June 2012

Charlotte Freeman


Authenticity and the Tyranny of Marketing

The manner in which food, cooking, restaurants, and cookbooks have been subsumed by the machinery of aspirational lifestyle marketing is one of the first cultural changes I've noticed that makes me start to feel old. When I was a kid, my parents cooked dinner as a matter of course, and even the wealthiest kids I knew didn't go out to restaurants the way people do now (the exception being those kids whose parents belonged to one of the many country clubs in our suburb). Takeout wasn't ubiquitous. Cooking was something you did without thinking too much about it, like bathing, or making your bed, or mowing the lawn (also, not totally outsourced yet). Granted, I don't live in a city, so I'm shielded somewhat from the tidal wave of both prepared foods and food fads of the artisanal sort, but it seems problematic to me that the activity through which I've always expressed love for my family and friends has become a central marker of trendiness. I find it disconcerting that for so many, what they cook, where they shop, what they eat is not a function of hunger or necessity but of fashion.

Benjamin Wallace got a lot of attention for "The Twee Party," his April 5 cover story in New York magazine. In it, Wallace parses the meanings of a nine-dollar bag of granola, noting how the purchase makes him feel that he can "take pride in supporting local manufacturing... testifies to my discerning appreciation of the artisan and to my rejection of the industrial food system" while proving "the sophistication of my palate." He concludes by bleating that "I know $9 is a lot to pay, but this isn't just food." Here we have overpricing as a displacement device. The consumer throws too much money at a product, purchasing a feeling in lieu of actually doing anything. It's the key to the idea that we can somehow shop our way out of impending ecological disaster, as long as we buy the correct products. It's insane.

Even though it's easy to mock foodies and hipsters, people with the time, education, leisure, and discretionary income to obsess over such things are also a class bombarded by noise, by trend pieces extolling the latest expression of food affectation, by Twitter and Facebook and, now, by Pinterest, where various "lifestyle" choices are paraded past them as though the choice of said lifestyle is the most crucial decision they will make. Choose the wrong "lifestyle" and you're exiled. Extol artisanal mayonnaise two weeks too late and you're toast. Jump on the wrong bandwagon and it's all over. You're exposed as the rube you've always suspected yourself to be.

This is the position in which Jessie Knadler finds herself as her memoir Rurally Screwed begins. She's in New York. She's a magazine writer. She's stumbling out of a hip party in a Brooklyn warehouse in the wee hours. As a teenager in Missoula, Montana, this is the life she'd dreamed of, the life she made happen for herself. So why is she so discontented? Why is it not all it's cracked up to be? The career is, like most careers, more mundane than she'd hoped. Her boyfriend is both cold and potentially creepy. And she knows she's probably too old to be stumbling out of Brooklyn warehouse parties at the crack of dawn. She can sense she's on the verge of something ugly. Trying to figure out what comes next, she talks her way, on the strength of her thoroughly-abandoned Montana past, into an assignment to cover the Miles City Bucking Horse sale and surprises herself when the one night stand she thought she was having turns into something more. The first section of the book tracks her long-distance courtship with the cowboy, who turns out to be from Baltimore of all places. It takes the clarifying terror of Jake's first deployment to Iraq to make her realize that despite their surface differences, she can't imagine life without him. When he returns, they search out a piece of property in rural Virginia and get married.

This should be the dream ending, right? Life in the country with your hunky manly-man, learning to can, pickle, raise chickens, sew clothing. But Knadler struggles. The magazine industry implodes, taking her freelance options with it. She's a small person, and helping her husband build fence or move the chicken coop is not something she's good at. She's made her own money and supported herself since her early teens, and in the country she's adrift. She's not making any money. She has to take money from her husband. She feels like a wife. She pours her frustration into learning how to raise and slaughter chickens, into selling eggs (at $3 a dozen, they hardly replace her magazine salary). She learns to can and pickle and (although it's not mentioned in the memoir) she publishes a cookbook of her recipes (that I reviewed in this column in August 2011). No longer able to afford designer clothes, she learns to sew, indulging her creative urges in vintage designer patterns she picks up at tag sales. She even tries Bible study, where she mostly drinks wine and reels at the video presentations of Biblical womanhood. Throughout, she frets. She can't settle. She doesn't have any real friends. She feels isolated. She doesn't know what she's supposed to be. She can't figure out how to live in this new life. She feels distance opening between Jake and herself. Finally, at the breaking point, she packs up coolers full of frozen chickens, farm eggs, pickles, and some local moonshine and decamps to her best friend's house in Brooklyn. But when the hipsters declare her moonshine inauthentic because it won't light afire, she realizes that she can't turn back the clock. Even before she discovers she's pregnant, she realizes, sitting in her friend's backyard in Brooklyn, watching the people inside, that her life is no longer an urban one. Her life is, for better or worse, with Jake in Virginia. Finding the stripes on the pregnancy test is, like Jake's earlier deployment, one of those events that seem to clarify much of the turmoil she's been going through. She returns home, and realizes that:

I finally understood that identity comes once you stop searching for it, once you stop looking to conceptual thought for definitions of who you are or think you should be... It is possible to bend and sway in the breeze too much, endlessly tossed by questions of who you are and, what does it all mean; sometimes the most courageous thing a person can do is stand straight and strong. There is freedom in this...We lived an honest life, Jake and I, not because we slaughtered chickens, sold eggs, sipped moonshine and built fences, but because we were finally honest with each other; I was finally honest with myself.

