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Victorian Guide — Reconnecting producers and consumers

What Your Grandparents Knew

Thursday, November 22, 2012 — Editorial, Opinion

Have we lost the skills that were second nature to our grandparents? asks Emiko Davies.

Are habits such as growing your own food, baking your own bread and making your own jam skills that are being lost too fast in our modern, mostly city-dwelling lives? In the past it was probably driven a lot more by the practical and necessary – geographical or financial limitations that gave you no choice.

Some, such as this Big Think article, would blame the internet and modern technology for replacing good old advice from parents or grandparents on how to grow tomatoes or how to make that favourite jam from your childhood with instructional videos, blogs or other online resources.

It might not only mean the end of passing on family recipes and traditions through the generations, but also the loss of that human connection from being personally present when someone shows you how to plant a seedling, fold egg whites or add a dash of this or that. When someone teaches you a skill, you’re able to ask questions about the process, discuss, learn and bond all at the same time. And the secrets passed on at the stove or hands on are often the things that stick with you.

Similarly, other things that have given in to modern conveniences, such as growing your own vegetable garden or knowing the seasons and recognising each one’s best produce, are also less common now than during your grandparents’ time.

Your parents or grandparents probably remember these pleasures and skills better, particularly if they came from places such as Southern Mediterranean countries, where you can only find seasonal produce and there is still a strong connection to skills such as foraging for mushrooms in autumn or blackberries in the summer, or the rituals that follow the seasonal calendar from tomato bottling at the end of summer to pig butchering and sausage-making at the beginning of winter.

There is a rhyme and a reason for these things that get lost in a modern, urban world.

Having information at your fingertips via a quick internet search is an easy and fast alternative that more often than not wins out over a phone call, a conversation or writing down a recipe with pen and paper. Many would agree that the internet even wins out over the cookbook.

However, perhaps it is in reaction to these losses over the generations that there is a shifting mentality towards reviving those skills of cooking from scratch, growing your own food, understanding where it comes from and stocking your pantry with homemade goods.

The internet, it must be said, does marvels for teaching people how-tos, whether a new skill or a refresher. It even perhaps facilitates and encourages a revival of these skills because of the ease and speed with which we can obtain knowledge online. Want to know how to start a worm farm? Or trellis your tomato plants? Want to find a video that describes sterilising jars for preserving? Or see step-by-step photos for making duck prosciutto at home? And then find someone likeminded to compare notes with? The internet has it all, from blogs to forums to tutorials and everything in between – a compendium of knowledge and information.

Then there are the new hobbies and skills that previous generations probably didn’t have the need  or the know-how for: solutions for urban gardening or rooftop beekeeping that city dwellers keen to reconnect with nature and their food are now adopting.

How do we learn the skills our grandparents knew? Joel Salatin, American author, farmer and sustainable farming advocate, recently advised an audience member at a Melbourne talk, “Don’t worry about the stuff you don’t know. Start with what you do know.” He continued, “Surround yourself with a support network of friends.”

And the use of the internet as a way of finding that support network is unparalleled. Urban Garden Share is a website based in the US that connects urban gardeners to unused garden space – green-thumbed apartment dwellers link up with homeowners with empty gardens. Meanwhile, here in Australia, Local Harvest is an online resource helping people find their local produce. The website encourages its visitors to buy local, buy directly from the farmers and grow or share produce themselves.

There’s no doubt about it, the internet is probably the first port of call for those wanting to bring to life those long-forgotten, waning or soon-to-be-discovered kitchen or gardening skills. It’s also the place to share those skills and experiences in the form of blogs, videos, articles, community forums and more. It might be the sad end of passing on family recipes or gardening know-how, but it looks the beginning of a broader, growing network of skills and values.

What do you think? Is the internet and our modern, urban lifestyle killing off or reviving our knowledge, skills and appreciation of selfgrown and homemade food?

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Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at www.emikodavies.com
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