already blowing bubbles with our minds, before making our choice, and watching the choices of our siblings, thinking of the swapping that was sure to follow. Thinking that one piece of my Hubba-Bubba was surely worth 10 M&M's, or a bite of that ice cream sandwich. After our selections were made came the hardest part. We lived a fairly sheltered life, and did not have a lot of dealings with folks outside our community. We were all pretty scarred to have to go through the financial transaction process. We would all stand in a huddle fighting over who was going to go and pay for our loot. Remember that we were weighed down with change and there was a piece of math before whoever was going to have to count it all out. Even though I was the fourth child, it was often me who was pushed forward by the others to pay for our treats as I liked talking to people-even strangers. Everyone in the store would stand around and watch as we counted out the sticky change from all of our pockets till we had enough and could escape to the outside to savor our treats. After watering the dogs, we would head back home another three miles happy and content, until we got to The White Dog's House, of course, when our bodies would course with Adrenalin till we left him in the dust.
Although we ate like Buddhist monks most of the time, my father's mother, Grandma Dorie, angel on the earth, greatest friend to a child, would send us manna from heaven-heaven being Wichita, KS and manna being name brand food in boxes and cans with colorful labels and cute pictures of happy kids. But better than SpaghettiOs and Veleveta Shells and Cheese, were the tins of cookies, all perfect, made with real sugar and chocolate, not and I repeat, NOT carob! There were oatmeal raisin, molasses crisps, chocolate chip, brownies, rice crispy treats, fudge, divinity, short bread, seven layer bars, and lemon squares. My mother did not bake-not bread, not cake, not cookies. She could pull amazing flavors out of beans and vegetables, but the oven was not her domain. Because of this failing, she allowed my grandmother to send a box through UPS to our house for each of our birthdays filled with our favorite cookies, and the cake of our choice and all manner of other commercial crap that we coveted but were otherwise forbidden to have. For this reason the UPS truck coming up our dead end ½ mile drive, was like seeing Santa. All the kids would run from the house screaming and jumping for joy. Smiles as big as the Kansas horizon would greet the lucky UPS driver, who we would thank and praise, while we hugged one another in the joyous anticipation of opening that box. I believe it is possible that never before or after were UPS drivers as worshiped as they were by the 6 hippy kids who lived in the pink house with the giant red heart painted on the side.
With eight in the household, these treats didn't last too long. My grandmother's reputation for delicious baked goods brought many visitors to our house. My uncle, who lived up the road from us, and could see the big brown treat wagon churning up dust past his house, was usually the first to arrive. His family also had the monk's diet, and he was always eager to help disperse the sugar-laden treats. Our cookie “jar” was a big white plastic yogurt tub that lived in a cabinet above our trash cans-burnable and non-burnable. The cookies would be loaded into the bin, and within a couple of weeks, completely consumed, until we were scraping up crumbs and licking our fingers. While we were supposed to ask if we could have a treat, cookies were stolen all the time. My father, the offspring of the Angel of Wichita, would secret out the fudge, where he would nibble on it from his underwear drawer. The only thing better than a box from grandma was actually going to visit grandma!
I, Raven Aurora Naramore, not named for the Edgar Allen Poe poem, but for Raven Lange, an author of midwifery books from California, was born at home, with a host of midwives, in 1976 in rural Lawrence, KS. My idealistic, back-to-the-land, guru following parents were living the simple life of wood stoves, composting toilets, and no birth control. There were 6 kids in the end, each boasting a hipped out name that we all kind of grew into. I always felt like we had an idyllic childhood, but if you ask my siblings, you would think that we grew up in different houses with different parents. We were wild things, un-watched heathens who roamed the country side and the woods making up games and getting dirty, with constantly runny noses, snarled hair and dirty fingernails. We actually did a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves. My mom used to say that from the time I was about 4 months old, I would cry until she gave me to my siblings who would prop me up with blankets in an apple box, where I would be dragged around where ever they were playing until I was tipped out because they needed the box for a boat or just simply got knocked over from being dragged over the gravel road.
