Monday, March 31, 2008

my mother would be proud.

Back in June 2007, I began a story. I completed it in July. It is called “Opposite to Widower.” It’s the first piece of fiction I’d written in years. Some of the language in it is beautiful. Some of the scenes, one – a man washing his ailing wife’s back with a warm, soapy sponge, can reduce you to tears.

Back in June, I didn’t know that my dad would be married in October. But I had the fear of a new wife lurking in my psyche. A replacement bride. I wrote about a widower and his search for a new bride. I wrote it first in first person, the widower narrating. Later, I revised it and switched it to an omniscient point-of-view.

In the story, a marriage prospect asks him, “Tell me, what is your definition of a ‘family man.’” He responds by offering, in threads, the story of his relationship with his deceased wife. Throughout, you catch glimpses of his interactions with this prospect. The way they move from discomfort to comfort with one another. You get a very small bit of background about this woman. You know that she divorced many years ago, that she has a grown son, that she lives with her sister and brother-in-law and works for an accountant as an office manager – a position she worked up to starting out as a cleaning lady.

Eventually, the point of view shifts (which is one of the story’s weaknesses), and you begin to see things from her perspective. She finds herself falling in love with the widower. Imaging what life could be with him, versus the difficult life she’s led to this point. On the night before she is to leave town to return home, she has a dream in which she sees herself wearing a wedding set that belonged to the widower’s deceased wife (she discovers the set tucked away in a dresser in the guest room in which she is staying.). The story ends with this woman stealing the wedding set on the morning before she flies home. On the plane, considering her theft she tells herself (this is directly from the story): I am not a young girl now, she reflects. I am a woman entitled to happiness. Nothing feels foolish. Nothing feels wrong.

My readers have felt betrayed by this ending. They’ve said they wanted something good to happen to the widower, that he is the hero of the story, and I gave the ending over to her when I had not spent the time to make them sympathize with her early on.

This story has sat with me. For many reasons. Because I expressed some of my worst fears in it. Because the main character is quite clearly based on my father. Because I invented parts of the widower’s relationship with his wife – the way I imagined things between my parents before I was ever born, before my sisters were ever born.

Driving home from Houston on Saturday night, I committed to something I’ve been toying with. I decided that I am going to use my time in grad school to develop this story into a novel. I know what I want to study – some of the greatest, most magical and epic love stories. Right now Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude stand out in my head. I know there are others. I’d like to look at Latin American and Indian literature. In subtle ways, I plan to blend magical realism into the novel. I recall a scene in One Hundred Years when yellow flower petals rain down from the sky after a funeral. I have always carried that image in my head.

TX State feels more and more and more right. I have two cousins in Austin (one from my mom’s side, one from my dad’s side). I have a cousin in Dallas. Lots of cousins and aunts and uncles in Houston. I guess I’d like the chance and access to ask them what our own family stories are, our own folklore over generations – things I'll blend into my novel. In doing so, I guess I see myself connecting more to a family that, for many old, little pains, insecurities and fears of my own, I’ve distanced myself from over the years.

The History of Love is another novel I’d study, though it’s neither Latin American nor Indian. Anyone out there have suggestions for me?

I’ve got a clear set of goals now about how to use this time – revise and submit my short stories. Get myself published in journals over the next few years. Complete my novel and get it out to agents in my last year of school. I see myself traveling to India at some point. Maybe it will be in my last year (when we don’t take classes); maybe it will be over some summer. It’s going to be a healing and cathartic time.

I’m not embarrassed anymore about calling myself a writer. This is what I am. This is what I always have been, what I was supposed to be from the very beginning. I used to worry that my parents wouldn’t be proud of me. Wouldn’t understand this endeavor. I hear myself, in my head, asking a lot lately, Mom, are you proud of me? I never truly knew that this was something I worried about when she was living. But since her death, it has nagged me.

On Saturday night, my dad called from India. He thought I’d still be in Houston, and he, all the way from India, wanted to congratulate one of his youngest nephews on his marriage. I had to disappoint him by letting him know that I’d actually had to drive back home to Baton Rouge because my husband had an art opening. He asked how it was going. “Great,” I said. “He sold 8 out of 9 pieces.” “Did he make a lot of money?” he asked. “Yes,” I told him. When I said the number – he burst out with pleasure, “That’s GREAT! c. is an ARTIST.

Then he asked, “What have you decided about schools?” I said I’m still waiting to hear from one other place, but that I think no matter what, I’ll end up at Texas State. He said, “Did they offer you money?” “Yes,” I said. I’ve got an assistantship that covers all of my expenses. Again, he burst out, “Oh! GREAT.” I thought: My dad is proud of me.

