Saturday, September 17, 2011


Spent much of the afternoon making jam yesterday. Put me in mind of a couple of things, not the least of which was Michell Shocked's excellent tune “Strawberry Jam” from her Arkansas Traveller cd/tape/album/download. The song is a tribute to making jam—but jam becomes a metaphor for all DIY culture, and how culture is something made, not consumed. And how making things, particularly jam, is a liberating experience.
But standing there in the kitchen, mushing berries down and adding sugar (not too much, because I've been using Pomona's Universal Pectin instead of Certo for a while now), put me in mind of my mother and growing up in Edmonton. Mom put up a lot of preserves.
My mother was not a great cook, but she was pretty darned good at putting up jars of fruit in syrup, jams, and the like. Growing up in the suburban sixties, our family kept contact with the land by picking local berries, and keeping a garden. Living in Alberta, we had access to wild Saskatoon berries. Mom and Dad would keep track of where the berries were heaviest and how ripe they were—in rural areas, Saskatoons grew along fence lines, so you had to park, cross the ditch at the side of the road, and then push your way through wild roses to get to the berries.
I have great memories of having a pail hung off my belt, a hot summer day with that high background sound of heat, mosquitoes,grasshoppers, and sun, stuffing handfuls of plump, sweet, purple berries into my mouth (and occasionally into the pail). It would take forever to fill the pail (I wonder why?) and when I came out of the bushes, Mom and Dad would have emptied several of the smaller buckets into the large pail.
I never thought about it, but when we got home, Mom would have to sit for hours, sorting the berries, tossing out all the crap I'd cheerfully picked (because it helped fill the bucket, you see), and prep the berries for preserving. She made mountains of jam, and also preserved Saskatoons in a sugar syrup. This was a long-time favourite of mine; there was always an air of festival when there were Saskatoons for dessert.
There were other berries in our lives; one of the first things the folk did when setting up the garden was to plant raspberries along the fence-line. As kids, we picked handfuls of them as they ripened, but the larger volumes were reserved for Mom. We also, like pretty much every house on our block, had rhubarb plants. In July, we would crack off the largest stalks and grab a drinking glass with a couple of centimetres of sugar into which we'd dip our rhubarb. At first you'd eat the sugared rhubarb, but by the end you'd just be sucking vaguely rhubarb-flavoured sugar off the stalk without biting it at all.
It was unusual to see a yard without a kitchen garden in it. In late summer, as the evenings lengthened, we'd gather in groups and roam the back alleys, hopping over fences to steal fresh vegetables and fruit from carefully tended plots. We'd eat fresh peas, and then chew on the shells for the blast of flavour, spitting huge mouthfuls of pulp as we went along. We'd search out massive carrots that were on the verge of changing from sweet to woody, rub the dirt off on our pants, and walk along talking, feeling that satisfying crunch as your teeth finally made it though the bright orange flesh.
Wed could simply have stayed home and eaten our fill of veg out of our family gardens, but “garden raiding” (as we called it) made the vegetables taste so much sweeter. The same with fruits; many families had apple trees (mostly the smaller crab apples), and you quickly became aware which apples were good raw, and which weren't. Crab apples were also pickled—I still remember taking the entire apple into my mouth and pressing it with my tongue. The softened flesh and skin of the apple would mush into an explosion of flavours, and I would pull the stem with the core still attached out of my mouth through pursed lips, sucking the last of the goodness off of it.

Crab apples were also jellied, but somehow lost most of their delight when you processed them. The parents would also buy volumes of apples, pears, peaches, and the like as they came into season, and Mom would preserve them as well.
But what is astonishing to me in retrospect, is how much home-grown food there was around. This would be 1965-1970, and the majority of households still had their own gardens or preserved their own food. This meant, as Michael S. Carolan explores in his book Embodied Food Politics that our relationship to food was radically different than it is today. Being connected to food, even to the extent of a kitchen garden, means that you have different standards for food. Eating a sun-warmed tomato is different from eating a Global Food-produced tomato, because “fresh” in Global Food terms, means something different. “Fresh” is, in a store-bought tomato, the end product of being bred for industrial production, and being picked early, packed, shipped, and displayed. It is “fresh” only because of the packing and transportation. Without the packing and transportation, it is not a “fresh” tomato, but something else entirely. “Fresh” in the garden is being picked and eaten. The word simply does not mean the same thing, even though it is used in similar ways. The semiotic content is radically different, one use to the other.
If all you experience is Global Food's version of “fresh”, your understanding of the word will be different from a gardener's understanding of the word. Gardening, or raising backyard chickens, or any of the other ways in which we re-connect with our 14,000 year agrarian history, implies that our understanding of the world will change. Carolan suggests that this means our sense of the politics of food, the way we interpret food in the world, becomes embodied; that is, centred in the body and the felt experience rather than the understanding that is communicated to us through other cultural means (such as television). A quick example: Watching an ad for a Vlasic or Bick's pickle and then eating one will give you a different outlook on what a good pickle is than if you were to eat a pickle where you had picked the cucumber and pickled it yourself. One experience is managed, the other embodied through lived experience.
When trying to figure out how to motivate people to eat better, to eat more local, to eat unprocessed and organic, it isn't enough to simply tell them its better to do so. As Carolan says:

