Yeoman Farmers and Peruvian Peasants

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The outline of agricultural plots in the northern Andes of Peru.

Farms and farm work seem to have dual connotations in the United States. On the one hand, the Founding Fathers were large landowners and envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers sustaining the new republic with their physical and intellectual labor. Americans pursued the dream of owning their own land and fostered the ideology of an independent nation through westward expansion. On the other hand, farmers today do not hold such a prominent place in American society as they do in our national mythology. The negative associations of manual labor have crept in – European serfs and poor subsistence farmers. While farmers themselves might not enjoy the respect they once did (there are less of them, afterall), we continue to romanticize the land and what it means to us – national independence, personal freedom, control over destiny, natural beauty, and pride. Because of our social and political development as a country, landholding and farming have individualistic associations. But this is a uniquely, if not exclusively, American point of view. Farming, in reality, is the joint effort of many rather than one person.

The word farmer, as we use it today, loosely developed out of the meaning for peasant – someone who works the land. Over time, “peasant” acquired certain class connotations that “farmer” did not. (For an interesting look at the etymology, check out this piece.) Peasant, as generally used, means someone who works the land and posses a noticeably inferior social or economic status. This negative association developed over time. In Spanish (particularly vocabulary relating to agriculture in Peru), I don’t know of any term for someone who either owns or cultivates land that does not also denote socioeconomic status. For my senior thesis, I studied the transition of indigenous peasants to professional miners in the central highlands of Peru.  By calling this specific groups of people “peasants,” I did not mean that they were considered socially and economically inferior within the race and class hierarchy of nineteenth and twentieth century Peruvian society (this distinction becomes relevant only when comparing them to other groups of people). I simply meant that were tied to the land and subsisted primarily on the food and goods their farming and herding produced. Neither English nor Spanish provided a word that captured this without also creating a class association.

Class is encoded into how we talk about occupation, and especially how we talk about the land and our relationships with it. Associations of independence and individuality with land have always been more prevalent in the United States, but in Peru in the 1920s the romanticized agrarian figure was not the white, republican farmer – it was the poor, disenfranchised Indian who maintained the country’s Incan heritage with communal landholding structures. Due especially to the literature produced as part of the indigenismo movement, indigenous life and particularly the comunidad symbolized both Peru’s historic past and hope for a modernized future. Within the comunidad, indigenous members helped and worked land collectively based on reciprocal exchange. Socialists of the time interpreted this as evidence of the inherent socialist nature of indigenous communities. In reality, the comunidad was a defense against the incursion of large landholders on traditionally indigenous land.

This example from Peru almost a century ago seems removed from our contemporary experiences but actually highlights the variety that exists between social, economic, and political groups in terms of attaching ideological value to land and personal characteristics to the people who live and work on that land. Views of land and farming are cultural, and associations are strong (either positive or negative) because of the integral role (either direct or indirect) land and farming have in our own lives. We all need the land to survive –the difference lies in how we value the people who own and cultivate that land.

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Market Spaces

A glimpse inside La Boquería, Barcelona's most famous market.

A glimpse inside La Boquería, Barcelona’s most famous market.

Cities are known for their food markets: the Borough Market in London, the Bastille Market in Paris, and La Boquería in Barcelona. (Check out this website for a great look at La Boquería and how markets market themselves.) While Boston’s Haymarket district may not be as glamorous as these European counterparts, it exemplifies the role of a market in the geographic, political, and socioeconomic space of a city. Haymarket is a contentious space – a place where tensions of race and class collide beneath a discussion of who is selling food, where it comes from, who buys it, and where. Does historic occupation justify where the open-air stalls of Haymarket stand today? Is the reality of low-income shoppers buying produce less valuable than the marketable idea of locally-grown food on display in a glistening indoor space? These issues are still being debated, but ultimately I think Haymarket is most valuable to us as it is now: a space questioning power structures and openly displaying the diversity present in Boston that other market plans attempt to hide.

