State of the Union

The Tocquevillian Farmer’s Market

Photo by Yetta Olmstead

Every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, my mother-in-law wakes up and begins her preparations. She gathers garden-fresh vegetables, eggs, and peppers, packs them all into coolers and bins. Her husband and children pile everything into the car, and they set off, bright and early, for the farmer’s market.

It only takes an hour or so for them to set up their tent and homemade blackboard signs, only a few minutes for the smell of cooking sausage and frying apple doughnuts to permeate the air. Once those smells are wafting about, it takes mere seconds for a string of farmer’s market customers to start lining up for their breakfast.

It’s been a pile of sacrifices for Mark, Becky, and their crew—an early-rising, hardworking family, they formerly used their Saturdays to rest. Morning breakfasts were a relaxed, private, at-home affair. But now, the entire crew is up by 5 or 6 a.m. every Saturday, and spends the whole morning selling breakfasts to their small-town community—and then they spend most of the afternoon re-packing and cleaning everything.

But this Saturday morning venture is more than a business for Becky and the family: as I’ve talked to them about their market breakfasts, what they’re most enthusiastic about is the community they have cultivated. Over the course of the last several months, they have garnered an enthusiastic and loyal customer base. The other vendors at the farmer’s market have become their friends: they promote each others’ work, buy each others’ produce. They build camaraderie with customers, watch for them every week, slowly learn their life stories. The Saturday breakfasts have become more than a business: they are a weekend community ritual.

We often consider ourselves (perhaps appropriately) the most isolated generation in American history—a people whose individualism has been significantly perpetuated by technology and urban detachment. But this isn’t necessarily a modern problem—Alexis de Tocqueville, brilliant 19th-century thinker and author of Democracy in America, believed Americans’ isolated and individualistic demeanor was largely cultivated by democracy itself:

Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. … Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

What solution did Tocqueville propose to this isolation? “The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it,” he wrote. It was the free institutions—the “little platoons”—that encouraged people to congregate, serve, and steward. They kept community alive. “…To earn the love and respect of the population which surrounds you, a long succession of little services rendered and of obscure good deeds—a constant habit of kindness, and an established reputation for disinterestedness—will be required,” Tocqueville said. “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.”

Today’s traditional private associations are not as strong as they once were. Read More…

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On Eating Virtuously

In her essay on the paleo diet in the latest New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert aptly describes our modern attitude toward food: “For almost as long as people have been eating, they’ve been imposing rules about what can and can’t be consumed,” she writes. But many of these historic restrictions were religious in nature, designated by one’s spiritual beliefs. They had to do with the cleanliness or set-apartness of a religious group. They often consisted in periodic fasts that were meant to draw the community’s attention away from momentary, physical concerns, and to fixate their attention on the divine, or on each other.

In today’s world, however, the ethics of gastronomic consumption all come back to the self, and the idealized “healthy body.” Whether it consists of juicing, raw food, paleo dieting, or vegan eating, modern restrictions tend to be more diverse, eccentric, and extreme. And unlike the prohibitions of days past, these diets tend to fixate on the human body, rather than striving to look past it. Unfortunately, such dietary pursuits tend to push us toward extremes—either of excess or defect. And such attitudes, in any area of life, are more prone to vice than virtue. Our society needs to develop a more virtuous attitude toward foods: but how do we cultivate it?

Virtue necessitates moderation—it is an intentional discipline of choosing the mean between excess and defect. Thus, eating at McDonald’s every day is a vice of excess; going on extreme juicing cleanses is, I would argue, a vice of defect.

It really doesn’t matter what diet you look at: many suffer from problems of excess and defect. Eating purely raw foods is a healthy option, perhaps—except for the fact that, as Michael Pollan points out, cooking enables our bodies to absorb essential nutrients in food. We have to eat much more of those raw foods in order to get the same amount of nutrients. “It’s very hard to have culture, it’s very hard to have science, it’s very hard to have all the things we count as important parts of civilization if you’re spending half of all your waking hours chewing,” he says. So if you want to gnaw on carrots all day, go ahead—but it might be simpler to toss them in some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and stick them in the oven.

