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America's post fast food era & Europe's oldskool land lovers

“Don’t you think America is preparing for a post-fast-food period whereas Europe is slowly entering the fast food period?”, wrote my Belgian friend Veerle in an email last week. It’s a big question so I’ll back up and explain how we got to this point from a conversation that began with her complaining about moving back to her small hometown after years in Amsterdam.

“I miss the ‘vitality’ of the city: people on the streets, shops everywhere, the mix of cultures,” she wrote. I emailed back that I too had become a city person in the past two decades and how I’d just edited a video on my love affair with New York City (see video Big green Apple life: live smaller, drive less, share more).

I wondered if Veerle represented part of a trend toward city life and casually asked her if her parents would ever consider leaving their small town, or if they’d ever left. I didn’t think much of the question and certainly never expected to hear just how tied to their land they truly were.

The rhythm of the village

“My parents never lived in a city and they never even considered/or will consider to move there. They have such a different rhythm, their life style has been the same (every day is tightly programmed) their whole life that they can’t change it anymore I think.

They like to chop wood in the forest, work in the garden, be in or around the house and cook (every day dinner is made of fresh ingredients), instead of being on the street or going shopping or going to cultural events. Their lives are limited to the life in the house, more or less. For me this is too narrow I think. At least at this stage of my life. I can imagine that later on, this will change again.

But I still believe that life is -in general- more idealistic in the village and the quality of life is higher. Because it goes slower and people don’t care too much about fancy things and trends or so. Life is less superficial here I think.”

This threw me. I mean, here she was complaining about the lack of vitality in her hometown and yet she believes that life is better there. Obviously, I was missing something. I pushed a bit more and asked just what her parents grew in their garden and how could they eat all fresh ingredients during Belgian winters. And if they ever went to the supermarket. And just where was this idealistic little town?

Old-skoolers who are so very new skool

It turns out Veerle’s parents are living a very 2009 Slow Food, locavore, organic, grow/slaughter-your-own existence without ever having heard of these trends.

“Just a few comments about the ‘oldskool’ way of living here in Bocholt (N-E of Belgium). Throughout the year my parents cultivate: potatoes, onions, leek, asparagus, strawberry, pumpkin, chicory, (herbs such as chives and parsley), carrots, celery, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, etc.

You were right that our garden is not full of vegetables all-year-round. As soon as temperature will go below zero, there is no gardening to do anymore. I shot a few pics today so that you can have a look what is still in there right now (will post photos soon). Although I don’t like Brussels sprouts, I think they look very very cute.

But what we generally do is the following. As soon as the season for a certain vegetable is ending, we put a stock in the freezer for winter time. Or we ‘vacuum store’ it.

In fact we do the same for the meat that we eat. My grandparents (now my uncle) are/were farmers so once a year they slaughter a cow, pig, turkey, chicken and divide it. We then store e.g. 1/16 of a cow in our freezer (don’t worry, the meat is already cut, it is not one piece. Haha).

So for most of the ingredients we don’t need to go to the supermarket, because -that is another thing- every day dinner has the same scheme: you start with soup, then you eat meat-potatoes-vegetables and if you like you end with a fruit or so. If possible, of course, my parents try to use seasonal ingredients from their garden. (They never get sick and tired of this every-day-the-same-composition-meal, whereas I really do sometimes. I was so happy we had a pasta today 🙂 ).

My mom does not always have the time to go to local markets. But I am sure, if she could, she would. She finds it really important to know where the food comes from (and if they used pesticides, etc.) and she trusts the products of a local farmer more then the ones in the big supermarkets.

Therefore, if she needs meat other than what we have, she goes to a butcher. For bread she goes to a ‘warm baker’ (a baker who has its own bakery and makes the bread himself). Mushrooms she gets from her friends that have a ‘mushroom farm’. Additional vegetables she mostly buys in the regular supermarket as well as dry food such as pasta, coffee, etc.”

A view of our past… and future?

