Community Building, One Bite at a Time | Civil Eats

Community Building, One Bite at a Time

There’s a little red schoolhouse up the road from my house. It is picture perfect, quintessential in every way of any number of historic schoolhouse stereotypes in design, and our neighborhood has immense pride for it. The one room space holds a piano, an antique wood stove, some old child-sized desks bolted to the floor, a few glass cases with local natural artifacts (think owl talons, mountain lion teeth, hawk feathers, snake skins, etc.), and lots of black and white photos of past students, teachers, and residents. The Alba Road Schoolhouse was in session after being built in 1895. It now serves us as a library, meetinghouse, lecture hall, and general gathering place for our small mountain community. And best of all, for a monthly potluck where we come together, old and young, organic and conventional, to break bread and get to know the people we live near. I look forward to the last weekend of each month, bringing some dish or other, mostly centered around what we have way too much of on the farm. This month we brought huge vats of salsa fresca, roasted tomatillo salsa, chips and a crisp white wine. Usually, as most folks up here have gardens and similar heirloom trees too, the dinner takes on a very seasonal bend. The menu this month, besides chips and salsa, was two homemade tomato sauced pasta dishes, a green salad with tomatoes, a basket of tomatoes for people to take home, a bowl of pears, and an apple pie. Oh, and a magnum of unlabeled zinfandel from our neighbor’s winemaking friend up in Napa… that we finished off out under the September stars.

Walking up the stairs, passing under the large bell and through the front door, I can’t help but feel taken in by the legacy of this place, and appreciative that it has been preserved. A few months ago I agreed to become a board member of the school and have since discovered my heart growing more and more invested in the future of this old property. We are currently under the umbrella of our local school district, even though we are our own historic entity, which has dictated certain bureaucratic laws and regulations. But we recently learned that we qualify for a law that will finally permit us to reside as one small autonomous district, giving our neighborhood control of the schoolhouse and some grant money to keep it alive.

Of course, as admittedly the youngest adult here on the mountain, I bring to the table some bold ideas, wild dreams and a more impassioned vision for what I see as the school’s potential. When I speak of large community gardens and farm education programs, cookbooks, all locally foraged and grown celebrations, canning exchanges, outdoor movie nights and farmers markets, some of the old timers look a little bewildered and overwhelmed. In their minds I almost hear them think “Well, if you have the energy to pull all that off, go for it, but I certainly don’t!” Despite any skepticism, I can also sense their excitement and joy of being a part of something. I see this as an opportunity to make change, to promote what matters, to strengthen locality and focus on food systems that work well. I also see it as a way to create the community that we want to be in and raise future children in. We are all up here on this somewhat isolated mountain and we might as well find ways to share the space, support each other, and preserve some of the authenticity of homesteading culture that doesn’t seem that far off when the table spends 30 minutes discussing the best fruit drying techniques or comparing apple butter recipes.

This year was the 114th Annual Alba Road Schoolhouse Fourth of July Celebration. The event is our one and only fundraiser, and has become a given to anyone spending the holiday in town. The local fire engine comes, a marching band, the boy scouts, and an auctioneer…and there is a barbeque, bake sale, book sale, and homemade ice cream. It is like spending the day in a small rural town sixty years ago, with everyone pitching in. With all the tradition, the old fashioned custom, and quality, I am saddened by details my neighbors don’t recognize. Hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, bags of iceberg salad mix, American cheese slices, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, Coke, powdered lemonade, Styrofoam and paper goods, plastic utensils, all of it is purchased at Costco. The longstanding essentials to this event combine some wonderful things, like the fact that all the baked beans for the BBQ are homemade contributions, same with the baked goods and ice cream. But then all the rest of the food falls into an opposite ideology…the cheaper the better with no regard to sourcing or quality. Meanwhile, we all have lemon trees, tomato vines bursting, and our own picnic ware. This is a big disconnect that my neighbors don’t see, and I am trying to change it one baby step at a time. We have already agreed to supply the salad makings from our farm for next summer. We know it is more work, more effort, more labor. But the hope is that people will notice and enjoy the flavor better, and perhaps the tide will turn.

I’ve started a potluck food journal, filed at the schoolhouse for historic record of what everyone brings. I think about how amazing it would be to read the list of food items from 1930. Did someone bring an apple pie to the September potluck back then? Probably. And perhaps the apples were from the same tree they came from this year. The former owner of our property, responsible for our old orchard gems, was very involved in the schoolhouse and most definitely created dishes to share from the very trees we harvest from now. Did the crust have lard from the neighbors pig that year or home churned butter? Maybe. Did the store bought piecrust we ate last weekend have hydrogenated shortening from some food product conglomerate? Most likely. Sadly, times have changed, but all the seeds are still there waiting for water and sun and a little encouragement to bloom once again.

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Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A long time Good Food advocate, she has owned, operated and helped launch several food businesses. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, various Edible magazines, and the San Jose Mercury News. Read more >

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  1. This is a great story! I love hearing about community building and potlucks. Back home the Swedish Society does a midsummer picnic where everyone brings their own picnic basket with tablecloths and plates and utensils. Most people still bring disposables of some kind. My family usually brought paper plates and reusable plastic cutlery. That might be an even less expensive option for you guys!

    I certainly can believe that they purchase everything cheap for the event. But you have lemon trees! Homemade lemonade, lemon shakeups, lemon fizzes, think of the possibilities! Maybe you could ask other people to help donate things from the garden for burger toppings and salad? And then with the money saved on that, convince the board to buy grass-fed beef?

    I've worked in various non-profits with older boards before and the key to convincing them is starting small and talking about how it will save money and/or bring in donations. They don't like ideas that take a lot of volunteer effort because they think that they'll end up doing it and they're usually right.

    Again, fantastic article and good luck with making some changes next year!
  2. sally oakley
    amber, keep the faith. i, too, have those lofty goals; my community is just as set in their ways as well. one day you will be an elder and know whence come their thoughts. i love the idea of the journal for potluck foods. long ago, back in my 20s, i went dancing regularly at an old schoolhouse in northern virginia. the pot-lucks were incredible and community feeling was strong. keep the faith!

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