Saturday, December 13, 2008

a deviant feast

I have become very interested in old ways of preserving and preparing foods. So many of these hand-crafted, ancient foods are quite different in nature than the kinds of foods we are currently used to eating. They include more time, a certain creative spirit, and are quite strong on the tongue. They have salty, herby, spicy, and savory tastes which are unmatched in our current palate of foods. These foods were lively not only in taste but also in spirit. The foods changed over time, developed and grew within its local environment. The local ingredients, the soil, the hands, and the character of that particular land all shaped them. Most of these foods were not quite so strictly made from recipes as prepared foods are these days with precise measurements and recipes from the Food Network. There was a spirit of experimentalism and a breath held for some luck to come your way to help the food along. Actions were passed down through spoken word and witnessing the process – a very embodied and ritualistic process quite different from our contemporary recipe books. Also, quite literally the foods were alive with microorganisms actively transforming the food into quite another substance through a very mysterious and, at that time, unexplained process. Within the space of creativity, hope, ritual, and mystery it is easy to imagine room for the spiritual – the god of the hearth being taken account of, invoked, and thanked for the gifts of such mysterious food. Such foods that are characteristic of what I am speaking are generally fermented foods and other foods transformed through a process (beer and wine, bread, cheese, pickles and krauts, preserved meats, etc).

However we live in very different times. The foods that abound in our contemporary culture in this country are sterilized, homogenized, and without character. Strong tastes have been blotted out of our meals. Our only opportunity for strong tastes lies in the Chili Festival once a year where our tongue is limited to spicy foods. We don’t have the opportunity to experience other complex savory tastes, besides the protein-reminiscent saltiness of MSG. Indeed, most foods taste identical to each other with only some differences in texture. At one time one single food was made up of quite dynamic tastes. One bite of cheese might yield a somewhat sweet and creamy taste, while the next bite of the same cheese would have a more woody, almost crunchy bite to it. A bottle of raw milk, a loaf of fresh baked bread, a jar of homemade sauerkraut, a glass of homebrew – all demonstrate a dynamic and growing taste. No single taste is exactly like the other. All of these ancient crafted foods are quite different from their supermarket “equivalents.” The products sold on the shelves of grocery stores are just that – products meant to be quickly made, distributed, and prepared as a pseudo-meal on the go. The only step in this product’s life that requires any amount of slowness or “inconvenience” is its digestion, for all these foods take quite a toll on the body. All of this for a supposedly “safe” and “normalized” product. These ancient foods have disappeared, but a great are threatened to disappear through loss of knowledge, tightened food regulations, and industrialization.

What has become evident is that it is not only our food that has become homogenized and sterilized in the efforts of industrial mass production. These efforts extend right into the very nub of our culture, affecting each and every individual. Our own lives are held to a common pressure towards “safe” and “normalized” behavior. This pressure seems to have increased with the rise of industrialization. Imagine the loss of imagination that takes place over time when the infinite and localized varieties of bread, seed, cheese, beer/ale, wine, fruits, vegetables, meats, and preserves produced by each town and cottage is reduced to those produced by a mere handful of large food corporations. Our food is bland in taste because it must have “universal” appeal and thus possess no extreme and no bent toward a particular localized taste. Thus it becomes the standard taste. This loss of imagination and diversity in our food is reflected in our own society. As a whole we gather in groups based on taste, if you will. Since localities are no longer an issue, we unite based on interests and likes, which take predominance over all else. Thus, we are often surrounded by what we like to call “like minds,” as if this were a choice of intellect. There are those that might identify themselves as deviating from the norm, but quite often those individuals leave their original community and join another community with people that are deviant in the same way. Thus the cycle of homogenization continues.

I can’t help but hope that food could help us break out of this cycle. Certain ancient foods are threatened, but with a little time, creativity, research, and experimentation at least some of these foods can be removed from the endangered list. It is quite difficult to exile foods. Some ancient Foods live on as a way of life, reminiscent of the spirit of the seasons, time and the hearth. They become a rhythm of survival, of nurturing, and of bounty. Despite the efforts of various governing bodies and corporations, these foods cannot be outlawed. Indeed they will be served at my table and shared with my guests. There are some feasts that are public acts of deviance.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

bubbling brew

It has been a very long time. The summer for me is a very active time, a time when much of my creative work is expressed more bodily through my work growing and making food. During the fall my work with deafblind students ate up a lot of my energy as the school year began. And now I feel the chill of winter begin to descend. I am certainly an animal who hibernates. In the cold months I slow down and rest. With that rest comes reflection, time, and the words slowly begin to trickle again just below the surface.