Something unsettling happened next. He said, “d. wants to say hello to you.” We both paused, he, waiting for a response from me. I felt paralysis in my throat. What could I have said? I’m just not ready? I’m not ready to speak to that woman who is your wife and not my mother? Then, she was on the phone. “Hello.” She said. “Hello,” I answered his new wife. “How are you?” “I’m fine,” she answered. “How are you?” “I’m good,” I responded. My dad came back to the phone. “That’s it,” he said. “Limited English. You’ll have to teach her more when she comes.”

Her voice rang in my ears, and I was afraid I would never get it out. A song stuck in my head. My mother’s voice was more beautiful. I tried to think of the way, on the phone, she used to say, Hello, sweetheart.

In Houston, seeing my family – my dad’s side, it struck me for the first time that my dad’s marriage is hard for them too. My oldest sister asked my dad’s youngest sister, my Bua-ji, “So, what do you think of your new sister-in-law?” I saw polite embarrassment and sadness in my aunt’s eyes and smile. Relief swelled inside of me. I’d been mad at his family before – thinking that they had all accepted so easily that my dad remarried. Then, I said to my sister, “Why don’t you ask m. what you asked auntie.” She asked my cousin, “What have you heard about d.?” My cousin paused. Thoughtfully, she said, “Well, my mom [who is in India] says they seem happy. That they talk to each other like they’ve known each other a long time. I talked to her. I called my mom in India one day and she was there. She came on the phone. She talked to me like she knew me. Like she was very familiar with me.” m. didn’t have to finish. I could see that it made her uncomfortable. That she had thought to herself, Who is this woman? To speak to me like she knows me. She’s not my Tayi-ji (the wife of her mother’s older brother). Again, comfort swelled inside.

It’s not that I want to reject her. Or that I want anyone in our family to reject her. It’s that I don’t want anyone to forget my mother. Who she was, how she mothered and advised and taught so many of us – her daughters, her younger siblings, her husband's younger siblings. Nieces and nephews. I found in Houston that these people, my dad’s sisters and brothers and their children, had loved my mother. Love her. I needed to know this.

I’m ready to go to Texas now. To tackle something I've wanted to tackle - which is learning how to speak Punjabi. To grow into my family. To discover our histories. To record and embellish and pass on those histories. To be the writer and daughter and sister that I am.

SONGS: Oh Sister, Andrew Bird and Oh Sister, Bob Dylan

Saturday, March 29, 2008

a family affair.

I am in a hotel room outside of Houston. Tomorrow I'll attend my cousin's wedding.

It occurred to me on the drive here that I spent my youth getting as far away from Indian/Sikh men as I could. I didn't want to end up like my aunts, and admittedly, at points, like my mother. Suffering through a drunk husband's immature machismo over a lifetime. And if I found the nice Sikh man my parents hoped for, one who happened to not drink, I feared I'd find myself moving through a lifetime of rules, restrictions, repression. I didn't want either extreme. So I chose American.

Earlier tonight at my aunt's house, men mingled and women painted henna onto each others' hands. I watched my cousins, some married with children, some single still, I thought again of all these women. My aunties. How they have bore the brunt of this tragedy. To stand by their husbands, to play the right kind of Indian wife, to instill their Indian/Sikh heritage into their American-born or raised children. They've instilled that culture, and it comes with a scotch and soda. Preferably Johnnie Walker Black Label.

SONGS: Oh Sister, Andrew Bird and Oh Sister, Bob Dylan

Saturday, March 15, 2008

surreal emerging.

Here it is, three in the afternoon, and I am still processing yesterday. Surreal and long, the kind of day when one moment floats into the next, when, even as you are experiencing the present moment, the past one lingers ghostly. Like moving through a dream state or like gazing too long on a Remedios Varo painting. I have the strong sense that I was supposed to be open to the events of the day, even the most minute occurances – that there were gifts and lessons, one and the same, being spoon-fed to me.

Here is the story of just a one tiny part of the day, a sliver: I was deeply disappointed. And later, profoundly at peace with what is unfolding.

After mailing off grad school applications in January, I was careful to stay level. To remind myself and others, “I may not get in anywhere.” In the first week of March, I got a call. Texas State saying I’d been accepted to their MFA program. I felt pure-happy. The next day, in the mail, a rejection from Johns Hopkins. I felt genuinely relieved.

This one acceptance and this one rejection had put so much in perspective. I knew suddenly, that I’d applied to Johns Hopkins for all the wrong reasons. Nothing about the program itself attracted me. It was only proximity to my family and reputation for decent funding that had prompted me to apply.

Having been accepted to Texas State, something turned in me, and I realized that I also wanted badly to be accepted to the Michener Center program in Austin. And in that turn, I felt this: I just know that I’m one of the lucky ones under consideration. I just know. The very kind of thinking I'd been staying clear of.

