Monday, January 31, 2011

The Language of Food

Our discussion at The High Calling this week of The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God covers three essays, we’re taking a turn toward the political. Not that the political is necessarily a bad thing, but politics now permeates virtually all aspects of American life, including food. Sometimes it becomes very wearying, indeed.

I love the stories, poems and novels of Wendell Berry, whose essay in this collection, “The Pleasure of Eating,” is taken from his previously published work What Are People For? His fiction, poetry and non-fiction are of a piece, reflecting a particular philosophy, faith and worldview. Berry has become something of the patron saint of the local food/slow food movement, which (among other things) espouses knowing where your food comes from and living close to where your food is produced, even producing some or all of it yourself if possible.

The definition of local has varied. Originally, local meant within five miles, which was a problem for the great urban centers of New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, not to mention the rest of us who live in much smaller urban centers. Today, “local” is generally suggested to be something within 400 miles of where you live, which seems to me to stretch the idea of “local.” Can you really “know” the farmer who grows your food if he or she lives 400 miles away?

I hesitate to criticize Berry. I have friends who half-jokingly refer to him as St. Wendell. As I said, I enjoy his poetry and fiction. And I work for an agricultural company that Berry sees as part of the problem with American food and agriculture, so anything I might say would be immediately suspect.

I don’t criticize Berry for his writings and beliefs. He has a very well considered philosophy of agriculture and farming, better thought out that a lot of the current celebrities who run around today publishing books and making speeches. Berry’s philosophy and the articulation of it are cohesive and holistic.

My problem is the language.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” “Industrial farming.” “Bichemical agriculture.” “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor and paltry thing.” Passive consumers are “persuaded to want” what they buy. There are notions of the food industry conspiring to prevent people from knowing where their food comes from, and even a direct statement that our very freedom is at stake in the politics of food.

Others (not Berry) go further: if you don’t believe these things, if you don’t believe what I believe, then you are part of the problem; and if you’re one of those big companies involved in agriculture, then you are de facto evil.

I have this stubborn tendency not to trust anyone on any side of an issue who claims to be absolutely correct. I am peculiarly sensitive to statements made with “the sentiment of superiority,” which assumes that if you don’t agree then you must be stupid, manipulated or both.

What I really don’t like is what it this language communicates about 99 percent of farmers: that farmers are manipulated, misled, or worse, active participants in the destruction of the environment, producing the food of “industrial eating.”

This is plain, flat-out wrong.

This is the language of superiority; it is also the language of exclusion and implied denigration. If you don’t accept what lies behind this language, you become the demonized other.

Berry may right on one thing: our very freedom may indeed be at stake in the politics of food.

Only not the way he believes it to be. We may have far more to fear about the language of food.

To see more posts on The Spirit of Food, visit the discussion at The High Calling.


Louise Gallagher said...

"I have this stubborn tendency not to trust anyone on any side of an issue who claims to be absolutely correct."

Hold onto this tendency Glynn -- we all need it to ensure those who are 'absolutely correct' learn there is no such thing as absolute correctness!

Powerful food for thought here.

David Rupert said...

I don't have a dog in this fight, but I do love food and am concerned about how it gets from the farm to my table.

You are right, that flame-throwers only confuse the issue. Middle ground somewhere?

Maureen said...

Good post, Glynn!

I haven't been reading the book, though I have been browsing the commentary. One can hope the language you quote is reserved for that one chapter. It seems overwrought, at the least.

SimplyDarlene said...

We do buy local, grow, and/or forage for a good deal of our family's food, but we don't do it in a manner that makes an idol of our choices.

Glynn, the bits you superiority bits that you shared today are akin to rotten tomatoes that need tossed onto the compost pile.


SimplyDarlene said...

oh, boy, typos are running rampant today!

I meant to say, "Glynn, the superiority bits that you shared today are akin to rotten tomatoes..."

Jennifer @ said...

This farmer's wife wants you to know how much she appreciates your words. Thank you.

I was challenged by the Berry essay, and I really appreciate his thoughtful approach to food. But I also felt "labeled."

We raise pigs. Those pigs are raised solely for the purpose of being slaughtered and becoming food. They do not graze in bucolic fields. They live in confinement barns. That being said, we feel we raise our animals ethically. We understand that all we have here on this farm is God's. We believe we are good stewards of God's land, and his creatures. We are not "corporate" farmers, whatever that means anyway. We are a family. We do our best to raise animals and crops that ultimately feed the world, and we do it in a way that we believe brings glory to God.

Thank you, Glynn. I am linking to this today from my blog.

Laura said...

I appreciate your knowledge of the farming industry, Glynn, especially with regards to what you say here. I understand where Mr. Berry is coming from. I think the type of idealistic life he speaks of is just not realistic for most people. I can appreciate what he says, though, and try to do better for myself, encouraging others to do the same by not being judgmental and all fanatical. Change doesn't come through those routes.

Thanks for sharing, Glynn. I'm going to add your post to our linky.

L.L. Barkat said...

The difficulty I have is the humanity on both sides of this issue. There is humanity on both sides.

The other difficulty I have is the complexity. I know a lot, and it isn't simple. Yet I need to make simple choices for my lifestyle.

I have to believe that if farmers are human like everyone else, then they too are capable of closing their eyes to certain things.

Is it possible that some farming destroys land and the geography of lives? What would that look like?

S. Etole said...

I live in a farming community and there is the usual mix of thought ... labels ... seldom accurate.