Earlier today I was looking for old pictures of cider presses and stumbled across the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” website at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html. Although my search for cider presses on it was not overly successful, I found myself browsing through various sections and came across this picture of a woman selling homemade jelly at a roadside stand in 1939.
A few days ago I finished reading Georgia Pellegrini’s book “Food Heroes” and the picture reminded me of the book. In it, 16 people are highlighted who have gone out of their way to maintain or recover traditional foods, often in the face of deeply ingrained systemic bias favoring modern mass-produced items. Some of the hurdles that these people have had to overcome range from a regulatory environment which is organized to support large enterprises and distribution channels which are closed to them by virtue of the variation of their products, or, quite simply, people not being aware of the difference.
One producer in particular came to mind when I saw the picture, and that was a sausage maker inNew Yorkwho makes dry-cured Italian sausages using techniques and recopies handed down for generations. Every year since 1928 the sausages he and his predecessors made this way have been tested and found to be negative for certain types of bacteria, but in 2002 the USDA came out with guidelines for prevention of these bacteria with which the traditional method could not comply. Thanks to his tenacity and ability to pull in external assistance and fund a large legal campaign, he was eventually successful in maintaining his ability to produce and sell his traditional sausages.
When I look at the picture I see a woman standing beside the jelly she has made to add a bit to the farm’s finances, likely made with fruit that was not-quite-right for the fresh market. The chair in the open door behind her seems to indicate that the stand is left on it’s own most of the time and she only comes out if someone stops by. The labels on the jars look hastily applied and too small to contain much more than the type of jelly, and the mixture of jar shapes suggests that some of these may have been reused. My assumption is that the jelly was made either in the house kitchen or outdoors, and I doubt that any aspect of the jelly making had been subject to any form of official inspection.
Food regulations come about due to issues occurring and ways being found to attempt to prevent those issues from reoccurring. Unfortunately, they often focus on ways to address industrialized processes and either prohibit or simply ignore the alternate ways that small commercial and domestic producers have used successfully. Small roadside stands do still exist in some parts of the country, though they are often difficult to find, and farmer’s markets are making a strong comeback in many areas. In most cases, however, they are limited to selling raw produce and/ or non-food items so that they do not have to comply with nutrition labeling and other food regulations which their scale of operations can not support.
Last spring I came across a roadside fruit stand in Oregon that was surrounded by rows of berries. As it was not the right season for them, the best they could offer was a berry jam, which I assumed they had made with their berries from the previous season. Only when I looked back at it several hours later did I notice that it was a commercial jam made in Canada.