Friday, October 12, 2007

Dirty Work?

Last week, I ended a post with a sense of gratitude for those who are willing to do the difficult work of farming, of feeding us all. I have been thinking a lot about that recently. Actually, I have been thinking about it for years.

My grandparents, having lived through the Depression, always grew some vegetables. Whenever my younger brother and I went to spend time on their gentleman's farm (they were both New York City attorneys, but always had a country home, to which they retired) my grandmother reminded us that it would be a "working vacation." This meant helping with weeding and harvesting, with handpicking insects, with apple picking at neighboring farms. We made applesauce, pickles and bread. I don't remember minding the work at all.

In the mid-70's, when I was in junior high school, my father was convinced there would be a worldwide food shortage. As a result of that belief, he and some other families created a plan: we would build a communal food-storage bunker and we would raise the food we needed ourselves. We did build that bunker. Every weekend we gathered on a property in the more "rural" area of this big city. We leveled the earth, poured a foundation and put up walls. We plastered and painted. I learned a lot about physical work--about what my body was capable of doing, and enjoyed the long shower and the matzoh brei that always followed (this was in our pre-Macrobiotic days, which were decades before I found my inner Hunter-Gatherer.) We had a goat--yes, in the City. And we put in some gardens.

Eventually, though, the whole effort just faded. My dad may still have the 50 lb. sacks of soy and other commodities he was putting by. He continues to buy in large quantities, but the goal of self-sufficiency somehow went by the wayside. Maybe it was just too much of a stretch to think that this over educated bunch of suburbanites could raise our own food. Maybe it had been founded on a passing fear, like anthrax after 9/11. Or maybe there was a deeper sense that we were just not supposed to have our hands in the dirt, that we were raised for professional, intellectual work. Something seems to have changed as the impulse moved through the generations.

The last time my younger brother was visiting we had conversation that went something like this (my apologies, JP, if I really mangle your words):

Me: (talking about my kids' futures) Whatever they want to be--artists, doctors, farmers--is fine with me.
Him: Farmer??!! Are you kidding? That's like being a garbageman! You wouldn't want your any of your kids to be a garbageman, would you?
Me: Is that what you think of farmers? Who exactly do you want raising the food you put into your body?

So maybe this is true, that many of us have come by the odd sense that growing food is somehow beneath us, somehow dirtying. That this is work we want to outsource. If this is true, then we have lost something enormous. We have somehow glorified empty cube-bound occupations (because that's what they do--occupy--instead of produce) over the absolutely real actions of putting our hands in the earth to help the Earth produce our food. And in doing that, we have lost Connection on all levels.

I am not saying we should all sell our SUVs and become post-Slacker Born-Again Hippies. What I am most concerned with is that we re-institute a sense of respect and even awe toward those who chose to farm. I am also saying that we, as a culture, need to reclaim our food production from dirt to table. There are still children who have no idea that food comes from the ground. Still. In 2007. They never have seen a fresh vegetable. Ever. And somehow our culture isn't absolutely appalled. Some people even brag that they never cook, that they don't know how.

There are glimmers of hope, though. There are people fighting to remove this particular set of cultural blinders we are sporting. Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project shows children where food comes from and how they can be a part of producing it themselves. As I have mentioned before, CSA's connect us more closely to our food. The Weston A. Price Foundation educates about the role of small farms in our ability to eat the most nutrient dense food possible. Farmer's markets allow urbanites to meet our farmers. There is a move, perhaps fueled by taste, perhaps by nutrition, toward more real cooking at home. People do still stare in amazement when I mention my homemade kimchi or lacto-fermented soda ("you can make that yourself?"), but once in a while someone shares a lovely story about their mother's "pickled coleslaw" (a quick 'kraut) or an adventure in cheese-making.

In India, where the disconnect is more recent, but has been just as damaging, Vandana Shiva has instituted Grandmother's University. Shiva, PhD. scientist and food activist, conceived of this project in order to reconnect the production of food with India's traditional food culture, the cooking that is passed from generation to generation. This is so well described in Barbara Kingsolver's recent ode to"The Blessings of Dirty Work" in the Washington Post. Evidently, according to Shiva, we have been mistaken in the belief that concentrating agriculture into the hands of a few has somehow freed the rest of us for more meaningful work. What has actually happened is that people have moved from the farms into different jobs that are also part of the overall food delivery system. And, says Shiva,
many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service.
I would love to see a Grandmother's University here. In fact, in my small way, I feel that I am moving in that direction. The workshop I am teaching tomorrow, on how to incorporate "traditional" diets into a modern life, owes as much to what I learned from my grandparents as it does to the teachings of Weston Price and Sally Fallon. We will dirty our hands pounding sauerkraut, instead of harvesting our salad, but we will be connecting with the Grandmothers nonetheless . . .

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