Saturday, March 20 was the first day of spring. And, in true Chicago fashion, it was snowing. I was racing to give my “Chicago Victory Gardens: Yesterday and Tomorrow” lecture for the Chicago Foodways Roundtable at Kendall College and was convinced, with the weather, there would be nobody there and we’d cancel. It sounded kind of appealing since I’d been waylaid in Dallas for work until 1am the night before due to mechanical difficulties–twice.
I was happily surprised–and quickly forgot how tired I was–when I met my audience, 30 or so folks who are faithful attendees for CFR functions. (Learn more about Chicago Foodways Roundtable and their sister organization Culinary Historians of Chicago here. )
As usual, I kicked off my speech saying that I’m a fast talker and raise your hand if I need to calm down–I get a bit impassioned. And if anyone should have questions or thoughts to please chime in… then I started off telling the great story of Chicago Victory Gardens in WWII.
To my happy surprise, this audience really did chime in… a lot. Which got me very excited because several of the members remembered their family WWII Victory Gardens.
My comments on vegetable theft, and a city ordinance to prevent it, prompted discussion about the severity of the food shortages, the onerous ration system and how families watched each other’s gardens and reported if neighbor kids were misbehaving and taking things. This was all underscored with the idea of community and how people helped each other during these awful times.
A comment on the types of work the Office of Civilian Defense block wardens performed, in addition to Victory Garden projects, prompted one woman’s story about her dad who was an air raid warden. One night there were loud popping sounds in their basement so he went downstairs to investigate wearing his helmet (and carrying a baseball bat) only to discover that the tomatoes they had canned were exploding because they hadn’t done it right.
A question about soil fertility brought remembrances of how an uncle would show up with two big buckets of horse manure (where it came from, they had no idea) and they would turn it into the soil with straw in the fall to get ready for the next growing season.
The segment on the future of urban vegetable gardening in Chicago was as robust as the first part. People were sharing resources, good books, Chicago-based organizations who are encouraging people to produce their own food. I think I learned as much as they did and am adding these contributions to the ever-morphing “tomorrow” part of the lecture.
The one hour presentation stretched to almost two and I had a wonderful time afterwards meeting people – master gardeners, master canners, a self-proclaimed “Tomato Lady,” [I asked if I could be a “Tomato Lady” in training – her 125 different heirlooms annually beat out my measly 38 by a landslide] volunteers at the Hull House Tuesday “Rethinking Soup” soup kitchen (if you’re a Chicagoan, I would encourage you to attend “Rethinking Soup” you can learn more about it here and so many more great people.
It is a joy to talk about how, not too long ago, people took their food supply into their own hands, overcame adversity and lived to tell about it. That’s why this topic is so exciting to me… because 50 years from now (god willing), perhaps we’ll be sharing similar stories with a new generation wanting to do the same thing. I get goose bumps.
Perhaps the best part of the lecture happened afterwards, the organizer reported to me that she, her mother and her mother’s friend (who was a Rosie the Riveter during WWII) drove around the South Side and pointed out places where they had remembered Victory Gardens from their youth.
And some of those lots are still empty.