In the time away from writing I have experimented with many other food crafts. I continue to bake but have also tried pickling and other lacto-fermentation methods, assorted food preserving methods, brewing mead and ancient beers, and cheese making. All of these foods share one thing in common – certain unseen forces make the food possible. Microorganisms fervently living and working away at their small lives gives each of these foods their character and taste. Indeed participating in these foods is quite a magical experience – I am not necessary. I set up conditions and then the rest is done by small but powerful energies in the universe that just so happen to make something quite delicious. I am lucky and thankful.

I have found much inspiration from my experiences brewing. Of late I have done some reading not only about how to brew, but also the ancient methods, beliefs, rituals, and purposes for brewing. Every part of the process is paired by an understanding of a spiritual presence. The magic of bubbling brew and the beauties of intoxication are believed to be truly mystical and divine. This has excited within me a desire to seek out the magical experiences that are rife in the every day. Everywhere bubbles the presence of unseen forces.

I would like to write more specifics about this idea later. But, as I restart my rhythms of writing I will leave it here and continue these thoughts in another piece. Till then…

Monday, June 9, 2008

Until the sleepy cold of late fall…

Well, I believe it is clear when my garden and farm activities began to take off…I have taken a brief hiatus from bread baking for the summer. My seedlings at my community garden plot and the area CSA farm call my name quite frequently. My time for baking, reflection, and hibernation has become time for activity and handiwork. I am found more often with garden tools in my hand, dirt under my fingernails, and maybe a couple of students at the farm. Until the sleepy cold of late fall…

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mortal Sustenance and Spiritual Nourishment

Lately my food experiments have taken on a new level – vanilla extract, ginger beer, sourdough, cheese. All of these foods, much like foods raised from seed or from birth, require a certain amount of time. How wonderful that food, especially such good and tasty food, simply requires time. Time to grow, develop, and steep in flavor. But is that true, do they require time? In a sense, yes. Time is required for the item to reach its full and proper taste. But there is another way to look at it. These food items allow time. These sorts of simple foods are quite different from the preparation of a meal using these foods as ingredients. Indeed a meal requires a different interaction with time. Things usually happen in periods between a few minutes and possibly up to an hour. Things need to be flipped, stirred, and added at particular times. Also, the meal must be served at an appropriate moment – when the food is done, and not too hot and not too cool. But more basic, simple foods are not quite so demanding. They perhaps need to be stirred, kneaded, watered, etc after a number of hours, days, or weeks. The service and delightful eating of these foods is also not so immediate – perhaps in the next few days or even longer. These foods create, within the very nature of their processes, a space of time that is unoccupied.

Food is a tricky thing. The nature of our human relationship to food is quite base you could say – a matter of pure necessity and survival. It ties us three times a day to our mortality. Plato and Aristotle viewed food preparation and cultivation as labors most appropriate to slaves. Because food is a labor tied to the labors of survival, it requires too much time and pressure for a philosopher. It would impede the leisure time that is needed to ponder “higher” matters.

But I must wonder, is it possible to contemplate higher ideals without being in some way tied to your own mortality? The labors of survival are what tie us inextricably to the stories and cycles of life and death. Does not our view and keen awareness of death present a mold which shapes and solidifies our approach to life? Being aware that our time on earth is limited creates a certain meaning to our actions of humans. In a simple sense: existing in time matters. Being aware of that fact also matters. But there is the rub. How to become aware of existing? And how to maintain that awareness? I feel this sort of awareness is quite present in the contemplative practices of many religions – the importance of prayer, meditation, intention, awareness, contemplation. This vigilance can be further nurtured by participating in and being witness to the cycles of mortality and life. Growing, harvesting, and preparing food can be an ever-present reminder of our mortality. It provides a valuable perspective on the bounties of the earth, where we as humans fit into the world, and an experience-derived understanding that we indeed (as summarized from a few Bible passages) cannot live by bread alone. By understanding and participating in our bodily sustenance, we become aware of the nourishment of the soul. The process of cultivating food is rife with metaphors for the spiritual life. In the New Testament, Jesus often utilizes these metaphors in his parables. Others in the religious life have published books about how certain food practices connect them to and deepen their spiritual life. I personally have found that after working with my hands, my mind becomes sharper and I settle into a peaceful rhythm. In this state I find the seed of my contemplative life. At all times, even when no one is speaking, when I use my hands I am listening intently.

