Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Locavores for a year

I haven’t read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, bestselling by all accounts, but I did read her non-fiction account of living locavorouslyAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Lifelast month. The book begins with Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters leaving Tucson, Arizona to rural Appalachia to “begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain”.

Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles.

Alarmed by Arizona’s (and indeed most of the United States’) food related fuel extravagances, Kingsolver and family resolve to take charge of their food’s provenance and “wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if that meant giving up some things” (such as bananas). To emphasize the ecological motivation behind eating locally, the book contains statistics like this one:

If every US citizen ate just one meal (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meat and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.

While this may well be true, I’d be extremely interested in learning its source. Kingsolver’s arguments are not new, but they are well-composed, and her story is really fascinating and makes me secretly covetous of her abundant farm and its juicy heirloom tomatoes.

It is true that most of us born in the last few decades are estranged from the earth, have little or knowledge of seasonal produce, and expect brussel sprouts, rhubarb, basil and asparagus all year round. We’ve probably never shelled peas, and only seen cauliflowers wrapped in plastic, and we don’t know when to expect the best kale or the juiciest tomatoes. Probably the most useful concept in Kingsolver’s book is that of the vegetannual, “an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we harvest”.

So goes the year. First leaves: spinach, kale, lettuce,  and chard (here, that’s April and May). Then more mature heads of leaves and flower heads: cabbage, romaine, broccoli and cauliflower (May-June). Then tender young fruit-set: snow peas, baby squash, cucumbers (June), followed by green beans, green peppers, and small tomatoes (July). Then more mature, colorfully ripened fruits: beefsteak tomatoes, eggplants, red and yellow peppers (late July-August). Then the large, hard-shelled fruits with developed seeds inside: cantaloupes, honeydews, watermelons, pumpkins, winter squash (August – September). Last come the root crops, and so ends the produce parade.

Now, in the context of the life history of an annual, that just seems like common sense.

As an Indian living in America, I couldn’t agree with Kingsolver more that my cultural identity is strongly tied to the food I eat, and my food culture.

Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place and the complex ways of rendering them tasty.  These are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous.

Food cultures, she writes, “are both aesthetic and functional, keeping the quality and quantity of foods consumed relatively consistent  from one generation to the next”. It is this knowledge about quality and quantity that seem to be lost when we adapt food from foreign cultures. Take the French Paradox, for instance. In The Sweet Life in Paris, David Lebovitz writes that

Americans became obsessed with the French paradox when a report aired on 60 minutes in 1991, which explored the question of why the French eat lots and lots of rich, fatty food but have very low rates of cardiovascular disease. The impact was so profound that red wine sales in the U.S. soared by nearly 50 percent for weeks afterward.

Ignoring the other components of the meal and disregarding the context of a strong food culture that emphasizes tiny portion sizes, disapproves of second helpings, and treats food as a social event, red wine and olive oil (and many other good foods) are isolated and extolled as good for you. Kingsolver addresses the same issue, “How can people have such a grand time eating cheese and fattened goose livers and still stay slim?”. Well, they slendersize their food. Kingsolver laments the lack of a strong food culture in the United States as responsible for both the alienation from food production, and food-related disorders that are so prevalent among young Americans. I am not a food historian and do not claim to be privy to any nation’s food culture (even my own is so vast that I can only claim to be familiar to some of it), but I am aware that foreign food cultures tend to be oversimplified and represented by restaurant staples. Indian food, for example, is probably chicken tikka masala, and garlicky dal. Hardly accurate. So I know that American food can scarcely be summarized in the fries and burger meal. What is American food culture? How does it incorporate native plant and animal species (and no, I am not talking about Monsanto’s corn)? I am also not talking about Lunchables or Lean Cuisine. How did all the rich food traditions brought over by the immigrants many years ago amalgamate to produce a nation’s unique food?

Eating locally can be challenging if you are an immigrant, or if you are non-American living in America. Food cultures are built around locally available produce and when you cross an ocean or two, you might be surrounded by plants and vegetables, exotic though they may be, might not offer easy incorporation into traditional cuisine and methods of cooking. And so, immigrants throng ethnic markets which provide comforting, familiar sights and smells, transported from halfway across the world. We may learn to cook and love dandelion greens and purple asparagus, but we often suffer a hankering for San Marzano tomatoes or murangai keerai (a variety of greens). Eventually, some of us come to a happy medium.

