“I Ain’t Nuthin' But a No Good Small Town Girl”— Aida Victoria
It’s time we go back. I began this show to understand where our food comes from. This season we’ve seen the inspiration the Philippines played for Chef Carlo, we dove through jungle and ocean with Kaino on his home island of Maui, we ventured to Puerto Rico to find the spicy roots of Chef Cristina. What we discovered is the story of place is a key ingredient to the passion of a person.
So here we are. Now forced through the flowing vein of story to go back to my own beginnings. The tiny town of 200 in Napoleon, Missouri. With farmers made villainous by a movement of organics, gmo-free, and environmentalists; this is the heartland of food production where corn, soy, and wheat are king. These are folk who have worked the same land for centuries yet so rarely are their stories told.
A place I haven’t been a part of in almost 20 years. It’s the origin story of how we “Kelly”- or get run outta town fast.
“Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town.”— The Coug
The town of Napoleon is a dot on a bluff overlooking the muddy Missouri River. It’s an hour and change east of Kansas City. A paved road winds through hillsides of corn, wheat, and soy shuttling you gently away from society. Further away from lights. And deeper into the thick of country. There are no stoplights. No gas stations. We have instead a United Church of Christ, a Methodist church, a bank, a post office, and once upon a time a general store that has since shuttered and given way to antiques.
The very bones of this community are built around farming.
Growing up, I spent almost every day on Jennifer’s farm. Jennifer was my closest friend. She was the chestnut brunette to my white, wispy blonde. I can’t even recall how we met as we were friends as far back memory takes me. Our homes were separated by maybe a mile and each summer was spent on bikes going back and forth to each others houses. I can see her face in my mind as a shy kindergartner, wearing a striped purple sweatshirt, her thin chestnut bangs framing her tanned skin. I can see her face nearing our teens- hair no longer down by her shoulders but up tightly in a scrunchie. I can recall the smells of her home as easily as my own.
Her family had been working their land for over a century. Her property looked much like the idyllic pictures you now see on bacon packaging: Big burnt red barns weathered and splintered around the edges. Cows in grass, small lot of pigs, a few chickens here and there. It was our playground as children. I rescued a kitten from her uncle’s pigs who my father named Lucky when I brought him home unexpectedly that afternoon. I’d help Jennifer mix the powdered milk substance for the baby calfs. The smell like baby’s breath and hay filling her basement. We’d play with rabbits she raised for Future Farmers of America. Jennifer’s father, David, was also our Ag-Business teacher. (And sometimes bus driver or volunteer firefighter/EMT with my father. Such is the way of a small town.)
When I finally made the decision to go back to Napoleon to film this story I knew I had to start with Jennifer & her father. David is a farmer not by trade but by skill. And working with the land, knowing the land you work with, wasn’t something that just worked itself out of you after time. Plus, Jennifer and her siblings had all gone into agri-business in some way. She into commodities, her brother into corn syrup production, and her sister in conservation with USDA. It also meant I would get to see Jennifer.
I hadn’t been in touch with any of them since I left town at 15- I’m 33 now. And I can’t say I left by choice. I left because I had no choice but to go.
While Jennifer and other friends went to the state fair to show pigs with her father I was pursuing any other extra-curricular activities I could get my hands on. Student council? I’m running. Volleyball? Cheerleading? Basketball? Sign me up. I’d bring home my textbooks at the start of every school year and ask my parents to give me assignments. I even put myself through bible school at the United Church of Christ at 13 because I loved to have binders I could organize with topics I could study. (Organized religion, on the other hand, I discovered didn’t quite fit.) School- the community- was my life.
I was an overachiever but farming had little to do with my future plans. Neither of my parents were farmers. When my parents decided our opportunities were short-lived in the farming community we moved to the suburbs. I was 15. I was excited about the idea of a big school: I could learn French! I could study writing at Berkley! I could travel the world! But once the final box was unpacked in our new two-story home the only thing I could think about was going home. Back to the country. Where our yards weren’t sectioned off with fences. Where the night always blanketed the land in stars. Where I knew everyone and everyone knew me.
“So Here We Are Face to Face”— Firehouse
Of course, there was also a boy. (There’s always a boy, amiright?)
He was the boy no one liked. I didn’t see that of course. All I saw was a boy driving a baby blue thunderbird who made me weak in the stomach.
I first came back to visit the little town to see Jennifer and my other friends. Then it was to hang out with this boy. I became distracted by his social circle. I neglected mine. His had a reputation for drugs and beer and parties. Mine was at football games, class meetings, and church.
But the over achiever in me always has a plan. Even as marijuana, Southern Comfort and cigarettes crept into my barely 4-feet tall, 15-year old body, I had a plan. I was going to lose my virginity to this boy. I’d made up my mind he was the one and even more than that, I knew I had to leave. This was my way of keeping myself there, in some way, beyond my departure.