So why did I begin by discussing foods that require and allow time in their making? Because it is those unoccupied moments that are so rich and full of possibility. The work of the hands prepares the food, but also prepares the mind for a moment of rest that is alert and stimulated. The time between tending food provides time for contemplation. But it does much more than provide the time. In fact the body, mind, and soul are at a prime moment for contemplation: the body ready for rest, the mind alert and aware, the soul hungry for a moment of tending.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the beautiful work of food

I absolutely love food in all of its glory of foodiness. Food is much more than what we as humans subsist on. It is a thing of process, skill, tradition, slowness, and community and all of these elements are inextricably linked and dependent on each other. If one is missing than the food itself suffers in a way that is indicative of how the smaller community of food makers and eaters suffer. I find it interesting that something so simple indicates the vitality of a micro-society; extraordinary considering the temporariness of meals and primarily base purpose of food to nourish mortals. Yet the simplicity of food and its foundation in our daily practices as a society seem to transcend its base beginnings. Food can be a mode of expression and even a block thrown into the cogs, halting the wheel of our daily routines. It is central to most holidays and religious ceremonies in either the eating, fasting, or sacrificing of food. It symbolizes something potent, in both a spiritual and earthly way. It is of the flesh, yet so many ancient monastic orders produced the finest of meat, cheese, baked goods, beer, wine, and chocolate.

I feel in a simple way food expresses many transcendent ideas in a very accessible and necessary way. I do not find it surprising that many contemplative communities build their life around the physical tasks of growing and preparing food, and performing other tasks of physical labor and service. Tasks such as these often include a process through time, some amount of skill and knowledge, repetition, and an eventual result. You begin the assigned task with little knowledge or experience, thus learning through the help of others and the inevitability of mistakes. The task requires you to perform it through its own process and time. Something such as gardening or cooking has its own rhythm and timing which will not be rushed or work according to the convenience of the cook or gardener. All work related to food includes some amount of repetition: sowing seeds, weeding, harvesting, chopping, kneading dough, stirring soup are all very repetitive, a sort of rhythm to the repeated movements of the body. Eventually, the process will lead to a material result. With this finished product at hand and ready to enjoy one can reap from it the joy of a completed task, something that can be enjoyed and shared with others, and something that can be improved the next time round. All these steps are rife with lessons of humility, patience, sharing, understanding, service, love, dedication, sacrifice, etc. It is indeed no wonder that the contemplatives have sought this sort of life style for ages. However, such tasks and processes are not isolated to contemplative communities. They are readily available to the daily lives of all families. However as a society we have rejected this life style as full of tedium and drudgery. For years and years we have sought out the advancements of industry and technology to escape this life of endless work. First men, then women abandoned the work of the home for the larger economy. The field and kitchen are no longer recognizable. They have been replaced with lawns and microwaves.

