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Subsistence Farming in Romania

8/20/2014 10:09:00 AM

Tags: seed saving, outdoor cooking, food heritage, baking bread, hearth cooking, Europe, Romania, William Rubel

Romanian Farmer Woman

This photograph, which I took in Deva, Romania, always makes me happy. Spring. Travel. The surprise of the unexpected. We entered the farmhouse courtyard of this Romanian subsistence farmer through a door in a wall. One never knows what these private spaces will reveal. In this case, the courtyard was dominated by the glowing personality of the country woman whose farm it was. I asked to be shown her kitchen garden. It was a step back in time. In addition to the plants being grown for food were the plants staked for seed saving. I recall in particular a row of staked bolting lettuce. As country people tend not to waste time, while showing me the garden my host took the opportunity to harvest an immense kohlrabi for her afternoon meal. She carried the kohlrabi out of the garden to a chopping stump where she trimmed it with a hatchet and then, in what was virtually a single movement, tossed the trimmings over the chicken coop fence. I can still recall the sense of awakening as I saw the kohlrabi leaves dropping down into the coop. Here were whole systems, simple, elegant, ancient.

From the coop we went to see the bread oven. It was located in the barn. Small, rudimentary in the extreme, it was made of crude bricks with no insulation. Like the chipped plate in the photograph on which she is offering me fruit, the oven was a sign of the material poverty in which she and her husband lived. I took photographs of the oven and was then taken back outside and sat down on a chair in the shade of a tree. My host returned a short time later, smiling, with the berries and flowers you see in the photograph. Her husband poured a round of plum alcohol and we drank to friendship.

While the grinding work of a Romanian subsistence farm isn’t anything that I would choose for myself, there are aspects of the life that are attractive. In particular, the practices that I think of as the circles of life — eating food one has grown oneself, saving seeds, feeding poultry with garden scraps, and then eating their eggs (or them), and preserving a fruit harvest to cement friendships with strangers.

Having no choice in life is awful. Having to depend entirely on the food one raises to eat because one has no other choice is not an appealing life. Young people have fled the Romanian countryside. But having virtually infinite choices has its problems, too. My own urban vegetable plot ebbs and flows in productivity depending on my life, but as a rule, there is always at least something that can be harvested. I find it fundamentally reassuring when the answer to the question of what salad there is for dinner is simply the lettuce growing in the garden. And when it bolts (selecting the plants that bolt last), stake them and either gather the seed for replanting before they blow away or let the seeds scatter in the wind to become garden volunteers.



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