Many diets completely exclude foods that, while not the epitome of healthiness, are still good and delightful. Americans have begun to look with shock and concern upon foods like croissants and freshly baked breads—because of the carbs, the terrible evil carbs. We forget that a carbohydrate is a modern measurement meant to quantify and measure our eating habits. It’s not a religious rule to be broken or followed. We forget that one croissant can be delightful—and that five is probably too much. Instead, we put foods into “good” or “bad” boxes. We eat sweet potatoes, but ban any other variety. We buy buckwheat and spelt flours, but avoid all-purpose flour with a passion.

There’s another, equally dangerous extreme we can fall into: we can look with derision and scorn on those who try to improve their diets, while eating our burgers and drinking our Cokes with relish (and perhaps some devilish glee). We can eat two slices of pie, and Instagram a picture with the hashtag #sorrynotsorry. Of course, enjoying food in all its forms is a good thing (at least this pie addict thinks so). We should have a healthy appreciation for the glories of dessert and burgers. But this, too, requires moderation. Even eating dessert requires a form of contemplative virtue.

What happens when our eating becomes a list of do’s and don’ts—a pattern of pure excess, or pure defect? We live in a world in which shows like Biggest Loser draw the attention and accolades of millions—a show purely fixated on losing, on shrinking numbers. But then, when the numbers shrink too low, society rears its ugly head in anger—and we insist the numbers go up again. It’s all a number game, a frightening fluctuation between too much and too little.

We don’t have to do paleo diets or juice cleanses. We can eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and cook from scratch whenever possible. We can (and indeed, should) eat croissants and pie, but perhaps not for every meal. We can sip and savor wine, one glass at a time. We can exercise consistently, drink water often, chew instead of inhaling. We can acknowledge that sustenance is just that—sustenance.

As C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters, there are two types of gluttony: one of much, and one of little. Modern versions of gluttony amongst sophisticated people, he wrote, are often characterized by close attention to diet and an insistence on less of one thing or another—even when it puts other people at an inconvenience. (And he wrote this before gluten-free and paleo diets even existed!) Such a person, writes Screwtape, is wholly enslaved to sensuality, but doesn’t realize it because “the quantities involved are small.” Yet “what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?”

Food has become the anxious obsession of our society, and it’s time we put food back in its place. This is what virtue is about: a modest pursuit of the mean, a sweet enjoyment of life that is considerate and moderate. No matter the diet regimen you embrace (or reject), your life will not fall into health until it falls into balance. Hopefully, with time, we will learn that all things were created good, and should be enjoyed—in moderation.

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Second-Career Farms: the Future of Agriculture?

As people begin to develop a renewed interest in where their food comes from, many young people and urbanites are seeking out agricultural lifestyles, giving up desk jobs for tractors and field work. But it’s difficult to kickstart a profitable farm, especially as a primary career.

A new initiative in Virginia is striving to help these new farmers—even while encouraging them not to quit their day job. Created through a partnership between Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office, and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development, the new program targets Loudoun County residents who are launching second careers in agriculture. Program coordinator Jim Hilleary explained to the Washington Post:

‘Across the nation, there’s this recognition that there is a new type of farmer emerging, and that is generally a second-career farmer,’ he said. ‘Virginia Tech realized that, and they drafted a curriculum for beginning farmers. And what we’ve done here locally is to take part of that statewide curriculum, localize it and apply it to the residents here in Loudoun County.’

These second-career farmers, says the Post, now “account for the majority of new agricultural business owners in the county.” This model will probably continue to increase in popularity: even while a lot of mid-sized farms are suffering, there is a “growing army,” as the New York Times put it, of small local farms, springing up in response to the sprouting market for organic and locavore foods. But many of these aspiring agriculturists don’t know what they’re getting themselves into—and this where Hilleary’s program steps in:

Rather than delve into the technical elements of farming, the worksheet urges aspiring farmers to think more broadly about what they hope to accomplish and to thoroughly consider what a new agricultural venture will demand of spouses, children and other family members.

“That’s where I’d say that this is distinct from other introduction-to-farming programs,” Hilleary said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be a swine producer; it doesn’t teach you how to raise cattle. . . . Rather, it helps you develop a mind-set for the challenges that are to come. And if people say ‘This is not for us,’ then that’s a success, because we just saved them a lot of time and money.”

Modern farming, bombarded by federal regulations and certification requirements, can be an expensive endeavor—even if you only own a small farm. Aspiring farmers need a program like Hilleary’s to help them grapple with the real costs involved in their chosen vocation.