But I have to ask, what have we sacrificed? The struggle of working has now taken the place of the struggle of living. We now spend endless capital on an education meant to attain a particular position in a field of work. The work is specialized, compartmentalized, and stagnant. A job title often has more to do with your placement in the chain of hierarchy and paperwork than with the actual tasks you perform at work. Most of work is taken up by machines: photocopiers, phones, and computers. No matter what your position is, you sit behind one and answer to it. The organization you work for could even be related to something you are truly passionate about, but the work itself is often boring and mindless, yet endless and therefore stressful. In the midst of boredom, hierarchy, and anxiety it is no wonder these hurried and harried people become addicted to Starbucks coffee, curse out fellow drivers with their windows rolled up, need weekly yoga, and Friday purchases of the “I deserve this” treats all to feel better and enjoy the two day weekend. In the midst of this hullabaloo we have lost time spent within the home, spent with our family and friends. We have also lost track of work done for the household. As a result of this modern work-obsessed society, the living room has become a mega-entertainment center and the kitchen a row of plastic electric-powered tools that allow you to simply move the food from one machine to the others, the shortest and most popular route often being from the freezer to the microwave. This type of mono-typed, tedious lifestyle has replaced the lifestyle of working to keep house.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s worth it. I would rather work more for my daily survival. I do not want to have to work some dead end career in order to buy a weekly supply of frozen and packaged dinners for my family. People often refer to receiving a pay check as “putting bread on the table.” I feel this must refer to taking your pay check and purchasing a bag of sliced bread, Wonderbread or whatever else happens to be on sale. I would rather use flour, water, and yeast and make my own loaf of bread from scratch. I would rather work at a “workplace” less, have more time at home, or, if I can afford it, not work at all. I opt for a different kind of life. I want to work in a different way.

It is not that I am rejecting work; I simply refuse to work in the current context and systemized way that we think of work in this industrial, capitalist society. Working with my hands is something that I not only do not mind, but greatly prefer. I love being active, using my body to create, whether I be growing and cooking food, writing, knitting, or building or repairing something – I love putting my hands to work. But, it is not simply that I enjoy doing these things, I actually feel it is important that everyone somehow participate in the things that make their lives possible. I feel it is important to participate in your food, your home, your mode of transportation, etc. Whatever makes your life possible, I think it is our duty to participate in those things. Whether they be things of basic survival or hobbies, it is important to understand the actual composition of our lives. This kind of work has been classified by our own current society and by classical philosophers alike as the calling for those of lesser status and intelligence. But, is this a truly accurate classification? If the brains are being relegated to other areas of work, then what is happening to our food and other basic systems of living? If buildings are being built and farms be farmed and food being prepared by those without the ability to critically think, creatively problem solve, and contextualize actions within a wider environment then not only does the quality of the work suffer, but so does the entire functioning of the society. If the very foundational basics of life are in some way poorly made or made without understanding the consequences of particular actions then it is possible that those foundational elements will fail, providing a poor beginning for any further functioning or advancement of the society. In a similar manner, if this kind of work is not recognized as work that should be valued, both socially and economically, then the work will mirror that lack of value. Also, it goes without saying, but is an important issue to bring forth, that individuals of status and intelligence have indeed opted to pursue work that is more intimately related to our survival. This decision may have been met with disappointment or surprise from family, friends, teachers, and professionals. However, I hear more often of those that leave the modern “workplace” to begin a life as a farmer, cook, homemaker, or other endeavor. Indeed, there are some people who even take vacations from the “workplace” to work for a few weeks on a farm, to connect with the skills and work that more intimately tie us to our survival.

What is it about the work of the home, the garden, the kitchen that is so satisfying (I do not mean to exclude other vocations that tie us to our survival, there are so many. There are apiarists, fishermen, butchers, blacksmiths, glassblowers, builders, and endless amounts of craftspeople and artisans that work in a more intimate manner with the raw material on which our lives are based). There is indeed a value in understanding how exactly we as humans survive. Our current modern lifestyle veils so much of the material that enables us to live behind a sort of iron curtain (pardon the misappropriation of the implications of this term). It’s not only that we don’t know where things come from (our food, our homes, etc), it’s that we don’t know how to make those things, or what those things really are (for example, ever tried interpreting the list of ingredients on your standard dinner out of a box). So there is a certain element of awareness, understanding, and acquisition of skill that comes from this kind of work. But this sort of learning provides us with something quite rich and complex. We become aware of where humans fit into the world, we begin to question where the tomatoes in the garden came from, we become grateful for the fruits of labor when we understand what exactly the labor is. And this is it, the base of where a more spiritual life can evolve. This is why I think many contemplatives followed and continue to pursue the work of the hands.