I couldn’t have invented this family or this village. I mean they slaughter their own cows. They have “warm bakers” and mushroom farms. There was no way this was a typical Belgian town. And surely not the entire country, after all, the Flemish and the French Belgians barely have enough in common to keep the country together.

Veerle defended her parents as quite normal in their part of the world, and she had- admittedly her own- statistics to back them up.

“Just for now, our village is not different from other small villages in the countryside. I believe (this is not an official number) more or less 30-40% of the people in these areas still have a garden where they cultivate vegetables. This is the case in the Flemish part as well as in the French part of Belgium (I even think this percentage is higher in the French part).

What I told you about the butcher activities (the way we get our meat, directly from the farm) is not common anymore. It was very common let’s say 20 years ago, but now it is rare (less than 5%, maybe even less than 1% I guess). But in almost every village there is a butcher shop and this is still a very popular place for people to buy their meat (instead of buying it in a supermarket).”

These small town Belgians reminded me of my Spanish in-laws and the nonchalance of their gardening, canning, chickens, mother-dough breadmaking, etc. Movements like Slow Food and organic certifications may have started in Europe, but it seems there’s a large chunk of Europeans who aren’t aware of the trends and are just doing things because that’s the way things should be done. Or as they say in Spain “es lo que hay” (“It’s what there is.”).

Veerle tried to help me give context to these seemingly trendy traditionalists. “Don’t you think America is preparing for a post-fast-food period whereas Europe is slowly entering the fast-food period? We (Europe) have always been a decade (more?) behind America, so I think the shift I see in my villages (more people buy stuff in the supermarket) is opposite of what you notice in the U.S. (people are longing for a Slow Movement as a reaction on the consequences of fast food etc.) because we are at a different position of the cycle.”

The rhythm of slow in the era of DIY

Could it all be just a cycle and therefore, we’ll soon cycle back from slow to fast again (if we ever truly slow down)? I’m not so sure. I think there are bigger shifts in values going on with us Americans, or some Americans. Be it the credit crisis causing a new frugality or people just tired of bling and seeking something more earth-bound.

I also think my mother-in-law is more aware of how she fits in to the state of things than she lets on sometimes. Just the other day she explained that her her good friend and neighbor doesn’t plant much of a garden because she prefers not to work so hard and the neighbor doesn’t understand why my mother-in-law bothers.

“I know it takes longer, but I enjoy it,” my mother-in-law explained to me. “I like being outside and working on something. I like how the food tastes. And there are no pesticides.” She may have thrown that last comment in there for me as she knows about our website and all the organic talk, but I do think she truly enjoys the rhythm that growing her own food gives to her life. That same rhythm being repeated by Veerle’s parents 1000 miles to the north. The same rhythm catching on 4000 miles to the west in the New World.

I hope all of us are not just on some big wheel cycling through different speeds. Maybe our current push for more slow in the U.S. is a reaction to too much fast, but I think there is something more permanent about the lure of slowing down our meals a bit. I think there’s something very enticing about that oldskool way of life. As twenty-something Veerle believes, quality of life is higher for those still connected to the land. I would add that many of us are shifting over/back because food that was too fast/too disconnected was starting to make some of us sick: both literally (with health and obesity issues in the U.S. on the rise) and figuratively (who wants to eat tomatoes that taste like cardboard).

Maybe we can’t all go back to the way things were, but I think we’re re-inventing the way we return to planting and slowing down our lives. After all, this time around we have the Internet and all those DIY tips to help us make things a bit easier.


I sent this to post to Veerle. Until I read her response, I hadn’t realized just how far (from the land) we’ve come in America.

“I am a bit astonished. All those big houses in the U.S. with those beautiful gardens (which I know from television), they really don’t have a small area with vegetables there? Is it really that rare to cultivate your own stuff in the U.S.?”

My response: Yes, I- and just about everyone I knew- grew up with big vegetable-free yards. But we are trying to change. (See videos Food Not Lawns, Swapping lawn for fruit: “because you can’t eat grass” and the article American garden revolution: Obama’s plot & recession gardens.)