Thomas Nagel nicely summaries the problem with getting people to act by moral reasoning alone. The idea that a single robust principle could be used to persuade everyone to act presumes that this consideration, whatever it might be, can be successfully conceived by theorists and then communicated through pedagogic practice.[sic] Yet as I'll detail time and again in this book, ethical motivation is a relational effect, conceived through one's doing. And because of this, because we all do differently, ethical motivations take all forms. As Nagel explains, ethical arguments “must rest on empirical assumptions about the influences to which people are susceptible”. If these assumptions are not held held by those to whom a moral argument is addressed then the argument has “neither validity nor persuasive force”.
[emphasis in original][Michael Carolan, Embodied food politics (Farnham ;;Burlington VT: Ashgate Pub., 2011) p. 58]

In other words, first off, you have to share a common set of assumptions and values with people in order to be able to persuade them. This is what marketers do; they target a value or assumption and then re-frame their argument in order to persuade and manipulate. It tends to be a reflexive act, in that pre-existing attitudes are targeted for manipulation or change (think: “whole grains are healthy.” Cheerios are made with whole grains, therefore whole-grain Cheerios are healthy.) If, however, you don't share that common set of assumptions or values with someone you're trying to argue into a new position, you will get nowhere. This is why marketing uses pre-existing attitudes—all they are trying to do is manipulate your response, not convert you to a whole new paradigm.
If you do not share values or assumptions, changing someone's mind becomes extremely difficult. You can use words, but the words themselves don't mean the same thing one to the other. Think of the difficulties conservatives and progressives have in talking to each other. “Democracy” isn't the same word, doesn't have the same definition, has a radically different semiotic content. Words like “sharing” or “individualism” have oceans of difference in the values and meaning attached to them. This is why the differences of opinion between conservatives and progressives are referred to as a “culture war”, why conservatives will fight to the death in opposition to scientifically verifiable facts: because of the ideology and beliefs attached to the words and concepts being discussed.
But food and food security are somewhat different. The value content attached to the words mean much the same thing to everyone in the discussion. There are actual differences between the realities of industrial food production and the idealized (and still achievable) way we believe food is produced. And it is this commonality of values around food and food security issues that offers the greatest hope for change.
But even more importantly, change does not grow out of argument alone. It doesn't matter if a position “ can be successfully conceived by theorists and then communicated through pedagogic practice”. You can conceive of the most brilliant theory, you can figure out the most insightful and exciting way to communicate it, but unless converted into action, it is meaningless.
People, and I include myself in this, resist change. Michael Carolan notes this as well:

This is not to suggest, however, that non-CSA customers are somehow deficient in their knowledge about the use of chemicals in industrial agriculture. As others have argued, sometimes what looks to be ignorance is in fact a veiled attempt to preserve a sense of agency. Sociologist Brian Wynne, who is arguably the most famous critic of the “deficit model”, once put it this way: “[Ignorance is not a product of] a cognitive vacuum, or a deficit by default of knowledge, but an active construct, and one with cognitive content, about the social dimensions of space”. Continuing, he noted that ignorance is “part and parcel of the dynamic of social identity”. If we are forced to confront all of the risks that we encounter in our routine lives we would become paralysed. A level of ignorance is therefore needed to be deliberately maintained toward at least some facets of our existence. For many people, because when pressed most admit to knowing that chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics are used to produce our food, this ignorance is directed towards what we eat. This explains why “[t]he way people talk about food does not necessarily match the way that they consume it”. [Michael Carolan, Embodied food politics (Farnham ;;Burlington VT: Ashgate Pub., 2011) p. 69]

We don't act not because of ignorance, but in an “attempt to preserve a sense of agency” in our lives, to maintain a space in which we are able to act. Transitioning out of the industrial food system is not a simple thing to accomplish. On the other hand, there are a lot of small steps that can be taken to achieve some liberation; planting a container garden, buying organic, eating steadily fewer processed foods and more whole foods, or buying only ethically-raised meat. Each of these acts allows us to make a positive difference in our lives and the lives of those who produce food. Food security is a pretty broad idea, encompassing everything from anti-poverty programs (ensuring that those below the poverty line can access decent-quality food without having to sacrifice rent or heat), to supporting local production, to community kitchens and gardens.
As an example, cooking classes (and, by extension, the older idea of Home Economics classes) are essential to promoting local food security. If your idea of cooking is a microwave, how exactly are you going to take advantage of local, fresh, in-season produce? If you've never eaten a raw bean (and I've met people who've never eaten a raw bean or pea while at the farmer's market), your ability to act, your “sense of agency” is restricted. But if you have knowledge, your have more ability to make choices and extend or expand your sense of agency.
In this way, education can be liberating rather than depressing. It is easy to get trapped in a sense of helplessness and paralysed into inactivity (and, frankly, the corporate world is much happier if you're stuck in an unchanging rut of consumption). But the joy, the sheer fun of making dinner for friends, of learning new ways to prepare food and share it, is a powerful counterweight to the easy-to-find depressing news about the industrial food system. As the American anarchist Emma Goldman said, “If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.” And honestly, if you're not having a good time, why would I want to join you? And food is one of those wonderful places where joy and camaraderie are built in. If we're having fun, we build community, if we build community, we're having more fun. Now that's a feedback loop I want to be part of!

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