Michener is a crap shoot – 700+ applicants to a program that fully funds everyone they accept and on top of it, pays a $20,000 stipend each year for three years. They only accept 12 writers. That’s 12 total – poets, screenplay writers, fiction writers. Where the gumption to assume so much confidence in my own work came from, I do not know.

I learned yesterday that I did not get accepted to the Michener Center. My ego bruised and my confidence deflated, I took a few moments to cry at different points in the day.

Only two hours before this news, I’d had the surprise of opening my email and seeing a message from a student at Texas State to whom I’d spoken last weekend. In her email, she reiterated what a wonderful experience she’d had at Texas State. She wrote:

I've been thinking a lot about our conversation, and I have to reiterate that my time here at Texas State has been one of the most productive, charged, exciting times of my life. I leave here feeling prepared to do what I've come here to do: write. I'm armed, too, with a great fount of knowledge that I never imagined I would have gained--of course, it's been an amazing surprise, as well.

But I'd take none of it back. I cherish it all.

It is--and has been--an amazing MFA experience, considering what I've learned, who I've met, what (and whom) I leave with, many many friends for life and the confidence and power to move mountains. At least metaphorically.

This is how my day had opened – with the reading of her words. A few hours later, the first disappointing rejection I’ve received.

I’ve also been rejected by NYU and Sarah Lawrence. All along, I’ve been saying how badly I wanted to get into Sarah Lawrence. But even that rejection did not bring me to tears. I felt a momentary pang, but also the rightness of it – intuitively, it felt right that I should not go to Sarah Lawrence. I've yet to hear from Irvine and UVA. I'm still holding out hope for UVA. Before, I'd thought UVA wouldn't fit, and now I really do. It would be nice if I had a choice between two to make.

But maybe, and hopefully, divinely, a choice is being made for me. The feeling of excitement and rightness about being accepted to Texas State keeps returning to me, especially in juxtaposition to the near-ambivalence of being rejected by Johns Hopkins, NYU and Sarah Lawrence.

On the telephone yesterday, I told my sister, “I think I belong in the South.” I don’t know exactly what that means. I’m going on intuition a lot lately, letting myself meander down strange paths, hiker without a trail. Out in the wilderness figuring out who I am.

Who is this girl? Who is this girl? This girl living inside of me, pushing and kicking and groping her way out of my body.

In an odd conversation yesterday – after I’d learned of the rejection from Michener Center, a friend talked about caterpillars and butterflies, and whether caterpillars, when they go into a cocoon state, are conscious that they’ll transform.

That’s me right now. I feel like I’m in a cocoon that is beginning, at snail’s pace, to peel open. It’s going to take a few years before the girl inside emerges. I want her to have wings the color of peacock feathers – with an eggplant colored spot at the center of each wing. I want the body between the wings to be deep scarlet red with tiny rust-orange specks. The head, pale gold and seemingly weightless, should shimmer iridescent when it’s under the sun.

I want to be a kind of Flannery O’Connor meets Indo-American princess meets Frida Khalo paintings meets Gustav Klimpt paintings. Is this possible? Too much to envision?

SONG: Lull, Andrew Bird and a whole bunch of other Andrew Bird songs

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I take appointments with my gynecologist seriously because, a) she’s impossible to get an appointment with, and b) I REALLY like her. She is a GREAT doctor. When I was scheduling my appointment for this year, I took some advice I’d recently been given. I asked not for her first available, but instead, for the first available day when I could be her first appointment of the day. Usually, when I go to her, I end up in the waiting room for almost 2 hours. But she’s that good. So I have no interest in seeing another doctor. I was looking forward to experiencing no wait.

For some inexplicable reason, I 100% zoned out and forgot about my appointment with her last week. Sometime around 1 p.m., a moment of panic flashed through my body, and I thought – I had a gyno appointment this morning! Mortified, I called the doctor’s office. The lady at the appointment desk said my awesome doctor didn’t have another appointment until May, but I could come in this week and see the nurse practitioner if I wanted. Okay, I said. I didn’t have any serious business to discuss, so I figured I’d be okay settling for the nurse practitioner.

When I got called into the exam room, a pleasant 35 minutes past the appointment time (beats the usual hour+), we introduced ourselves. She looked over my records. Then she confirmed that there is no other person I want examining me ever again besides my perfect gyno.

Her: Are you on any medications?

Me: No.

Her: Are you thinking about babies?

Me: (Standard answer.) No.

Her: Ever?

Me: Just not yet. Maybe in a couple years.

Her: (She does a double-take at me, then my chart. Then, as if she doesn’t see it on my chart.) HOW old are you?

Me: (Errr. I’m thinking, Could you please go get my doctor, NOW. Instead, like the overly polite person I am, I answer sweetly.) 33.

Her: (In a tone like she’s a sister-friend, or like she knows me, or is a familiar girlfriend.) You’re clock’s ticking, girl!

