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When I lived in Chicago for a couple of years while going to school at North Park University, the array of restaurant options, especially in a very diverse neighborhood, could be overwhelming. A student's small budget and a desire to get to know the area around the school better provided welcome limitations.

Taste of PeruThese days, when we visit the city, it's nice to have friends who can make recommendations. Thanks to Grant, Nate and Liza, we ended up at Taste of Peru, which was within walking distance of where we were staying. Though it's embedded in one of hundreds of non-descript strip malls, Taste of Peru seems to offer something unique. Rather than Americanized imitations, the restaurant prides itself on creating dishes that attract native Peruvians rather than just a steady stream of tourist-eaters. Rob and I enjoyed ceviche for the first time, which is an appetizer featuring fish marinated in lime juice--delicious. The main dish I chose wasn't as tasty as I thought it would be, but since it was the first time I'd eaten Peruvian food, I think I need some more experience before I offer too harsh a critique.

To me, our experience at Taste of Peru was emblematic of a good kind of "glocalization," one that values the neighborhood within reasonable walking distance of home, but also deeply honors global cultural traditions--a stark contrast to driving through a Panda Express, for example.

On Sunday, June 28, we did a workshop at Many Peoples Church in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago. The church grew out of the community networking and development work of Pastor John Hoekwater, though he would credit any number of other local people for their integral participation. The church is next door to The Common Cup, a coffee shop owned and run by the John and Ruth Hoekwater. Each month, the proceeds from the coffee shop tip jar are donated to a non-profit organization that benefits the residents of Rogers Park.

One of the things that struck us about Many Peoples is how thoroughly it was woven into the surrounding neighborhood. Their space on Morse Avenue is used by a number of community groups and it was actually difficult to keep up with the many ways the workshop participants were connected to the church and other community organizations. There were a couple of Americorps volunteers, some folks from another local church, a seminary intern--it was kind of dizzying, but in a good way.

Greenhouse

One project that came up several times in conversation was the Gale Greenhouse. It just so happens that the only Chicago public school with a greenhouse is located within walking distance of the church. After learning that it was just being used for storage, John received permission to begin growing things there about four years ago in partnership with the Local School Council. Since then, it's been an organic process of figuring out how to encourage teachers and other community groups to get involved.

Roger's Park planter

This past year, John received a contract to grow flowers for several planters in Rogers Park. Jennifer Bricker, associate director at a tutoring organization called Family Matters, also got involved in the greenhouse this year with a group of third graders through a project called T-GROw (Third Graders Reaching Objectives). After school several days a week, students and their one-on-one volunteer tutors worked with the plants in the greenhouse and then spread their desks throughout the space to work on homework together. Jennifer said that even though they only had a few students participating in T-GROw, they soon had participants (and others) asking if they could be in the greenhouse on Saturdays and through the summer. Plant sales helped raise money for the group to attend a summer camp at Angelic Organics. The greenhouse project even spilled onto the school lawn this summer in the form of a community garden that was planted by T-GROw students, their parents and, as a last-minute surprise, a group of farmer refugees from Bhutan.

I got the impression that working in Rogers Park can be like putting together an extremely complicated puzzle of permissions, spaces, needs and commitment levels--frustrating at times, and yet when the pieces fit, very rewarding. Jennifer credits John's willingness to let people run with ideas, even if they mess up or fail, for providing fertile soil for creativity in the neighborhood. The greenhouse project is up in the air for next year as the school will have yet another new principal, but from our short time there, I have confidence that the projects rooted at Many Peoples Church will always find a place to spring up, like a wild morning glory.

John Scherer

Rob and I met John during our first year working at Calvin College. He was one of the sophomore students in our cultural discerner group, studying the interrelatedness of theology, philosophy and popular culture. Since then, he's become a good friend and we've enjoyed many late night conversations about every corner of life.

We've watched with interest as he graduated this year with a degree in philosophy and took up an internship on Kinnikinnick Farm in northern Illinois. He graciously received us in the course of the food tour to show us around the farm and engage in a fascinating conversation with Farmer Dave (David Cleverdon).

Kinnikinnick FarmDave and Susan moved to Kinnikinnick Farm in 1992, combining the desire to have a neutral space for a blended family and continue growing good food, which had begun in a backyard garden. Dave, in his 50s at the time, had taken a wandering path to the farm through theology, law and politics--not unusual, he says, for many of today's small-scale market gardeners, who didn't grow up in farming families, but decide to take their food concerns seriously by diving into the field. Another trend Dave sees is that chefs are increasingly interested in purchasing local produce and using unusual cuts of meat, often buying whole animals, which allows them to combine a new level of challenge with better flavor and personal economic and environmental values.

Located right down the road from the (in)famous Angelic Organics (see The Real Dirt on Farmer John), Kinnikinnick primarily sells at farmer's markets in Evanston and Chicago, as well as to Chicago-area chefs. In an effort toward financial viability, the next phase of Kinnikinnick's growth is to become part of the growing eco-tourism movement in partnership with Feather Down Farm Days. John notes that the farm has become a good gathering place for Dave and Susan's extended community of friends. In fact, two of them were on the farm the day we were there, helping build a few new chicken tractors, which allow mobile grass grazing for the farm's hens.

About a month into his internship at this point, John took some time out of one of his exhausted evenings to reflect on some questions about his experiences so far.


Who or what has influenced your interest in the sources of our food?
I read folks like Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and, of all people, Richard Rorty. My career as a philosopher at Calvin and my penchant for criticism, I think, has led me to wander off on my own and figure out how food and economy work--separately and in tandem--what it is, exactly, we put in our bodies and how those things hang together in the broadest possible sense. Spending a life living into such questions seems to me a good way to spend my time.

