July 2010

Charlotte Freeman


The Revolution Starts Now

One of the questions that has come up over and over both on my blog, on other food blogs, and when talking to people who aren’t into cooking or food is, why even bother? Why do we cook in the first place, when there are whole supermarkets devoted to replacing home-cooked meals with meals-in-a-box, or in-a-frozen-bag, or even precooked pot roasts direct from the bowels of Swift and Armour right to your supermarket meat case? Why bother when clearly all these big corporations are ready to step in and save us the time and mess and even claim to save us money? Who are we, mere home cooks, to rival the experts like Emeril and Wolfgang and now even Mario, whose happy faces beam out at us from all those packages that they lovingly prepared in their very own factories?

Some of us cook because we don’t buy it. We don’t believe that those corporations give a rat's ass for anything other than the bottom line, that they’re culling crappy ingredients and zhuzhing them up with preservatives and flavor enhancers and all sorts of other chemical garbage in order to make us believe it’s real food. Some of us cook on a regular basis, and even grow gardens, or keep a couple of chickens in the backyard, in part as a revolutionary act. As a way to give the finger to the corporations that want to trap us in an endless cycle of buy-buy-buy (without somehow actually employing anyone in the US. Not sure how we’re supposed to keep buying when we don’t have jobs).

This month, I’ve got a backlog of books about people who are struggling to find ways to live outside of the hegemony of not only the corporate food system, but of a corporate economic system that has abandoned too many of us altogether. I’m seeing a sub-theme in even food writing that there is a a sense of shock and disorientation afoot in the land, that even bright people who have always succeeded in school, who got all the scholarships and degrees and fellowships and graduate degrees, are discovering that the opportunity they were told was going to be afforded to them by all this hard work doesn’t really exist. Or if it does exist, then they still can’t figure out how to live in a way that makes economic and emotional sense.

Even a relatively straightforward food memoir like Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, in which Elizabeth Bard discovers, after moving to Paris to be with the man who becomes her husband, that the skills she’d depended on -- ambition, intelligence, drive -- are not going to serve her in this new life. She struggles without the sort of professional job that has always defined her existence, getting by doing some freelance writing and giving tours of art museums to tourists. Despite her ambivalence, her life in France is a rich one, with a man she loves, his family, and the family they plan to start together. It’s a life where slowing down is not a crime, where food is important and meals are something to stop for, where the biggest values are not making a lot of money but taking care of the people you love. It sounds like a big old cliché, and at times the protagonist comes off like the overprivileged American she’s growing out of being, but for the most part this is a charming story of one woman growing up. There are some terrific recipes along the way as well.

Shannon Hayes has already garnered a steady stream of reviews, rebuttals and Internet chatter in the wake of her book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, in which she argues that by rethinking our domestic spheres as units of production, rather than units of consumption, we can free ourselves from the tyranny of working for wages, and begin to build a world where the goal is to “generate a living for all, rather than a killing for the few.” Although Hayes was born and raised on a farm, her early career trajectory was pretty normal: college, graduate school, professional jobs for both herself and her husband. She describes her early self as both “fiercely ambitious” and, like so many rural kids, deeply attached to her home place. Early in their marriage, while she was still in grad school, they bought a small piece of land in the same valley as her parents’ farm, counting on his wages from a professional job to pay the mortgage. When he was laid off, it looked like they were going to lose it all, until after a long weekend of panic and weeping, they sat down and ran the numbers. If they sold the cabin and moved to the city, if they both got full time jobs, by the time they subtracted the additional costs for two cars, commuting, higher housing costs, professional wardrobes, and the cost of buying rather than growing their own food, they’d only come out about ten thousand dollars ahead. And those calculations, Hayes notes, didn’t take day care into account. So they stayed put, living the frugal, rural lifestyle in which she’d been raised, making what money they could in agriculture and writing, and beginning a family in the place where they’d wanted to be rooted all along. It’s a conflict we see all too often out here in rural Montana where I live -- bright kids who are told by the school system and media and society that they should want to get out, go somewhere bigger, with brighter lights, and do something with their lives, but who can’t bear the thought of leaving. Hayes describes in the first half of this book how her goals shifted, instead of focusing on of how much money could she make, she and her husband began to focus on how much money could they avoid spending?