The article reminded me of a piece I read last year about the newest generation of farmers, and how they’re faring: Narratively published a feature about married couple Dan and Kate Marsiglio, who left their teaching jobs in 2005 to start an organic farm. Though they’ve made great improvements over the years, they’ve also found farming to be more difficult than hoped:

In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America. To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.

Eight years after they launched their farm, the Marsiglios are still barely breaking even, and all thought of retirement remains in the murky unknown. Meanwhile, the gritty everyday work of farming grows more wearing with every year.

It will be interesting to see how these new second-career farmers cope with the difficulties of the modern industry—and how they’re received by more established producers in their area. Hilleary mentioned the “raised eyebrows” that these young farmers can get from veteran family farmers, even while “newcomers might have misconceptions about established, conventional farmers.” Hilleary hopes the initiative will bind both groups together: “We want to help them understand that they are tied together by common goals, and they shouldn’t allow themselves to be in categories like old versus new or organic versus conventional,” he said.

The way Americans farm seems to be evolving at present—current growth represents a more decentralized mode of agriculture that seems popular and promising. It may be years or even decades before such endeavors turn into full-time work. But through initiatives like Hilleary’s, perhaps we will build a band of farmers who can confront these challenges head-on.

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Want to Cook Local? There’s An App For That

Image courtesy of Huckle & Goose

A lot of Americans are beginning to express interest in the idea of eating local, seasonal food. But at the same time, most of us spend our days working (at least) 40 hours a week, cramming social, extracurricular, and athletic events into evenings and weekends. Who has time to cook—let alone go to the farmer’s market, pick out produce, and plan meals?

This was the motivation behind Huckle & Goose, a new cooking app and website for people who want to eat local, but don’t have the time to create meal plans on their own. The app provides weekly curated recipe plans, specific to U.S. region, complete with an automated shopping list. Farmers across the U.S. email Huckle & Goose their harvest schedule, and the plans are then tailored for each region based on what’s available.

The company was started by sisters-in-law Christine Lucaciu and Anca Toderic. Both are Romanian: Toderic was born there, and Lucaciu is a first-generation American citizen. This Romanian heritage gave them a love of local, seasonal food. Toderic remembers canning tomato sauce and going to the market with her grandmother. There was an appreciation and awareness of produce’s seasonality: Toderic and her siblings would each get one orange at Christmastime, as a special treat. You can imagine, then, Toderic’s astonishment when first walking into an American grocery store, and seeing mountains of oranges in the produce section. This was “the land of milk, honey, and processed foods,” says Lucaciu. But several years ago, Lucaciu and Toderic encountered the locavore movement—and they adopted the idea wholeheartedly: “Now we don’t have to wait until summer trips to Romania to taste grass-fed meats and vegetables full of flavor,” Lucaciu said.

However, buying local has its challenges—Lucaciu and Toderic found it difficult to plan the meals they had envisioned when they bought their fresh produce. Kohlrabis and beets rotted in the back of their fridge, while they searched for recipes that were feasible to create on a busy schedule. This challenge inspired Huckle & Goose. The name refers to huckleberries and gooseberries—two berries that aren’t grown conventionally, and are only available a few months a year. “Not being able to buy them at the grocery store whenever the mood strikes cultivates a deeply rooted sense of gratitude and patience that’s so rare in our Western food culture,” Lucaciu and Toderic say on their website. In addition to the weekly meal plans, Huckle & Goose offers an archive of searchable recipes and a blog with additional cooking tips and ideas.

I signed up for a trial version of the app, and have been using it over the past couple weeks. Thus far, I’ve been impressed by the ease of the app and the versatility of the recipes. Some are more complicated than others—but Lucaciu and Toderic didn’t want to make the recipes too easy. Cooking, they said, is supposed to take time: it’s a ritual that we can enjoy. Though they offer some easy recipes, they also encourage people to try new and challenging ones.

Lucaciu and Toderic are also conscientious of the cost that often accompanies buying local—and for this reason, they offer a lot recipes that have a shorter ingredient list. This is the secret and the joy of buying local: fresh things taste great on their own, so you don’t have to add much. Read More…

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What’s Your Local Food Culture?

