August 2011 Issue
My Ohio: The Hunter-Gatherers
Two boys’ Cold War-era game offered a twist on the “local-food movement.”
There’s no denying the appeal of neon-lit supermarkets, with every imaginable kind of food spread out before us, beautiful and new, in irresistible packaging. But the environmental costs of this variety and convenience are steep. As a result, the local-food movement has been endorsing Voltaire’s advice to cultivate our own gardens — or at least, nearby gardens. The ultimate in sustainability would be returning to a time before we even had gardens, when we trusted to the earth’s ability to feed us without undo manipulation or fuss on our part.
When I was a 10-year-old living in Findlay, I briefly possessed a minor-league version of that trust when my friend Robbie and I invented a game that we called “Food Raid.” The object was simple: to steal fruits and vegetables from neighborhood gardens without getting caught. We weren’t poor kids who were genuinely hungry. What’s more, we stole the very items that we shunned when our mothers served them at home. For us, that cliché about forbidden fruit rang true: The same green beans left on a plate tasted like ambrosia when filched and eaten raw.
Among our discoveries was the fact that garden dirt, ingested in small quantities, is not at all bad. Musty and slightly metallic, it seasoned our furtive harvests of beans, carrots, radishes, onions, lettuce and cabbage. Our favorites were tomatoes, grapes and tree fruits: plums, pears and apples. We considered Food Raid to be a terrific game. What could more exciting than eating the same food as bears?
This was only 15 years after the end of World War II, and lots of “victory gardens” were still around. Distorting the patriotism of growing one’s own food into the patriotism of stealing one’s own food, Robbie and I figured that as dutiful Cold War children, we needed to practice the art of self-sufficiency. Knowing that Khrushchev wanted to “bury” us, we assumed that if the Russians ever conquered Findlay, they’d immediately seize Kroger, Foodtown and the A&P. Then we’d all be forced to live off the land, biding our time until we found a way to kick the invaders out.
We prepared for the Communist invasion by imitating the survivalist skills, as we imagined them, of cavemen, Indians and Bushmen of the Kalahari, the subject of a film that we had seen at school. With each raid, we felt less like soft boys and more like tough hunter-gatherers who could survive without canned corn or their mothers’ meatloaf. It was the least we could do for our country.
I don’t remember why we stopped playing Food Raid. It may have been the upset stomachs that resulted from all that roughage. Or maybe we grew frustrated because the real prizes we sought, like mounds of corn buried by the Indians or edible roots (nothing sounded as delicious as an “edible root”), kept eluding us.
Most likely, the game ended simply because it grew boring. I now suspect that what we really hungered for was not local produce, but a little excitement to enliven endless summer afternoons in which nothing much happened except family arguments, errant trash fires and the occasional horse escaping from a nearby stable and pulling sheets from clotheslines as it galloped through our back yards.
I’d like to think that Robbie and I were seeking a deeper connection with our ecosystem. If so, we were way ahead of our time. Doesn’t nearly every town now have a food co-op or a farmers market? Maybe we were instinctively rebelling against the TV dinners, instant mixes and chemical additives that engulfed us. Besides, weren’t we being prophetically “green” by eating everything that we took? Don’t get me wrong: I feel remorse for our crimes. But at least we weren’t as bad as St. Augustine, who stole pears as a kid only to feed them to some pigs.
What a waste.
Jeffrey Hammond, a native of Findlay, is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.