S126: StuporMarket

This morning I read an AlterNet article “How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back” from a new book by Ann Vileisis.
She questions how we got to the place where so many of us Americans don’t know where food comes from anymore.

How was it that basic ignorance about foods had become truly the norm in our culture, and what difference has it made?

That's what this book is about.

The answers to my questions, I looked to history. By keeping my bead on what America's home cooks have known and not known about their foods, I began to track the gulf in understanding that rapidly grew over time as distance between farms and kitchens widened. Two hundred years ago, most Americans knew a lot more about what they ate in a direct, firsthand, rooted-in-the-earth way because most had an actual hand in growing a sizable share of their foods.

As America went from being a nation of farmers to being one of workers and consumers, growing numbers of city dwellers had to grapple with procuring and cooking foods in new ways. Over the course of only a few generations, we went from knowing particular places and specific stories behind our foods' origins to instead knowing very little in an enormous and anonymous food system.

Ann Vileisis says she is interested in the thinking behind this cognitive shift in the consumer separating the eating experience from the raising and producing food. This is the kind of thing that intrigues me too. As I have written about frequently in the last 5 months, Myths America is behind so much of what is being believed, said and done in modern US culture, without a shred of analytical back up.

Speaking of that, I must make clear that this morning I am merely acting as a conceptual conduit. I have not read this book or analyzed its agenda. I am openly cherry picking some of this article’s excerpts to promote my own recognition of the stupor I have observed in the big grocery chain stores. I look at the carts filled with food-like products and I am amazed how many check out clerks have no idea what real produce is and too often need to call over the intercom for a price check or turn to me and ask, “What is this?” I have often thought about a quote I read that asked,

Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?

According to Ms. Vileisis, it took an army of ad men and subsidized home economists five decades to convince women to trust the industrialized changes in food processing and distribution.

Eventually, by the late 1920s, a new ideal of modernity had gained powerful cachet in society and exerted new influence on what attributes were valued in foods; the uniform and hygienic trumped the flavorful and distinctive. As homemakers learned to rely more and more on advertisements and outside experts for information, they came to mistrust their own taste buds and kitchen know-how.
Indifference about the origins and production of foods became a norm of urban culture, laying the groundwork for a modern food sensibility that would spread all across America in the decades that followed. Over time, the mores that trend setting, affluent city women adopted in their kitchens influenced broader cultural ideals even for the poorest mothers of the rural South, many of whom aspired to cook, serve, and eat processed foods they couldn't afford.

Eventually, American shoppers of every class and gender would experience this transformation in one way or another. Within a relatively brief period, the average distance from farm to kitchen had grown from a short walk down the garden path to a convoluted, 1,500-mile energy-guzzling journey by rail and truck.

My own mother was born in the twenties and her mother had learned to cook on the farm as the oldest daughter in a family of 9 children. I learned a few things – mostly baking – from my grandmother. My own mother has always had a sort of disdain for real food. Since I was a little girl I remember canned food, jello and eventually TV dinners. She could cook and always fixed us regular meals, but she always was and is convinced her Welch’s grape juice is as healthy (or more so) than any whole fruit. This is a woman that is an ad campaign’s dream. She is adamant about her ‘superior’ food choices on her low budget. Sigh*

This cost issue is the one I find most upsetting. The cost of buying this ‘cheap food’ is staggering. The cost at checkout for Ramen noodles is rock bottom affordable, as all college students know. But there is only the tiniest fraction of useable nutrition for the money and the salty empty eating reminds me of the Haitian Dirt Cookie. Granted, it is shot full of flavor enhancing chemicals . . . To return to this article’s overview:

Ultimately, the ignorance of shoppers became as integral to the modern food system as any technology or infrastructure. The new sense of "knowing" that had been vigorously cultivated to encourage homemakers to trust experts and accept modern foods went on to shield an increasingly industrial style of food production from public scrutiny in the 1940s and 1950s.

During these critical decades, agriculture was utterly refashioned to meet industrial ideals of efficiency: small farms were consolidated into larger farms operated by fewer people with larger equipment and more petroleum; more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were brought into use to grow high-yield monoculture crops; more wetlands were drained to bring more farmland into production; more rivers were dammed to irrigate more cropland in arid but temperate areas; and the expanding use of antibiotics permitted meat production to grow to a scale never before imagined.

