On a cool February afternoon, we entered the Valley Inn in Mancos, Colorado, an assisted living home off of highway 184. Amidst the chaos, we were shown to a (relatively) quiet room overlooking the back gardens. Over the next three hours we sat with people and asked: Tell us about your connection to local food production or garden education. One part of Montezuma School to Farm Project’s mission is to connect the youth of the county with their agricultural heritage. So we went straight to the source--living sources--for a peek into nearly a century of experience.
Forrest is 99 years-old, and was born in Farmington, New Mexico. Forrest’s’ dad was purportedly known as the “Watermelon King of San Juan County” and “no one could grow watermelon like he could.” He came from the San Luis Valley, where Forrest’s grandfather was also a farmer. Forrest, a third generation grower, continues with sparkling eyes and a big grin, “My dad was a good farmer and he raised a lot of watermelons. Good watermelons. I remember opening one and it had a heart. We scooped the heart out, and I remember ohhhh that was good. We also grew cantaloupes and honey dos.”
Forrest’s mother would care for the garden and his father would work in the field. “We grew everything- lettuce, cabbage, spinach... Even though we didn’t have much money, we ate well. We had an apple and peach orchard and we would sell them for income. We ate what we needed and we sold the rest of it to grocery stores.” Forrest served in World War II and traveled the world in the Navy. Despite decades of adventures, trials, and tales, the memories of his childhood and food production in the Four Corners area remain fresh in his mind.
Montezuma School to Farm Project focuses not only on teaching production and land conservation, but culinary skills, like cutting, cooking, and preparing meals from garden harvests. George Lackenmann, another Valley Inn resident, shares his connection with cooking and edible education.
George was a chef and worked in a famous French restaurant in Cincinnati called the Massionette. Though the restaurant is now closed and George is hundreds of miles from Ohio, he reminisces on the importance of fresh and local produce to make meals not only healthy, but delicious. “My wife did all of the gardening, and I was the cook,” he says. She grew a beautiful garden with kohlrabi, tomatoes, different kinds of beets, lots of peppers, and a variety of potatoes, including purple Peruvian potatoes. He especially loved the eggplants she would grow because French dishes often calls for eggplants, usually served with lamb.
George continues, “I think American supermarkets have gone away from tasty things in favor for marketed cheap food. You have to grow your own tomatoes because the ones at the grocery store taste like nothing.” He adds that many children these days don’t know where their food comes from, how it should taste, or how to prepare it. George’s wife would always grow kohlrabi, an “interesting vegetable, ugly as sin.” George grew up watching Julia Child cut it up into cubes and saute it in butter until tender before stuffing it into pastry dough. As an adult, when his wife grew “ugly” kohlrabi, George knew how to make a not-so-glamorous veggie a work of art. George’s experience with kohlrabi is no different than the one the kids tell when they come home from school after garden class: “There was this vegetable I thought I didn’t like (insert: spinach, kale, tomatoes, etc) and then we harvested it, cooked it, and ate it in garden class. It was delicious!.” George’s story and our countless interactions converting kids to vegetable lovers proves that children need a safe space to experience, try, and create in order for them to make local whole foods a part of their diet.
One of George’s favorite chefs is Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Waters was the founder of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley in 1995. The Schoolyard was the first time he’d heard of edible education. He believes there is enormous value in teaching kids about local and fresh food, and giving them the tools to grow and prepare it. George says “I think it is important to inform kids about how things happen in this country, that steak comes from cows on big farms and the burgers were probably shipped thousands of miles. Kids need to know that you can grow things, and eat them all on your own.” George continues, “these [edible education] programs teach more than how to grow food and about nutrition. They show how much joy comes from being self sufficient.”