Food IS Culture and Culture IS Food
Nate came home the other day with a drawing he had started in art class at school. I was a little surprised to see a Nate drawing of the Statue of Liberty, since up to this point all his drawings (like the one above) are of farm animals and Harry Potter images.
When I asked him if he had chosen to draw the Statue of Liberty he said, "No, we all had to. There is a contest in school to draw something about American culture. By the way, what does culture mean?" (ps. I found out from his teacher that they did not have to draw the Statue of Liberty!)
In the car on the way home I fumbled through trying to explain to Nate what the word "culture" meant, only to realize Nate was completely ignoring me and reading Harry Potter (for the 4th time) in the back seat.
That night at dinner we were talking about his drawing, and Derek was trying to give Nate some pointers about things he should (or shouldn't) put in the drawing if he really wanted to win the contest. With true sincerity I proposed that Nate enter the above drawing he did of a chicken. Both Derek and Nate thought I was kidding, but I argued my point that the origins of "American culture" were in fact a fabric of small farms across the continent- and why should a depiction of the history of farming be any less "American" than the Statue of Liberty?
I know this is going to ruffle some feathers (sorry for the pun, I have actually turned into my father), but hear me out on this. For all of human history so much of CULTURE has been defined by the food that can be grown in that specific place, and the relationship and rituals we have surrounding that food.
And that is SO DAMN COOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I mean, it is just so cool that when you think about how cultures developed over time, it is intrinsically linked to what folks had to do to feed themselves, to feed the community! And that is why culture is unique to PLACE, why the culture of coastal Mexico is different from the culture of Iceland! Because the rituals that become daily life in the pursuit of eating are so tied to what is edible in a specific place, and what it takes to get that food in your mouth in a way that is pleasurable (no wonder the French are the masters of sauce...snails anyone?)!
I was mucking out the barn today when this all came to me . The reason I have pursued a life of farming, against all logic, is that I have been desperately looking for CULTURE my whole life. I have yearned for it, craved it at a cellular level, craving something so deep and rich that I have felt I cannot get my hands on.
I have always openly talked about yearning for "community" but while pitchforking piles of poo, it occurred to me that Nate's question of "what is culture?" is one and the same of my search for "community." For human history communities existed to a large degree around the search for food and then the preparation of that "food" into something worth eating. And the search for food led to our routines, our work together (if you have ever tried raising a barn, slaughtering a pig, mucking out a barn, you know that it is a lot easier with several people- and a lot less boring!). Culture is our celebration of another day lived well, together, feeding ourselves with ritual gloriousness.
If you have spent any time with me, or taken one of my farm tours, you know I often say that I think we are living in one of the strangest moments in all of human history, because at least in this country, the percentage of people actively involved in growing food compared to the number of people eating food is miniscule.
So if culture has historically been defined by a deep, community bound relationship to place through the pursuit of creating and procuring food to eat, and all the daily activities and seasonal rituals surrounding that pursuit, what does that say about American culture at the moment?
I think it is fair to say that for most of us, when we think about the joys of traveling to another country, if you have been so lucky as to have had that incredible experience, most of what we think about is the food. And specifically how the food is so entwined with the culture that they are one and the same. French wine and baguettes with French cheese; Italian pasta and olives, Mexican handmade tortillas filled with beans and mole, a crazy spicy Thai dish of fish finished with mango sticky rice...close your eyes and indulge, and then recognize that what makes these things special is that they are OF THAT PLACE! These foods are woven into the fabric of the culture because the culture was created over thousands of years eating food that could only be grown and raised there.
And yet here in the United States, at this moment in time, most of the food we eat is coming from a large, corporate agricultural system that is producing a very few number of crops and turning those crops into highly processed food that is often devoid of real nutrient dense and nourishing qualities. What's more interesting is that all over America we find grocery stored selling mass quantities of pre-packed food that is the same from one end of the country to the other.
I was pumping gas the other day, and even though I was trying to ignore it, the guy on the little screen gleefully announced that "lunchables will now be in school lunches!" (for those of you in Oregon, I know you don't pump your own gas, but over here in WA there are tiny little TV screens that you are forced to listen to as you stand, trapped, holding the gas nozzle.)
Brace yourselves friends- because I'm going to do the thing where I say out loud what no one else seems to say.
What the F*!??*%$###???K. Why as a "culture" have we accepted that it is a decent practice to have school lunches for children filled with processed food that is known to have virtually no real health benefits? And what does that say about our culture?
I'm really serious. It has boggled my mind for decades that as a general population we have stopped seeing food- the very essence and building blocks that create the matter we become- as important to think about. We can talk about how food equates to culture- but if that is true- what exactly does it say about American culture when the majority of the food we eat, we feed our children, and we feed our sick and elderly- is processed food coming out of a large, corporate "agricultural" machine.
FOOD used to be medicine, nourishing, whole, sacred, hard to come by, and worth the effort- but so many people have been not paying attention to food for so long that there is a country wide epidemic of folks eating "food" that is not life giving, nourishing, healthy, and whole.