Me: (Did she really just use the actual words, Your clock’s ticking? That’s all I can think to myself.) Errr. Heh-heh. (Polite, uncomfortable chuckle.)

No disrespect to nurse practitioners. I know they are as capable of giving me a one-minute pap smear as an actual doctor. But did this woman really believe that if I wanted to have a discussion about trying to get pregnant that I’d have it with her instead of the doctor I’ve been seeing since I was 23 (minus the 2 years between then and now that I lived out of state)?

Later, she tried to adjust, and added, “Well, lot’s of women are starting their families between 35-40 nowadays. But it can be harder to conceive.”

Okay, I thought. Go on, Keep correcting your blunder.

Her again: (Back to being my confidante.) But you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘How much energy will you have?’ I mean, what’s 18 plus 36?

Me: Uh. 54.

Her: Yeah, do you really wanna be 54 with an 18 year old?

At this point, I couldn’t really respond anymore. I just sat there thinking, Do you really think 54 is THAT old? And, do you really think my husband and I haven’t discussed what it means for us to wait to have kids? That maybe we won’t be able to if we wait – do you think we haven’t figured this out? Do you really see me panicking about my “ticking clock?” Because, as far as I can tell, I’m not. Meaning, I must’ve given these things some thought to feel relaxed and firm in my answers. No? And again, do you think if I’d wanted to discuss this today, I’d have made an appointment with you instead of my ACTUAL DOCTOR?

Her again: (Moving on, finally.) Are you happy with your birth control?

Me: YES I AM. Thank you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

documenting change: eleven.

gettin' schooled.

I have not been anxious or preoccupied by schools one bit. Until now. On Friday I heard back from one school that I’ve been accepted. I got the call in the evening (a voicemail), and I felt both stunned and also a strange kind of out-of-body excitement.

Saturday, I became anxious. When before I’d put my applications in the back of my mind, suddenly I was wondering all day, when will I hear from the others?

In the afternoon, I checked my mail and there was a letter from a second school. A rejection. Hearing from this school illuminated for me with total clarity which ones I want to hear a “yes” from and which ones I’d rather not go to. I wasn’t disappointed at all that this school had not accepted me. Deep down, I’d applied to that school only for practical reasons, but not because I felt excited about the program.

I’m now preoccupied with when I’ll hear from the other five schools. As if on a road trip, “Are we there, yet?” is playing on repeat in my head. Except it’s, “When will I hear? When will they contact me?”

Phone calls are good – because I think all of the schools told me they call if it’s a yes. Letters are bad – because they mail your rejections. I’m hoping my phone rings exactly five times. But I’ll be happy if it only rings three or four times.

I won’t say for now who accepted me and who rejected me. I don’t want to jinx myself. But I’ll say I’m pleased about the acceptance.

I don’t know about money yet. The school said they have not yet made decisions on assistantships, etc.

The waiting game continues.

Monday, March 3, 2008

documenting change: ten.

writing weather. what's my temperature?

Months are passing by so quickly. Here it is March, and it feels like I quit my job yesterday – like June ’07 was just yesterday. It’s hard to believe it’s been eight whole months! Shouldn’t I be on the verge of giving birth to something (haha.)? In that spirit, I’m trying to evaluate how it’s been going.

I’m happy about my freelance writing gig with Country Roads, and I feel like in the next few months, I need to step it up and get myself into some other publications. I'm actually doing a piece this month for a new art criticism publication in Baton Rouge, but it’s not a paying job. In the sense that art is a subject I’m interested in writing about, I guess it pays – in experience and in creating evidence that, in fact, I can write on the subject. So.

Money, however, is important, like it or not. Letting go of my big fat salary (which wasn’t really big and fat in the grand scheme of things, but in the scheme of my life, it was pretty big and fat), has been a strange challenge. We’ve felt it here and there. It hasn’t been as if we’ve felt it sharply, but we’ve felt it in a few intense pangs. Last month we had a lot of pangs, and this month we’ll also have a lot of pangs. I’m sad to say that when I quit my job, we were free of credit card debt, and now we’ve actually maxed out a card. Not to an amount that feels unmanageable or too overwhelming to pay down, none-the-less, it’s debt we didn’t have before, and neither of us likes having it one bit.

I sort of wish, looking back, that we’d sat down with one of those free debt management people for some guidance on how to manage our money once we didn’t have my income anymore. On the other hand, we weren’t really in crisis mode, and I suspect those kinds of places are for people in crisis. I also suspect that this is something we’re supposed to be able to figure out ourselves, being two intelligent adults. But who knows. The world is full of intelligent people who aren’t good at managing money. Lately, I find myself brainstorming work I could do that would be worthy of grant money – I’d love to apply for a grant that would enable me to work on a project. One thing I am learning is that, as a writer, I’ll have to get creative and proactive about earning income if I don’t want to be nine-to-fiving it.

