This was a paper I turned in for my Food, Culture, and Society class. It’s longer than my usual posts, but it is an overview of what I’ve learned (and gained) from being a part of Madison’s amazing, developing, and transformative food culture.
On September 27th, I found myself at the Madison Food for Thought Festival standing behind the sales table of the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local Café’ donned in a volunteer’s T-shirt handing out scones. Crowds of people walked past me toting canvas bags with bright red, yellow, and green produce poking out. They talked about petting the chickens, what Michael Pollan had said to them, and interesting new recipes they’d found that creatively included kale, zucchini, and lots (and lots) of tomatoes. As a stilt-walking farmer strolled past me, then stopped to take a picture with my literary role model, Michael Pollan, I had to take a moment.
How did I get here?
My history with local foods is a short one. In fact, just this spring I was a paying member in a weight loss program that encouraged my notion, as Michael Pollan describes, that eating at any one time does only one of two things: 1. Fixes my health, or, 2. Ruins my health. Paul Rozin calls this pleasure-voided idea of eating a personal and cultural “nightmare.” Wendell Berry calls these eaters “victims… passive, uncritical, and dependent.” M.F.K. Fisher describes this process as, “[eating with] a glum urge for food to fill us.” Saying, “we are ignorant of flavour. We are as a nation taste-blind.”
Putting these notions in my past, I spent time on a small family farm in Maine this summer where the farmer occasionally compared eating to sex. I knew that food could taste good, but this idea introduced me to the idea of pleasure in eating and began to prepare me for entering into the web of farmers, advocates, students, eaters, and community-makers by which I have been surrounded thus far this semester.
Through this essay, I would like to explain the Madison Food System and those involved with it through the lens of a ‘slow food baby’, or perhaps more accurately: a ‘real food baby’. I didn’t know it was possible, but this food I’ve been eating has taught me about myself. Despite a prior connection to and passion for the environment, Madison has taught me that Berry was right. “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, the way the world is used.” On one of the first days of class, someone mentioned that Cargill would defend its practices by stating it’s just delivering what we want and what the market asks for. Although this town is not short many a “beer-and-pizzavore,” I wonder; if Cargill’s products were based off the Madison market demand, would America’s food system be the same? Would Cargill even exist?
Let me start piecing together the Madison food system as I have seen it from the beginning of this weekend: Thursday, September 25th, the day of the Pollan lecture. While Pollan spoke pretty closely to the contents of his book, there were certain aspects I loved about both. First, I loved how he overviewed the issue in order to simply and effectively educate the unaware. Our reductionist thinking, ignorance of taste, and reliance on experts brought him to a list of simple suggestions. Next, I appreciated his focus on two specific aspects of informed eating: the chain it inherently involves and the diversity that is required for optimum health. But most notably, I cherished the buzz he created around campus. His presentation was so gentle despite the moderately heated environment – his ideas just make sense. So, my first impression of the Madison food system was its value in education. I wrote about Pollan’s talk in my blog after the event and I have never had so many page views before! Everyone wanted to know what was going on, how food could be political, and what in the world is wrong with their Fruit Loops. My final joy in Pollan’s arrival stemmed from accessibility – not only his idea that local, sustainable food should be accessible (and to a great extent is, in Madison), but also Pollan’s actual physical accessibility. On Friday morning, I attended a meet and greet with Pollan that was mysteriously sparsely attended. There, students asked broad questions and the hour passed quickly and without debate. After, I approached him and was lucky to receive fairly personalized and exhaustive advice on achieving a writing career that pertains to environmental issues, what to do after I graduate, the best way to hold a reader in a story, how to frame environmental issues through my writing, and the way to go about angling a story where writer learns along with the reader. Considering that I’d admired Pollan not only for his message, but also vastly for his near-flawless delivery for quite some time, this was very exciting. Signed book in hand, I left the Union that morning loving how the Madison food system opened up that possibility for me and thinking how lucky I was to be here.
Back now to Saturday. I rolled out of bed that morning in order to make it to the Food for Thought Festival’s morning shift. As I witnessed the organizers, volunteers, and attendees that morning, I was given a face to the Madison Food System. Well, a few faces. This is a system that can be seen in the tanned and wrinkled face of Richard de Wilde, a hardworking and thriving farmer. It could be seen in the excited and exhausted face of Maria Davis who’d spent months planning, or the face of Tori Miller from behind the smoky grill, the face of… who is that blocked by that big camera? Oh, that’s Jack Kloppenburg. The faces of the Food for Thought Festival taught me that the Madison food system is filled with concerned, busy, smart, and most notably, happy people. These people were warm and overjoyed to share in their knowledge (and zucchini). They made me think that if there were a place to start changing the way America eats, it would be right here at the foot of the capitol. I think these faces could put a definition on Madison cuisine, and if I had to pick a word that would define that cuisine, how it’s prepared, enjoyed, and envisioned, I would have to say ‘communal’- that it emphasizes the chain every step of the way. Each is an important link: Richard, the producer, Tori the buyer, Maria the organizer, Jack the educator and, (do I really get to be included in this list?) finally, Jenny, the consumer and the learner. This fact, the inherent inclusiveness of this chain, will be the reason for its success. Later that day I wrote, “the morning made me excited to become more involved with food advocacy since it’s such a great way to play an important role in environmental issues and has an appeal to all types of people eating all types of foods.”
My next stop was the Dane County Farmers’ Market across the street. This morning, the nation’s largest farmers’ market was, as usual, teeming with Badger fans, cooks, sellers, appetizing fruits, vegetables and baked goods, moms, kids, performers, and a few others who sat to take it all in. The farmers’ market is the branch of the Madison food system that encompasses all the rest. It is a distributor, an educator, and it brings the food chain full circle. Buying from the farmers’ market has taught me what “eating is an agricultural act” means. This market reintroduces pleasure to my diet, color to my pantry, and tranquility to my conscious. The market not only answers Berry’s questions, it encourages them to be asked. How fresh is this? How clean is this? How far was it transported? How much did manufacturing add… oh, wait. In Richard’s case the answers are ideal: picked yesterday. Never sprayed. 150 Miles. Rozin discusses our acceptance or rejection of foods in simple terms that these shoppers, those who have the faces of the Madison food system, would agree. To accept is based on taste, benefit, and appropriateness. Rejection is based on distaste, danger, and inappropriateness.
Richard’s heirloom tomato: accept. Tyson’s chicken nugget: reject.
The final element to this weekend was taking it all home, unloading my bag, writing down my thoughts, and finally, cooking. After I’d learned from Pollan, helped at the festival and consumed at the market, I could eat my warm vegetable enchiladas with fresh tomato, zucchini, onion, potato, garlic, cheese, and cilantro while experiencing extensive pleasure: eating with profound, and new, understanding and such a gratitude for each part of the system.
Like many students in an economic pinch, shopping has certainly become a matter of financial prioritization. On my blog I have compared entering a grocery store to an emotional and moral battleground. In order to maintain my place in this chain, I have committed myself to this, but I also hope that later in my life it might become easier and more customary. Based on my recent experiences with the Madison food system, my mom and I have made lofty goals for developing a new system – this time in Minneapolis. From this weekend I will know to emphasize the education, accessibility, faces, and the whole chain that I have experienced here. But, in addition to the system’s lessons in pleasure and community, it has also been a lesson in responsibility and has grounded me in action. The system’s true pleasure is realized through continual sharing; at tables through foods, in essays in newspapers, and from action by example in order to spread the idea of pleasure to a disordered society. As Miller says, “It’s about defining who we are. It’s whether [these acts] make us feel good … And knowledge about the impact of our choices… can change what makes us feel good.”