Food cultures depend on cooking as an everyday way of life. And since “cooking is a dying art in our culture” (while Kingsolver refers to American culture, I believe cooking is on the decline elsewhere in the world too), food cultures are threatened by empty kitchens. In my opinion, this may have something to do with the devaluation of homemaking. Traditionally the domain of womenfolk, cooking, and other ‘duties’ have been often relegated exclusively as women’s roles. Unfortunately, that did not only contribute to efficient division of labor and a well-nourished family, but in combination with patriarchy (espoused by men and women alike), led to housekeeping being perceived negatively. While many a parent has instructed their son not to chop cabbages and instead “Be a man”, cooking has become not only unmanly, but also inferior.

Arlie Hochschild writes in  The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home that:

The more women and men do what they do in exchange for money and the more their work in the public realm is valued and honored, the more, by definition, private life is devalued and its boundaries shrink. People generally have the urge to spend more time on what they value most and on what they are most valued for.

Kingsolver talks of “cooking without remuneration” and “slaving over a hot stove”. In order for cooking to be approached with passion and enthusiasm, “approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. Required participation from spouse and kids is an element of the equation”. Cooking (good food) needs to be redefined as a pleasurable, family activity, a priority – like exercise, and a necessity – like paid work. Children, especially, can be involved in food production, shopping, and preparation. Perhaps then, they won’t be “presumed to hate greens”.

Many of us who aren’t farmers or gardeners still have some element of farm nostalgia in our family past, real or imagined: a secret longing for some connection to a life where a rooster cows in the yard.

I do share this secret longing, not for the rooster, perhaps, but for a real vine-ripened tomato, and not one ripened en route by spraying ethylene. So, when Kingsolver writes of her year eating farm fresh eggs, peppers, mushrooms, beans, and greens, I am consumed by a somewhat amicable brand of jealousy. Especially because it seems all too easy. Kingsolver, of course, has the advantage of a rural upbringing, and her husband’s hundred acres of woodlands and 4,000 square feet of tillable land in Virginia, and previous agricultural experience. And tractors, and overseas vacations. Her experience is hardly that of a typical farmer, not even one who does not sell his produce but rather lives on it. Her problems with pests, weeds, and generally running a farm seem to be trivial (but hard work). In Bird by Bird: Some insructions on writing and lifeauthor Anne Lamott writes:

But it is fantasy to think that successful writers not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug.

Writers, artists, computer programmers – we all do. Did Kingsolver never feel defeated, insecure? Ever?

Since most of us don’t have her obvious advantages, or don’t aspire to be full-time farmers, I am certainly interested in learning what urban renters and home owners with limited space could do and grow.

Elsewhere in the book, I am puzzled by Kingsolver’s defense of tobacco farming, especially when she is very vocal about industrial farming. Admittedly a product of a tobacco county, she writes:

Yes, I do know people who’ve died wishing they’d never seen a cigarette. Yes, it’s a plant that causes cancer after a long line of people (postfarmer) have specifically altered and abused it. And yes, it takes chemicals to keep blue mold off the crop. And it sends people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills.

Monsanto’s corn does that too. Industrial farmers have kids in college too. And while we’re on the subject of money, local, organic food is almost always more expensive than industrial food available in supermarkets. Eating cheaper food can help make house payments too. But I thought that wasn’t the point?

There certainly is “…a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing  food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price”. Some of the expense can perhaps be controlled by following Michael Pollan’s rather austere food rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. By food, Pollan obviously means real food.

Industrial food (and all that comes with it), is not exclusive to the United States. Indian environmental activist, Vandana Shiva, has written heavily on the impact of industrial agriculture  and the importance of biological diversity in India and around the world.

It is important to look at food, plant and animal, not just as a commodity enjoyed only by us human beings, but as something that reminds us of the interconnectedness of all earthlings.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is my entry to the  What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book with a something you’d find on a calendar in the title.


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