Simon Preston noticed that most areas of Britain don’t have a vibrant food culture. Besides obvious place-tied dishes—things like Cornish pasties—few other dishes had a distinctive regional trademark. In an article at the GuardianPreston writes that many Brits have developed a rather globally encompassing attitude toward food:

We’re a population that grazes dishes from across the world and, for the most part, we feel no more connected to a local dish than we do to a curry. When travelling abroad, we’re quite taken with the regional dishes that appear again and again, but closer to home, local food culture is still a fairly new idea, mostly driven by the trend-led efforts of creative chefs and encouraged by food hobbyists.

Eating international cuisine isn’t a problem—but, as Preston points out, there are benefits to having a local food culture, as well. So he asks this interesting question: is it possible to invent a food culture in the 21st century? He decided to try and create one in the rural Aberdeenshire town of Huntly:

I set up a dining table and chairs in the supermarket and used tea and cake to entice shoppers to join me. Chattering families, reminiscing pensioners and bemused workers who had raced in for a ready meal shared their stories: how they came to Huntly, why they stayed, places they had loved and lost, ghost stories and tall tales.
… A huddle of local chefs gathered and soon, my dossier of local anecdotes became dishes. The ancient standing stones in the town square were represented in the positioning of prize-winning local haggis bonbons on a plate. Barley appeared in a risotto, which in turn referenced the Italian connection found in so many Scottish towns. A schoolgirl’s tale of a JK Rowling manuscript locked in the local police station safe inspired a Huntly Mess, made with local raspberries and whisky, and the Deveron river – a place where the town goes to play, to think, to celebrate and to court – brought local trout to one dish and a river bend slick of sauce to another.

The dishes began to catch on as local restaurants and pubs served them. Customers were delighted to see their stories and memories take gastronomic form. The food culture can, it seems, be invented from scratch.

It’s an interesting idea, especially for many American who have lost the culinary cultures of their past, due to the burgeoning influences of other cultures and food chains in their homelands. Excepting certain cities with distinctive gastronomic traditions, like New York City or Philadelphia, many American towns don’t have dishes to call their own. But as Preston points out, it’s never too late to begin examining local ingredients again: our states, counties, and cities offer us a wealth of history, terrain, crops, and animals with which to build a local food culture.

In the Idaho town where I grew up, corn and onion fields had a distinctive presence. Farmers grew a lot of alfalfa and mint, and there were orchards scattered here and there. We got fresh goat’s milk from one farmer, and fresh beef from another. My brothers raised chickens. There’s a local coffee roaster in the town beside us. There are a couple nearby lakes for fishing, and the Salmon River isn’t far off. It’s only a couple hour drive into the mountains, if you want fresh huckleberries.

There are also some incredible recipes, handed down over time, jotted on note cards in spidery script, that I would add to my local food culture: my grandmother’s baked beans, my aunt’s “mile-high biscuits,” grandpa’s barbecued chicken, my great-grandmother’s brown bread, and her much-coveted recipe for peach pie.

Many chefs here throughout the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. area love to use local produce—and they have ample resources to work with. Farms in NOVA and Maryland feature high-quality and fantastic tasting produce. With these resources, it’s entirely possible to create and curate a local flavor, to showcase the parts of your culture that are distinctively local.

Of course, this isn’t meant to demean the rich international traditions that influence our various cities—in Idaho’s capitol, Boise, there’s an entire Basque district, with its own distinctive (and incredible) food culture. Outside D.C., in Annandale, Virginia, there’s a significant Korean immigrant population, and the restaurants there are fantastic. New York City’s immigrants are part of what give the city such incredible food. The point isn’t that imported ingredients and recipes are bad—to the contrary, they help form a vibrant local food culture. Without them, our regions wouldn’t have as much culinary color and vibrancy.

But foods that are chosen from local ingredients also have a distinctive story. Whether invented or preserved, local foods help define, and give flavor, to our places. That’s why Preston invented a food culture, and why I have the beginnings of mine.

What’s your local food culture?

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Are Food Trucks Good for Community?

