Late fall is a time of transition for us. Our farmers’ market closes for the year, and my husband Bob and I must turn our attention away from the commerce and flurry of the growing season, and direct it inward toward our family. We take great delight in re-directing our energies toward more formally homeschooling our children; but often find ourselves frustrated with the accompanying bureaucracy—of filling out the required reports, examining the core curriculum content we are expected to cover, and trying to find ways of presenting subject matter (sometimes, we feel, prematurely) to our kids so that they will learn the required lessons. Thus, the transition has not always been easy for us. We’ve discovered that travel helps.
Each year at this time, we pack up the kids for a journey that is one part celebration of the close of the growing season, one part homeschool study. One year we traveled by train to the Southwest and visited Mesa Verde National Park. Last year we journeyed to Plimoth Plantation. This year, to put the garnish on Saoirse’s three years of French study, we took the girls up to Montreal. It was just a short trip. Our intention wasn’t so much to obligate the girls to use their language skills, but instead to take them to a place where they could see the language come to life in another culture.
They grasped the idea quickly. We rented a loft, and they counted each stair up to it and down from it aloud in French; relished bursting into the streets of the Old Port each morning and calling out “Bonjour!” to anyone who would listen; and took special delight in the myriad cafes and pastry shops, particularly proud of themselves that “chocolat chaud” was part of their limited French vocabulary. They dazzled me, however, on our final night in the city, when we took them out to a bistro for dinner. They ordered escargot.
And ate it!
Admittedly, we love food in our family, but witnessing two American girls, ages 7 and 3, order up a plate of snails out of curiosity, and then gobble them down without reservation, was a shock even to my radical nature. I tried to act nonchalant when I witnessed this scene, so as not to discourage their gustatory adventure. I reminded myself that I shouldn’t be surprised. These girls scramble to the table quickly following the earliest frosts of fall, eager for the first Brussels sprouts of the season. I dress fresh kale from my neighbor’s garden with olive oil, salt and garlic, then leave it on the kitchen table to soften for a few hours before dinner. By the time we sit down, the bowl is half empty from their snacking. They forage for wild ramps in the spring and present them to me to sauté for lunch. They find me chanterelles in June so that I can make them cream of mushroom soup. Savoring a typical French dish while experiencing a French culture just makes sense to them.
Witnessing this spectacle, my mind travels to the homeschool report that I will have to write up in a few weeks, detailing to school officials the lessons my girls have learned this quarter. My job will be to categorize their development within the pre-defined subjects of math, social studies, language arts, science, phys ed, art and music.
I don’t have an aversion to these basic subjects, per se, but as I wipe garlic cream sauce from snails off 3-year-old Ula’s chin, it grates on me how none of the pre-defined categories for education ask us to consider the most important lessons we must impart to our children. As far as the curriculum standards are concerned, I should be worried about whether or not my 7-year old can read, count and write up to 1000; if she understands decimals; and if she can write a book report. But what I want my children to learn first and foremost is how to take good care of themselves, their families, their community, and their planet. And at their age, I’ve discovered that the most effective means of teaching this is through their palate. It is not so important to me that my kids can explain the significance of a locavore diet at their age. But I do want them to know what food is supposed to taste like when it is a product of a healthy ecosystem. I want them to experience what their bodies feel like when they are nourished in a way that is in harmony with the Earth.
I believe that when they know these things, then they will forever take measures in their lives to see that their Earth is stewarded properly, so that they and their families and community may be healthy and sated. When their palates know what good food is, they will instinctively reject foods and eating practices that are detrimental to our culture and environment. This can’t be done in a single 2-week unit. It is a lifetime educational investment we must make in our children.
I can see the effects of this education already. Saoirse and Ula turn their noses up at breaded chicken tenders, wrinkle their faces when served milk from a carton rather than fresh from a cow, reject hot dogs unless they’ve been handmade on the farm in real casings, and have been known to walk away from grocery store cakes laden with chemicals and transfats, despite their colorful decorations, on the grounds that they simply didn’t taste right. If they sense an item of food is not part of their natural system, they often don’t develop a taste for it (admittedly, they still like chocolate…). But if their entire generation had an opportunity to cultivate such a palate, I honestly feel we’d see a massive global shift for the better within a few short years.
But that still leaves me with trying to fill out a homeschooling report. Where, exactly, does eating snails fit in with the pre-determined curriculum standards? Should we have counted them first? Cut them up to practice fractions? Divided them into ten pieces and practiced quantifying snails in decimals? Written a report about heliciculture? Compared the varieties that are cultivated in Canada to the European and African varieties? Maybe if Bob and I could think faster on our feet (or at the dinner table) we could have come up with a way to make snail gastronomy count toward core curriculum requirements. But we were too busy eating.
So for the time being, I’ll simply push the report to the back of my desk. Until our educational system starts asking different questions about what our children learn, I must accept that I will often be at a loss for answers. But I can’t worry about that right now. Brussels sprouts are in season, and my kids are hungry for lunch.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.