My parents were farmers-in a sense. My dad had 5 acres of organic wheat (before there was any expensive certification process) and my mom had a small herd of dairy goats and a ½ acre garden. My parents' lives revolved around growing food and children in abundance, and to that degree they succeeded marvelously. We had really good food when I was growing up, which was eaten around a hand made eight foot mahogany farm table. We had fresh milk every day, yogurt and goat cheese, we ate seasonally and froze the rest. I never once saw my mother can anything, but we had a chest freezer that only had vegetables in it since we were vegetarian, it was pretty much all we ate. We went to the food coop, to which we were early members, where we would get beans, beans, beans, tofu, millet, yeast, brown rice (I don't ever remember having white rice and to this day prefer brown) and on a good day smoked Gouda cheese and Panda licorice. In addition to growing wheat, we had a flour mill and after the harvest the country sounds of cicadas, hawks and our pack of 8 dogs would be drowned out by the hum of the stone grinder and fine white dust would fill the air and cover my dad's black hair, face and overalls. The best part of the flour mill was, of course, the bread dad would make with that flour-the smell of yeast mixing with goat milk, manure, dogs and kids.
We sat down together every night around the table, mom at one end and dad at the other with the kids in assigned seats along the sides. There was always a dog or two nearby to eat whatever hit the floor. We grew most of what we ate and meals in the summer were virtually the same, steamed green beans, boiled potatoes, sweet corn, stewed tomatoes, onions and squash, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Only now looking back on this meal do I know that is peasant fare was fit for royalty. Everything picked at the height of flavor, no trucks, no middle man, just the rich Kansas river valley dirt, water and the labor of our own hands. But, of course, I complained about eating such good food; “Why can't we have macaroni out of box?” Why does our spaghetti sauce have broccoli and eggplant in it? Can we buy Kraft singles? Even our soda (I actually grew up calling it pop, but was ridiculed so intensely by my East Coast kin, I turned my back on my Midwestern colloquialisms) was different. We got to have Blue Sky cola, lemon-lime, or root beer. Every person's can allotment was stacked on the bathroom floor under a piece of duct tape with their name on it. Some members of the family would drink theirs right away, but not me- I would make it last for months, or at least until my brother Cody, who had drank his ages ago, would start pilfering my stock, then it was time to drink up. We were only allowed one kind of cereal that had a sweetener in it, CW Post Granola, and we loved it. It was gone usually before the day was out. There was also my mother's favorite, Grape Nuts, which to this day still seems gross. Grape Nuts were not eaten for breakfast, but as a before bed-time snack, when we would watch television together and no one could hear because of all the damn crunching in the room.
I have one regret that stands out in my mind most vividly. I am at MacDonalds®, a place my family rarely went, and my friend's parents are buying dinner for them, their two kids and their two friends. The three other kids know exactly what they want-a Happy Meal; complete with drink, fries and toy. My vegetarian diet prohibits this choice, as I am hungry and know that I cannot even try to eat the bread that the hamburger has laid against. I don't really want that MacDonalds® salad either with the too cold, pale yellow, hard boiled egg, iceberg lettuce and that tomato that bears no resemblance to what comes out of our garden. That Happy Meal cost $2, that salad, $2.50, no drink and worse no fries. Her parents ask about the salad, and I say with utter disappointment, “Is that all?”
Looking back, I can forgive that little girl her impetuous answer. As the fourth born child to a family of vegetarian, sugar-free, guru following hippies, the choices were just too overwhelming. I wanted the fat of those fries and I wanted to suck down a whole small pop all to myself and I even wanted that small plastic toy from the latest movie in the theaters, and I really wanted my food choice to be that easy.