Many people seem interested in the movement for local, organic food as a signal that we are becoming eaters who actually care about what we are eating. I do think there is a little more awareness in how food is labeled. However, I can’t help but think our scope is limited to how food is labeled, not necessarily how it is actually made or what we do with it once it is home. Knowledge of the work that goes into making food, ex. tilling, water use, sustainability, basic procedure, etc. is largely unknown. Also the skills that are required in the kitchen are also being lost and without much effort to gain those skills back. Most cooking shows on the Food Network (Rachel Ray comes to mind with her Thirty Minute Meals) focus on making food fast, easy, and convenient. They are not teaching skills of preserving food, tending a kitchen garden, making basic ingredients at home (pasta, bread, cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, etc), or even how to make food using non-processed ingredients. The actual work of food, of making something truly homemade and cared for is lost to mechanization.

How can one enter into this sort of work of the hands within the current modern context? I do feel the trappings of our time do present some unique challenges, but I do believe it is possible. There are many small ways to participate in the work of the home: cooking from scratch, starting a kitchen garden (if you don’t have land, then apply for space at a community garden or volunteer at a local farm), make more, learn more. I myself am slowly entering this world and struggling to learn more skills, searching for opportunities to learn from others. The wonderful thing about this is the sense of community that grows from this journey. I have been taught to grow food and knit from people that have become very dear friends. Much of my cooking and baking has been self-taught, but has inspired in me a desire to share what I make with others. It has especially developed a reverence for the times of eating meals – the serving, sharing, community, conversation, and gratitude that blooms while gathered together eating is indeed something of life that I daresay is representative of the best that our life on earth can offer. This is what gives the true meaning to participating in the making of your food, that you are in some way contributing to the fellowship of a meal which may indeed be earthly and temporary, but in that eventual ending it indeed gathers its sweetness. Is it no wonder that families, religious communities, and contemplatives of all kinds gather for meals? Is this not in some small way a ceremony of religious, or at least spiritual import?

Well, this is what I have for now. I hope you have a good evening and, of course, a wonderful meal!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

transforming the food system will not be like changing to compact flourescent light bulbs

I have been writing for some time to continue and respond to the ideas I brought up in my last post. I have realized, rather slowly, that everything I want to say is truly impossible to say in one post. So, expect this issue to be returned to in the near future. For now, I find I desperately want to provide some sort of solution. Because I criticized the food system so much in the last post, I would like to point out some possible paths that may lead to the light. Or at least, to something a little better. So, here it goes.

In the midst of the surprisingly vibrant dialogue (encouraged by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan) about food, several different philosophies and practices toward making and eating food have abounded. There are “localvores”, CSA shareholders, organic produce mongers, fair-trade buffs, vegetarians, vegans, and slow foodies. Each has very particular ideas and reasons about why they eat the way they do. Initially, I want to say that this is truly a great thing. I do believe that growing, preparing, and eating food is a deeply ethical issue. It is wonderful to be out and overhear random conversations from strangers about realizing that finding broccoli at the farmer’s market is something that will only happen in the spring and fall. People developing a better and closer understanding of their food and realizing the ethical implications of their food choices is indeed a very awesome thing. However, I think we need to deal with some other baggage that has sneaked onto the food bandwagon. The simple fact that this whole food “thing” has been termed a “fad” is, I think, unsettling and implies its inevitable temporariness. Blue jeans that fit your bum and puff out round your ankles are a fad. Diets – South Beach, Jenny Craig, Slim Fast – have all proven to be fads. Is this food thing just another form of the diet craze? Part of me fears it could be treated as such. Making significant choices about where food comes from, how it is grown, and how it is eaten should not be something that suffers the fate of a fad. I can’t even imagine viewing food as a fad. Food is the miracle that has, through some rather incredible biological developments and cycles, grown from the earth to provide for us tasty and delightful nourishment of all kinds of variety.

Is it good?

