Down on the farm ILLUSTRATION: Roll n’ Press Studio

Down on the farm

If Altadena can tap its rural roots, other communities can too

By Ellen Snortland 12/09/2010

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Smells of Norway waft from my kitchen: almond, butter and fresh coffee. I think of my long-gone grandmothers and my not-so-late mother as I bake the Norwegian cakes and cookies I’m convinced were designed with maximum kitchen time in mind. Come on, now! It doesn’t take a doctorate in cultural anthropology to figure out that when you’re freezing your tuchus off (I use Yiddish because I also firmly believe Norwegians are the lost tribe of Israel), it’s a mighty fine idea to have recipes that keep you next to the stove or oven all day long. “Ya sure, you betcha, Ole! You and da boys just go to your insane little ice-fishing houses while Lena and I spend eight hours PER cookie in the kitchen, don’tcha know!” Anyway, for the holidays and as a way to supplement our income, I’ve taken to baking the authentic Scandinavian goodies that my foremothers made, because a lot of people don’t have the pans, patience or zeal that I do to stay warm.
Which brings me to something else my grandmothers, in their time, would have participated in: the Urban Farmer’s Market here in Altadena. On the third Sunday of the month, neighbors — some of them walking to the market — display and sell their crafts, edible and otherwise. I may bring my Norwegian goodies to the next one. The less handy neighbors shop, chat or pet the goats.
Hosts Steve Rudicel and his fiancée Gloria Putnam have created a commons on the grounds and in the halls of their historically significant Zane Grey Estate.
My grandmothers would feel completely at home in this Altadena “village” market. My grandmothers would say, “Oh, this is like the Lutheran church basement!” where their friends would bring their surplus goodies to help stretch their meager incomes in bad years, before and during the Depression. Farm wives were clever, and they knew their lives were impacted by things out of their control, like weather. North Dakota soil was as rich as any on the planet, but the weather was as unpredictable and volatile as well, just as it is today. One bad crop could send a family into crisis, so it was the canning, baking and scrimping skills of the women-folk that everyone else depended on. While hunting and fishing was important, it was the food that was “put up” that kept scurvy and rickets at bay, along with the small livestock that the women and kids mostly took care of, the goats and chickens, which were the sources for daily protein in eggs and cheese.
We had basements in the Midwest where shelves strained with the weight of canned tomatoes, rhubarb, plums, apples, whatever. And it wasn’t just housewifery that prevailed. I remember my dad pitching in equally with canning chores. It was a major deal to save food, and it’s becoming so again. Altadena provides a fabulous, front-row view of how you can be in an urban environment and also tap into the skills of rural living. Whether it’s shopping at our many fine local brick-and-mortar stores like Webster’s Fine Stationers, Altadena Hardware, O Happy Days, or dining at our family-run El Patrón Mexican restaurant, Altadena is a study in how we can create village sensibilities in the 21st century. And if Altadena can do it, so can other neighborhoods. Sometimes all one needs is to see a successful model and then duplicate it.
I visited the second Altadena Urban Farmer’s Market in November and was struck with the cycle of life and the turning of the Great Cosmic Wheel. In the 1960s there were lots of back-to-the land communal efforts to stop the waste and hyper-capitalistic culture that so many of us got sucked into during the ’80s and ’90s. And here we are again.
I remember my mother and mother-in-law saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” a ditty attributed to Yankee homemakers, pioneer homemakers, Depression homemakers, and now good advice again in a green time for everyone, not just homemakers.
Which brings me back to my homemaking, Norwegian and rural roots. One of the drummed up, horse doo-doo red herrings that got thrown out in the media during the second wave of feminism was this supposed faux struggle between feminists and homemakers. And, yes, while some women rejected homemaking as hopelessly dead-end, there were many of us feminists who were both politically savvy gender-wise and proudly in touch with the skills of our mothers and grandmothers. The cheapest shots that the gender wars produced pitted women against women; the media could be counted on reporting on “cat fights.” Meanwhile, all sorts of men didn’t get along or killed each other and they never got caught in a stereotype. Go figure. 
In any event, similarly, there is no disconnect between “urban” and farmer either. Come see for yourself!

Ellen bakes and writes in Altadena. Visit her


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