“If we change our relationship to food, we can change our relationship to the planet,” said Navina Khanna in a Salon.com article about the “Food and Freedom Ride” organized by the Slow Food Movement.
Slow Food is a global movement that attempts to connect “the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment.” Food is not a privilege because it is imperative for human survival. It is intrinsic to our species-being. Marx states that as individuals we are representatives of a large universal–species-being. We are all connected to and by nature, so when we treat nature and ourselves with anything but respect, we are negatively affecting our relationship to nature–we are estranging ourselves from our species-being.
The industrial food system has severed the relationship between food and community. The pleasure of eating and the pleasure of food are linked with our relationship with people. Wendell Berry believes that we will take more pleasure in eating if we know where our food comes from and what is in it. By preparing food for ourselves and our loved ones, we are able to ensure that what we are eating is healthy, is pure, and is natural. The food industry hinders us from having control over what we eat. Food becomes a commodity. It now seems natural that our food is produced in some unknown location by some strange person, and we’re not really sure what goes in it.
Last night I invited a few friends over to pickle their own favorite vegetables. The idea was to see if pickling in a group would be more enjoyable than pickling alone on a Friday night. Much like a potluck, each person brought their own vegetables and spices they wanted to use. I supplied different varieties of vinegar and sugar. We came together with the same intent: we wanted to make pickles without high fructose corn syrup or Yellow 5. We wanted to pickle organic, local produce and have control over what we were making. Yes, we “wanted” to pickled our own food. We didn’t “have” to pickle our own food for the sake of survival.
Pickling, today, is more of a hobby as opposed to a means of survival. Although, for many people, hobbies do eventually become vocations. Anyone who enjoys gardening or knitting or reading enough will seek out a group of like-minded individuals so she can become immersed in a community devoted to her passion. In forming a pickling community, people can develop a deeper relationship to pickling, as a community of picklers becomes a world within a world dominated by an industrial food system.
My friends and I talked of spices and recipes we would use our pickled vegetables in over glasses of red wine as we waited for pots of vinegar to boil. We joked about being “pioneers,” and, perhaps, we are. We’re pioneering a new-old way to experience food in the industrial world. It’s romantic. We all knew it was romantic. I think we were all silently communicating to each other how impractical it would be to adopt this as a lifestyle when we isolated ourselves in the action of dicing and slicing our own vegetables. But it was fun. We were enjoying ourselves.
Vinegar pickling was a practical method of food preservation before refrigeration and vacuum packaging were introduced. Before the 20th century, home pickling was part of everyday American life. In fact, most production happened in the home. In the preindustrial world there was no domestic or public sphere, men or women’s work. Families worked together as a unit to produce food, clothing, things that have now been commodified, themselves. Every family member had value and was responsible for some means of production. Industrialization broke up the family “unit.” Once production moved outside of the house, the roles individual family memebers played had to be altered: one person needed to enter the public sphere and “earn” a living, while the other person needed to run the household. Working in the public sphere became more valuable than working in the domestic sphere.
Since the duties of the domestic sphere rested on the shoulders of just one person, innovations were made to save time and make housework more convenient. Instead of slow food, families began eating convenient food. Food that could be made fast and eaten fast.
Pickling became part of American life again during World War II, when the government took control of commercial food companies for war production. The government appealed to American citizens to grow “Victory Gardens,” ration their food supply, and do their own canning and pickling at home. In wartime, people are willing to change their lifestyles because they are told it is their patriotic duty. World War II was able to suddenly change American society. The government was able to ask citizens to change. So if gardening and pickling and canning are patriotic duties, then they are political. Right?
What about Michelle Obama’s imperative to get kids to eat right and exercise more. Apparently the high percentage of young people who are obese and have diabetes or other conditions associated with obesity, means that America now has a population of young people who are unfit for the military. Yes, I’m sure the state cares about children eating well and exercising regularly to be healthy, but I can’t help wondering if this new imperative has something more to do with ensuring that the US military will have eligible candidates in the future. So, in this sense, eating well and exercising regularly are political. The state wants healthy individuals who are fit for combat.
Food preservation of some form has permeated every culture for some moment in time, because food begins to spoil the minute it is harvested. Pickling and other forms of home food preservation are becoming widespread in the US now because people are becoming aware of food security issues that exist within the country. So, on an individual level people are making political choices.
But is thinking “locally” a political act or a romantic notion? Is yearning for a preindustrial society and connection with the land a realistic hope? I don’t think it’s wrong or ineffective to think in this local, individual way, but I do think that widespread change needs to happen somewhere other than at the individual level. Change can begin at the individual level. Grassroots movements are meant to bring about change from the bottom up. But individuals cannot bring about widespread change until they stop thinking locally and begin thinking globally.
Navina Khanna doesn’t think that shopping at farmers’ markets or buying locally can solve the problem. It’s a start. But to really attack food injustice “we have to attack poverty.”
“There is definitely a lot of room in the food chain for quality jobs and higher wages. If the 20 million people in the food chain were all paid well, that would probably revitalize our economy…and people would actually be able to afford good food.”