About my short stories and publication. I’d intended to submit work to journals, but I have to admit, this has been my weakest point of development. It’s helping me to do my job for the poet a., so I try to remind myself that becoming/being a writer is a journey. And as long as I’m not being lazy or complacent, it’s okay if I get a little off of my timeline (or if my timeline shifts and evolves). The struggle for me is always – do I write something new or do I edit? I’ve been answering my own question on a gut instinct – and the answer is continually: write something new, write more. That being the case, I don’t feel like any of my work is finished enough to submit. At some point, I’ll have to be satisfied with the amount of work I have and plunge heartily into editing/revising, so that I can actually submit to journals. The work with a., at the very least, gives me exposure to journals I’ve never seen, and I’m learning how she organizes her submission process. I’m sure that I’ll borrow many of her techniques. For this, I’m grateful; submitting work has, in the past, felt overwhelming for me.

I’ve had the pleasure of observing how helpful freelance writing is to my fiction writing. I notice that it plunges me into situations and conversations I would not ordinarily experience, and as a result, I have rich characters, dialog and subject matter swirling around in my head. Last week, I started working on a story that I’d begun quite a while ago. I’d written one paragraph, and then I filed it away in a “Working Stories” folder that I keep. This folder is something I go fishing in when I’m ready to begin something new and I’m not having any brilliant new ideas. It’s full of one-paragraph intros that I couldn’t make go anyplace at the time I began them. From that folder, I pulled out a story about a search and rescuer who was working during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. My recent interviews with farmers gave me a lot of ideas for how to develop the search and rescuer character’s voice and persona.

I also, in working on this hurricane story, did something totally new yesterday. I’d been reading the blog Vroooooooom, in which the author, Natalie, talks sometimes about her work as a hospice volunteer. It suddenly hit me that I want my character in the story to do this (it’s a thing that would seem out of character for him, but he’ll do it almost as a coping mechanism for what he’s seen during the hurricanes). I asked Natalie if I could speak to her about this work. Yesterday, I interviewed her. I’m also going to interview a friend of mine who is a search and rescuer about his experiences during the hurricanes. I know that interviewing people for freelance work is making me more comfortable with the idea of interviewing people purely for research related to my fiction.

I’ve also learned a few things about my writing process and personality. About my personality – I must be a poster child for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve noticed through journaling and through this blog (also two new things I’ve added to my life since embarking on a writing career), that when the day is dreary, my mood is downright shitty. When the day is lovely, I am suddenly high as a kite. And my moods absolutely contribute to the ease or difficulty with which I am able to write for concentrated amounts of time. Likewise, related to weather, I find that, without question, my FAVORITE place to write is outside among trees, birds and sunshine. When I am outside (as I am now), my mind quiets, I can tune out distractions and random thoughts, and I can get to work.

I’ve also learned about my writing process that I need to spend a great deal of time on how a story will begin, and I need to find the ending up front (unlike one of my writing idols, Flannery O’Connor, who has said she never knew how a story would end). Once I’ve begun a story (i.e. begun introducing a character), and found how it will end, I can begin the real task of developing a story. This doesn’t mean that my endings don’t ultimately change, but I need to have some idea of an ending that I like before I can really begin. I suppose that learning about my moods, preferred writing environment, and actual story-writing process, is invaluable.

This is where I am for now. I don’t know if any of this is the metaphorical equivalent to birthing a baby, or being one month away from birthing a baby. But it does feel like progress, I suppose. And truthfully, as much as not having money is stressful right now, I’m not anywhere close to experiencing the degree of stress I was experiencing every single day as an urban/rural planner. For that I am grateful and happy.

At the end of a self-evaluation a person is supposed to set new goals, re-prioritize old goals, etc. I’ll have to think on this. I have ideas, but I’m not ready, just yet, to commit them in writing. Maybe I need a better idea of the ending first – Maybe knowing what the ending is supposed to be, more than anything, is having a clear vision for the future. And, as in a story, it’s okay, if along the way, the vision changes; but up front, having that vision is a great guide for the steps a person needs to take.

A few links:
Here is a link to my latest story for Country Roads. It's one I am proud of, so I hope you'll enjoy.

Here is a story that ran in the New York Times last month about Flannery O'Connor and her southern gothic landscape. The photo above (of her writing desk) is from the article.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Enter the Locavore by Herpreet Singh

From Country Roads Magazine, March 2008

The table is full. Here is an oven-roasted chicken stuffed with fresh lemongrass, garlic chives, rosemary, garlic cloves and ginger. Around it are piled roasted carrots rubbed with rosemary and brushed with butter. There is a chilled broccoli and grape tomato salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and Asiago cheese. Fresh strawberries and whipped cream will complete this supper.

