I feel that at this point in American human history (perhaps more so a few years prior to now, due to the recent rise and expansion of the green movement/local food effort), the disconnections between most American’s home landscapes and the food they consume are far more considerable than the connections. Millions of Americans eat fast food two or three times a day. This is food that has been born, raised, slaughtered, butchered, processed, frozen, shipped across the country, fried, heated, and reheated all before it even touches the greasy fingers of the individual who actually intends to consume it. Many of us purchase out-of-season fruits that were grown thousands of miles south of our own, less fertile landscapes, as well as exotic foods shipped from overseas to our local supermarkets. Inner-city children grow up completely oblivious as to where milk comes from, or what a whole broccoli plant even looks like.
I feel lucky to have been raised in a place that is still somewhat isolated from the rest of the country due to the fact that it is surrounded by water. This geographic separation has resulted in the formation of a comparatively small, relatively tight-knit community made up of individuals who have grown up together and who really look out for one another. I believe that the secluded nature of my homeland is the reason that there exists such emphasis on the importance of gardening, farming, (and since we are coastal) fishing, shellfishing, lobstering and crabbing. We feel isolated so we feel more responsibility toward the cultivation of our own provisions. I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. Though I did not have a farm of my own on which to cultivate my own sustenance, my grandfather was an avid fisherman, hunter and gardener, and for many years before he died, he provided my family with fresh, locally caught fish, shellfish, lobster, Canada goose, venison, and various home-grown vegetables. I believe his desire to personally provide nourishment for his loved ones, and his fondness of being immersed in the cytoplasm of the natural world — be it out on the ocean or deep in the forest — has been conjured again within myself, two generations later.
I would say that the strongest connection I feel to this day between the land I grew up on and the food I grew up on does not actually have anything to do with the land, but rather with the sea. Though he was a hunter and gardener by hobby, my grandfather was a fisherman at his core, and would spend long hours out on the ocean hauling up lobster pots or digging for clams or clutching a rod in one hand, the other cocked and ready at the handle, waiting for the reel to spin. I have so many memories of so many savory dinners of smoked bluefish, mahi mahi, fresh lobster, scallops on toothpicks wrapped in bacon, stuffed quahaugs, buttery steamers and littlenecks, shrimp cocktail, mustard-marinated flounder, and grilled swordfish. What our family couldn’t eat, he would give away to neighbors. I think he really loved this feeling — the feeling of knowing he had put food on the table for not only his family, but for his community too. I have not met many people from the mainland who revere food from the sea in the same way that I do. In fact, several of them say they are nauseated by the mere smell of it. But for me, when I slurp an oyster off the half shell and taste the brine of the sea, I am filled with a sense of nostalgia, of salt air, of family, of community, and of home.
Katie Mayhew is an Island native and West Tisbury resident. This essay was written for a course she is taking at Sterling College in Vermont.