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Salon's Pho La Recalls When Organic and Local Weren't Cool

An urban farm in San Francisco.
An urban farm in San Francisco.
anthonybrown/Flickr

It's 2011, and backyard chickens and plots of mustard greens and kale hemmed in by concrete are still as hip as limited edition Japanese high tops. From L.A. to New York, the farmers' market remains the new record store; the city garden is still the new band practice.

Last week in Salon, Pho La re-framed urban farming in the context of growing up in Sacramento and living on food stamps and the produce and chickens her family of Hmong refugee farmers could cultivate and raise on the sly. La describes building and tearing down coops, growing lemongrass and chili peppers in empty paint buckets, and sprinkling fresh-cut grass on front yard beds of cilantro and scallions. She also recalls being embarrassed by how she and her family lived, wishing she could eat grocery store food like her classmates at school.

When La graduated from college, she did, only to realize that something had changed:

"But, who'd know that, just as I finally shed a former life of organic necessity, my mother would be the hip one? Now I go to the market and hear people boasting about the eggs in their backyards, or how much their garden looks like the one on the White House lawn. My best friend, also a former Hmong child gardener, laughs with me about collecting lawn clippings. If only we had had cool recyclable cloth bags with eco-friendly slogans, we joke. If only we could be heroic, claiming to be launching a food revolution. But for us, there was no room to think about glamour. That life just felt backward."

La also reveals how that reaction gave way to pride:

"But I stood recently at a popular farmers' market in San Francisco, where I now live and where my relatives have a vegetable stall. Surrounded by a flurry of patrons enthusiastic about locally grown food, I felt. . .proud that Hmong farmers owned their own stalls, their tradition of necessity now trendy and profitable."

Now that relatively newly minted farmers identify as artists, scenesters, and activists, and pickling tutorials are "happenings," not cooking classes, pushing a cart through Ralph's and buying a bunch of chard feels nearly like a mild, square act of contrarian rebellion. It's at least quite reasonable to examine the extent to which monied taste-makers and lifestyle mavens have made urban homesteading so spectacularly fashionable in the past few years, when immigrants have been self-sufficient "locavores" for ages. And to hope the movement's true knowing pioneers get the respect and paychecks they deserve.


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