The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I turned to local growers during the pandemic. It took me back to my roots.


Audrey McDonald Atkins is the author of “They Call Me Orange Juice: Stories and Essays.”

“Your sweet potatoes are very dirty.”

Have you ever had the feeling, even as the words were crossing your lips, that what you were saying was utterly ridiculous?

I have. That’s exactly how I felt when I heard myself say, “Your sweet potatoes are very dirty.”

Now, in my defense, I wasn’t insulting a supermarket employee or berating an Instagram foodie. My opinion had been solicited by the folks here in Alabama at BDA Farm, where I have a community supported agriculture, or CSA, subscription. Once a week, having ordered online and paid a reasonable fee, I pull up to their truck, pop my trunk and a nice person gives me a sack full of fresh vegetables. No contact at all; the perfect covid-19 shopping experience.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one seeking the safety of a CSA. Last April, Google searches for CSAs were double what they were in mid-February. The online food and food-policy publication Civil Eats reported that CSAs of all sizes in California experienced unprecedented booms, putting hundreds of people on wait lists. And back in Alabama, “When the pandemic first began, our CSA boxes packed went from around 50 to 250 in about a month,” Kyle Platt, BDA Farm’s market garden manager, tells me. The rate has settled back to about 100 monthly, he says, as people began to feel more comfortable shopping in stores.

I’ve been making my weekly pick-ups for nearly a year now, and it has felt good to know that not only am I supporting local growers, but that I’ve had a safe and reliable way to put fresh food on my table. That’s why, when the farm called to ask what I’d improve about the service, the only thing I could think of to say was, “Your sweet potatoes are very dirty.”

Which is ridiculous because sweet potatoes are supposed to be dirty. After all, Ipomoea batatas is a root vegetable. And where do roots grow? In the ground. More specifically, in this case, the ground just outside Uniontown, Ala.

Uniontown is a little place in the state’s Black Belt region, called that for its fertile black soil. And this dirt! It clings to the sweet potatoes like hard black clumps of clay. You practically have to chip it off with a butter knife and then scrub the potatoes until all, or at least enough, of it is gone. It’s a muddy mess.

But when did I become so vexed by a little dirt? I’m a country girl, after all. In the small southern Alabama town where I was raised, we grew a lot of our own vegetables and bought others from farmers who sold from the back of their pickup trucks parked at roadside. It was the sort of place where someone might repay a favor with a mess of greens or a string of catfish. Where I ate fruit from the tree it grew on, where my grandfather would cut a piece of sugar cane in the field with his pocket knife, skinning back the peel so I could gnaw the sweet juice out of the fibers inside.

How did I get to be so bougie?

I’ll tell you how. It happened when I left home and started getting all my veggies from the store. Most everything in my kitchen came, immaculately, in plastic bags or on Styrofoam trays. Instead of being damp with dew, it was damp from that misty grocery store “rain.” It happened when I didn’t look my meat in the eye one day and see it on the plate the next. And it happened when my potatoes, sweet or otherwise, came out of a bin and were barely dusty, much less dirty.

After years of living in the “big city” of Birmingham, I had let my connection to food fade. I rarely even went to the farmers markets that, as in many other cities, bring fresh local produce to town. I’d grown comfortable with being in the fluorescent glow of the grocery store lights instead of the noonday sun, searching for the sign that says “organic” instead of turning over leaves to see what’s ripened underneath.

I got too far away from the dirt.

I want to call my farm friends up and tell them I’ve changed my mind. That I take it back. That when I open the bag and breathe in the damp, earthy vegetal smells, I feel a link to my childhood I didn’t realize I’d lost. That getting my hands dirty and using a little elbow grease to prepare my food seems to make it taste that much better. That those vegetables, sometimes still warm from the sun, make me feel more nourished, more alive.

I want to tell them, “Your sweet potatoes are very dirty. And I love it.”

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