Monday, May 26, 2008

further thoughts of food and stories

A few weeks ago I finished reading Kitchen Literacy. The book does provide a sweeping story of how our stories about our food have changed. Most helpful for me was understanding that this is not just a post WWII phenomenon, but happened gradually as the U.S. population grew and we became more urban.

Stories and food seem to go together. The stories of rural and town folk - even city folk when agricultural areas, not suburbs, ringed them - used to be how and where the food was produced, and by whom. Even in my boomer childhood, in a small town with a summer population on its way to becoming a bedroom community, we had these food stories. "Uncle" Phil had cows and beef critters, as did the farm two properties from our house (now a golf course). We bought two piglets in the spring and raised them for fall slaughter. I had hens for the eggs (and stew pot). My dad had a vegetable garden and my grandmother had strawberry beds. My grandfather always grew something he hadn't before in his garden - my lasting impression is seeing Brussels sprouts on the stalk for the first time. We all went blueberrying and clamming, and got our cranberries from the growers. (Cranberries now are mostly harvested by flooding the bogs, which makes them most suitable for processing, and not, very much, for storage. If you want to store cranberries through the winter, you harvest them dry, with a scoop with tines, and pack them dry in crates - not plastic. ) My dad went deer hunting, and taught himself to butcher by studying pictures of cuts of beef and lamb in cook books. Usually around my birthday we would make a trip to visit relatives in western Massachusetts, near where my dad's family had settled in the late nineteenth century. We'd visit the peach orchards in the Connecticut River valley and bring bushels home for preserving, and make pigs of ourselves on the bounty of the small truck farm that my dad's cousin ran.

All of this I may elaborate some day in my food autobiography.

But those food stories got supplanted for us and others over time. In the early boomer time of my youth, freezing was replacing canning both commercially and at home. The stories were as often of brand names (was Betty Crocker real once?) as of blueberrying trips. The guy who sold us the piglets got too old to carry on and none of his children were interested; homemade sausage patties were replaced by the brand du jour. Using King Arthur flour ties me to the Saturdays in the 50s helping my grandmother bake as much as the memory of helping her to pick strawberries to sell at her roadside stand.

Other narratives grew up - like the weekly narrative of what was on sale at the supermarket, sure to be featured in this week's menus. And we watched our first cooking shows, the Julia narrative.

Now as I consider my fellow eaters and shoppers, I see even more sophisticated stories that distance us from our food. There are still stories of brand names - but they are usually built on the clever vignettes of advertising campaigns, not the adjudged quality of the product. We get to know the actors who "make" Post cereals, or the family who eats Thomas' English Muffins, or the Kashee eating bungee jumpers. Who even thinks about where the grains come from? And there are the green washing campaigns, too. We want to believe the idyllic labels on Target's organic food line, and the grazing cows on our dairy products. And, of course, the narratives of quick and easy.

The other stories we tell ourselves about our food these days are the nutrient stories. It's good for you - antioxidants, calcium, contains ginkgo, pomegranate, blueberry extract. And just what are goji berries? where do they come from? At my local market the crocks of staple items contain full nutritional labeling, and sometimes organic certification, but nary a word about where the crops are grown or processed.

It's a luxury to have the kind of conversation I did yesterday, with the person who sources and blends the mix of leaf lettuce seeds from which I am growing a very satisfying crop.

But before I manage to outline my entire food autobiography, I want to attempt to say what I set out to: food and stories seem to go together - meal and narrative. At their best, there is a sacramental quality to meal and narrative, that points us to the meal and stories we share around our holy tables.

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