My family never really fit in, especially in the food category. When we left our community run alternative education school, my parents and my grandfather's money, sent us to a private school in Topeka where the BMW and Mercedes set went to school. These kids wore designer clothes in first grade, while my grandmother sewed a pile of dresses, skirts, blazers and blouses to conform to the dress code of the school. Here we were, a group of kids who never even wore shoes, or clothes in the summer, pressed into long skirts and dresses, just to go to school. It was a bit of culture shock to say the least. We also smelled bad. We, of course, didn't know we smelled bad. We had always lived on an organic goat farm, so we didn't know that the smell of the barn and the milk-house snuck into our clothing at 5:30 in the morning, while all our classmates were still sleeping in their own beds, in their very own rooms, wearing night clothes that, more than likely, were bought brand new and were not handed down from three older siblings. We only had one pair of shoes each and those that walked through the manure laden barn and milk shed, were the same ones that walked the halls of the Shawnee Country Day School.
The biggest shock came at lunch, and to this day I feel sorry for my sister, the oldest of our brood, responsible for divvying out the lunch for the rest of us. She was in 7th grade, utterly conscious of the material differences in our and our classmates lives, while being in first grade, I hardly cared what I wore, except I hated dresses and skirts which invariably made running fast impossible. At lunch, when the rest of the kids sat with their friends and their classmates, my family; myself, two sisters and a brother, all sat at one table together in the cafeteria. Like some kind of rerun of the Waltons, my sister would unpack the standard grocery size brown paper sack, reused so often it felt like cloth, of all my mother's handmade goodness. There would be bread made from the organic wheat that my father grew and milled and finally baked into bread, cut thick and smeared with natural peanut butter, you know, the kind with the inch of oil on top, that refuses to spread so it just kind of sits on top in a big glob. I have many memories of my mouth being glued shut from the wholewheat bread with dried up peanut butter on it, which required several gulps of water just to make it moist enough to chew. There would be apples or oranges, a big bottle of water in a recycled juice bottle we would all share from, and hopefully there would be an empty rice cake bag full of popcorn, with real butter, soy sauce and brewers yeast-this was dessert!
I remember looking around the cafeteria with the school motto, Fly Like an Eagle, painted on the wall at all the other kids eating out of their Disney inspired lunch boxes of white bread, individually wrapped processed cheese and bologna sandwiches, or sugar peanut butter with grape jelly. They also enjoyed small packets of fruit roll-ups and fruit chews, sometimes they ate Lunchables complete with a little compartment just for dessert, and they always had a juice box, and some kind of sweet; hostess things, cookies that nobody actually made, but came in a package and were of uniform size, taste and texture, or cupcakes with frosting in the most unnatural shades of pink and blue. The song from Sesame Street would go through my head “Which one of these things is not like the others...” as I would return to my all natural cement sandwich.
Whenever I meet new people and the standard American question, "So, what do you do?" arises people are always kind of amazed when I say that I am a remote sites caterer. This reaction probably occurs because no one has ever heard of such a thing, but also because it does sound kinda cool, especially compared with data entry specialist, or call center operator (both jobs, I actually had).
After many years and the collection of many stories, I decided to write out my food memoir. I was greatly inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, the talented writer and chef/cook from Prune in Brooklyn. Her story spoke to me, because like Hamilton, I had never imagined cooking as a profession, certain that I was going to Law School to become an environmental lawyer specializing in American Indian resource protection. While I loved food, and loved cooking, I was at heart, a nerd, who did not think that cooking for other people was that important. It has low status in our society unless of course you are a celebrity chef on the Food Network. But thousands of food workers across this country get very little respect, and their pay reflects it. While I loved cooking, I was looked down upon and pigeon holed in certain jobs because of my affinity for the kitchen, regardless of my intellectual nature, managerial skill, and advanced degree.
I decided to post excerpts from my food memoir, Tales from a Wandering Hearthkeeper, here on this blog for your culinary amusement. I hope that you enjoy them, and if you happen to be a family member of mine, I apologize now.