I promise the next blog post will be filled with humor, and I also promise I will have several blog posts coming up that look at sugar, processed foods, poly-unsaturated fats and heavily processed grains, and Glyphosate- but for now, let me tell you that most of the "food" that is coming out of the American corporate agribusiness machine is not good for you. I only know this because someone in my early farming days shoved a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon in my face and said, "READ THIS. IT'S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW."
It changed my life. The information in this cookbook really throws a wrench in your life, and true to whoever gave it to me, it really is about all you ever need to know to understand food. In a nutshell, Sally Fallon and the Weston Price Foundation really lay out how traditional peoples understood how and why food needed to be eaten. And what we think we know about food, brought to us by the billionaires who own the food system, is often pretty screwy.
Turns out, saturated fat is wonderful and really important for the human brain! Refined sugar is the nail in the coffin, and high fructose corn syrup is even worse. Heavily processed grains and poly-unsaturated fats (i.e. vegetable oils) go rancid quickly and become carcinogens, and mark my works, Glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in RoundUp, will go down in history as the chemical that destroyed us (for a quick intro, if you have never heard of Glyphosate, watch the trailer to "Children of the Vine" by Brian Lilla, and check out the work of Zach Bush, MD).
How did we get to this place? In a nutshell, our cultural fabric of small farms was purposely and systematically destroyed by large agribusiness interests (believe me I am not making this stuff up- feel free to reach out for a reading list if you would like to know the full history- pretty crazy stuff). Corporations like Cargill worked to make small family farming economically impossible, while pushing for a highly mechanized, highly chemical dependent "farm" landscape.
My father in law was visiting the farm several years ago and he asked me, "Lara, what do you really think about all this organic stuff?" And I said, with complete sincerity (sorry if it came across as snarky Kevin) "well, if someone came up to you with a can of poison and asked if they could spray it in your mouth, would you let them?"
He said no- and I think when asked this question, most of us would say no...BUT, back to the school lunches thing- any food that is not being grown with organic practices most likely has traces of Glyphosate. Glyphosate is known without a shadow of a doubt to cause cancer, higher rates of autism, leaky gut, and more (I promise I will do an entire post just on Glyphosate- but for now, just trust me- it is not good.)
And to bring it all together- 100 years ago we still had a culture that was woven into the fabric of place- where people got their food from local farmers, and lots of people were farming! Our gatherings around food had meaning and were tied to place, and we had vastly different cuisines depending on where you lived. How fun!
I am proposing that maybe we should take a moment and look at what "American Culture" becomes when the very ancient practice of culture being tied to food and place disappears.
We have chosen to accept a culture that no longer honors the small family farmer, no longer gives ALL OF US access to fresh milk, local eggs, local pasture raised meat. We have chosen to accept that "American Food" is predominantly pre-packaged, literally poisoning us with chemicals, and often lacking in any real nutritional value (ok, just read Nourishing Traditions- I promise Sally Fallon will blow your mind.)
I know there is SO much to unpack here, and this is SO multi-layered, and you are probably already pissed off at me and yelling at the computer screen things like, "oh, so now you want me to tank my bank account and buy only expensive organic food and make all my kids lunches with the time I already don't have!" and more stuff like that- and NO, please don't be mad at me! All I want right now is to plant the seeds of Spring that might someday bloom into our AgriCULTURAL Revolution.
I want to plant doubt that we must accept a world where our food is made from crops farmed in ways that are damaging to the earth, the people who work in these fields, and our gut health.
I want to plant doubt that we need large agribusinesses to tell us what we should be stuffing in our mouths, without evaluating if these things are healthy for us, the workers who grow them, and the earth that is supposed to nourish us.
I want to plant seeds of big questions such as, why do we NOT feed our kids in schools and our loved ones in hospitals the highest quality, most nutrient dense and nourishing food we can - food that honors their quest for knowledge and health. Why do we just go along with the corporate implanted messages that food should be cheap, and only thought of as a way to fill us up, and that only the wealthiest among us can afford the highest quality food.
And I want to plant seeds of hope- that if we are willing to ALL GET INVOLVED and ask the really tough questions- and then answer them- that perhaps we can live in a world where once again food becomes sacred and entwined with local culture, and communities become strong and resilient and whole- and we can honor the land that feeds us and our relationship to it.
I think we live in a really strange moment in time- but I also think we live in a moment that is brimming with possibility. It IS possible for us to wake up and embrace a new world where we start questioning some of the crap we have been told to believe- and we can choose a better life for ourselves and our kids. And yes, I specifically am talking about a life where we re-instate FOOD as the central focus of our lives and our culture and our relationship to the earth. I mean- why not?
I leave you with this amazing thought- I just attended a Farm Bill Listening Session with our Congresswoman, the amazing Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. The room at the Battle Ground Community Center was packed, and overwhelmingly the testimonies called for a robust shift in the Farm Bill to be written to support local, Regenerative Agriculture, and a culture of food that supports the neediest Americans. And our Congresswoman LISTENED to us!
I felt so proud to be sitting in a room with an American Congresswoman who was listening to the will of the people begging for a Farm Bill honoring sustainable farming, local communities, healthy food and healthy farming practices, and above all, thriving local communities.
Thriving local communities means thriving local culture. Let's raise our voices, plant some seeds, graze some cattle, and embrace a vivid culture of food, friendship, hard work and communities! Happy Spring everyone!