After a number of years living this way, raising meat animals with her parents, growing most of her own food, homeschooling her kids and working off-farm as a writer and advocate for the sustainable grass-fed meat movement, Hayes decided to reach out and she placed a notice on her website, asking other ecologically-minded homemakers to get in touch. She got hundreds of letters, and did extensive interviews with twenty of them, traveling to see their homes. The lifestyles she describes are radical in a few ways: living with one or no car, eschewing health insurance in favor of healthy lifestyles and savings plans, finding creative ways to achieve housing on a single modest income, shifting from paid to family-based child care and education, and believing that retirement is possible, even on a modest income. It’s not a lifestyle that is suited to everyone. Frugality of the type Hayes and her interviewees describe takes time and energy: growing, cooking and preserving one’s own food, teaching one’s kids, thrifting, bartering and sharing instead of the easy path of buying it new at the box store. But the lives she describes are filled with creative work, leisure time, and a general absence of that fear that forms the baseline of so many of our lives as we keep chasing bigger and bigger paychecks that seem to flow faster and faster through our bank accounts.

My biggest concern about Hayes’ book isn’t that she’s somehow going to set feminism back. I think we’re all pretty aware that the 1970s-era feminist ideal that we could “have it all” has not worked particularly well, and that we are still in the long, drawn-out process of figuring out how to have fulfilling work and home lives. However, she never directly addresses the parallel home-based movement among the Christian right, especially the Dominionist sects, which espouses homemaking in order to restore an explicitly pre-feminist patriarchal family order. I e-mailed her about this, and her response was that she chose to interview only those families where power was shared equally among spouses regardless of religious belief. While I think this is a useful distinction, I wish she had applied the same systematic thinking to the potential abuses of power that radical homemaking might expose a woman to as she did to her analysis of the economics, politics and power dynamics that are arrayed to convince us that we must work outside the home. If a progressive radical homemaking movement is to succeed in the long run, this darker parallel movement must be explicitly addressed and rebutted.

In The Town That Food Saved, Ben Hewitt takes a long look at his hometown, Hardwick, Vermont, which has become something of an epicenter of the organic and artisanal food movement in the Northeast. Hardwick began as a granite town, centered around a quarry that closed decades ago, but it’s in a fertile valley with good topsoil, with a population ranging from old farmers to back-to-the-landers to white-collar workers willing to commute to Montpelier. It is a resourceful group, and Hewitt tells the story of how this small town became a center for a food revolution that seeks not only to provide good, clean, organic food but artisanal cheeses, organic seeds, and commercial compost as well.

Where Hayes was describing people working to get off the corporate hamster wheel at a family-by-family level, Hewitt takes on a town that doesn’t even have a corporate wheel to jump off of, but which is, despite its desperation for jobs, still concerned about what kinds of jobs are created, whether they’re sustainable, and the inevitable problems that occur when small businesses start to get large. It’s a town like so many in America these days, but one where instead of leaving, a bunch of entrepreneurial folks, Hewitt calls them “agreprenuers,” started inventing businesses that would allow them to stay, and maybe even to employ some of their fellow townspeople.

