Archive for May 19th, 2008


Sharon May 19th, 2008

I recently was asked to provide advance comment on a new food storage book, _Food Security for the Faint of Heart: Keeping Your Larder Full in Lean Times_ by Robin Wheeler.  She’ll definitely be getting a great deal of praise from me – this is a terrific book, warmly written, funny and smart.  Not only do I now want to read her gardening book, but I immediately found myself fantasizing about hanging out with the author and trading recipes and graden tricks.  That doesn’t happen so terribly often – I’m impressed.  I really recommend the book, and I’ll put it in the food storage section of my store once it is out.

 I was particularly struck by one of her observations, in a chapter on edible flowers and foraging (the book ranges widely over everything from bulk buying to gardening for renters and preservation methods).  Wheeler writes,

 ”Like most people visiting Asia, I have experienced the constant dripping of a rain of epiphanies during my stays.  One of these occurred on a trip to Northern Thailand, as I was standing on the edge of a new friend’s yard.  I admired the grove of towering bamboo that edged her garden boundary, in a row so straight I could have marked it off with a piece of thread, with not a single trace of bamboo growing out into the road. 

‘How do you do that?’ I asked her.  ‘How do you keep the bamboo from growing all over the place, outside of your yard?’

‘Well, that’s easy,’ she replied.  ‘Everyone knows how good bamboo shoots are in their dinner.  The minute one shows its head outside of my garden, someone takes it home.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘In Canada we hack down the bamboo and throw it in the bushes and buy bamboo shoots in a can at the store.’

But that is what North America is all about.  We have been trained that if it is right in front of our face (e.g. free, accessible) it is somehow inferior, and that the only really good stuff is at the store.  The more abundantly and freely something grows, the more reviled it should be.” (Wheeler, 95)

I think Wheeler’s articulation of our culture is right on the money.  And I started thinking about that fact in relationship to another book I’ve been reading, a very different, but equally wonderful book.  Archaeologist Martin Jones has written _Feast: Why Humans Share Food_ in which he takes the time to make strange the human custom of food sharing, and then explores its origins and history.  It is an utterly fascinating work.

In one section, he talks about the custom of choosing *not* to eat, to render taboo, commonly available foods.  For example, he explores bone piles from coastal British tribal populations that show no sign of including fish bones, even in periods where there are signs of famine and protein shortage.  This suggests that the cultural taboos against eating fish were powerful enough to affect even the starving.  It may well be that the cultural habit of not seeing things as food made them effectively invisible to the hungry?   And, of course, we know that they are.  How many hungry Americans know to go out in the parks near them and dig up burdock roots?   How many know to eat grasshoppers, and how many Americans can overcome their aversion, the profound idea that something is not “food.”

The ability to take some edibles and call them taboo is an important way that cultures differentiate themselves  from one another – what we eat is who we are- and that’s no less true now than it was in any other society.  Of course, some of this is the wastefulness that Wheeler describes, but part of it is also the cultural sense that we are identified by our ability not to recognize these things as food – this is our way of differentiating ourselves from our agrarian prior culture.  How many ethnic narratives describe being embarrassed by a parent or grandparent’s harvesting of a wild plant from a public place, or by agrarian food traditions?  Many, that I’ve read.  It isn’t just that we’re wasteful – it is that we’re still sending out the cultural message “we’re different from the old agrarian roots” even though that’s become painfully obvious.  That is, we are constituting ourselves as fundamentally different from what came before us, as a new people.  The difficulty, of course, is that we may need to be rather more like the old people. 

One of the ways we are abandoning our agrarian roots is by disdaining wild foods.  That may seem like an odd claim, given our tendency to think of the world as historically divided into highly discrete hunter-gatherers vs. agrarians, but in fact, the archaeological record suggests that most agrarian societies relied quite heavily on wild plant foraging, and that the line between gathering and agriculture probaby predates any solid archaeological evidence.  For example, Laura Schenone, author of _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ observes about our perceptions of gatherers,

 ”Let’s have a look at her again, a woman moving light-footedly through brambles, gathering berries.  To our modern perception, the image seems somehow innocent and trivial.  In fact, the ancient gatherer women were nothing short of botanists with extensive knowledge far beyond the scope of berries for dessert.  This knowledge could only be built up over generations through careful judgement, skill and yes, even some poisonous trial and error along the way.  By the time the Europeans came, Indians from coast to coast were gathering almost 2 thousand types of edible roots, nuts, vegetable plants, greens, fruits, and herbs, as well as insects and shellfish….

Spend one week (even one day) in the wilderness with no food, and you’ll quickly realize that without no-how, you’ll starve or poison yourself.  And it’s not just knowing what you can eat, but where to find it and when it will be ripe or available.  If you get to the nut trees or fruits even a few days late, more enterprising animals will have beat you to them, or you’ll find youself left with the taste of overripe or rotten fruit in your mouth, opportunity so closely missed….