Next we hit the decades of my own first hand experience of food knowledge. One of the reason’s my mother embraced the convenience foods was clearly her full time work outside our home. And even though I became enthralled with Middle Eastern cooking of my husband’s family and loved staking out my first gardens, my own feminist sensibilities curtailed my passion for food growing and preparation. There were two dominant issues of labor intensive work and the weight of daily obligatory tasks. In 1970 as a new mother with a part time job and the first consciousness raising group in my city, I struggled mightily with the relentlessness of the amount of work involved in trying to have the best kind of home I could create in a patriarchal culture. By the second baby and full time work, convenience won. Besides, the campaigns to keep people from opting out of the system were very powerful. I remember the disinformation about ‘hippies’ and ‘cultists’ and ‘communes’ in general conversation. As I said before, as I felt myself such an independent, strong woman, I was exactly falling lock step into the Agri-Business, Food Industry plan. *Sigh

As families more frequently consumed quick-fix convenience dinners and ate meals out at popular fast-food restaurants, indifference about foods' sources further increased. Ultimately, we have ended up in the absurd situation today that most of us, as consumers, know very little about what we eat; and, sensing a "dark side" to our foods' production, many of us don't even want to know. [snip]
Any America history that examines how we've lost track of where our food comes from must confront a deep, almost wistful question that lurks just below the surface of our collective consciousness: Is the "where" our food comes from "nature"? Of course, our food does ultimately come from soil, sunlight, and water, and for tens of thousands of years the human experience of procuring food -- be it by hunting, gathering, or agriculture -- was linked closely to knowing the ins and outs of the natural world.
Today, however, beyond the supermarket, food derives not only from an obscured nature but also from behind-the-scenes tractors, gasoline, laser-leveled fields, fertilizers, irrigation ditches, pesticides, combines, migrant workers, laboratories, sanitized factories, stinking feedlots, semitrucks, and highways. In spite of this -- and perhaps because of this -- the cultural idea of nature (as opposed to the soil, sunlight, and water that make up the physical environment) has become an important, if confusing, category for how many of us think about our foods, and one worth examining more closely from a historical perspective.
The article concludes with what everyone who reads a blog such as make-a-(green)plan knows: the people across this country who are becoming aware and connected to the nature and the healthier processes of food raising, preparation is growing. The figure given is 20% a year, but I suspect the exponential and accelerated growth will place this much higher in the near future.

Post Script: Solar cooking success! This morning I ate oatmeal I put in the solar cooker a couple of hours before. Yesterday I had successful oatmeal in one pot and brown rice for my dinner meal – both cooked by the sun. I am so thrilled.

Images from Kitchen Literacy http://www.kitchenliteracy.com/Kitchen_Literacy/Kitchen_Literacy.html


Jurgo said...

Speaking of "dirty," "hippies" and "communes", have you ever seen "The Real Dirt on Farmer John?" The class I student-taught for watched it as part of a field trip to the local CSA farm, which they were kind enough to invite me back for.

It's the story of a family farmer from northern Illinois who, after suffering devastating economic setbacks and vicious slander in his rural community, brings his farm back from the brink of loss with a CSA project. He's a very interesting character and his story is truly inspiring. I think you may enjoy it, if you haven't seen it.

Jurgo said...

Of course, if I'd bothered to look down beyond the first Google hit I'd have realized this link would be much more useful for actual information about the Farmer John movie. It's completed its theatrical run and is now available on DVD.

Rosa said...

One thing I always want to respond to these kinds of articles, about convenience food and restuarants and junk food - restaurants don't *have* to be bad.

In theory, restaurants would be *more* ecologically friendly than everyone cooking at home in their own little space. And they have the extra enjoyment that *can* come from shared work.

If our society was local, egalitarian, and sustainable, our restaurants would be too - then I wouldn't have to choose between the expensive downtown vegetarian restaurant or our local taqueria with the plastic disposable plates.
Actually, we have an *awesome* coop breakfast joint, and if they served dinner we would eat there twice a week.

I really liked staying at the commune and cooking once a week and I loved cooking with food not bombs, the group of us in the kitchen together.

I just don't like doing it every single day - then it's alienated drudgery, done alone on top of a million other tasks.

katecontinued said...

Fantastic comments!
Jurgo, I have signed up on Netflix to see this movie I think. I do know that I watched the trailer and it is exactly what I am talking about here.

Rosa, that comment of yours actually deserves its own post. It is what I imagined so many years ago when I started my career studies in interior design. I knew as a feminist I was interested in the social utopian architecture of early (and later)feminists. It is an important point you make and I will try and pull my thoughts together better.

My son is only now starting to open up more to the concept of more sustainable food and practicies in the restaurant he manages. He is starting with calling a meeting for the staff about waste. A start . . .

Raw Food Diva said...

ooo so you made some solar food! wow....I will try that someday.

Rosa said...

I love utopian architecture. I daydream sometimes about living in Bellamy's world. Especially conveyor belt that takes the dirty plates back to the kitchen ;)

Beany said...

I remember reading this post last year, and that quote about how much time people spend on choosing a contractor really stuck with me. I guess humans aren't the most intelligent beings on this planet.