One thing that has sneaked onto the bandwagon a little too loudly for my comfort is this idea that if the food is “local,” or “organic,” or carries whatever kind of seemingly morally preferable label then it must be a “good thing.” This I feel is a rather tricky issue. Something that is grown or prepared in a way that coincides with certain moral outlines is of course a little better than something that isn’t. However, it must be understood that the grower or producer of the food could simply be seeking to do what is listed as necessary for something to earn a particular label. Labels such as “organic,” “cage-free,” and “vegetarian” match systematic regulations; those labels may have little to do with the morals that inspired those regulations. Those labels also typically indicate a larger profit margin since people are willing to pay higher prices with the belief that they can vote with their dollar to change farming practices and food policies. But, what exactly is that so called “vote” with your dollar actually supporting? It is supporting those food producers that follow the base minimum in order to earn a label. It is supporting food producers that have the time, money and people power to invest in completing reams of paper work and deal with bureaucrats and red tape. This is not a typical function of a small farm. In fact most farms that I know of that are sincerely invested in working to create a food system that generates little to no waste and has a small to invisible carbon footprint are not labeled as anything. Their operations go far beyond the base line requirements for “organic” or whatever other approved labels there might be. Regulations by no means indicate attitude or ethics of those that happen to follow the regulations. Therefore, I feel it faulty to believe that food that sells itself as “organic” or what have you is, in its own being as a food item, “good.” I think we are too quick to seek out moral superiority in our grocery carts, thus feeling rather satisfied with ourselves for having sacrificed an extra dollar or two to pop “organic” and “cage-free” items into our plastic bags, or even our “this is not a plastic bag” tote bags. It all depends on how smug we want to feel.

What needs to happen is a better investigation behind the label. This is why I have trouble understanding why we always look to politicians in our organizing. Call this representative, push for this law and then change will come. This is a little aside, but I don’t think regulations as such really create true change. It’s a start and it’s definitely helpful, but it’s no where near enough. As a first grader in Mrs. Snapp’s first grade, I don’t recall thinking the list of rules by the chalkboard as something that encouraged me to be more respectful of other human beings. I viewed it as the list of things not to do so I wouldn’t have to put my head down. Laws might be able to inspire or alter attitudes or push the view that those views are unpopular, but it seems a little unlikely. Laws and courts are of words; our daily lives of eating and making food are of action and decision. Perhaps we don’t need to investigate the label, but rather we need to simply investigate the food. Question the items we buy. But what exactly should we be looking for…


Well, do we know what we are looking for? Do we know how to grow spinach, what season it grows, or even how to cook it? We may not because we don’t know and don’t have many skills when it comes to growing or preparing food. For the most part, skills in how to keep a house have been lost in the midst of modernization and the passing of family members who had those skills. In several periods of our history, people, even people with full time jobs and children, had to grow their food and preserve it for the winter. During the Great Depression, women gathered in community kitchens to learn preserving skills to stock up food for the family in an affordable way. Victory Gardens abounded in front lawns during World War II as a way to provide another source of food during periods of rationing. While I hear many people calling for more local food, I don’t hear as many voices calling for people to sacrifice their beautiful green lawns for a vegetable garden. As an apartment dweller I sadly do not have land where I can grow food. Instead, I spend time volunteering at a local organic farm. In return for my work I often receive a bag of tasty goodies. In addition, as people push for others to eat locally, there is not much of an effort to teach others how to eat year round by preserving food through canning, freezing, and drying. I myself am currently suffering from a lack of satisfactory food options since I did not set aside enough food for the winter. I recently purchased a book to learn more about the processes of canning, so I hope by next winter to make my way at least part way into the winter months with stored food. It is sad to see basic knowledge and skills in homemaking fade from the American way of life. In addition, if we are familiar with processes of growing food, we can make informed decisions about how we want the food we eat to be raised. But I feel something more valuable could happen as people try to gain more knowledge and skills. I have found through my own efforts to learn about growing food that I have fostered some friendships that I deeply cherish. I have learned from the experience and skill of others, made connections with other generations, and learned some of the wisdom they have to offer. I find this interaction invaluable. In fact, these kinds of interactions are part of what draws me to the work of growing and preparing food. Passing on skills of homemaking is quite possibly one of the best gifts anyone can give. It gives the recipient the opportunity to foster their own home, shape and nurture it with care so that it may grow and flourish.