It is a simple meal. Yet nearly all of its ingredients share a story that is ripe with complexity. Consider just a sliver of the narrative: most of these ingredients have been grown and harvested within one hundred miles of Baton Rouge.

This local meal’s story is distant cousin to the convoluted, often incomprehensible tale of our industrial food chain—a tangled web of corporate farms, food distribution centers and wholesale mega-markets; of varying agricultural labor standards and ethics; and of the “food miles” required to bring products to markets thousands of miles from the fields in which they are grown.

But related it is. In short, this meal’s story is related to a larger story called the “global food system,” in which, according to recent studies, food purchased in supermarkets averages 1500 to 2000 miles from farm to plate. Research by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture suggests that these food miles have increased by twenty-five percent since 1980.

The meal’s personal story speaks of south Louisiana’s family farmers, our rural economy, and finally, of me—one Louisiana consumer among millions. Its story is ultimately about Louisiana’s “local food chain.” In sharing this narrative, an image emerges of what south Louisiana tastes like—not just crawfish, jambalaya and gumbo. Instead, this story reveals the less iconic, increasingly forgotten and doubly surprising flavors of Louisiana’s soil and seasons, and the human toil that brings them to our tables.

Part One: Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

I’ll be first to admit it. I don’t know much about all the poultry I’ve eaten over the years, beyond having noticed trucks bearing chicken-stuffed metal crates stacked one atop the other. I have certainly felt mildly unsettled each time I’ve seen chickens en route.

Yet I’ve never actively considered where they are going, where they have been, what they’ve been fed, with what they’ve been injected, how they’ll be processed or the length of time it will take to get them to the market. I am the quintessential city girl who is utterly disconnected from the food she eats. So my first visit to a poultry farm is an awakening of sorts.

When I arrive at Yard Bird Farms in Zachary, the dew settled on its grassy field is sparkling in the morning sun. The chickens—most of them deep rust-red, some snowy-white and one lone black bird—walk and bob with a regal air. They amble about pecking at white clover, garden cabbage, beets and Brussels sprouts still rooted in earth.

The clover, grown from organic seed purchased in St. Francisville, has been sown especially for the birds’ nourishment. The vegetables, I learn later, are remnants of last year’s crops—items that did not meet farmers Elaine and YaSin Muhaimin’s standards. Rather than sell the produce, the Muhaimins offer the organically grown leftovers as a feast of chicken feed.

The day is Saturday. While I poke around observing newly-planted arugula plugs and the proud movements of chickens, the Muhaimins are at the Red Stick Farmers’ Market in Baton Rouge, selling fresh chickens that were still roaming this field yesterday. When I visit with the Muhaimins at the farmers’ market, YaSin tells me, “We were blown here by the hurricane.”

In New Orleans, YaSin had been a network administrator. After circumstances returned him to his boyhood roots in Zachary, the couple retired and embarked upon farming organic pastured poultry. They’ve been operating Yard Bird Farms for two years, and while they began with poultry, last year they produced arugula, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and other produce, too.

YaSin explains that “free range chicken is a misnomer because chickens can’t defend against predators. Raising pastured chickens means they graze on pasture but are protected by portable electro-fencing. When the chickens need to graze on different areas of the pasture, I move the fencing. This keeps them grazing on the clover, and it’s clean because they’re not sitting in their own excrement. They move to different parts of the pasture every four to five days.”

I ask why it is that an organic chicken raised thirty miles from my home may cost me more than an organic chicken I might purchase at the grocery store. YaSin remarks that, “access to organic feed is one thing that drives the price up. We drive over one hundred miles to get feed, and certified organic feed is three times the cost of conventional. But we’re able to avoid feed that contains animal by-products.”

By access, YaSin is referring not just to the drive he makes to purchase organic feed, but to the notion that as long as feed containing animal by-products is the standard, wider production of sustainable types of feed will be limited, thus limiting consumers’ access to affordable quality poultry. For the first time, I am not just intrigued by my new-found knowledge of pastured chickens, I wonder what organically fed, pastured chicken tastes like.

Three days later, I purchase one of the birds. I’m nervous about the cost, but once at the Muhaimins’ stand, I purchase a whole chicken and a dozen eggs. The birds they’re selling that Tuesday have been harvested the day before. My bird has never been shipped, defrosted and labeled “previously frozen,” and I know what it’s been eating. Suddenly, the fact that I’ve been able to visit Yard Bird farms and speak to the farmers face-to-face about what I’ll be ingesting, seems less like a novelty and more like it should be a basic expectation.

Thursday, when I cut open the vacuum-sealed plastic in which my chicken is packaged, I am struck that there is no disagreeable smell and none of the thin slime I am accustomed to washing off chicken purchased in the grocery store. Simply, it seems so clean.

Part Two: The fruits of labor.

