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Facts & Arguments

When all-natural was all there was

Eating homemade, free-range and local was the diet of the thrifty when I was a kid, Mary Jane McPhee writes

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My parents were the original hipsters. Picture this: Dad, in his plaid flannel shirt, work boots and hair pomade keeping his pouf in place. Mom, in her cigarette capris, floral kerchief tied into her hair, Ray Ban aviator sunglasses and wedge sandals. Thing is, it was 1959. Everything old is new again.

They were the couple you see today in Whole Foods or at the pop-up farmer's market in the park, picking out local produce for their 100-mile diet. The slow-food movement folks. Organic. Free from. Foodies.

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Our food was all slow. All organic. And all from a 50-mile radius. We grew what we ate: beans, beets, peas, lettuce, radishes, potatoes, squash, corn, zillions of zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes.

Vegetables were blanched and then frozen in our giant chest freezer to eat all winter long. Others were eaten fresh or made into chili sauces and pickles. Any day of the week, mom had a batch of something going, depending on the season of course.

Crab-apple jelly to go with the roast pork. Strawberry jam made from the berries we picked at our granny's berry farm. Raspberry and blueberry jam made from the berries we picked in prickly patches or on hot rocks. Chokecherries were made into jelly. Relish was made with corn and zucchini. And pickles! All kinds of pickles. Bread and butter being my favourite. Dills and pickled beets and pickled green beans. Oh, and watermelon rinds. We had homemade ketchup and homemade mayonnaise. All-natural ingredients, of course. No additives or colouring.

As for hormone-free meat, everything we ate was raised on a local farm. It wasn't uncommon for us to come home at lunch on a school day and see half a pig hanging in our basement. Our dad and uncle would cut it into roasts and ribs and chops, wrap it in brown paper and label it with a black grease pencil. Into the freezer it would go. Bacon was smoked in a neighbour's smokehouse. Our side of beef, raised on grass, was delivered butchered, wrapped and labelled. Locally raised. Happy cows. In-house charcuterie? It's all the rage now. Dad made his own blood sausage and head cheese using the laundry sink in the basement as his work space. Our Italian neighbours brought over Italian sausage made in their basement.

Free-range eggs were picked up at the farm on the corner. We didn't eat much chicken, but when duck-hunting season was on, we could be sure there would be ducks in the freezer. Or geese. Sometimes on a Sunday after church, we would go partridge hunting. Or woodcock hunting. And yes, there was venison and moose meat, too. So au courant now in high-end dining establishments.

My dad and uncles were avid fishermen. We were often treated to fresh rainbow trout, lake trout, whitefish, bass, pickerel and a giant feed of smelts when they were running.

Dipped in egg and flour and fried in butter. Fresh churned butter. No dye. We ate smoked salmon, cured by my uncle, his recipe a secret.

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Can you imagine the cost of this diet today? Homemade pies and cakes and cookies? Local fruit, hand picked? Pails of creamed honey? We were a family of six. We ate a lot. The irony being, we ate this way in order to save money. It wasn't even a choice.

We rarely went up and down the aisles in the grocery store, picking prepackaged foods. Breakfast was oatmeal. Mom mixed our milk with powdered milk to make it go further. This was the diet of the thrifty. We would have killed for a Pop Tart.

So I chuckle to myself a little when I see the advertisements for fresh, local, organic food, like it's a new idea or something. Restaurants that feature house-made charcuterie, artisanal whole-grain baking, homemade jams and jellies, hormone-free meats, free-range eggs. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great. It's just that it's taken on an uber-cool vibe, available to those who can afford it – such as the hipsters in Whole Foods. The people trying to stretch a dollar such as my folks could never eat this way today.

My parents' idea of parenting was pretty cool, too. Their concept was something like, "Out you go. Come back when the street lights come on." No organized play dates or structured lessons. Just get out there and play with real, live friends. So we roamed free and wide, creating our fun from what was available in the natural world, scrounged or invented. We skated on our rink in winter. We skied on the local hill after walking there by crossing the Trans Canada Highway, climbing the hill, strapping on our skis, skiing down trying to avoid the rocks and repeating till we couldn't do it any more. And then walking home. No adult supervision. It was an everyday thing. Summers were unstructured and endless. The word bored was never allowed in our house.

I see my parents in the young families at markets and in the parks. Everyone wants what's best for their kids. It seems as if the draw to a simpler life is one more goal for them to aspire to – and it's one more expense. One more thing to worry about, one more stress. Kind of ironic the way things go. Full circle. I wish them well.

Mary Jane McPhee lives in Stratford, Ont.

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