July 2011

Charlotte Freeman


Small is Beautiful: Countering Despair with Hope

"How do they keep the ones at the bottom from getting squashed?" my mother asked the Denny's waitress. We were in Winters, California, having breakfast after an exploratory drive in which we tried to get the lay of the agricultural scene surrounding UC Davis. I'd just enrolled in the MA program in creative writing. Although my mom grew up mostly in downtown Chicago, we have a farm ninety miles southwest of the city that has been in the family since the 1860s, where she spent summers as a child. It's in the heart of corn-and-bean country and the heart of our family (my hundred-year-old grandmother still lives there with my aunt and cousins). So when we got to the strange land that is California, my mom wanted to see what the farms and the fields looked like. It had been a surreal morning. "Where are the houses?" she kept asking as we drove for miles through tomato and rape and sunflower fields only lightly punctuated by farmsteads. On first inspection, the Central Valley seemed to be farmed by invisible farmers (later I found out much of it is done by plane). It wasn't that my mother and I had never seen agribusiness before, we'd just never seen it on that scale before. Since school started at the end of August, we'd also arrived in the middle of the tomato harvest, and we'd watched truck after truck pass by, pulling open-air trailers filled to with ripe red tomatoes. The Denny's where we'd taken refuge from the blazing heat was across the street from the Hunt's factory, where we watched an endless parade of trucks pass through the gates. "They put water in the bottom," the waitress told my mother, "so they float."

As Barry Estabrook points out in Tomatoland, tomatoes in California are primarily grown for canning, which is why all those trucks were full of deep red tomatoes heading in to be made into ketchup, sauce, and canned fruits. He also points out that California has the climate for tomatoes (hence the feral ones that grow along the on- and off-ramps where they've rolled off the trucks) while the Florida market, which is the focus of his book, is a deeply unnatural place to raise tomatoes. Tomatoes don't grow well in Florida, and the insistence on continuing is poisoning both the land and the people. The soil is essentially sterile sand, and the humid weather is antithetical to the plants' genetic roots in the high deserts of South America. This means that the Florida tomatoes, which for decades have been the standard in much of the country for winter tomatoes, are forced through the use of a massive application of fertilizers, pesticide, and fungicides. The fungicides in particular are so toxic they've been banned in much of the rest of the country. The tomatoes are picked green, so green that when one rolled off a moving truck in front of Estabrook on the highway, he feared it would shatter his windshield. Oh, and then there's the slavery problem. Turns out, Florida tomato growers have a bad habit of resorting to slave labor to grow the damn things.

Estabrook has written a profile of an industry that was established before the advent of the cheap shipping and hydroponic greenhouse technologies that are rendering it obsolete, a profile of an industry clinging to survival through any brutal means possible. The East Coast no longer relies on Florida to supply winter tomatoes. It's a classic story of the way application of an industrial model of agriculture has degraded not only the product being sold, but the land, the health of the workers, and the political system it corrupts in order to maintain dominance.

Estabrook's profiles of the people who make up this system are fascinating, from the Guatemalan workers, to the large growers, to the U.S. attorney (and law-school roommate of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts) who has doggedly prosecuted human trafficking cases for decades. He humanizes the people whose livelihoods rely on this increasingly unsustainable and unnecessary agribusiness enterprise. (As someone who has watched the sorrow with which elderly ranchers have had to admit the same here in the Greater Yellowstone region, I can sympathize.) Estabrook started reporting on this and other food politics issues during the eight years he wrote for Gourmet magazine, and the result is a complex and beautifully written book.

Gary Paul Nabhan is one of the pioneers of the native- and slow-food movements, and as an ethnobotanist, his interest has long lain in the effects that climate change is having on plant populations. Along with Iowa chef, gardener, writer and slow-food advocate Kurt Friese and chile pepper agroecologist Kraig Kraft, he fired up an old van they called the Spice Ship and set off on a road trip to investigate how climate change was affecting chile pepper cultivation (or foraging). They devote chapters (and journeys) in Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail to the wild chiltepin of the Sonoran desert; the datil of Florida; the habanero of the Yucatan; the Tabasco of Avery Island, Louisiana; the ubiquitous chiles of New Mexico; and a handful of smaller pepper populations, including the Fish Pepper and the Beaver Dam Pepper. In contrast to Estabrook's book, none of these peppers is commercially grown except the Tabasco, and even that is an indigenous, unhybridized pepper that must be harvested by hand -- but each of these peppers is endangered in various ways: by changing climate, changing tastes, difficulty of cultivation, and the attendant abandonment of small agriculture by people who can no longer make a living at it. The pleasure of this book lies in the stated purpose: "It was a fairly simple idea: to listen. We wanted to listen first hand to the voices in our food system, rather than taking what bureaucrats in the USDA or the Farm Bureau were saying as the gospel truth. We wanted to see with our own eyes how farmers, farmworkers, food marketers, and chefs were already responding to... factors directly affect[ing] our food supply, and ultimately, our food security and capacity for survival." While the collective voice of Nabhan, Friese, and Kraft veers from the twee to the academic in the interstices, the book shines when it sticks to the stories of those who grow, market, and cook with chiles. I found the Avery Island section deeply affecting. I'd long known that Tabasco was a family company, but when McIlhenney's vice president Harold Osborn states that after eleven generations on Avery Island, the company's guiding principle is "How we live and work here... is ultimately about long-term conservation. If we soil our own nest here, it will ultimately come back to haunt us... that's why we're always thinking about the potential consequences of our actions... not just how they'll affect the bottom line over the short term, but how they play out over several generations."

