108 degrees Fahrenheit. Then 112 degrees. Then 116 degrees.
This was the reality for three days in Portland, Oregon, one of the cities hit hardest in the recent heat wave that swept the Pacific Northwest.
Power cables melted. Young raptors fled their nests, attempting to escape the blistering temperatures. In my grandpa’s garden, tomato plants wilted, the early flowering buds drying to a crisp and falling to the cracked, claylike earth below them.
My grandpa, a 94-year-old retired auto mechanic, has never gone a year without preparing and caring for his garden. But this was the first time in his life he experienced a heat wave as intense as the one that scorched Oregon and Washington just weeks ago.
When my grandpa was young, he and his brothers didn’t have to water the fine soil they grew their produce in. Soil came naturally irrigated, rain was frequent and plants grew with relatively little maintenance. Things have changed since then — the climate and his family members’ relation to food among them.
In Berkeley, California, I am far removed from that heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. Most mornings, I sit in my third-floor apartment, looking out onto a city enveloped in a chilly morning mist that often lingers until noon.
I am sheltered from the heat my parents and grandpa endured just weeks ago, and I am sheltered from the lifestyle my grandpa and dad lived when they were younger.
I walk into Trader Joe’s in Downtown Berkeley and have no clue where the food comes from. Packaged in plastic and sometimes tough and difficult to bite through, grocery store food such as leeks, snow peas and tomatoes can sometimes seem as foreign to me as the characters I gave up learning in Chinese class.
And yet, that’s what I eat every day. I have never had to produce my own produce or grow my own grub. My grandpa and dad, on the other hand, relied on subsistence agriculture not only to survive and eat but also to sell and turn into profit. As children, they both spent hours plowing, harvesting and tending to their families’ crops.
For Grandpa, it was a lot of broccoli and tomatoes, grown on land rented by his parents, two Japanese American immigrants. For Papa, it was a lot of corn and beans, grown on his family’s farm in rural Appalachia.
The last time I grew something was last summer. I poured packets of seeds into tiny and colorful plastic cups that I arranged outside my old apartment.
In each cup, I placed seeds of a different type of herb. There was thyme, sage, basil, chives and mint. They were novelties — cute, living decorations. Garnishment for real food, purchased from nearby grocery stores, grown who knows where, harvested by who knows who, working in who knows what type of conditions.
The more I think about it, the weirder it seems. We really ought to know where our food comes from. But growing up, Grandpa and Papa had full knowledge of the origin of the food they put in their bodies.
Whether it was the hog they raised and butchered, the beans they stewed, the corn they dried and milled for cornbread, the tomatoes they ripened off of the vine or the salmon they caught and pickled, they knew every step of the processing that went into the food they consumed.
However, their lives were also very difficult in many ways that I will never understand. Grandpa and Papa often did not have the luxuries of choice or recreation. Their lives and schedules were determined by what needed to get done on their families’ farms.
I feel like a random, disconnected consumer, eating foods that travel probably hundreds of miles to reach the grocery stores that I frequent. My consumption is tied to production that exists outside my realm of awareness.
The farmer lifestyle should not be romanticized, however, even though I certainly have the tendency to buy into the often idyllic impressions and representations of farming projected by American media. Farming seems alluring to me, but its appeal is one born from my own ignorance and lack of experience. Farming is hard work — it often means sacrifice, strife and failure.
Grandpa told me once that he never learned how to play any sports because he had no time for after-school activities. His job was to help out on the farm. He was a worker starting at the age of 8, accompanied by his parents, siblings and Babe, the family’s horse.
Even after putting in days of hard work, their families’ survival was not just left up to the whims of Mother Nature. For Grandpa and Papa, whose families depended on produce profits, survival was also dependent on the whims of public interest and others’ willingness to buy their harvested produce.
I do not know that level of work and I likely never will. I live an extremely privileged life in comparison, and my relation to food reflects that. I have aspirations of one day taking more control over the production of food I choose to eat, but right now I am in limbo, struggling to find a balance between convenience and mindfulness in all areas of my life.