By Megan Larmer, co-founder of the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project
After an early train ride last Thursday I strolled through Chicago’s Botanic Garden, savoring the tingle of early fall, to discuss that quintessentially fall fruit, the apple. My friends and I were headed to a RAFT Alliance “Forgotten Fruits of the Great Lakes Region” workshop. We knew we had the right conference room when we saw a few familiar faces from the Midwest Fruit Explorers (a group of local fruit enthusiasts and possibly the most ambitious “hobby club” ever known). You may think a day devoted to discussing how to get heritage apple varieties into the hands of the masses would be a total dweeb convention. Honestly, you’d be right. Pickle me dweeby. But what an amazing diversity of dweebs gathered around that table as I sipped my coffee, reviewing my notes for the presentation I’d give that afternoon.
There was a young lady from Milwaukee there to learn how to care for the trees growing on her rented land, local farmer Vera Videnovich with a bag of apples off the trees her uncle grafted decades ago hoping someone could identify them, chef Dave Swanson who has pioneered Restaurant Supported Agriculture, Asian pear guru Oriana Kruszewski, wizened orchardist Ken Weston who’s donated his family orchard to the city of New Berlin, WI, apple historian Dan Bussey… in true dweeb fashion I could go on and on. An amazing group of people. Perhaps most notably was Gary Nabhan, co-founder of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance. His piped cowboy shirt and vest made my westy heart ache with thoughts of home, and the intensity of his commitment to bringing variety back to our land and our table was inspiring (watch video of Gary here). The RAFT Alliance is doing the good work. It builds “food communities” through skill sharing events and documentation of culinary traditions. Food memory goes beyond the apple in your kindergarten lunch sack, the pie at your favorite diner. There is a cultural memory of food that is a bridge to bringing community, history, and ecology back into our lives through the daily experience of eating.