In the afterword, the authors outline four ways to eat and grow food to combat climate change and the list is a direct counter to the agribusiness thinking that Estabrook explores in Tomatoland. First, the authors of Chasing Chiles claim, we need to diversify our food crops. Second, we need to gather information from farmers on the ground, especially those who have been farming over the long haul. Third, consumers need to "vote with their forks" and, to the extent they're able, buy local and sustainable products as well as voting for political solutions that address climate change. Fourth, climate change needs to be integrated into a general idea of planetary and personal health, and not ghettoized as an "environmental" issue. And fifth, we need to build the movement from the ground up, empowering local systems that already work, and disseminating their methods where possible. Nabhan, Friese, and Kraft want to turn the current big-Ag, top-down system on its head, in favor of a small-Ag, bottom up system. And while those of us involved in such efforts are still a long way from overturning the subsidy agriculture of the USDA, that food and food issues are creeping out of the epicurean ghetto and becoming a part of the national conversation bodes well for the movement.

While Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant would seem an odd fit with two agribusiness books, I chose to include it because it's both a terrific read, and a great story about how one fairly broke line cook with some good ideas found innovative ways to implement them, despite a general lack of capital. Now that is small thinking of the sort I want to advocate. Anthony Myint was working as a line cook at San Francisco's Bar Tartine when he noticed that the Guatemalan food truck on his corner was closed Thursday nights. Thursday was his day off. He liked his job and the people he worked with, but he was getting a little bored, and wanted to start cooking his own stuff. But he didn't really have any money. So he approached the owners of the food cart and arranged to rent it from them on Thursdays. He liked the vibe of the people who owned the cart. It was "equipped with a tiny kitchen and a window facing the sidewalk and it was literally a mom-and-pop business. Juanita took the orders and her husband Gomez cooked." When he rented the cart, he envisioned that he and his wife Karen "could hang out on Mission Street while cooking and chatting together." It didn't quite work out that way. Mission Street Food, as the cart was called, was one of the early Twitter-driven food cart crazes, and they were swamped. Although it only lasted six weeks, it set Myint and his wife Karen Liebowitz off on an improbable adventure of low-capital restaurant entrepreneurship.

When the food truck became untenable, they went out and canvassed restaurants in their area, finally finding a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint that would rent them the place one night a week (with the caveat that they'd still do take-out orders form the same kitchen). They invited guest chefs, they had theme nights, they gave away the net profits to charity (all the net profits), they blogged their menus and Tweeted events -- in short, they did just about any insane idea they felt like doing. Yes, there were hipsters and foodies, but the nonprofit model meant they also built relationships with food banks. That led to events like the night the former-chef-turned-minister who runs the Food Pantry at St. Gregory's stepped in as a guest chef and then led an unconventional but touching communion service at the end of the meal. This is a hodgepodge of a book, part memoir, part cookbook, part graphic novel, but what appealed to me was the through line: if you want to, you can find a way to do it, and the way to do it is through building community. You can think of Myint and Liebowitz as the core community of the book, the core of a series of communities the radiate outward in concentric rings. If the marriage is at the center, the staff of Lung Shan, the Chinese restaurant who Myint eventually goes into partnership with is the next ring, then the chef community in San Francisco, then the food banks, then the customers, then the readers of this book. Because Myint not only starts Mission Street Food (now Mission Chinese Food) but also starts a two-day-a-week burger business in an Asian food market, and consults on a high-end restaurant called Commonwealth. The book ends with the establishment of Mission Food Chinese -- replacing the original Lung Shan and focusing on old-style "American" Chinese food while updating the dishes for a more modern palate. In the end, Myint says "the whole thing is hard to explain: after everything that Mission Street Food has been through, we're left with a Chinese restaurant that now sells Chinese food, a fine-dining restaurant run by people who used to run a nearby fine-dining restaurant, some Internet bloat -- and this book." Which is both true and something of an understatement, for it's Myint's earlier comment that really sums up what's special and interesting about this book, that in all it's oddness, it "embodies our approach to what we do -- it's less about filling people's stomachs than about nourishing a sense of possibility. (And less about pleasing everyone than about keeping ourselves happy.)"

The naysayers will continue to natter on about how we have to keep subsidizing Big-Ag producers like the ones Estabrook profiles in Tomatoland, will keep trying to convince us that change is impossible, that there's nothing we can do. But if there's anything I take away from both Chasing Chiles and Mission Street Food, it's that they can only convince us of that if we give up our agency, if we believe them. The way of industry described so ably by Estabrook in Tomatoland lies hopelessness and despair. I'd rather throw my hat in with the wingnuts like Myint and Liebowitz, or all the farmers and gardeners Nabhan and company interview (oh wait, I already am one of those people; the fish peppers in my backyard testify to it). We can choose creativity and hope, we can shop accordingly, we can vote for people who will revise our national food policies accordingly. We can take whatever stand we're capable of, and who knows? Maybe some idea as impractical as renting out a Chinese restaurant and cooking elaborate dinners for no profit will work. As the Dalai Lama says, our job is not to change the world, but rather "to make positive effort for the good." I'll start by not buying tomatoes or strawberries that require the land and the workers to be fumigated with methyl bromide. Oh, and by hoping my fish peppers survive this weird hot-and-cold Montana summer we're having.