To Cook like a Mother and Graft like a Wizard

by Sherrie Kelly

Myles Trainer & Jamie Oriol

A tree comes from the ground; lasagna comes from the oven, but is it really that simple? Today, as a nation, we often forget about the intricate ingredients or biological factors that contribute to simple aspects of our everyday lives such as cooking and eating apples. Today we don’t necessarily have to deal with these aspects of life, especially at school where our food is made for us and our apples are provided without the acknowledgement of what it took to grow those trees. Throughout the semester our community has been cooking meals for one another and recently we were able to visit with Bill MacKentley learning the art of grafting apple trees.

We pulled into Bill’s driveway Saturday morning where we could see various apple trees sprawled across his property. A man emerged from the eccentric oddly shaped A-Frame house; his uncontainable beard sprung from the neck of his jacket in an untamed manner like his scraggly apple trees. This was Bill; he introduced himself and pointed us to his backdoor where we walked down the wooden stairs leading to his basement and were greeted by a circle of chairs near a glowing woodstove. Bill began rambling, the Beatles, Yoko Ono and her old age. Like Bill’s random assortment of stories his bookshelf was equally diverse with titles: “Great Pets!” “501 German Verbs” and “Economics.” Not more than a minute after seeing the economics book, Bill whirled round and pointed at it. He told a quick story about his economics professor from college and finished saying, “that book is full of shit.” The economics book catapulted him into our discussion for the day describing the importance of biology in people’s lives and its relationship to grafting. Biology is a way for people to learn about natural processes and “know what the real world is.”

Grafting trees uses the biological process of a-sexual reproduction to propagate new tree species. This traditional skill helps us to understand natural processes that have somewhat been lost in our generation. The techniques of grafting are extremely important in creating hardy tree species to withstand certain climates and weather conditions. Looking at the way most food is produced in America, it’s nice to know that, while industrialized food systems are adding genes to make their crops cold resistant, grafting allows us to get the same result with a more natural process. For Bill’s demonstration, he grounded us in the art of tree grafting by using rootstocks from a Russian species called: Antonovka. The reason he gave us this demonstration was for the hardiness of Antonovka trees in colder raw climates. Bill uses Antonovka rootstocks because they can handle the North Country’s somewhat unbearable weather. As climate change continues to occur, we will begin to see more grafted trees being used as a way of resilience to unwanted conditions.

Many of us weren’t even aware that grafting existed before this workshop.  It’s really amazing to rediscover techniques, used by our ancestors, that are so useful but forgotten today.  This is also how many of us felt about cooking.  Coming into this semester, the house was filled with a mix of skill levels.  Several of us had little to no cooking experience, then there are your average cooks, and then there is Lizzy, who was granted a category of her own ever since she served her famous cashew and tofu pasta sauce.  We have all undergone significant changes when it comes to our cooking skills, even Lizzy.  We cook in a system where we are each in groups of two or three and assigned one day of the week to cook.  Speaking for myself, the first week at the sustainability semester I learned how to cut an onion.  A couple weeks later I was planning and directing the meal when it was my group’s turn to cook.  Even though there were a few mistakes along the way (apparently six cups of diced onions is NOT the same as six onions), looking at how clueless at least one of the authors of this blog was a couple of weeks ago compared to my current standing, slightly less clueless, it felt really good to prepare and take responsibility for creating a meal.

One main reason people don’t seem to be concerned about where their food is from is because people are so disconnected from their food source.  Look at how societies run, we grow up having food handed to us.  Even in college, we still have absolutely no interaction with our food!  When you finally get out into the world and gain complete independence, you are still detached from your food.  Who knows where those chips, that meat, or even that fruit comes from?  There are often pesticides or fertilizers that have touched that food product, or even added chemicals or genetic modification that people are completely unaware of. And why is that? Because we don’t have enough of an interaction with our food source to really know or care.  Living in the Sustainability House has really put a different perspective of food into our minds.  It used to be something to disregard. Even going to lunch to grab a quesadilla from the pub, it is easy to not think about where the cheese is from and what went into growing those vegetables. 

Taking the time to prepare our own food has really increased our awareness of what we consume and what affect that choice has, not only on ourselves, but also on the surrounding world.  When eating oatmeal one morning from oats that were grown in the garden in front of the house and rolled by classmates, it was evident that not only are we avoiding harmful chemicals in our bodies, but also that no damage was done to the earth with the production of those oats, and that alone is a reason to do the Sustainability Semester.

In the past, humans survived by learned skills that had been passed down from generation to generation.  But today, technology and science have replaced ancient knowledge that once was unconsciously practiced.  People no longer need to know basic skills such as how to cook or how that apple tree is resilient enough to produce while surviving negative degree weather.  We have become so detached from this old way of life that many people aren’t aware that tree traits can be altered without the help of genetic modification. Living in the Sustainability House has allowed us to go back to our roots and value this information, learning skills that will benefit us throughout the rest of our lives.