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.
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.