Hewitt notes in the introduction: “The recent growth in Hardwick’s ag-based commerce is notable for something else: These outfits are, by and large, operated by youthful entrepreneurs possessing a surprising degree of business acumen. These are not the back-to-the-land-dropouts of the region’s 1970s homestead agricultural revolution… bartering Grateful Dead bootlegs for a handful of warty carrots… these are, by and large, graduates of our nation’s elite liberal arts colleges who have sought ways to apply their six-figure educations to occupations rooted in the soil.” These are guys like Tom Stearns, who started High Mowing Seeds as a nineteen year old, and in thirteen years has grown it into a nationally-distributed seed company that employs thirty. He’s also the president of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and the guy who, due to his high-energy persona tends to fall into the role of media spokesperson for the Hardwick agricultural revival. Hewitt profiles others, including Andrew Meyer, who founded Vermont Soy, and its sister company Vermont Natural coatings; Pete Johnson who founded Pete’s Greens; and Mateo and Andy Kehler, who not only started Jasper Hill Cheese, but invested in a 22,000 square foot, underground, climate controlled cheese cellar that they intend as a central resource for other Vermont cheesemakers. Hardwick’s oldest food company is the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op, founded in 1975, and it’s newest co-op is Claire’s Restaurant, which calls itself a “community supported restaurant” and was founded on the sale of shares to the public. For your $1,000 share in the restaurant, you’re entitled to one $25 dinner per month until the share is repaid. There’s grumbling in town about Claire’s being too expensive, or too fancy, and Hewitt does a good job parsing the class bias on both sides, as well as the actual economics of the enterprise. Too expensive or not, too fancy or not, Hardwick once again has a restaurant where folks can get dinner and a beer, something that was lacking in the recent past.

Hewitt’s no blind booster though. He admits his ambivalence about the media attention to Hardwick, and his own part in it, and wonders throughout the book about the sustainability of a food-based economy that depends on exports to wealthier cities. It’s not the inhabitants of Hardwick who are buying twenty-dollar-a-pound cheese, or soy milk by the hundredweight, and as Hewitt notes, “To me, it sometimes seemed as if there were a lot of grand ideas, good intentions, and inspiring sound bites, but the tangibles had yet to evolve… [W]hat I should have asked [Stearns] was this: What won’t you be exporting? Because it was the stuff that would stay in Hardwick -- the food, the jobs, the resilience -- that really mattered.” Hewitt portrays a town struggling to accommodate the change brought on by the influx of agreprenurial enterprise and the small media feeding frenzy that ensues. There’s conflict, of course. On the one side you have the old agricultural community that consists of dairy farms struggling to stay afloat as prices drop, and small landholders like Hewitt himself, folks who live off the grid, raise a few animals for the family, grow and preserve a garden, and hold a variety of off-farm jobs. The older blue-collar denizens of the town are suspicious of the new businesses, the new energy, the media attention, where some of the older homesteaders doubt that this is a new model at all. One of Hewitt’s oldest friends, Suzanna Jones invites him for dinner, where her frustration boils over. “Tom Stearns's approach to agriculture has so many elements of [the traditional] system that it’s not an alternative,” she says. “It’s all based on the currency of money. What do people really need?… They don’t need this gentrified green, boutique scene.”

Hardwick’s blossoming agricultural economy was hit hard by the economic disaster of the past couple of years, and yet, they weathered it pretty well. And for all of Hewitt’s hometown doubts and his exploration of what wasn’t working as well as what was, at the end of the day you have a small, poor, rural blue-collar town that has revitalized itself. Whatever the Hardwick project is, and however replicable it might or might not turn out to be, what the town of Hardwick has proven to itself and to the world is that a decentralized food system can work, that small, local, organic businesses can grow, can employ people, and can bring life back to a dying main street.

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness is journalist Lisa Hamilton’s exploration of three farmers who are bucking trends in the biggest of big-ag sectors: dairy, ranching and grain. There’s Harry Lewis, a fourth-generation African-American dairy farmer in east Texas whose ancestors bought their land straight out of slavery. Harry keeps a small herd, fifty cows, and is one of the farmers who make up the Organic Valley co-op of family farms. Harry’s values are the oldest on earth, the health of his pasture, the happiness of his cattle, and his family. Harry’s mantra is that “you don’t work to be rich, you work to be free.” Harry’s a character, and Hamilton captures that, but she also captures the entrepreneurial spirit that has always fueled the best agricultural producers. When commercial milk prices bottomed out, Harry resisted the conventional mantra that the only way to survive was to go big, to move his operation out into the desert where thousand-head dairy operations are the norm. Instead, he found his way to Organic Valley, which really is a co-op of small dairy farms, and one in which it’s one farm, one vote.