Permaculture: An Honest Name

For food to make any significant changes, a better understanding of what it would mean to truly grow food in a sustainable way needs to be established. I think a good guideline for this sort of discussion is the idea of permaculture. Permaculture, in a very basic sense, is a way of approaching the design of an entire land area (the natural and built environments) that is efficient, productive, creates no waste, and nurtures the environment. Permaculture encourages several environmentally beneficial practices which are not typically followed in farming – conventional or organic. In an ideal permatulre system the soil is not tilled (assists the organic life of the soil, prevents erosion and leeching of nutrients, less work), water catchment systems are established so that outside water use is limited (graywater recycling, swales, dams, and rainwater catchment barrels), farm and wild animals are used as much as possible for labor which they would naturally be doing (chickens to scratch up soil, predatory animals to fight pests, manure for nutrient content, etc.), and the growing grounds are sheet mulched (layers of nutrients, newspapers, and mulch) to provide tons of nutrients, hold water, and keep aerated), and areas are established as restored natural habitat for wild animals (encourages predators to pests, better for overall environment). There are many other elements that can be in place in a permaculture system, but the above list gives an idea of the benefits to this sort of approach to growing food. While there are several beneficial practices to learn from permaculture, I find the mindset encouraged by permaculture the most insightful. In setting up a permaculture design, you have to think of the land and everything in and on it, animate and inanimate, as one whole system that gives and takes. Permaculture has more to do with the connections between all the elements than the elements themselves. It is quite an ingenious and really a necessary way to look at living on the land and growing food. I strongly recommend picking up some books (Bill Mollison and David Jacke are a good place to start) and begin learning. Ok, enough of the technical stuff.

What I think is important about permaculture is that it truly stands for a clear concept, unlike so many of the titles such as "green," "organic," and "sustainable" that are thrown around so much that they begin to lose any meaning or value. Permaculture as a term represents a series of design principles. In fact the term permaculture is copyrighted, a fact I found quite odd when I received my certificate in the subject. However, now I begin to see some value in this because the word must always be used with its true meaning and intent intact. The term is supposed to be used by those trained in what and how to do permaculture. This ensures a kind of safety net around the term ensuring that it is not watered down or used inaccurately.

In Conclusion...

In essence, for true change in the food system there must be an alteration in the entire approach to growing food and the lifestyle we live. The change must be both systematic and personal. I think activists are prone to the “five easy steps to change everything” approach. The problem is that this sort of approach makes it so easy for the general status quo to continue with only some of the minor details being altered. Today as I was reading Hannah Arendt she was emphasizing the point that in classical times extraordinary action and courage and was looked upon with the most respect. Those that stood out in their public action were considered honorable. She then discussed that in modern times with the rise of the masses and our reliance on things such as statistics, we tend to follow trends of action among the majority. The behaviors of the status quo are remembered in modern times, not the extraordinary actions of the individual. I found her point very insightful. Looking at the doings of humans as action rather than behaviors creates a huge shift in the role of human responsibility. In fact, I think the entire ethical role of the human shifts. There are two individuals I have known in my life that I feel break the surface and have the courage to take actions of great significance, though the actions in and of them selves are quite simple. These actions, though perhaps not the ideal Arendt speaks of, do provide those who witness them with lessons and inspiration. I think these sorts of people provide a stronger and more inspiring force than is imagined. Will they change the world? I am not sure…and I am not sure that is their intent. I think their intent is to live in strict accordance to their beliefs and ethics. Perhaps that is the departure point, the complete connection between ideas (vita contemplativa) and deeds (vita activa).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

the grocery store

Upon my decision to never set foot into a large chain grocery store I have been thinking about how bizarre and curious the dominant view of purchasing food is. It seems that typically once a week someone in the household has to run errands. The errands include trips, made as short and convenient as possible, to assorted destinations to the surrounding environs armed with a list and a car. The car is what necessitated the invention of the shopping cart. When people had a trunk to fill with food, the amount of food purchased at the store grew beyond the limits of the basket and into the ridiculous bounty of the grocery cart.

The purchaser thinks mostly in terms of what will last for a week or two so the person can avoid having to run more errands (errands are run, never walked; apparently if you want to walk you should get a dog). Therefore, the things that are purchased at the store are often in one of the following states: frozen, canned, or jarred, and all will last for an indefinite period of time. Even milk, with its ultra-pasteurization, will last for about two months from the day it’s bought (mind you, it’s been stored for about four months before hitting the shelves).

