Diner: Reconnecting Through Food

Civic Garden Center celebrates silver anniversary by focusing on neighborhood gardens

Jul 26, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jared M. Holder

In green we trust: Ray Bracy has been a gardener with the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati for four years.

" 'There are going to be times,' says Kesey, 'when we can't wait for somebody. Now you're either on the bus or off the bus.' "

— Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Ken Kesey's pragmatic advice to his wayward Pranksters on their cross-country voyage became a metaphor for the 1960s. The tumultuous decade that witnessed a movement away from the conservatism of the 1950s brought revolutionary change to our political, social and cultural lives.

It brought Kent State and the Vietnam War, but it also provided a new sense of community and a sense of responsibility toward each other, evidenced by the Civil Rights and women's movements.

Now we seem to have come full circle. Let's face it — if the 1970s were the "Me Decade," the 21st century is the '70s on steroids. Disconnected from our surroundings, we zombie walk with iPods shoved into our ears, removing the headset only to plaster a cell phone against our face.

What does any of this have to do with food? Everything.

Food has always played a significant social role in our kitchens and at our dinner tables — we form bonds when we break bread with strangers or share a bottle of wine with a friend. But I'd never thought about its place beyond the confines of the kitchen. Until recently, that is, when I read that some of our food travels as far as 2,000 miles before reaching our tables.

This isn't really surprising, given little hiccups like the Industrial Revolution and the technological revolution of the 20th century. Pre-cut and pre-packaged, our food is all but eaten for us when we engage in our grocery store forages.

Rather than sharing in conversation as we prepare meals, we whisk a microwaved dinner out and wolf it down before getting the kids to soccer practice, play practice and the like. Mothers no longer seem to have the time or inclination to pass down family kitchen lore.

Fortunately, history has a way of creating countercultures in most societies. In the last 20 years a good deal of this countercultural energy has come from global and national food movements like the Chef's Collaborative and Slow Food, movements determined to reconnect us to each other through our relationship with food and the environment.

Through its community gardening program, the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati has been wrestling with these same issues on a more local level for 25 years. The center, with more than 45 area gardens, celebrates its silver anniversary with events this summer.

In June, approximately 100 people descended on the center's grounds at the Hauck Botanical Garden for an orgy of plant conversations and victuals made from the fresh produce of 11 area community gardens. We ate French herbed potato and green bean salad from the Gardens at Village Green in Northside, vegetable lasagna from the Mount Auburn Community Garden and collard greens from the Race Street Children's Garden.

Unlike the vegetable flesh in the store, the community garden produce is bred for taste rather than appearance, so all of the deceptively simple ingredients are surprisingly muscular.

"When we first started gardening, it was a shock to me how much flavor the stuff had," says Kathy Cole Bunthoff, a member of the Mount Auburn garden. "Salad greens especially. It's so much richer than the bag of salad you get at the grocery store. The stuff in the grocery store might not have as much flavor simply because it's grown for longevity."

A few weeks after this feast, the Civic Garden Center also sponsored a bus trip to three of the gardens — Walnut Hills Community Garden, Madisonville Community Garden and the East End Veteran's Memorial Garden. I thought the least I could do was get on the bus and try to meet my food halfway on its trek to my table.

As I board one of the chartered vehicles, I feel a little bourgeois in the cushy air-conditioned interior, complete with a microphone and video screens. I sheepishly glance around to see if any of my name-tagged cohorts are bothered by our trappings: Aunt Mildred, Jerome Wigner, Steve and about 100 others don't seem to mind, especially given the day's heat.

"Are you a gardener?" an older gentleman asks before we de-board at the first garden.

I shake my head as I slide my hands into my pockets to hide the lack of green on my thumbs. But the confession doesn't deter him from chatting with me.

Funny, no one on the bus is blankly staring into space. People's eyes seek to engage you, and as we begin to negotiate our steps through mulched garden paths and over blooming yellow squash, hands extend to help steady your course.

I take a seat on a wooden bench beside Steve to eat the pasta salad and collards that Lorey Gray and the other Walnut Hills gardeners prepared for their guests.

Rather than acting like two city folks politely ignoring each other, Steve immediately strikes up a conversation. He's with a program at Joseph House, an organization that provides outreach to homeless veterans and partners with the Civic Garden Center.

Steve and others work in community gardens two days a week. They do a lot of the heavy work so the gardeners can concentrate on the growing.

Steve tells me a little of his story, courteous to avoid too much detail. He entered the Navy when he was 17. Now 53, he admits that he's seen a lot, but he seems content talking about everyone working together toward the same end result in the garden.

"Sometimes when you run away from something, you run smack into it," he says. "That's life."

According to Margie Rauh, one of the founders of Cincinnati's community gardening program, the concept of community gardens can be traced to World War II Victory Gardens. These vegetable gardens, planted by nearly 20 million Americans during World War II, were grown so that civilians could be more self-sufficient and ensure there was an adequate food supply for the troops.

Today the gardens seem to be less about self-sufficiency and more about coming together in a place for a common purpose. Kelly Mullen and Michele Hobbs, members of the Mount Auburn garden, say that gardens bring normalcy to urban life and it's something they can do together as a family. Kelly finds the garden brings her and her husband into contact with people they might never meet otherwise.

"You get a mix of economic classes," says Michele Williams, the Civic Garden Center's horticulturalist. "There are people that need the food, then there are people doing it that don't need the food. A lot of them are donating their food to the Freestore Foodbank. They'll go in and harvest and donate a big whack of collard. And I think for them it's this process of doing the community thing more than getting the food."

Whatever the reasons, as the gardeners put down their cell phones and other 20th-century toys to pick up clods of earth and pails of water, the miles between magically melt.

I was only a year old when Kesey led his Pranksters out of the West. I'm glad I made it on the bus this time around.

CIVIC GARDEN CENTER OF GREATER CINCINNATI provides community residents with technical assistance, leadership training, horticulture education and start-up materials to establish neighborhood gardens. The next free, 12-class neighborhood gardens series starts in October. For information on this class as well as future 25th anniversary events, check out www.civicgardencenter.org.