The Friends Who Fed Me

“There are things you will miss dearly about Edmonton when we leave.” Hélène laughed every time I told her that when we arrived, a year and a half ago. She’d glance out the window at the urban sprawl, its highways and shopping malls, as if to say, What is there to miss about this?

On Saturday the 18th of July, Hélène was still laughing; but this time, it was to hide the sadness in her heart. We were going around the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market for the last time. I almost wished I hadn’t been so right.

The Rural Rebellion

Growing up as a city boy, I always pictured farmers living dull intellectual lives. I know; it’s a terrible stereotype, and I’m glad the market shattered it. As it turns out, the farmers and producers at our local market are among the most rebellious, anticonformist individuals I’ve had the delight to meet.

Jerry Kitt, owner of First Nature Farms, is a prime example of this rural rebellion. In 1977, he and his wife moved to Goodfare, near the British Columbia border, to begin raising cattle. Today, Jerry operates his farm as a natural reserve, focusing on biodiversity and sustainability. He has traveled to Cuba to learn from the farmers there, who have faced the phenomenon of peak oil 30 years ahead of us all, as the fall of the USSR condemned them to oil starvation. In 2008, he was one of a handful of farmers invited to Italy by the Slow Food movement to discuss the future of agriculture under the dual threats of global warming and oil depletion.

Jerry figured out decades before most of us that perpetual growth is impossible in a closed system. To Jerry, sustainability and biodiversity are more precious than growth.

How’s that for a revolutionary idea? And it makes for a stunning good steak, too.

Shake the Hand that Feeds You

Take the time to talk to the various producers at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, and their stories converge on Jerry’s point of view. The market itself has changed little over the years; you hear ‘sustainability’ a lot more than ‘expansion’ coming from the market administrators. Some of the vendors barely break even, but nevertheless come to the market every Saturday, providing their customers with the same food they have come to love over the years. In return, they get a Saturday spent with the extended family of vendors, and the deep gratitude of customers they can call friends.

Shaking the hand of the men and women who grow your vegetables or roast your coffee is a transformative act. You stop relating to brands like Starbucks or Safeway, and instead feed yourself based on human-sized relationships. You don’t need an organic label when you can look the farmer directly in the eye.

Imagine if every CEO of major food companies was forced to spend an entire day meeting the people whom they fed, to shake their hands and greet them. How many times would they sacrifice the well-being of their customers in the name of profit?

The Grind of the Industrial Machine

To understand the beat of the farmers’ market is to get an intimate glimpse at the gears moving below the surface of our society. Edmonton, in many ways, replicates on a smaller scale the vicissitudes of our entire civilization, as it completes its transition from sustainability to multinationalism.

Many travelers complain about the way American culture is taking over the world. The truth is, American culture has been dying for a long time. What took it over is something else entirely, bred from greed. It moved in with an army of Walmarts and Starbucks, and slowly choked out the pockets of authenticity, one town at a time. Some are still there, but they’re getting harder to find.

Edmonton, just like most North American cities, is under siege from those same forces, and it’s slowly losing that battle. Most of its surface is comprised of malls bursting with multinational corporations. The farmers, growers and bakers of the farmers’ markets around the city are an eccentric, even folkloric breed, with their antiquated values and unproductive methods.

But they hang on. And many of us are barely just beginning to understand the importance of their fight.

They cling to ideals and principles that we thought we had buried with our ancestors. But in an age when we are growing more and more aware of the ecological, sociological, cultural and health impacts of our modern way of life, they have kept alive principles that may prove to be our salvation.

This Is Family

Helene and I hug Grace, of Grace’s Traditional Foods. Poor Grace has tears in her eyes as she gives us one last poppy seed roll, a traditional recipe she has brought with her from Poland and recreates every week.

We also receive hugs from Paul and Janice, whose creams and natural beauty products Hélène has fallen in love with over the last year. From them, Hélène received a gift of essential oils to bid her health on our journey. Maureen gives us one of her delicious, spicy lentil soups that got us through winter. Tracy from Catfish Coffee Roasters gives us bags of coffee to drink with our friends and family in Montreal.

Over our last days in Edmonton, each meal brings back memories of the people who grew, raised or baked everything we eat. When we taste the flair of spices on Ayikarley’s Ghanaian chicken, we remember her easy laugh and generous smile. Tasting Mrs. Helbig’s stunning broccoli, I picture the kind, elderly woman plowing her field, her quiet strength brought to harvest the bounty of her land.

This is what we left behind in Edmonton. We left amazing food, but also a deep sense of community, a family.

I’ll miss it as I would a dear friend. And every time I will look at a new city’s urban sprawl, I will wonder what rebels hide behind this facade, keeping the soul of our society alive.

To Dom, Tracy, Jerry, Gisèle, Mrs. Helbig, Ruth, Walter, Molly, Dawn, Ayikarley, Paul, Janice, Grace, John, Madalina, Mariana, Sue, Maureen, and everyone else  I have the terrible misfortune of forgetting in this post:

I will miss your food, your friendship and your kindness. You have taught me the true meaning of community, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Bless you, one and all!

The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market is located at 10310 83 Avenue, in the Old Strathcona historical district of Edmonton. Edmonton is fortunate enough to have a few other high-quality markets around town, including the City Market in Downtown Edmonton, and the St. Albert Farmers’ Market.

More and more farmers’ markets are appearing everywhere in North America, and chances are your local city or town features a similar band of rebels and iconoclasts growing delicious food outside of the industrial food complex. Find out about them, go try their food, and listen to their stories. They deserve to be heard, wherever you are.

For more thoughts on sustainability and small-scale production, please see my blog post about Catfish Coffee Roasters, Black Coffee, No Barcode, where I recount my experience as a vendor at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

2 comments

  1. Toni-Lynn Helbig

    Mrs Heike Helbig was my mother in law. When I opened your blog – via FB – up pops her beautiful picture. Brought tears to my eyes. Heike passed away Dec. 1, 2009 after battling cancer and she is dearly missed. It was nice to see a little memory of her, from something she loved doing. Heike enjoyed the OSFM for over 20 years. Her and Her husband Hermann worked very hard to build their farm and give their family and customers the very best, healthy foods they could offer. They worked long hard hours and many late Friday nights packing up to have a beautiful offering Saturday morning of some of the best potatoes, vegetables, lettuce, jams and sauerkraut around. Thank you for your great tribute to the OSFM and ALL of its Vendors and for the beautiful photo and memory of a beautiful woman.

    Sincerely,
    Toni-Lynn Helbig

  2. Hello Toni-Lynn,

    I’m so sorry to hear that Mrs. Helbig passed away! She was such a warm, patient presence every Saturday at the market. That’s why I put up her picture at the top of the post – she was, in many ways, the embodiment of the market, for me. I really hoped to see her again next time I was in town.

    I’m glad I got to meet her, and enjoy the fruits of her hard work. All the best to you and your family!

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