Hamilton next profiles Virgil Trujillo, a tenth-generation stockman in New Mexico, currently making a living as the rangeland manager for the Ghost Ranch foundation. Trained in Holistic Range Management, Trujillo is working to encourage his community to return to communal ranching on the ancient land grant his ancestors received from the Spanish known as the ejido. Through Trujillo’s experience, Hamilton gives a portrait of the big challenges facing anyone who wants to continue ranching outside the agribusiness model, the challenges of finding land, of getting a decent price, of keeping the next generation interested in a difficult but rewarding way of life.

The last family profiled in the book are the Podolls, who began growing organic crops of mixed grain in North Dakota in 1974. After David Podoll set himself a winter research task of proving that organic was as ridiculous as all  his neighbors said it was, he found himself convinced that the opposite was true. He also became increasingly convinced that the conventional model of raising grain, while enormously productive when you consider the small amount of human input you need, was, because of the enormous input of fossil fuels required, ultimately foolish and unsustainable. The Podolls grow a rotating crop of grains, buckwheat, millet, and triticale. But the Podoll brothers’ true love is their vegetable garden, where they grow most of their own food, an anomaly in the land of big grain farmers. (As my own grandmother said to me when I asked as a kid why we didn’t grow anything a person could eat on our farm, “Why should I bother to grow vegetables when I can buy them at the store?” Sigh.) They’ve also spent forty years saving seeds and breeding for taste, beauty and disease resistance. Lucky for the rest of us, they’re members of Seed Savers, my favorite winter catalog, and the go-to source for homegrown vegetable seed.

What each of these three has in common is a sense that what they do on their land is not simply mechanical, that they are involved in bigger processes than themselves, and that to farm well is not just a job. It’s a responsibility to the larger community of living things, and that although the work is hard, it’s creative and rewarding in its own right. As Harry would say, it’s work that makes them free. How many of us can say that about what we do in our cubicles?

What does any of this have to do with cookbooks? If you’re interested enough in cookbooks to be reading my obscure little column, then it seems that it’s time to start thinking about the bigger economic systems in which our food system is embedded. Why should we try to buy local? Why does organic matter? Why should we care about the lives of farmers or ranchers or cows or genetically-modified wheat? Because feeding ourselves and our families (however we might construct them) is the most basic task we face and the entire force of corporate America is deeply invested in telling us we can’t do it. That it’s too hard. That it’s boring. That it’s a waste of time. Or conversely, that it’s elitist and only for rich people and annoying hipsters who live in cities and insist on being rude and photographing their food in restaurants and then blogging about it. Both messages are false. Cooking is creative. Cooking is individual. Cooking is one way we can thumb our noses at the forces of the Big No who try to control us by keeping us scared.

However, the question remains -- how important? Is it a hobby? Something you do to impress your friends? Or is it, like reading, one of those things you believe in and practice and think is important despite all the cultural messages to the contrary? We might not all be Shannon Hayes, who is willing to homeschool and brave enough to go without health insurance (although I’m considering it once my COBRA runs out), but there are lessons we can learn from the portraits of all these people who are involved in the business of food. Primarily, that if you really want to do it, no matter how crazy it sounds to people who think in conventional terms, you can probably find a way to do it. That there are people out there like Shannon Hayes and Harry Lewis and Tom Stearns using their prodigious energies and intelligence and creativity to buck the system, and who are throwing out ideas big and small by which we might join them, makes thinking about cooking and eating more than just “this gentrified, green boutique scene.” It makes it real. It makes us rebels, even if only in small ways, against the forces of hugeness that seek to crush us.