Plans finally shifted to my focus and it became my night to make my move. It meant losing it on our friend’s basement floor but it wasn't going to hold me back. I was too fixated on getting the story right. There was a movie playing on their big screen in the background. I can’t remember which. The basement was empty but for us and 3 couches. Yet we were on the floor. He pulled down his pants. I pulled mine down, crowding the denim sloppily around my ankles. He pumped once, twice, three times. It was over. He rolled off and went to the bathroom. I wasn’t his first. But he was mine.
After my night on the basement floor, the phone calls from my friends became less and less. The boy in the baby blue thunderbird never spoke to me again. As I tried to engage more in my new school- now a graduating class of 400 vs the 18 I grew up with- I only felt more and more isolated and alone. I withdrew deeper. My hands reached for other activities, like cocaine, acid, pills— not the textbooks they once clung to excitedly. I was always sure he wouldn’t call. But to have no one.
Eventually two classmates I’d gone through bible school with came to visit me. I asked where everyone had gone. They divulged that the boy in the blue thunderbird told everyone he and his friends gang-banged me. The number involved was around 5. I knew each of their names, who they were, their girlfriends, their sisters and their mothers. If they said it, too, I’ll never know. It could have just been the embarrassing story of losing virginity. The shape of my boobs, my lack of knowledge, the awkward motions two unaccustomed bodies take shape. It’s a classic tale that never really leaves you and is always good for a laugh. Instead, it became a harsh cycle of gossip that destroyed 15 years of over-achieving. One story had replaced my identity overnight. He took my community. He took my life.
“It Wouldn’t Have Worked Out Anyway”— Ben Harper
And now I return. I couldn’t sleep the night before seeing Jennifer. Coming back after all these years, the bitterness and anger had subsided to sadness, and it hits me harshly. As I drive there, trying to roll camera on story, I cry. It was as though I’d been robbed from decades of growing with my friends. Of being able to come back and dig my hands into the soil of my home.
Driving up to their home, I am greeted with the welcoming hugs I remember as a child. No harsh exchange or look of disdain. Just another summer day visiting my oldest friends. Jennifer and her father take me on a tour of the agricultural landscape. From then to now, farming’s identity had changed. David was raised farming a different way. When the land was multi-purpose. He knows exactly what will be planted on this plot next year because now it just toggles back and forth between corn & soy. Since I’d been there the market had shifted. The industry, the consumer had reacted to the convenience of food production and farmers had to re-direct their course on life. They came together to feed the ethanol production in order to keep their land to work on. They had to fight for what they know.
After my time with David & Jennifer, I visit another childhood friend, Bret. Bret took over his family farm to pursue “specialty crops.” Which really means he grows vegetables. Bret is the next generation of farming. On his land you’ll find pumpkin mazes, jump pads, u-pick berries, and two little pigs named “Hottie” and “Pickle.” For any one whose visited the east coast this form of agri-tourism is nothing new. But to the heartland it’s a renaissance.
What rings through each of our stories is the importance of identity. It’s a constant struggle to reaffirm who you really are against a tidal wave of forces working against you. For David’s generation it was to keep their land in business as best they could. For Bret, he is the salmon swimming up river to try and get the consumer back to where it started. Simply purchasing food from a farmer. For me, it is a constant struggle to be a part of place when so thoroughly displaced early on. The fight is afoot for each of us, yet to see David, Jennifer & Bret so fully immersed in the community they were raised in, makes my retreat look weak and cowardly. I could get angry at the forces surrounding me, or I could have raised fist with my comrades and fought for everything I am and everything I believe.
As I write this, I want to say thank you to the boy in the blue thunderbird. I may not have stayed to rage against the gossip chains and defend my honor. Instead, a fire was lit. A fire to balk tradition and seek life on my own terms. I would have clung to that small town like a fever but I wasn’t ready. I had to dive into a rabbit hole of drugs & exploration so deeply I got kicked out of high school at 17, because I knew I never really belonged in the suburbs. By 18 I was living and working in New York City- building a life designed by me. And now here I am, many years later, with the experience to come back, sit among my community once again, and share their story with the world. It may not have been Berkley and straight-A’s, but it’s my journey as written by me.
Having faith in our story, our purpose and our identity is paramount to survival. It is what makes each of us thoroughly unique yet thoroughly connected. As Bret says in the episode, “I don’t care if you’re organic, conventional, whatever. It’s time farmers come together.” Because identity is powerful.
Of course, though, dear blonde, blue-eyed boy in the thunderbird, if I ever cross your path after my usual allotment of whiskey, “Watch yo back.” Cuz these fists been farming. And they’re at the ready for a good fight.