The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, stained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. — Wendell Berry, "The Pleasures of Eating"
Kris has been picking blackberries. The Oregon State Police Crime Lab sits on a wetland, and the wetland fosters a terrific crop of delicious berries. In the morning, before work, Kris takes time to pick the fruit, which she shares with co-workers or brings home to me. (Blackberries are my favorite.)
Some of her co-workers are concerned. "Gross," they say. "Aren't you worried the berries have been sprayed?"
"No," Kris says. "This is a wetland. Nobody's going to spray blackberries in a wetland. Besides, it's easy to tell when blackberries have been sprayed. These haven't."
"It's still gross," they say. "Aren't you worried that the berries are dirty? Birds might have pooped on them."
Kris shakes her head. "In Oregon," Kris says, "one should never pay for blackberries. Unless it's February or something."
On their drive home Wednesday, Kris and Rhonda discussed this attitude toward food. Coincidentally, Jason and I had a similar conversation on our Wednesday afternoon walk. We agree that people seem to have become detached from their food.
Jason told me the following anecdote to illustrate the point: Naomi borrowed a Nickelodeon video for Maren. The video described life on the farm. One of the featured creatures was a cow which, for whatever reason, was continually described as "he". "Was there nobody on the production of that video that understood a cow cannot be a 'he'?" Jason wondered. "You'd think the udders would be a giveaway."
Mac wants to raise beef cattle at his new place. I'm eager to go in on part of a cow, to purchase a share of it. Neither of us has any real idea what's involved, but there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's good. If he follows through with this plan, we'll learn what's involved. We'll gain a greater understanding of where beef comes from, what it takes to bring it to the table.
This connection with the food cycle is important. It creates an awareness of what it means to, for example, eat a McDonald's hamburger.
When I was a boy, it seemed everyone we knew raised large vegetable gardens. Now vegetable gardens are rare. Kris and I are fortunate to have friends who share our passion for self-produced food:
- Craig is famous for salads made from home-grown greens. This summer he has a fantastic tomato crop: the plants are numerous and large. He also has a nascent vineyard.
- Rhonda (a Master Gardener) and Mike plant a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Their garden produces a yearly bounty.
- In the past, Pam has grown a fine garden. She's even been successful transplanting supposedly problematic crops (such as peas). Her berries are always prolific. This year, of course, her garden has taken a backseat to the move.
- Jeremy and Jennifer have a prosperous garden filled with enormous plants.
- Jason and Naomi have a small, weedy country patch that they share with their kids. I'm pleased to see them teaching Lydia and Maren to garden.
- Michael and Laura always grow a vegetable patch.
In his 1990 book of essays, What Are People For?, Wendell Berry wrote about "The Pleasures of Eating". This essay has just been reprinted in the Aug/Sep 2005 issue of Organic Gardening magazine. Here's an excerpt:
Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. What can one do?
- Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. [Kris and I grow a few vegetables. We grow some berries — enough that buy very few — and some fruit — we only have one pear and two apples, but this is enough to foster appreciation.]
- Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of quality control. [Many of our friends prepare several meals each week, often using fresh ingredients from their own gardens.]
- Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence. [I hate shopping at Safeway. If they carry local products, it's only by chance. When we lived in Canby, Cutsforth's Thriftway carried hundreds of local products, and we made a point of purchasing them in preference to national brands.]
- Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. By dealing with the producer, you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers. [Visit your local farmers market. Have your milk delivered from a local dairy. Shop at produce stands. You'll find this food is of higher quality than you are accustomed.]
- Learn, in self defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions? [Read Fast Food Nation. Research on the internet.]
- Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening. [Talk to a farmer, or to a Master Gardener. Read the publications from your local Extension Service.]
- Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species. [Read The Botany of Desire. Raise a garden.]
Don't just eat your food. Become aware of it. When possible, learn its history.
Pick berries from the side of the road! Buy local produce from local merchants! Eat at local restaurants that specialize in local ingredients!
In Portland, I'm particularly fond of Higgins, which touts its use of local meats and produce. Also, in Oregon there's no excuse other than laziness to ever eat at McDonald's or Burger King. Burgerville is a quality alternative. Burgerville is customer-oriented, not profit-oriented, and, best of all, proudly uses Northwest ingredients whenever possible.
It might seem absurd, but eating is a political act. Connect with your food. Eat deliberately.
On this day at foldedspace.org
2004 — Out of Many, One Here is a partial transcript of Barack Obama's speech before the Democratic National Convention.
2003 — Simon Has Two Mommies In which Simon decides that two families are better than one. In which Kris consents that we may acquire another cat. In which my cousin Laurie cackles with glee as her $10 kittens sell better than the FREE kittens in her neighborhood.