While we can never be sure, many experts believe that women “discovered” horticulture and were probably America’s first farmers.  The rise of farming was a gradual process.  Perhaps one woman decided to help along the wild plants she liked best.  First, she began to weed away competing plants or give water to her favorites.  Maybe she noticed that a basked of dropped seeds had sprouted in the loosened soil where she’d built an earthen oven.” (Schenone, 8-9)

I’ve written before in my work on vegeculture about how when European scholars arrived in Africa to study African gardening, they were stunned by how small the cultivated patches of roots were in African house gardens.  The assumption of early bigoted thinkers was that Africans were simply bad farmers – it was only decades later that it became clear that large patches of jungle near villages were actually cultivated patches of food crops.

And the line between gathering and agriculture has remained fine through most of agrarian history.  Martin Jones argues in _Feast_ that in fact, “the cultivated field was more unusual to our modern eyes….We could envisage instead plots of land that were certainly sown from a particular stock of seedcorn, often a maslin mixture to hedge against poorer years.  After these plots had been tended and brought to maturity, quite possibly everything in them was treated as a resource, not just the progeny of what was sown…”

He backs this up with evidence from bodies excavated from peat bogs, many of while contained mixtures of both wild and cultivated plants in their bellies.  He notes that as late as the 20th century, Danish farmers were still eating wild brome grass seeds, a grass that flourished when the rye harvests were poor, and so were allowed to coexist in fields to ensure a secure harvest.  

Jones also argues that farmers in most societies had every incentive to diversify their diets – because agricultural taxes have usually been based on single, monocropped analyses (and we still count food this way) – that is, farmers were forced to play based on single crop food webs.  The way to minimize taxation and retain the most for your family’s diet, then, was to vary one’s crops as much as possible, and rely on fields and forests, to have as diverse a food web and harvest as possible. 

There are still modern rural populations that make full use of the food around them.  One 0f the revelations of Dmitry Orlov’s _Reinventing Collapse_  is that most Soviet families fed themselves on extremely small gardens, much smaller than most of us would expect.  But this was heavily supplemented by the foraging of wild foods, particularly berries and mushrooms. 

What does all of this have to do with food taboos?  Well, on the one hand it is worth reminding us that strong identifications of what we don’t eat do have a purpose, they aren’t just wastefulness, but they help us identify ourselves as part of particular community. 

I say this as someone who accepts (with some ambivalence) a set of religious taboos about food – I keep kosher.  I was not raised a Jew, so I grew up eating most of the foods that are not included in a kosher diet – growing up along the coast of Massachusetts, shellfish were a dietary staple.  And I want my children to obey religious dietary laws, and find value in those laws – I believe that the restrictions of kashruth lend to a greater mindfulness in eating, an awareness of G-d even during ordinary kitchen tasks.  At the same time, I recognize that religious food taboos are designed to differentiate, and that often those raised with food taboos cannot bring themselves to eat taboo foods.  I don’t want my children to respond to rabbit or clams with an instinctive “ugh” – I want them to recognize them as a food, one we choose not to eat, because we have an abundance of other things.  But I wish them to be able to eat them in the interest of pekuah nefesh, the Jewish law that “saving a life” overrides every other requirement. 

At the same time, just as kashruth generally serves me now, but might not in the same ways in a scarcer future, the cultural food taboos of the technological rich world can no longer serve us.  The unconscious (for most of us) process of differentiating ourselves from people who engage in literally “dirty” or “old-timey” or “dangerous” (think how much we worry about poisonousness in wild plants) practices has to stop, and we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves from others that may include food taboos, but cannot be based on the idea that we only eat processed, store bought food.  How will we do this?  My suspicion is that the first priority must be to change our set of cultural taboos, to render “dirty” the processed foods we now rely on.  And this is happening because they are dirty and dangerous – toxic to us in many cases, and often contaminated as we’ve seen in the past year or two.  We need to precisely reverse our current set of food taboos.

Even more, however, it suggests that not only do we need to be working on our gardens, but on our integration into the farmer-hunter-gatherer paradigm – that is, most of us will feed ourselves not simply through horticulture or agriculture, but as mostly-fixed human beings have for thousands of years – with the integration of all of the above skills. 

I think of the role of farmer-hunter-gatherer in a community as the integration of the margins into the whole.  That is, our job is not just to cultivate as much earth as we can, but also to familiarize ourselves with what is out there, and make the absolute best use of it we can.  In some cases, this will mean traditional hunting and foraging - most of us should at least have the skill to trap small pest animals and the ability to eat them, to gather wild foods.  But that also means recreating the ability to *see* what is around you – to make use of sidewalk margins as growing space, or to view the weeds that compete with our crops as potential hedges against crop failure. It involves the recreation of a deeply intimate and profound knowledge of place – and this will take time and practice, and a new crop of home botanists with the eyes to see and the courage to cook.