Mei’s recent philosophical adventure into the ideology and ethics of real, true, good food reminded me of this here essay I wrote for a class during my senior year of high school. The full project was a four-parter on food, music, the earth/environment, and human diversity, and how all these things are profoundly connected to what it’s like to be human today, and hopefully, what it’s like to be human in the future. Anyway, here’s an edited-down version of the food section, with some extra expletives for your reading plejjurr.
Anyone who’s studied ancient civilizations may recall the importance of climate and fertility—the Nile Delta, the Fertile Crescent—in allowing a nomadic society to change to a settled civilization. Furthermore, the development of these earlier societies often depended on food supply; a surplus of food allowed for division and specialization of labor, which resulted in technological and cultural developments. I remember making some really sweet dioramas about this in 5th grade or so
As humans, we are intrinsically connected to our food: it’s what we put into our bodies, what sustains us, and, historically, what we put our energy into acquiring, determining the health of both our bodies and our communities.
Today, a huge portion of Americans, including myself, are privileged enough that food does not have to be the center of our lives; we don’t worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we will survive droughts, the winter, or even war. What, therefore, does food mean in America today? We are a country that, according to Michael Pollan, eats 20% of its meals in cars. We follow food fads, every few months picking a new food group or vitamin to either demonize or champion. Our government determines our “dietary goals” and practically wages war over the makeup of the FDA food pyramid, and yet as much as 64% of our country is overweight or obese. Our food comes to us from places we have never seen and know nothing about in forms our great-grandparents probably wouldn’t recognize. Both in theory and in practice, our food moves from Point A to Point B, starting on the “farm” or in “nature” and ending with us. We are, as Michael Pollan, journalist and investigative food writer, says, “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthy” who have replaced “native wisdom” with a commercial-industrial food system, all to our own detriment. We fucked the fuck up somewhere.
Last spring, I had the very unique experience of living at the Mountain School on a small organic farm, getting as close to my food as I ever have been. Picture this: I wake up at 6:30, strap on a pair of snowshoes, don several layers of insulation, and hike uphill to the chicken house. I open the door and the stench of nitrogenous chicken matter sends me temporarily reeling. I pick up a basket, approach the cubby in which the chickens sit and then stick my gloved hand under each of fifty hens, collecting fresh eggs and trying not to upset the rooster, who, on bad days, must be held off with a broom or a swift kick (only, of course, until Jack Kruse killed it) I wash and stack the eggs in the basement of the kitchen, and then walk upstairs and sit down to a breakfast of (yup, you guessed it!) eggs—fried, scrambled, boiled, poached, whatever—that I collected the day before, or that a classmate collected the week before.
Food, for most of America is, as Wendell Berry says, “pretty much an abstract idea until it appears in the grocery store or on the table.” For the first time, though, it was concrete, and I could connect my food to its source. At any meal, I could look at almost any item on my plate and walk to the places or talk to the people involved in its journey from birth to life to death to the table. Judy Amsalem had pulled from the womb of its mother a baby sheep that would support future semesters, Max Shafer had fed pigs that would help take care of food waste and create delicious bacon, and farmers like Gwynne and Marc had overseen the whole process, including slaughter. Wee-hoo.
Furthermore, my role in my food was clear—our compost toilets best illustrate how this was so. We ate, our waste fertilized hay, our animals ate hay (and their waste fed our plants), and we in turn ate our animals. Though this cycle was not completed during our semester there, we felt that we were contributing to the circle that fed us all, even when we were just going to the bathroom. In the rest of the world, pooping is unfortunately rarely productive.
Berry states that “the pleasure of eating is in one’s consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes,” and I found this pleasure and consciousness without much effort (effort that is typically necessary for one living in suburban Brookline, effort that goes into frequenting farmer’s markets or Whole Foods) because it was scheduled into my day, and my bodily functions. Spending time with edible organisms ranging from the sow to the spinach, I started to gain the understanding and gratitude that Berry says comes from “eating a fellow creature you have known in its life.”
One may find this concept, this closeness, especially in relation to animals, grotesque—we can’t eat our friends!— but Berry says it best, that eating with “pleasure that does not depend on ignorance,” eating from animals we knew or gardens we tended, is one of the greatest possible fulfillments of our connection with the earth. And if the thought of murdering and eating an animal with whom you have grown and lived is enough to spoil your appetite, it’s likely that the facts about industrial, mass-produced grocery store food—hamburgers from cows whose livers are destroyed by their unnatural diets and who spent their lives in feet of their own excrement, vegetables grown in monocultures fed with chemicals left over from World War II, farmers who are government-subsidized yet get poorer every year and continue to grow the crop, corn, that our country has so much of that we have put it in all of its forms, harmless or not, into every kind of food we eat, from meat to twinkies—will turn you off of food completely. Seriously, if you have a weak stomach for that, good luck trying to find anything to eat. Any pleasure that we can derive from industrial food must be in ignorance, and therefore, probably not true enough to last us.
How did we get here? How have food industrialists taught us to prefer food that is ready to eat, that does not resemble nature whatsoever? Berry argues that the only reason companies do not offer to place prechewed food into our mouths is that they have not yet found a way. It’s a comment on our way of life and on our priorities that we will sacrifice cultural traditions for convenient practices every single day.
We seem to have decided that “life is not very interesting” and that, therefore, we might let the necessity of eating be “minimal, perfunctory, and fast.” I certainly eat fast, but I am definitely against minimalism and perfunction (a real word? Who’s to say!).
Furthermore, to eat is to take part in a commercial transaction. Economics dictates that greater efficiency is greater profit, and greater volume is greatest efficiency, while nature dictates that greater volume is less diversity, and less diversity is poorer health: miles and miles of unhealthy monocultures.
Economics solves the problem of poorer healthy by increasing the use of drugs and chemicals in the production of our food: miles and miles of unnaturally boosted monocultures. We are so passive in our consumption that we do not ask questions about the ethics, or even the safety of this relationship and the decisions that food industrialists make for us.
“Eating is an agricultural act,” Berry says, and Pollan adds that it is a political one as well. We are not free if we are not in control of what we eat, what we put into our bodies, and we are not caring for the natural world if we live by the industrial food system. We still seem to struggle with the ideas that energy and matter are cycles, and that food cannot only move from Point A to Point B or else we will be left with nothing. We are so busy squeezing every last bit out of our soil and our farms— manipulating, drugging, experimenting, genetically modifying, all methods that are ultimately unsustainable—that we have forgotten how to simply nourish the earth. Food moves in a circle, or at least, it must if we intend to sustain the world we live in, and therefore, ourselves. Kablam!