You graduated in May with a degree in philosophy from Calvin College. How did that degree prepare you for work on a farm? In what ways do you hope to apply your studies in philosophy and other areas of a liberal arts education to working with the land?
Sustainable agriculture, I am beginning to say, is a "worldview laden" endeavor. All of one's history and outlook are operative in making the decision to live off the grid, for instance, or farm without chemicals. Anyone really serious about the land and our relationship to it can't, so far as I can tell, take liberal arts preparation too lightly. The further we probe in to the various dimensions of the natural world, the more unprepared we feel to make sense of it all. Or at least that's the hope. Calvin is in a longstanding Christian tradition that isn't afraid of that prospect. As long as it is impossible to divorce the question of what it is we ought to do from the question of who we are, I think philosophy and agriculture work quite splendidly together.

What have you been gleaning from your experiences on the farm so far?
There is a dislocation that occurs in the modern environment. Most often we have a hard time explaining where we are. Sure we know which city we might be in. We're pretty good at figuring out where we are in relation to other "destinations" as well. But a new sensitivity has emerged in my daily life that requires me to really know where I am. I need to know the soil structure of our north beds, because if we lime those this year, the calcium dispersed will act for over three years on account of the clay soil. Further west, and towards the front of the property, it's a different story. Grazing our chickens so that their rich nitrogenous waste acts in accord with future growing space is priority number one. And when storm systems move in I know they are the most volatile when they travel east. At that point, it's a scramble to get inside and review the instructions on how to shock a well until the rain stops. But the precipitation can stay for as long as it likes. There are few things more beneficial than a rich water table. It keeps this place alive.

How would you describe your ideal vision for your life ten years from now?
When you're sunburned and sore in late June, idealities no longer seem terribly appealing. It's not that I would prefer to live without them. Rather, I've learned to move with the environment, grow where I am planted and hope that I can muster enough fortitude to stay put long enough to catalog sorrows and joys. No vision is ideal. Rather, I think the ideal is in living brutally. I'd like to live where I work in the future and eat locally and organically, sure. But I'd also like to be an idealist, of sorts, about being real. I want enough strength to waver rarely but also enough courage to rest from to hard work of making the Kingdom a reality here and now. Such is the tension I'll be spending the rest of my life holding and reshaping.

erin-tuttle.jpgBefore visiting Tuttle Farm on the tour, our interviews had been with folks who are (or plan to be) in farming as a business. While achieving some of the same benefits of commercial farming--raising a family close to the land, growing good food and so on--Tuttle Farm is a much different sort of project.

Located on an average sized lot in a subdivision in Aurora, Illinois, Tuttle Farm is a family experiment in suburban food production. Erin Tuttle, along with her parents and occasionally her two sisters, have been slowly transforming their turf grass to the extent that currently about half of the yard is now home to native plants, vegetables, chickens and bees. This year, they've made their first foray out of the fenced-in back yard and into the front, with a lovely little cluster of chard, kale and green onions gracing the corner.

Erin admits that they often get strange looks from their neighbors and they sometimes feel like the talk of the block, but their adjacent neighbor is really supportive and loves the four chickens, who each produce one to four eggs per day for the Tuttle family and their friends and neighbors. As the project has spilled into the front yard, they've even made some unexpected connections with new neighbors.

tuttle-front.jpg

The farm is definitely a family project and everyone has his or her specialty--gardening, cooking, caring for the chickens. Erin's mom has taken initiative with the two hives of bees, one Russian and one Italian, and they hope for their first yield of honey this year. In addition to being a source of satisfying work and good food for the family, Erin sees the project as educational beyond the bounds of their fence. She participated in area garden clubs and feels distinctly called to serve the suburbs with an imaginative vision for good food production. With ample land, much of it originally farm land, the suburbs are ripe for large edible gardens and a family's own crop can be supplemented by CSA shares and the burgeoning farmer's market movement.

For Erin, Tuttle Farm is more than just a hobby. It's a way to inspire and educate people about what's possible in an environment many have abandoned for its seeming lack of intentionality and vision. It's also a way of expressing some of the deepest values she holds as an Orthodox Christian:

I think one thing that is so important to me is just the idea of living within our limitations. I think that as Christians, we have a big God at the center of our faith who took on limitation to come and be with us. In the Orthodox church, we call Mary's womb "more spacious than the heavens" because even the heavens cannot contain God and yet God chose to be contained in a womb and then to come walk in this world of day and night, and warm and cold seasons, and hunger and thirst and tiredness and energy. And in doing that, God sanctified those limitations. I think living a life that's close to the land--and, again, even if we just know where our food is coming from--then we know that there are certain things that aren't available at certain times of the year and there are certain times weather inhibits what you can eat. And there are certain times that maybe people play a part and animals play a part and things outside of our control play a part and we therefore begin to know our limitations. I think that our goal then is to be able to rejoice in those limitations and live fully in them because I think that there are holy things and we become fully human when we walk in those things.

What beautiful connections! Thanks to Erin and the whole family of humans, animals and insects for welcoming us in to see their homegrown adventure in the midst of a busy time.

tuttle_back.jpg

We had lunch this past weekend with our friend Mary Lagerwey, who also participated in our tour at Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm and workshop in Demotte. She mentioned a creative new ministry that I just had to share about.

A member of Peace Christian Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, Mary is involved in something called Soul Food. Basically, people get together in the church kitchen for an evening to make a simple meal in a large batch. One week, it might be chicken soup and banana bread; another, chili and corn bread. The group divides the prepared food into individual servings in re-used containers, labels the containers and puts them in the church freezer. People in the church who know others in need of food or a gesture of care in a difficult time--or themselves are in need--are free to grab homemade meals from the freezer at any time.

I love how this project provides good, wholesome food for people who are hungry, sick or grieving, while also creating a community of friendship and creativity around the preparation of the food itself.