A Meal Born Free

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free. (Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” from What are People For? Berkeley: North Point Press, 1990.)

At the end of June a group of green-minded Presbyterians from around the United States took an eco-tour of Silicon Valley. They came to see the restoration of wetland habitats in downtown San Jose and to learn about high-tech recycling. Then they visited my church.

The congregation I serve has a large community garden and we were the first officially recognized green business in Silicon Valley. Our eco-friendly Calvinists visitors were interested in learning what it looks like when a church goes green.

The trouble is that a green church looks just about the same as any other church unless you look in our light sockets, where you will find those little highly efficient twirly bulbs, or in our janitor’s closet where you will find cleaning supplies that are less toxic than the stuff we use to buy. We also recycle, compost, and plant trees to offset our carbon output, but it didn’t seem like much to show empty bottles and rotting leftovers to our guests; and you can’t see a non-existent carbon footprint.

So we cooked an environmentally responsible meal for the visitors. One of the gardeners in the community garden donated carrots, beets, and onions. I purchased Italian sausage made at a butcher shop across the street from the church, and from a nearby bakery I picked up thirty linear feet of baguette. We pickled beets and roasted the carrots after dressing them with olive oil infused with lavender from the church’s landscaping. Rosemary from a hedge flavored the olive oil and balsamic vinegar bread dip. On the griddle we cooked the sausage with onions and beet greens. Dessert was fruit from neighborhood trees.

Almost fifty people ate lunch that day out under the shade of a venerable tree, and not a drop of carbon fuel was expended to get the meal’s main ingredients from the point of production to the table. Our only imports were olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic. The meal cost about $2.50 per person.

The food was excellent, but more importantly, the day’s menu freed us from our dependence upon an industrial and global food economy. It turns out that we don’t need supermarkets and big-box warehouse stores as much as we think we do. Eating locally is good for the creation and it can be both tasty and inexpensive. That’s a commendable combination.

photo courtesy of Glenda Parmentier

Photo courtesy of Glenda Parmentier

18 thoughts on “A Meal Born Free

  1. Ben,

    As usual your reactionary friend feels the need to quibble.

    It sounds like a lovely meal. Making a meal, breaking bread together, with family, friends, fellowship, is nearly a lost art. The victim of fast foods and faster “more convenient” living. As you know I love cooking. Home grown elements make home cooking even more special and satisfying. Boutique shopping provides more interesting elements.

    The meal was still heavily dependent upon “an industrial and global… …economy.” I do not read that you cooked over a fire of locally gathered wood, the gas and electricity were delivered to an industrially produced stove by a complex industrial economy. The garden and landscaping dependent, at the least upon industrially made tools and water supply. The local butcher is able to sell wholesome meats only because of electricity from the grid, refrigerators, etc. One reason for the existence of sausage, excepting the fact that it is delicious, was to delay spoilage with salts, and disguise the taste and odor of spoiled meat with spices.

    Since the dawn of the earliest societies, villages, farming, etc., no one has actually been “free” of dependence upon others for many, if not most of the essential foods and what anthropologists call “items of culture.” Early on it became apparent that some people were simply better at growing food, knapping flints, hunting, making beer, etc. Division of labor, and the development of “industries,” made for a better, safer, longer life for all. A life much less prone to starvation, other deadly wants and trauma, and other such realities of said “freedom.” It is a romantic notion to be “free” of the control of others, but unless one becomes a hermit living in Neolithic conditions, it is quite impossible and, IMHO, not desirable. Even the Amish farmers who lived around me in my youth were “controlled” by the buggy maker, harness maker, blacksmith, ferrier, Bible printer, etc. They were able to farm more land, more productively, because of modern water supply infrastructure.

    The moment one needs the services of a dentist, complex modern industrial society, with all its failings, becomes quite desirable. Failing possession of the Lord’s abilities we could never feed the masses with backyard gardens, let alone tools, transportation and infrastructure provided by a complex industrial economy. We need to learn to be “green” without romantic and neo-luddite illusions or we shall make some very poor, probably disastrous, choices quite soon.

    It does, however, sound like great fun, and a marvelous feast.

    Cheers!

    Randy

  2. Randy,

    Thanks for the post.

    It is true that our freedom from the globalized industrial food system (GIFS from now on) was not complete. For example, the pork in the sausage was not local, nor was the grain used to make the bread. We did, however, bypass a lot of the GIFS by buying locally produced products. Most sausage begins as pig. It moves to an industrial slaughterhouse. Next it goes to a sausage factory, then to a distribution center, then to a supermarket, then, finally to a home. At our meal we bypassed most of that process, which to me, is freeing.

    It’s also true that we were still dependent on others for our meal, but I like the fact that I know the guy who made the sausage. His name is Gino DeRose, and while we’re not intimate, our lives intersect. He knows everyone in my family by name; I know his mother and brothers in the same way. He knows the kind of meat I like and he teases me a bit because of my yuppy, foodie ways. I’d choose dependence on Gino over the GIFS any day.

    So you are absolutely right. We’re never entirely free and we wouldn’t want to be. I’m just happy that at least some of the time I can choose those upon whom I will be dependent for food. I think many Americans have forgotten the goodness of this freedom.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  3. As one of the cooks of the meal you extol, I nevertheless agree utterly with Randy.

    You see, all the things we enjoy, including the healthiest diet — assuming we do our part — and the highest standard of living the world has ever seen, are due in large measure to technology. An open and free capitalist society, with all that implies, obviously plays a role.

    Those who doubt the value of technology need only chat a little with those who have lived without it.

    Case in point: my grandfather, a homesteader and farmer much of his life, was born in 1889. He was working as an adult when the Wright brothers flew, yet before he died, men had walked on the moon.