There is a lot of hubbub in Alexandria, Virginia at present. The town—part of one of the oldest historic districts in America—has been debating whether or not it should allow food trucks on the streets. And while citizen opposition is strong, the city has finally allowed the trucks to sell their goods: The Alexandria City Council voted 4-2 to pass a 16-month trial for food truck sales: they’ll be allowed to vend at “parks, schools, churches, farmers’ markets, and other private property over a 16-month trial period beginning July 1,” according to the Washington City Paper. On-street vending, however, is still illegal for now. The Washington Post talked to locals who are unhappy with the move:

Most of the 50 people who came to testify on the matter … [were] ready to argue against allowing food trucks in historic districts, along congested streets or in curbside competition with rent-paying restaurants.

Despite the wild popularity of food trucks in the District, Arlington County and elsewhere around the country, the Alexandrians who spoke up Saturday displayed a strong streak of not-in-my-historic-back-yard-ism.

“Woefully inappropriate,” said resident Poul Hertel, to allow food trucks in historic districts or along the GW Parkway.

“Most businesses have to apply to change the color of their signs,” said resident Bob Wood, “while every food truck I see competes to look more garish or ‘hip.’”

It may seem that a “conservative” approach to this situation would be to hold on to the norm—to ban the food trucks, in favor of more anchored, traditional restaurants. Another supposed conservative approach might be to favor a complete “free market” approach: allowing the food trucks to run riot through Old Town, setting up shop on any old cobblestone street they favor.

But a truly conservative approach must be both balanced and thoughtful—protecting the old, while embracing new measures that will complement civic life. We must consider the impact, for good and ill, that food trucks might have on Old Town Alexandria, and consider ways we could  bring the most benefits, while avoiding harm to the character of the district. I think the New Urbanist approach gives us some excellent insights into the way Old Town could maximize this new market for the benefit and enjoyment of its local community.

New Urbanism is a method of urban planning that—in the words of William S. Lind—“recovers many of the practices that created the original North American settlements, the urban pattern common until the 1930s. Its designers tend to work within well-tested precedents.” He adds that this doesn’t necessitate the banning of large house lots, big garages, parking lots, and the like, but it does mean “putting them in appropriate places and providing other choices. No one is intrinsically wrong when it comes to his urban preferences. He may only be wrong in where he want to exercise them.”

All this ought to apply well to the food truck situation. Food trucks, when properly placed, can be a fun and lively addition to civic life. People living in Washington, D.C. can testify to this—the city has a wide array of food trucks, offering tasty tacos, falafel, barbecue, cupcakes, cookies, and other foods. During the lunch hour in summer months, locals and workers will fill Farragut Square. They come in groups, get their food, and sit on the grass and benches. It’s a merry event, and the food trucks help bring people together. Read More…

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The Importance of the Table

What are mealtimes for? A Pacific Standard article looks at the American family’s return to dinner as an essential meal of the day—but the modern dinner is a much more stressful and anxious affair, according to reporter Britt Peterson:

Over the 30 years since [Elinor] Ochs’ first round of studies, Americans have become, if anything, even more fixated on dinner. In part, that is salutary: Recent research suggests that eating dinner as a family reduces our children’s propensity for obesity, depression, and eating disorders. Celebrities from Jamie Oliver to Laurie David have tried to convince us to eat together; Harvard has a Family Dinner Project dedicated to promoting the meal.

But some of the tensions between ideal and reality—the moral angst of dinner—might be hurting us, Ochs said, when it comes to mealtime: “In the United States we so ‘Norman Rockwell’ that moment, but it actually can be pretty tense to bring family members together.” Modern dinner is stressful by design. Once a midday meal of convenience, it took on a much more heightened cultural role during the Industrial Revolution, when the family began to splinter during the day and dinner became the reunion, Abigail Carroll, a food historian and author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, told me. And with that new elevation came new pressures.

So many of my childhood memories surround mealtimes: My father standing over the stovetop on a weekday morning, flipping eggs, or my mother sprinkling brown sugar and craisins on top of my oatmeal; my grandmother’s Sunday dinners, replete with butter-tinged goodness, warming our souls and stomachs; my grandfather’s homemade biscotti sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting for us after a long road trip.

Food was a joy: something shared, something to create and savor together. Never did I (or my siblings) think that we were being forced into some outdated or health-minded ritual. Neither breakfast, lunch, nor dinner were utilitarian schemes by our parents to force us into conversation, or to force salads down our throats. Meals weren’t always complicated affairs: eggs and toast in the morning, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, chicken with rice and salad for dinner. When it came to “health,” my mother had a simple philosophy (one I try to follow to this day): the more (natural) color, the better. This meant fruits and vegetables were integral to the dinner hour—and this meant that our food was beautiful, too.

