Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Home Again, Fermenting

I just returned home after eight days visiting friends and family on the Other Coast, and as I set about making dinner with the root vegetables that survived my absence, it hit me how much I had missed my own kitchen. I suddenly felt so much more grounded, chopping onions and hearing them sizzle as I dropped them, handful by handful, into the frying pan. I certainly can't deny the luxury of being cooked for and fed (thanks, Mom), but I am nonetheless relieved to be back among my battered pots and scarred cutting boards.

The upshot, however, of the holiday festivities, was that I came into possession of several wonderful books about food, among them Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Life-Cultured Foods. I already knew of Katz via his website,

and am excited to have a hard copy to take into the kitchen with me. I'm currently tending to a sourdough starter and a "bug" for ginger beer.

Recipes aside, what I appreciate most about Katz's work is the eloquence with which he articulates the relationship between eating and activism, while making a case for exploring fermentation:

"Resistance takes place on many planes. Occasionally it can be dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky. The cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications.

Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification. Though consumer action can take many creative and powerful forms, we do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators. Food has historically been one of our most direct links to the life forces of the Earth. Bountiful harvests have always been occasions for celebration and the appreciation of the divine . . .

. . . Not everyone can be a farmer. But that's not the only way to cultivate a connection to the Earth and buck the trend toward global market uniformity and standardization. One small but tangible way to resist the homogenization of culture is to involve yourself in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures. Rediscover and reinterpret the vast array of fermentation techniques used by our ancestors. Build your body's cultural ecology as you engage and honor the life forces all around you." (Katz, 27).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cheap Eats

Once again, making my way through Jill Richardson's Recipe for America (see previous post) I came across the distressing story of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old "undocumented" Mexican migrant worker, now the youngest farm worker in the U.S. to die from heat exhaustion. It was May of 2008, and Jimenez worked harvesting grapes in California. Jimenez collapsed after working for nearly 10 hours in 95 degree heat, receiving only one water break during that time (a direct violation of CA state law). Her employer delayed bringing Jimenez to the hospital, and by the time they did, she arrived in a coma, dying two days later.

Tellingly, it was not Jimenez's death that disturbed me most, so much as the knowledge of her employer: West Coast Grape Farming, a subsidiary of California's Bronco Wine Company which produces the ever-popular-among-broke-2o-somethings wine Charles Shaw, or "Two-Buck Chuck".

I came across this anecdote not a few days after a long conversation with Rob, the farmer I've been working for, about the grocery store Trader Joe's. I've long held a mild grudge against Trader Joe's for their questionable marketing of ethnic foods (labels reading "Trader Ming's," "Trader Giotto's, etc). But Rob's critique of the store was much deeper: he objects to how successfully Trader Joe's perpetuates the idea that good food can, and should be, cheap. Indeed, I've been privy to many a championing of Trader Joe's for their ability to anticipate the needs and appetites of their customers, their delicious pre-prepared meals, and above all, their rock-bottom prices for often organic foods. Rob argued that the cost of food should reflect what it costs to grow it, harvest it, and get it to market (which, for a small, diversified organic grower is a lot more than the costs for large-scale industrial producers). The lower the prices for food at places like Trader Joe's, the less likely consumers will be to spring for Rob's delicious vegetables (usually $2.00/lb), eggs ($6.50/doz.), or free-range chickens ($7.00/lb).

As one of those aforementioned, underemployed 20-somethings, I disagreed with Rob's argument. Lots of folks simply can't afford farmer's market or co-op prices for all-organic food.
There's no way around that fact. But what is slowly beginning to shift my perspective (maybe I could spend a larger chunk of my weekly checks on food) is stories like that of Maria Jimenez. Trader Joe's food isn't just cheap. It's cheap for a reason: the companies they contract with, like Bronco Wine, whether organic or not, rely on exploitable, cheap labor. In other words, and I am certainly not the first to say this, there are costs to our cheap food that we do not see (at least not yet).

But am I in a position to demonize and boycott Trader Joe's? Not really. All I can do is shop conscientiously and buy local when I've got the cash. Until systems change radically and the U.S. government begins subsidizing small-scale, low-impact organic farms, instead of the pesticide-sodden environmentally destructive corn and soybean operations they current do, we will remain caught in this bind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Industrial Agribusiness Eats Us for Lunch

The last few months have afforded me an unprecedented amount of free time, during which I've begun to explore one of my long-standing interests, farming, and delve deeper into the politics of America's food. The stack of books on my desk grows ever higher, and I'm spending more and more time on the internet, reading other activists' blogs. For the first time in a long time, I feel truly invigorated and driven to consume (the puns are endless) as much new information as possible, but also, increasingly overwhelmed.

I've been putting off writing about it because, where do I start?

But here's an interesting tidbit that I felt needs sharing. I'm just finishing the book Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It by Jill Richardson (Ig Publishing, 2009). As a frequent consumer of organic foods and food products, I stopped dead in my tracks when I got to Richardson's section titled "Industrial Ag Invades Organics." I sort of knew that a lot of so-called organic foods were produced by not-so-benevolent megacorporations, but the following list really brings it home:

Organic Brands Parent Company

Boca Foods, Back to Nature ---------------------Kraft

Naked Juice -------------------------------------- Pepsi

Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen -------------------- General Mills

Horizon, Organic Cow of Vermont,
Alta Dena, White Wave/Silk ------------------- Dean

Lightlife, Alexia Foods -------------------------- Conagra

Green & Black's ---------------------------------- Cadbury Schweppes

MorningstarFarms, Natural Touch,
Kashi, Gardenburger, Bear Naked ------------- Kellogg

Odwalla ------------------------------------------- Coca-Cola

Seeds of Change ---------------------------------- M&M Mars

Dagoba -------------------------------------------- Hershey Foods

If this isn't proof that simply "buying organic" does not absolve us as consumers, then I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, one of Obama's most recent acts as president has just come to my attention: the nomination (and subsequent confirmation by the US Senate) of two "Big Ag" types to prominent positions in the USDA and Office of the US Trade Representative, respectively. Roger Beachy, of Monsanto, and Islam Siddiqui, of CropLife America, will surely only tighten the choke-hold of industrial agriculture on Federal food regulation and monitoring.

Read more about it at