Knadler's story is as old as literature. It's the classic pastoral narrative: the protagonist who retreats to the countryside in order to reorganize her priorities and her life. What makes it compelling is the manner in which she struggles with her identity, as defined by almost entirely by external markers. Her journey takes her from a place where the only identity she knows is the one on the outside to a place where she learns to inhabit a more genuine self from the inside. Perhaps it's simply a story of growing up, but in a world in which the Internet has only amplified the ferocity of the fashion cycles, the urgency of lifestyle choices, one can't help feeling for her as she finds it so very difficult to define herself in a world she can't quite recognize. I had a classics professor in college who used to say that when happiness came, it might not look anything like one expected it to, and it's a pleasure to see Knadler come to that realization herself by the book's end.

There is at least a generation that separates Jessie Knadler from Will Allen, to say nothing of the race gap, but there are parallels in the ways in which Allen's journey took him from an unsatisfying "straight" job to an unlikely life of urban farming. The son of sharecroppers who moved north as part of the Great Migration, Allen grew up, as he put it, "in functional poverty." His parents were domestic help for a widowed woman with property, on which they grew enough food to both feed themselves and raise some cash by selling vegetables door to door. Allen was a big kid, soon recruited to play basketball, which is what got him a college scholarship. A decade later, working as a salesman for Procter and Gamble, Allen was driving through an unfamiliar part of Milwaukee when he spotted a for sale sign on five abandoned greenhouses. He was already truck farming off his wife's family land outside the city, and while he liked the trappings of corporate life, the company car, the salary, the flexible schedule of a salesman, he realized that for some reason, farming was all he wanted to do.

The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, the story of Allen's struggle to make Growing Power, the nonprofit organization he founded, a success is, like its products and programs, the story of an organic system in development. There wasn't really a plan. There was a farm stand, a bunch of broken down greenhouses, the nearby projects, and a vague but compelling urge to grow good food for poor people. Allen was also convinced that if he could connect kids with the physical world by teaching them about dirt and plants and earthworms, it would help them survive the tough circumstances they were facing. The youth programs begin, in part because kids from the projects show up, needing something to do. He becomes an expert on vermiculture because the USDA classifies worms as livestock, and Heifer International is looking to do a pilot project with urban livestock. His compost systems grow out of his vegetable sales routes, as he realizes that he can save companies thousands on haulage fees, while making fertile soil in which he and others can grow more food. He starts fish farming as an experiment, and in part to demonstrate closed-loop systems to kids, and it's only a decade later that he realizes he can use commercial-sized fish tanks to heat his greenhouses in the winter while growing winter greens for a northern market. He's a tinkerer at heart, and his tinkering over the decades has led him to develop all sorts of methods for growing food in greenhouses powered by biological (not fossil fuel) systems. He didn't start out trying to get off the grid, but he found a way it might be possible.

One of the side effects of growing a garden is that you begin to see how everything is connected. The weather, the soil, the animals, the kids. Allen's goal has, from the beginning, been to find ways not only to get fresh vegetables into the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee but also to figure out ways to make those vegetables affordable, and then to close the loop by empowering people to grow their own. His models are Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, men who sought to build self-reliant black communities by building upon strengths those communities already possessed. Allen believes wholeheartedly in the beneficial effects of the hard work that characterizes market gardening, and there are numerous stories in the book about kids whose lives have been saved from poverty and failure by the lessons of the garden.

Allen himself credits the garden, his farm outside of town, and the work he's done with kids and communities over the years with saving his life. One of the strongest arguments, which runs like a thread through the book, is that we need to figure out how to give people work that has meaning. It's not enough just to make some money. Is it any wonder that we're beset as a nation by depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity when we have a population poisoning their souls in cubicles or ruining their bodies staring at screens? Allen's concerns as well run to the fates of his neighbors, a population that the nation has simply written off, along with the urban neighborhoods in which they live. If Allen has a big goal, it seems to be re-animating the idea of small businesses. Farmers selling vegetables out of trucks. Urban apiaries. Small restaurants selling real food at decent prices in neighborhoods currently only served by fast food outlets.

The local food movements, the urban agriculture movements, and the school garden movements are all somewhat utopian movements, and thus leave themselves open to a certain amount of ridicule. Like all subversive movements, they tend to be driven by cranks, and sometimes by pretentious cranks, but that doesn't negate the real progress being made by diversified attempts to reinvent our food systems. Allen is fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. that the arc of history, it bends slowly.

While it's easy to make fun of nine-dollar granola, or artisanal chocolatiers sailing schooners to Central America for beans, the real takeaway from Wallace's New York essay is the hard numbers on how the local food movement is bringing manufacturing back to Brooklyn. Allen closes his book with several case studies of people who have taken his workshops, then have gone home to start their own businesses. People are starting real businesses, and hiring people. We've been told that America is "post-industrial" -- that we don't make real things any more, that we should be turning our focus to service jobs, to "information" jobs. And yet, in thousands of cities, and small towns, people who are out of work, or who hate their jobs, are turning to older ways of making some money. Raising chickens. Growing and selling real food. Opening stores or small restaurants. Reaching out to one another in communities of barter. Starting small businesses making things and then selling them.

Even if some of the products seem ridiculous -- nine-dollar granola, expensive chocolate bars, overpriced jams -- what isn't ridiculous is the way that by making and selling things, a generation is relearning actual skills, rethinking the concepts of job and livelihood, and spreading small tendrils of hope in blighted landscapes. It might not be scalable yet, and there might still be a lot of silliness, but it feels like real change is afoot. Jessie Knadler's and Will Allen's are simply two stories emerging from this movement, but here's hoping that their tales of finding authentic ways of being, in part by turning their backs on the noisy messages of the dominant culture, will give hope to those still trying to find a way out of jobs and lifestyles that are not feeding their souls and bodies.