    When I was in college (early 60s) and he was elderly, I asked him to identify the most significant event or events of his life. I expected something deep and philosophical. I got it, but just didn’t realize it at the time.

    “Electricity in the country,” was his answer. “We didn’t have to fool around with them damned kerosene lanterns!”

    All that said, the meal was a marvelous opportunity for joy and fellowship, and much of that joy was in the preparation. I’ll be glad to cook with you anytime!

    Bill Leonard

  4. Bill,

    First let me give credit where it is due: You cooked up the sausage, onions and beet greens very well. You’re quite a griddle Jockey!

    As for your post, I don’t disagree with you about technology. Not really. I just think there’s something healthy and freeing about knowing the people who produce the food I eat. In the case of the meal we cooked together, that means knowing Gino, Ahn Son, and Jake. My friend Jerry Chacon calls this knowledge “First Person Living,” and I think it is a concept worthy of our consideration for all kinds of reasons.

    I also think it makes ecological and economical sense to buy local food. I refer you to my response to Randy’s post. One very significant difference between buying sausage from Gino DeRose and buying similar sausage across the street at Save Mart is that Gino’s Sausage wasn’t transported from the sausage factory to the distributor’s warehouse to the supermarket to the home. It goes straight from farm to slaughter house to Gino to me. That’s a lot of bypassed transportation, which means great savings in gas, or probably diesel. Good for the environment, good for the economy, good for all of us.

    None of this really has anything to do with technology. Eating locally is something that benefits a lot of people and the earth. It is something that brings me pleasure, so I try to eat locally, and I don’t think that makes me a Luddite.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  5. René, you got it. I’ve added you to my shameless self-promotion email list.

    Many Thanks!

    Ben

  6. We roasted hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Your meal sounded better. I am green with envy!

  7. Ben,
    I’m puzzled a bit by Randy’s post. Fun, fellowship and food are not the only virtues of your shared meal, or your efforts to be conscious of your carbon footprint. True, we cannot get totally off the grid or the GIF system. But it is also true that I can’t stop eating if I want to lose enough pounds to get to a more healty weight. What is critical in both cases is an effort to reduce HOW MUCH is consummed, not whether we consume at all.

    Thanks for your green leadership, Ben. I know it contributes to my own consciousness of my energy use and consumption.

  8. Ronn, I think our meal may have tasted better than hot dogs, though I happen to know that Dotti makes everything taste heavenly.

    John, thank you for your kind words. My editor at KQED (where I’ll be doing a radio version of this column) pointed out that there is a problematic moment in what I wrote where I say that no fossil fuels were used to get the main ingredients from the point of production to the table. By “get” I meant transportation and not cooking. It’s a problem that may have lead to some of the confusion, and it will be amended on the radio.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  9. Ben, congratulations on your meal and, more importantly, on the realizations it sparked.

    I’ve been preaching the locovore ethic here in Humboldt County to anyone with a pulse and I loudly applaud all efforts made in that direction.

    Don’t let the nitpickers get you down. Doing anything in that direction is better than doing nothing. To feed 50 people a healthful, tasty meal without starting your automobile engine is quite a feat in today’s world. Pat yourself on the back.

    And check out http://www.slowfoodnation.org to ramp it up a notch

  10. Nancy,

    Thanks! I’m glad you’re promoting a local diet in Humboldt county. My experience up there tells me you’re fairly successful. My father lives in McKinleyville, and I’ve had the pleasure of shopping at Arcata’s farmer’s Market. I’ve also eaten grass-fed beef from around Ferndale, which they sell at the market in Mendocino, which is my hometown and where much of my family still lives. There is good food happening up behind the Redwood Curtain!

    Tonight I’m doing a class at my church and we’ll be eating homemade pasta in homemade pesto from locally sourced basil. Slowly, slowly, little by little.

    Ben

  11. That sounds brilliant Ben.

    I have became a compost fascist. The amount of gardens that I work on that do not compost makes my blood boil and I am always on at the garden owners.

    I get really worked up by people that do not recycle too. The always hit out with the arguement, there is no evidence blah blah blah, my retort to them is, What harm can recycling do?

    I live in a block of flats. There are 12 flats in the block, I told my neighbours I had purchased 2 compost bins and all green waste could go in them…..I’m the only one that does.

    I have planted shrubs and flowers in the communal garden and only 2 residents have commented on my efforts. Little do they realise that my landscaping assists on the appearance and their efforts on seeling their homes.

    I am so jealous of your community spirit, It is something that Scotland seems to have left back in 1980.

  12. Craig,

    Thanks for the post and Long live the composters! You nevir have to apoligiz for typos in the Lion’s Denne. In English or in Auld Scots. We’ve started composting in our urban garden–a five gallon bucket with scraps out on the back patio. I wonder what would happen if our housing community started composting. I doubt we’d be much more successful than your community!

    And your third post reminds me that in my column I forgot to mention that I basted my carrots in a California Riesling. Oh, it was nice.

    Ben

  13. Couple thoughts: First, thanks for reminding about the Riesling seasoning. Made the carrots sparkle!

    And, though I am a firm believer in technology and the advantages — not to say, reality — of globalization, nevertheless I am dumbfounded by those who do not recycle. To wit —

    Our annual trip to the California wine country for barrel tasting and frequently, futures purchases, typically is funded by monies we have generated thru various thrifty practices.

    Such practices include saving and recycling of aluminum, and secondarily, other metals, and saving of all change and one-dollar bills. You’d be amazed how much this amounts to annually.

    Then again, Ben, many would be amazed. I’ll bet you’re not!

    Bill

  14. Thanks Bill. I’m with you both on recycling and on saving. I also think that recycling is one of those areas where being green is good both for business and for the advancement of technology. I think there are great business opportunities for those who can come up with new ways economically to reuse what otherwise we might waste.

    Ben

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