Ponchatoula touts itself as the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” and in celebration of this bounty, every spring the city puts on a strawberry festival replete with a strawberry queen pageant. According to America’s Heartland, a television series that celebrates American agriculture, in the nineteen-twenties Ponchatoula was the nation’s leading strawberry producer.

So I am not surprised to learn that Eric Morrow, who left a corporate gig as a securities trader in Chicago to farm, is an eighth generation strawberry farmer. However, when I walk back to his berry fields, I am again stunned by my detachment from the everyday food on my table. Nine Mexican migrant laborers work their way across a several-acre field. They move with efficiency, running fingers quickly through each plant and picking only the best strawberries to load directly into flats.

Morrow, who began farming ten years ago and is sole proprietor of this farm, reminds me, “There is no such thing as local labor. If we didn’t have migrant labor, we could just go ahead and close it all down … Everything we do is so labor intensive. Every single berry is hand picked.” Again, my run-of-the-mill supermarket upbringing has left me unconscious of the fact that someone else’s working hands, ten actual fingers, necessarily and literally touch all of my food.

Morrow educates me about the economic, ethical and environmental challenges of farming.
Lesson one: “Farming is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It is constant and ongoing.” Morrow paints a picture of what the day has been and will be. The workers began harvesting berries at 6:30 am. While the men are picking, Morrow makes a delivery to a local customer. When he returns at 10 am, the men have picked about eighty flats—thirty more than the actual order calls for.

The weather is expected to change by afternoon. Heavy rain is predicted. Morrow says once that the men have finished harvesting, they’ll clean the plants to protect them from rot—checking for mites and picking off brown or decayed leaves. Working not against the clock but against weather itself, they’ll cover every row, all twenty-some acres, with plastic shroud to prevent the berries from being mutilated by the coming storm. They should be done for the day by 1:30 pm.

Morrow farms about forty different products year-round, focusing on small quantities and direct sales to specialty markets, roadside stands and independent grocers. I ask him how many strawberry farms there are in town, imagining stiff competition among many berry farmers. Instead, Morrow says there are only five or six strawberry farmers in Ponchatoula. “Ten years ago, there were maybe ten farms, and twenty or thirty years ago, there were maybe a thousand.” The decline in prospects for strawberry farmers makes clear that Morrow has had no choice but to diversify.

Illustrating this drastic decline, and particularly its relationship to growers thousands of miles away in California, Morrow says, “Corporate farms are big operations with stockholders, shareholders, a board of directors. I’m just a sole proprietor … A family farm that grows fruit and vegetables has no government funding. Absolutely zero. We’re not even part of the farm bill.”

He goes on to explain that, while corporate farms sell products in bulk to wholesale distributors who sell to supermarkets, “I’m picking berries today…if I don’t sell them, I personally lose them.” Corporate farms don’t take a direct loss because they have a middleman.

Yet according to Morrow, “Money spent on California berries goes back to California and their growers and to the corporate headquarters of grocery stores. If you buy from Wal-Mart, the profit heads back to Arkansas. If you buy local, all the money stays in our economy.”

I ask about his arrangement with the migrant workers and question his use of conventional growing methods over increasingly popular organic methods. Addressing both issues, Morrow explains, “Everything I do is regulated by the [United States] Department of Agriculture.” Morrow hires the seasonal laborers through a national program and provides them housing.

Regarding labor standards and growing standards applied to produce grown elsewhere, Morrow says, “What you’re not seeing is what is unregulated in Chili, China, Mexico. You don’t know what they’re watering with, the quantities of fertilizer they’re using. There’s no way to check. What do you think is happening with imported food you purchase?”

A prior conversation with Copper Alvarez, director of Big River Economic and Agricultural Alliance (BREADA), returns to me. She had commented that, “Louisiana has more sustainable farming [practices] than organic at this point.” Sustainable farming practices generally do not use insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, but use earth-friendly fertilizers. Morrow’s own practice of planting a cover crop of cow peas is one example. The cover crop is planted at the end of the growing season to prevent grass and weeds from overtaking the field. Eventually, the cow peas are turned back into the soil to replenish its nutrients, making it a “green manure” fertilizer.

Alvarez noted that many of our universities are working with new farmers to encourage them to begin as organic growers, but farmers like Morrow who have been using conventional methods for generations have difficulty transitioning to organic methods. She said that, “in Louisiana, to become certified organic, you have to leave fields free of anything for up to three years, meaning small farmers have to stop farming all together.”

Of consumers having the option to buy organic produce from California or South America, or conventionally grown local produce, Morrow asks, “Have you ever noticed how some strawberries…have a hard white center? What do you think has happened to that fruit? … Sometimes the organically grown stuff in a grocery store has been picked green and is gassed with ethylene, a ripening agent…There’s a big taste difference.”

