Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Quest Begins

Once upon a time I lived in a teeny, tiny apartment in a teeny, tiny town in Midwestern Ontario. And in this teeny, tiny apartment was a teeny, tiny kitchen. Most closets are larger than that kitchen, but I loved it. It was my first time on my own, and I was excited about preparing my own meals. I had new dishes, and cookware, and glassware, and cutlery. I became a compulsive collector of kitchen gadgets and cookbooks.

I had a very well-equipped teeny-tiny kitchen, but there was a problem. Even though the teeny, tiny town was surrounded by farms, fresh produce was difficult to find. I could usually get the basics, but even that was sometimes challenging. Lettuce was often wilted by the day after purchase, and slimy the day after that. Potatoes sprouted before my eyes. Friends in urban areas were cooking with exciting ingredients like lemon grass and Thai basil. The most exotic thing at the local grocery store was broccoli.

I managed to work around these limitations. I bought produce, often local, when I visited out-of town family on weekends. I let colleagues know that I'd be pleased to accept excess veggies from their gardens. I made some pretty good meals. (And some disastrous ones too, but that's another story.) Then I decided to use food as part of a lesson in my classroom, and the quest for the elusive onion began.

Allow me to explain. I taught elementary school in the teeny, tiny town, and I had found this cute rhyme about predicting the weather:

Onion skin's very thin,
Mild winter coming in.
Onion skin's thick and tough,
Coming winter will be rough.

Since prediction and weather were both age-appropriate topics for my class, I decided to run with it. I found a few other ways to predict winter weather, and my morning lesson was planned. Or so I thought. In spite of what I had learned about the availability of produce, I was determined to have a local onion for this lesson. I mean, what was the point of trying to predict local weather with an imported onion?

As silly as it seems, I couldn't let go of the idea of having a locally-grown onion. I harassed grocers and staff members. I pestered my students' parents. I grew increasingly frustrated. It really shouldn't have been that difficult to find an onion. After all, I had managed to find a cow's heart for my Valentine's Unit the year before. (The kids loved it. At that age mucking about with a cow's heart is much more fun than making ornaments from construction paper and lace doilies.) I didn't find a local onion, so I had to make do with an imported one. The kids didn't know the difference, and I'm sure they wouldn't have cared if they did.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that I didn't find an onion for that lesson. The local farms were predominantly cattle farms, with a few pig and poultry farms thrown in to break up the monotony. Crops were grown to feed the farm animals. Still, I often wondered what the farmers were eating. Besides their animals of course.

I now live a half a continent away from that teeny-tiny town, but I was reminded of this years-old quest a few weeks ago. I had a case of tomatoes that I wanted to make into sauce. The recipe I was using required an onion, and I didn't have one in the house. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so instead of zipping down to the nearest grocery store, my husband and I decided to drive out to the farmer's market south of town. I figured that if I was going to the trouble of making sauce, I might as well have a fresh, locally-grown onion purchased directly from the source. It wasn't until I got home that I noticed its sticker. My farm-fresh onion had been imported from Washington. Apparently the quest continues.