Brown Bag Monday: What is Your Food Culture?

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In just over sixty years, America has lost its food culture. In this great essay “The New American Food Culture” John Ikerd of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri writes that currently, “the characteristics of America’s dominant food culture are cost, convenience, and appearance.” How did we get here?

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver explains that historical food cultures developed in local regions from “the ancient synergies between what their land can give and what their bodies need.” At the end of World War II our explosives factories began producing fertilizer to be used to grow our food. The heavy use of all this new fertilizer produced unprecedented yields for farmers. Our food system quickly invented new ways of converting these massive yields into processed foods derived mostly from corn and soy derivatives.

At the same time, as our crop production skyrocketed, advances in transportation and preservation meant that virtually any ingredient we desired could be purchased year round from supermarkets. In a 2001 publication “Food, Fuel, and Freeways” the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture calculated that the average number of miles a food product had traveled to enter the conventional Iowa food distribution system was 1,518 miles. Their study also found that the number of commodities produced by 1% or more of Iowa farms had dropped from 34 in 1920 to 10 in 1997 (Corn, Soybeans, Hay, Cattle, Hogs, Oats, Horses, Sheep, Chicken and Goats). For those trying to eat locally in Iowa, if you aren’t hooked up with a small local farmer, the only fresh local ingredients you can get are corn, soy, and meat (unless you like to eat hay and oats).

These advances meant that the majority of Americans could leave farming behind, urbanize and focus on ‘more important’ things like engineering transistors. With farming no longer in our minds fewer of us understand how food grows or appreciate the miracle of plants producing food for us to eat. 

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A local farmer highlighted this new world order for me at our Slow Foods Book club last week. She mentioned that the only time the public really reaches out to her is when their favorite ingredient is no longer available at the supermarkets. Of course if the supermarket doesn’t have something then it’s really out of season!

Luckily books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and documentaries like “Food, Inc” are starting to turn the tide and make us think about locality and sustainability as key elements to our new food culture. It sounds like we are coming full circle and I’m very happy about that. So what is your region’s traditional food culture? How many generations do you have to go back to find traditional, local food prep and recipes in your family? Do you and your parents still cook and eat this way?  How do you think we should go about learning our food culture again?

One great resource I came across with my garden bed project was “What to Plant Now” from Mother Earth News. Here are some Brussels sprouts that make me happy.

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Lolo’s Dad

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12 thoughts on “Brown Bag Monday: What is Your Food Culture?

  1. I’m not American but we can see what you’re talking about (to a lesser extent, perhaps) in Ireland and France for sure.
    Ireland used to be a mainly agriculture-based economy. In my father’s youth, my grandmother used to make her own butter, raised her own chickens and vegetables. As well as the animals that were sold for income, they also had a pig that they would kill and prepare every year with the help of the neighbours (each neighbour would leave with some of the pig products, and then my grandparents would participate with the neighbour’s pig-killing when the time came). Their diet may not have been very varied but they only had to buy things they really couldn’t produce themselves (salt, cleaning products, fruit, things like that). We don’t eat like that now, but in the South of France (where I live now) you can still see “cochonaille” events, where villagers come together to make products from a pig (due to regulations they can’t actually kill the pig themselves).

    • Interesting to hear that slaughtering regulations are in full effect in France as well. Hopefully farmers there are still producing as much variety of produce as they ever have before. Thanks for sharing the agricultural life your grandmother had in Ireland! By they way, what are you working on crafting these days?

  2. PS, re: the Brussels sprouts. Mother Earth News’ sister publication, Grit Magazine, just ran a great article about ’em. I took note that they said to wait until after the first frost to harvest– a very long time to have them in the beds but worth the wait!

    • Thanks for mentioning the Grit article. Just ready it. A bit disappointed by this “Grocery store Brussels sprouts usually come from California or Mexico, but it doesn’t get cold enough in those regions to produce a sweet sprout; one reason they have left a bad taste in American mouths over the years”, but I’ll try none the less. I think in Farm City Novella mentioned she always had trouble with Brussels sprouts. But I like them and I’ve never grown them so the seed packet was too fun to pass up! That said I’m definitely learning as I go 🙂

  3. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a Portuguese immigrant and we still eat a few traditional dishes, mostly for special occasions (sweet bread for Easter, sopas for the Holy Ghost festa). My father’s side is interesting because his parents were both orphans, so their family food culture is based on an institutionalized orphanage setting. My grandmother had 6 kids and the food was very frugal and made on a large scale – vats of spaghetti, tubs of rice pudding, etc.

    In other words, I am discovering local Sacramento food on my own at this time because my own parents weren’t raised that way. I’m particularly fascinated by heirloom tomatoes and I’m growing a wide variety this year in the backyard garden.

    • We are right there with you. We got two different heirloom tomatoes. I picked the Celebrity Hybrid Tomato because it boasts “high yield”. I love tomatoes and one thing I found mildly disappointing from my first summer garden was the lack of tomatoes my few plants made. The other variety I got was the Black Krim Tomato. I picked this one out because it looks very handsome and it claims a “salty flavor” that I salivate anticipating.

  4. As parents it behooves us to pass those traditions on to our children as best we can, but cooking at home, by seeking out and promoting the foods and ingredients we have grown up with. Or for those of us who were not fortunate enough to have those role models, by taking the time to seek out and discover our local food landscape.

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