When I was very little, we lived across the street from an almond orchard. My distant relative, a nut farmer, recently shared a picture of his almond orchards with banks of petals collected by the wind, a sweet blizzard. I don't remember banks of petals, but I do remember clouds of them when the trees bloomed. And I remember gleaning after harvest, bags and bags of almonds that we brought home, peeled, and shelled until our fingers bled. We were rich in almonds.
In Oregon, we lived in a wild-ified suburbia, through which a nature trail passed and in which no fences were allowed. We were in everyone else's yard all the time. My brother and I, in the constant search for the source of the stream that ran through our kingdom, which we had oh-so-modestly named Opala, trotted through yards, sampled bright red chard stems from other people's gardens, snipped sweet Sugar Snaps from behind back doors. But most of our lifting came from the forest itself: black-cap raspberries and blackberries, the feral cherry on the slope behind our house, and hazelnuts still wrapped tightly in their leafy skirts.
Later, back in the Central Valley of California, ancient, gnarled fig trees lined our street, and when they'd drip ripe late in the summer, the downtrodden horses across the street would become fat and shiny. We had fences again and much inside them, including an orchard: almonds, apricots, peaches, plums, one an Elephant Heart, starting a life-long obsession with that variety. My dad planted a couple apple trees in front of the barn and pecan trees along the side of the riding ring in front of the house. Our vegetable garden spilled over with food. Behind the vegetable garden and the barn was more food, our cattle. The food came from beyond our own property and neighborhood, as we had family friends who were long-time farmers. One, an orange grower, had trees that were big enough to umbrella our imaginations, and he cured the fruit from his greyed, twisted olive trees. An old, good-smelling, tall man, he enchanted me. Another farmer friend had acres of orchards on top of a bluff and vegetable fields below. Standing at the edge of the bluff, all we could see was food growing.
It is the produce aisle of the nation and beyond, the Central Valley of California, and living in it, you don't forget that. Recently, I was at the farmers' market with one of my old friends from this time in my life. We were sampling raisins. They were good: fat and shiny, rich like an Oloroso sherry. Children of Fresno County, even after transplantation, we are connoisseurs of raisins.
In the last place we lived in what was left of my childhood, we lost our fences. We lost some of our space for growing food, but once again, we gained a forest. In Minnesota, the forest gives less food, or at least less any of us knew how to identify as food. Yet, we had sugar maples, and in the late winter, we tapped the trees for what looked like water, but when set in the huge pot on the stove for days as the kitchen windows steamed and dripped, turned in to amber magic.
It was a good childhood, a varied one. It taught me where food came from. It taught me persistence, resourcefulness, and experimentation.
I am what I have eaten.