I remember TV commercials urging families to eat dinner together while I was in high school. The ads urged families to turn off the television (ironically enough), to set aside phones, and to gather around the table. But there always was a stereotype portrayed: the children would roll their eyes, groan, and complain. Sometimes the father would, as well. The mother seemed pesky and pushy. There was a sense in which the ads seemed to say, “We know you all are going to hate this, but just do it so that you don’t become obese or isolated.” I remember hearing all the stats that Peterson mentions, research that suggests “eating dinner as a family reduces our children’s propensity for obesity, depression, and eating disorders.”

But that’s not why our family gathered around oatmeal in the morning, or enchiladas in the evening. That’s not why my grandmother opened her house to over 20 loud, happy, boisterous, shy, snarky, laughing, moody relatives for Sunday dinner. We gathered out of love: even when love was tired, bruised, apprehensive, or pensive—true love returns to the table. Because when we break bread together, we grow to know each other, and to love each other, more deeply. Read More…

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Man Cannot Live on Soylent Alone

Rob Rhinehart has created a beverage that is “nutritionally complete”: in other words, if you want to, the only substance you will ever have to consume—for the rest of your life—is “Soylent,” his chalky-colored liquid concoction. In his Atlantic piece “The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete,” Roc Morin interviewed Rhinehart, and asked him about the genesis and motivation of the Soylent project. The interview revealed some interesting insights into Rhinehart’s understanding of the “natural,” and his rather Hobbesian understanding of the created world. He told Morin:

Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.

His line about the “natural state of man” can’t help but call to mind Thomas Hobbes’ similar definition: that in the state of nature, man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to Rhinehart’s point of view, food is a basic and practical function that we employ to stay alive. The natural hearkens back to a time of frightening aggression in the created order, and technology is supposed to save us from this natural order of things.

But what of those who believe that “natural” is better? That biting into a fresh, ripe tomato is, in fact, the best thing you can do for both your body and soul? Rhinehart argues that our understanding of such things is skewed by cultural and social precedent. In actuality, he argues, plants are not our friends:

I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.

This point of view negates two important viewpoints: first, the perspective of Christians and other religious people who believe in an intelligent and ordered creation. Second, it undermines the perspective of biologists who believe that nature has evolved to work in conjunction as well as in competition. Food commentator Michael Pollan argues that our social traditions regarding food aren’t bad—in fact, they have historically kept us healthy: before the days of nutrition experts and diet websites, “We relied on culture, which is another way of saying: on the accumulated wisdom of the tribe … All of us carry around rules of thumb about eating that have been passed down in our families or plucked from the cultural conversation.” Additionally, Pollan argued in a 2007 article that evolution has created a symbiotic system between plants, animals, and people—and that we should think of food consumption as a “relationship”: Read More…

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Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?

Khoi Vinh believes coffee drinking in the West is a self-conscious and ostentatious practice—“not just a daily habit, but a totem of conspicuous consumption”:

Once in hand, we proudly parade those ostentatiously titled cups of coffee, lidded and wrapped in insulating sleeves, around with us as we walk and drive. They’re like our hood ornaments: branded markers, symbols of our fealty to given coffee houses that, we are convinced, make us better, more informed, more authentic, more committed consumers of dirty hot water than those others who will settle for lesser brands.

But Jason Kottke argues that our coffee culture, “like almost everything else these days, is a sport.” Everyone has a favorite “team” (aka Chemex vs. French press) and preferred technique, and they often love to argue with “fans of other teams.” There are more methods to brew coffee than I ever thought possible—this Pop Chart Lab “Compendious Coffee Chart” shows a swath of them, from the “Toddy Cold Brew” and “Kyoto Dripper” to the “Neapolitan Flip.” And don’t forget the various methods of serving and drinking coffee—of course we are familiar with plain black coffee (so boring), the americano, cappuccino, and latté. But have you heard of a cortado? A galão? A Vietnamese Cá Phê?

