Midwest Meatloaf, Mexican Tomatoes, and Mushrooms from Seattle

A recent visit to the suburbs of Detroit was all about changing preconceived notions--mostly, my own. It had been 20 years since I visited my aunt and uncle, who have lived in Dearborn most of their lives. I returned with a sense of fondness for the place where my childhood began, believing that I'd find a mixture of sensory experiences to arouse my nostalgia and inspiring evidence of the urban agricultural revitalization that we've all been hearing about.

I quickly remembered that dreams and reality are markedly different; not surprisingly, my realization was directly related to our meals.

My first discovery came through the help of my aunt's traditional Midwest cooking--which, I've now concluded, was the source of my disinterest in food growing up. I had erroneously believed it had more to do with my mother's cooking specifically and less to do with Midwest food in general, however I see now that she was a victim of circumstance.

As a child, when faced with dishes like fried liver (always overdone) or dry salmon smothered in a thick cucumber dill sauce, I had trouble finishing my food. Sometimes, I was able to convince my mother to give me a more simple (read: less offensive) version of the adults' meal; instead of meat loaf, which contained hidden land mines of greasy green bell pepper, I'd beg for plain ground beef with salt. I fought being labeled as "picky," but I couldn't stomach gloppy cooked spinach from a can, doused heavily with apple cider vinegar.

My first meal with Uncle Buddy and Auntie Jill looked suspiciously familiar: a slice of flavorless meatloaf atop a bed of equally bland egg noodles over my aunt spooned a watery au jus. I had hoped for a salad; instead, our meal was plated with shriveled gray-green peas from a can, which were warmed on the stovetop, and a slice of white Wonder bread on the side. For dessert, which seemed mandatory, Chips Ahoy cookies. We finished in under 10 minutes--main course, chalky cookies, and all.

My uncle and aunt were aghast when I cleaned my plate, commenting on how far I'd come from my childhood reputation as a difficult eater. What I couldn't bear to tell them was, I was desperately hungry after my long flight and too polite to insult their hospitality. During the rest of my stay we ate a lot of fast food; it was the first time I had a Whopper in nearly 10 years. When I sank my teeth into the barely warm burger, which we ate at home, it didn't feel sinfully decadent, it tasted heavy and fake--a dump of worthless calories that had me napping an hour later. That night, I thought of Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me" experiment of eating McDonald's for a month. I shuddered.

The only fresh vegetables I encountered consisted of iceberg lettuce (I didn't discover spinach and leaf lettuce until age 12 when I visited my other aunt in California) and cherry tomatoes, which sat on the counter for several days before we liberated them. As soon as I saw what I was in for in terms of a food shed, I eyed those tomatoes covetously--like an old man checks out a passing ingenue in a red dress--wondering when they'd come my way. After several meals, I couldn't wait anymore; I suggested to my uncle that we have them for lunch on the side of our paper plates.

"I don't know if they're any good," he said, suspiciously. "They're from Mexico." I smiled at his reluctance; where else was warm enough for tomatoes to grow this time of year? I salivated, offered to test them. Our roles reversed, I bit into the tomato, which was flavorful and delicious, and said, "Mmmmm!" hoping that he'd be curious enough to try one.

He narrowed his eyes, wondering what he was missing out on, and grumbled, "Maybe I'll have one." After popping a ruby red cherry tomato in his mouth, his eyes grew wide with surprise. Telling my Auntie Jill about it later, he actually declared, "Wifey, you wouldn't believe how delicious those tomatoes are--it was a taste explosion!" He paused, shaking his head, then said, "I can't believe they're from Mexico!"

That's when I remembered something else that I struggled with growing up: suspiciousness at anything new or foreign. In Detroit, we buy--and eat--American. Unfortunately, that can also translate into buying big and tasteless. Case in point, most everyone I met during my journey commented on how little I am, which is true--compared to people from the Midwest. While I might be petite, I'm far from skinny; however, next to the apple-shaped women around me, who are fueled by empty-carb, high-calorie diets, I do seem remarkably small.

That Sunday, as we drove home from bingo at the Knights of Columbus hall, stopping to pick up that evening's fast food dinner, I asked my aunt if we could drive by some of the urban agriculture projects that I had been reading about.

She wasn't aware of any. I told her that I had heard of lots that were available for $1 lease to those who wanted them for urban farming. She had never even heard of the program--this from a woman who watches local news around the clock. Sadly, in the suburbs where there is land aplenty, no one is doing anything yet; no hot-houses, no winter crops, no farm stands, no high-spirited young urban farmers.

During the rest of my trip, I kept looking for evidence of Van Jones or Will Allen, but there was none. Disappointed, I had assumed that urban agriculture would be everywhere. I began to wonder about the stories I've seen--in magazines, newspapers, tweets, and blogs--with smiling people tending neat rows of crops, fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, youth education and enterprise, cooking classes and opportunities for gastronomic exploration--was I simply in the wrong part of town? We received the exciting news this week that CityLab7 has been awarded funding from Maggie Kaplan's "Invoking the Pause" program, which will allow us to bring our Fertile Grounds urban ag project to life. Within a year's time, we will be growing oyster mushrooms on spent coffee grounds, repairing local soils, and increasing collateral delights around Seattle.

Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get to bring our mushrooms to Detroit some day. Maybe we'll grow them in an abandoned warehouse next to a once-empty lot that someone will use to grow local tomatoes.

And, since they're American, maybe my family will be enticed to try them.

posted by gabs