Like many Americans of my generation, I didn’t  spend a lot of time planting and gathering ingredients for dinner from a garden. I first learned to appreciate cooking and eating “home-grown” when I went to live with a friend’s family in France. Picking dinner from my friends’ “potager”, I experienced food that was simple and familiar, but unlike anything that I had tasted in the States – sure it was a plain salad, but made with the best lettuce I’d ever had  – because it hadn’t been sprayed, wrapped in plastic, and transported 3000 miles.  After our meals, we’d compost the scraps and carry the tablecloth outside to shake out the crumbs for the birds.

Returning to the U.S., I moved to San Francisco where the local food movement was well established.  Area farmers’ markets sold affordable organic produce and people without much money could enjoy Alice Waters’ ‘take out’ restaurant, Café Fanny.  Several years later, married with children, I wanted that delicious, fresh and healthy food for my family.  Now living in my native New Jersey, where progress was defined by expansive green lawns and 2 car garages, reasonably priced, organic food was hard to find.  Determined to provide my growing family good food on a budget, I started digging up that lawn and learned how to garden.

Working those first gardens, I started to explore my garden roots.  According to family legend, if you sat down for dinner at my grandparents’ house, you’d never have known that they were poor. During the Great Depression, they had to rely on coal that fell from the freight trains that ran next to their duplex to heat their house.  But, while it was cold and dismal outside, at the dinner table there was a bounty of food: roasted peppers and eggs from backyard chickens, homemade ravioli in a sauce of preserved summer tomatoes, fresh figs in the summer and figs preserved in grappa later in the year. (Every fall, my great-grandfather wrapped their fig tree to protect it from the cold.  He’d be jealous of the fig tree in our yard that survives the winter on its own).

My grandparents knew that their land was valuable and managed it carefully.  In building my first garden, I started to  re-establish that connection to the land that my grandparents, and probably yours, knew was critical for survival.  Our whole world relies on a little more than 1/16th of the earth’s surface for our sustenance.  Our children’s future depends on our own commitment to living in landscapes that respect our resources.  That’s why, when I’m not building gardens, I’m busy teaching kids to garden and to preserve this little bit of soil that sustains us all.  Currently I’m piloting a Rainscapes for Schools program with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, teaching middle-schoolers how to design a school landscape that reduces the pollution we send to the Chesapeake Bay.

My dad, a first generation Italian-American, ran to university with the help of the GI bill and secured his family a nice little place in the American middle class.  I’m taking my graduate degree in the opposite direction, heading back to the soil to get to know those peasant roots.  From a home with heat, it’s easier to appreciate the simple pleasures of that lifestyle.

I’m an urban peasant.  I grew up in the Jersey suburbs and can walk to the Washington D.C. metro from my home, but my roots are in the soil

Edamarie Mattei

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