In addition to methodology fans, there are also those who ascribe to various coffee retailers—whether it be a chain a la Starbucks, or a local indie store (usually offering thimble-size shots of espresso). Nathan Yau recently mapped the most popular coffee chains across the nation: Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had the greatest fan base, clearly dominating on the east and west coast. Dutch Bros. and Tim Hortons also had a pretty good showing in their respective regions.

Frank Bruni wrote a column for the New York Times in 2010, describing his journey from one method of coffee making to another. While he learned to appreciate the art of French press and other various methodologies, he also came to love the beautiful simplicity of good old Mr. Coffee—to find in your kitchen “10 cups of coffee, brewed automatically, just five minutes earlier, as a consequence of a few simple steps and some alarm clock-style programming the night before.”

It seems many people are as excited about various coffee brews as they are about wines—and coffee tasting can have a similar air of self-conscious elitism as that expressed in various wine-loving circles. Some shun Starbucks with an eye-roll and a reference to its big-gulp sized, sugary drinks. Others scoff those silly hipsters who only drink their coffee with butter.

So why do Americans drink coffee? Do they truly love their cups of joe for joe’s sake, or do they claim it as a status symbol, a team activity like watching March Madness? Read More…

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Why Farmers Can’t Eat Their Own Kale

In November, I wrote a piece about modern farmers’ struggle to keep business afloat. Now, Modern Farmer continues the saga on agrarian woes with a January 2 piece titled “Why Many Farmers Eat Crap,” explaining why farmers end up eating junk food. “The primary source of the tension between what farmers grow and what they end up eating is time,” writes author Leah Koenig. “During the planting and harvest seasons the days can get extreme, stretching as long as 12 to 16 hours.” Rachel Kaplan, a Massachusetts farmer, told Koenig, “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food.”

It’s a frustration similar to those expressed on—but significantly more ironic, considering the work these farmers are doing. Most don’t even have the time to eat their own produce. Why? How has farming become so arduous, it eliminates the time to eat well? This particular frustration seems to go back to family structure and the economy’s effect on vocational roles:

Historically, the social ecology of a family farm included systems to accommodate the harvest season time-crunch. Some members of the family, traditionally the father and brothers, worked in the fields while others, typically the women, were tasked with preparing and, when necessary, packing up, breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also spent hours canning, pickling, preserving and otherwise stretching the life of the season’s crop. … Brad Wilson, 60, of Fireweed Farm in Iowa, says falling crop prices over the last half-century have eroded the traditional family structure on many farms: “The wives had to get jobs in town, which takes away the home garden and vegetables at dinner. After my mom died, with my wife working in town, I asked my dad to bring out food for the workers. Instead of sandwiches, he went to town and bought high sugar, artificially flavored junk food in packages.” Meanwhile, today’s growing crop of young farmers – the ones who left urban life in order to farm – often find themselves lacking that critical support network. “My friends sometimes joke that they wish they had a ‘farm wife’ or ‘farm husband,’” says Kaplan.

Koenig’s sources experience a twofold frustration. All workers want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but modern farmers finds themselves bound by time restrictions, a lack of help, and steep economic difficulty. Historical American farms were family-run. The entire family chipped in to make everything work, and they were pretty successful (read Farmer Boy, and your idea of an “average dinner” will never be the same). But most modern American families are two-career homes—either by choice or desire. Of course every family should have that choice. But in the midst of those 12 to 16 hour days, who has time to prepare a dinner from scratch, to can peaches or freeze corn?

Many of Koenig’s farmers are finding creative ways to make do: Greg and Cari Horning, 3rd generation potato and onion farmers in Washington, have started their tractor as an oven: “I wrap a spud in foil, or just put it fresh from the ground onto the exhaust manifold,” says Greg. “The manifold can be extremely hot, so it doesn’t take long to cook.” Sometimes he even packs “a little butter or bacon to eat with it.”

In a less literal sense, many of us experience difficulty enjoying the “fruit of our labor.” One commenter on Koenig’s article noted: “After a 10-12 hour work day, with a 2 hour commute on either end, you just don’t have several hours to shop for produce, cook, sit down to eat, and still have time to catch the evening news and unwind for an hour or so before you have to go to bed only to do the same thing all over again in the morning.”

How do we combat the insanity of modern work hours in order to preserve health and flourishing? Maybe Horning’s tractor-oven will inspire us to be inventive, as well.

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