These items taste horrible, could easily be prepared from fresh or stored ingredients within the home, and contain harmful chemicals and preservatives that negate most nutritional value of the food eaten. For the most part shoppers purchase things that are fast and easy to prepare, since most people work 40 or more hours a week and view cooking as yet another chore in a seemingly endless list of errands and chores. These fast and easy meals are often individually packaged, packaged in a layer of plastic which is contained in a cardboard box. The shopper does not have to worry about this excessive packaging since the room in the trunk is ample and trash is taken away each week. There is no cue to consider the amount of energy consumed needlessly in the production of a mass market food item. No cue to look at the ingredients, after all if we all are dieting than all that matters is the fat percentages, right? Even the grocery store itself, the very environment where the shopper is present, is not something to be reconsidered for most. After all, all the big box stores are nearly the same. Just the status quo supermarket. Rows and rows of food items (not real food necessarily, but food products in boxes and bags marketed like new computer devices), frozen food sections made up of three aisles, many (oh, probably 16) check-out lines with scanners and registers, and open refrigerator cases lining the walls.

Quite possibly the only thing that will make the shopper pause, and only very few shoppers at that, is whether or not the food purchased is organic. It could be a frozen dinner contained in feet of plastic and cardboard packaging with ingredients grown in Peru and South Africa and unknown preservatives and flavors. But, it says organic and has a nice image of a peaceful, green farm on its packaging. Then the shopper can walk away with his or her plastic (maybe paper?) bags of their “groceries” (not food, per se) to their car and drive all two miles back home satisfied to have paid a little extra for organic, because after all don’t we vote with our dollars? After all, isn’t this the better thing to do?

I suppose, in a way it is a little better. Organic is indeed a good choice. Avoiding chemicals that are detrimental to the health of the eater, farmers who use the chemicals, and the earth is of course a choice that is in my view necessary and good.

But, what else is happening in this trip to the grocery store? Waste is everywhere. The car used to get to the grocery store uses petroleum both in gasoline and in its very construction. The store consumes tons of energy and typically uses gross amounts of land for the preposterous size of the store itself and the concrete parking lot that surrounds it (planted with small trees, often unhealthy and with short life spans). The store is more often than not a chain store. The workers are paid minimum wage and are in a situation where there is little or no opportunity to learn or exhibit skill regarding food. Even butchers would be more accurately called meat slicers. Most of the food in the grocery store barely resembles real food. The food with any real ingredients (let’s say carrots, or bananas, or beef) are so full of pesticides, preservatives, and hormones that speed up, fatten, ward off insects and disease in the most harmful and unnatural way to all living things involved in the process – eater, farmer, and plant or animal. The only beneficiary in the process is the petro-chemical industry that manufactures most pesticides (yes, another petroleum derivative. Amazing how much relies on a waning natural resource), the drug companies that prevent the death of all industry raised animals who are deathly ill from being fed grains and kept in unnatural habitats, and the food manufacturers who pump out food as if it were an assembly line factory pumping out products, brimming with marketing strategies. This stuff isn’t food. It more likely resembles a Tyco plastic toy than a meal.

And finally, there is the context of buying this “food.” It is bought as a commodity. It is even worse than shopping for Christmas. The highest quality of work that has gone into this food is the efforts toward marketing the item – designing the package, writing the catchy ad and jingle, getting a celebrity, and making people reliant on the convenience of preparation rather than their own skills in the kitchen (is there any left?). Most of the people that have touched the food item (has it even been touched or does it only know machines?) know little to nothing about the food – does it taste good, how to prepare it, during which season does it grow. This makes me wonder why the family psychologists even care if the family sits down to one dinner a week together? Can this rightly be called a dinner? Is this the kind of thing that should be shared with loved ones?

So, I am sure you are asking, what is the alternative? Well, the alternative is not enough. An alternative is something that tends to be unconventional, choosing one thing instead of the other. It’s a back-up plan, another option. Well, the other option that we have been encouraged to take is driving a Prius to Whole Foods and buying a box of Kashi. This is not sufficient. This is not enough. It is not an alternative because it does not allow enough of an opting out. Too many of the same systems are in place and being replicated. An alternative is not enough. We don’t need a back-up plan, we need an entirely new system.

This has been quite a lot for one entry, so I will return to this in my next entry. Expect more, shortly. In the meantime, keep warm and enjoy your Sunday night.