By the time I’ve left Morrow’s farm and made it back home to Baton Rouge, the rain has begun. The news reports golf-ball-sized hail and tornadoes in Tangipahoa Parish, where Ponchatoula is. I remember the migrant workers, the speed with which they had picked berries, and hope that they have beaten Mother Nature to the punch.

Part Three: You are what you eat.

Guiding me between raised garden beds on her farm in Scott, Louisiana, Dawn Gotreaux apologizes that she didn’t tell me to wear boots. As we walk, she points out winter crops including radishes, beets, carrots and kale. Growing for the last three years on a twelve-acre plot that once grew sugarcane, produce is the newest addition to the Gotreaux Family Farm.

“Our goal was to go organic from the beginning.” She tells me that her husband Brian was a mechanic with a successful auto business fifteen years ago, “but the chemicals he had to use in auto repairs were beginning to affect his health, so he had to get out of it.”

About ten years ago, Brian says, “We started raising chickens for ourselves because we couldn’t stomach the thought of eating conventionally raised chicken anymore.” When he began commercially farming tilapia five years ago, he reasoned that if chemicals he’d been using as a mechanic were causing health problems, he shouldn’t expose himself to chemicals used in conventional aquaculture.

This evolution toward a healthier lifestyle led the Gotreauxs to the small farm operation they operate today. In addition to running the farm, Brian is involved in an effort to bring a farmer’s market to downtown Lafayette.

They say they are moving to a farming philosophy known as “beyond organic.” “Now we want more than organic. We want the most nutrient dense vegetables you can consume. Nutrient dense food is really all about what minerals are in the soil you’re growing in.”

When the Gotreauxs purchased the field five years ago, the soil was depleted. “We had to work to get minerals back into the soil,” says Dawn. “It was so stripped of nutrients that it took two years before even grass would grow.”

Initially, this soil fertility problem seems unrelated to their tilapia farming operation. But while leading me through a greenhouse where his tilapia are raised, Brian introduces me to the solution, and simultaneously illustrates what the Gotreauxs call their contribution to bioremediation and to reducing their human footprint.

In the tilapia greenhouse, Brian shows me a giant vat of what appears to be green slop. “There’s a lot of concern about aquaculture and improper waste disposal,” he says. “Our waste system is reused to fertilize our crops. Everything is in constant movement to prevent nutrient-rich waste from sitting and developing toxins.”

Brian explains that the water in which the tilapia are raised comes from a well system; the water moves through a filter; waste is separated out into its own container and then the filtered water is recycled back into the fish tanks.

“Organic to me is just a minimum standard,” Brian comments. “We do want to grow organically, but we also want our food to be high ‘brix.’ Brix is a measurement of complex sugars in produce. That’s how you know you’ve got nutrient dense food.” It clicks for me that the Gotreauxs’ diversified farming operation—fish, poultry, produce—is part of a complex and symbiotic system.”

Referencing his past life as a mechanic, Brian adds, “Sometimes a customer will drive up in a nice BMW and ask why the food is expensive. I’ll point to the car, and say, ‘You obviously understand quality and that you get what you pay for.’”

He is quick to clarify, “Our goal is not to produce cheap food, but to produce the most nutritious. Mass production is cheaper. They’ve [corporate farms and food distributors] mastered efficiency of production by going larger scale, but efficiency reduces quality. To me, quality should cost more.”

I recall the simple way Dawn had turned the concept “beyond organic” from abstract to concrete. “When people come back and tell us how sweet our peas are,” she’d remarked, “we know we’re doing a good job … So many people overlook how important food is, but really, it’s the most important thing to human beings.”

Part Four: But will it cost me?

In all, I spent about thirty dollars at the market. This included eggs, butter and cream left for meals to come. My husband and I had enough chicken for two more meals, and we were able to make stock. There were more strawberries to snack upon and grape tomatoes for another salad.
Brian Hailwell, a researcher with Worldwatch Institute, which conducts interdisciplinary research with a global focus, has said, “Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial. But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism.”

After visiting the farms and talking to the farmers responsible for my locally grown, home cooked meal, I notice nuances that I’ve begun to think of as the “real” flavors of south Louisiana. I’m not convinced I want to be rid of globalization—I enjoy my wine, olive oil, coffee. Yet, if I, one of four million plus Louisianans, do as Alvarez encourages, and eat one local meal a week, I could contribute to a meaningful impact here at home.

Thirty dollars is less than my husband and I spend for a meal in a restaurant. Is it worth thirty dollars a week to quietly shift the culture of minimum standards currently established for efficient mass production and transport of homogenized food? It only took about twenty years to lose nearly a thousand strawberry farmers. I wonder, if we don’t support our agricultural economy, in twenty years, will we have any notion of what, really, Louisiana tastes like?

My table was full. I ate a simple meal. The meal spoke to me. It told a story. And it nourished me in new ways.

LINK TO STORY: Enter the Locavore