The current debate surrounding Haymarket reflects the tendency of food to mirror the desires of the privileged classes, who have nostalgia for the “old ways” of quaint, bustling downtown food markets. (This article briefly discusses the possibility of adding a more up-scale public market and really highlights the diversity and quirkiness of Haymarket pushcarts.) These markets, however, are preferred to exist on specific terms: stalls must be organized, the space must be clean, and the food aesthetically pleasing. While this attracts crowds and increases sales, idealizing the experience of purchasing food further distances us from where our food comes from. Potatoes don’t come up from the ground freshly scrubbed, and most tomatoes are not perfectly plump. Many food markets, beyond the eyes of tourists and government officials, are noisy, busy, and not always clean. And many people wouldn’t recognize a freshly unearthed potato as food.

The market system appeals to us because we want, or have been taught by increasingly popular food movements that we want, to be close to our food. But what does being “close” mean? Does it mean having a personal relationship with the man you buy kale from (who may or may not be the farmer who actually grew the kale) or actually growing it yourself? Food production and transportation systems are messy and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. They involve growing, watering, butchering, processing, packaging, and shipping food. But a food market, where we make choices and interact with vendors and other shoppers, can be finessed (through organization or measures of exclusivity) into a safe space that fosters a “close” relationship with food. An enclosed market space with beautiful architecture, what part of Haymarket might become, belies the real relationships surrounding our food – stories of immigration, poverty, privilege, and access. The identities of who buys and sells at Haymarket – third-generation Italian pushcart vendors and newer Central or South American immigrants, single mothers on a tight budget and graduate students pinching their pennies – reflect the character and diversity of Boston itself.

Interested in checking out Haymarket for yourself? This guide has some great photos and details the history of the market district as well as when to arrive and how to pick the best produce for the best price. It warns curious tourists that Haymarket is not a farmer’s market! Instead, it is “Boston’s closest equivalent” to “outdoor markets in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America.”

The Great Debate

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Up close and personal with meat in Cañaris (Cajamarca, Peru).

I believe in eating meat. After countless discussions, articles, and testimonials, this is the conclusion I have reached. Too much cholesterol is bad for your health. Meat is expensive. Our current animal farming and production systems need reform. Animals have souls and feel pain just like humans. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these arguments, and I especially agree with the third statement. But as a student of history and anthropology, eating meat just makes sense. Ideally, it can be done in a way that respects the life of the animal and minimizes wastefulness. Practically, it provides nutrition to people who don’t have the luxury of choosing where their food comes from. I think about food, meat, privilege, and access regularly and have never questioned my views until I read these two articles about feminism-vegetarianism/veganism. I was blindsided. For some reason, I had never considered that every burger I ate or every steak I cut into was a sign of my willing complicity with the repressive objectives of patriarchal order. Feminism and vegetarianism/veganism (I put these two together not because they are the same but because they complement each other on this issue), these authors contend, are inextricably linked and together resist the hierarchy of our patriarchal world that similarly oppresses women and animals. The argument that veganism protects mothers and motherhood particularly struck me. How could I, a woman who strongly believes in the rights of mothers and might be a mother someday myself, continue to participate in food systems that privilege maleness over the biologically predestined state of motherhood?

As this debate proves, what we eat is directly linked to our personal, moral, spiritual, and political convictions. I turned to one particular facet of the debate to resolve the issue (at least for now) in my own mind: eating meat is the consumption of death. Modern vegans, as well as the original feminist-vegetarians of the nineteenth century, employ this belief as reasoning for their lifestyles. To me, however, food is life – even if that food was once living itself. We are all part of a natural order in which species consume other species for sustenance. Moral judgment may lie in how these other species are consumed, but not in the consumption itself. Many people who chose to live as vegans and vegetarians have the ability to do so, and I have not met many (if any) vegans or vegetarians living in poverty. When I was in a small Andean village in northern Peru, I remember walking through town and passing a house with freshly butchered meat hanging outside. This meat was very important to the family – they most likely raised the animals, killed them, and would prepare and eat them. In the United States, many of us do not have a close and personal relationship with our food. But when you stand face to face with direct evidence of that relationship – a relationship that speaks to issues of class, wealth, education, and ethnicity – resisting the patriarchal order is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Veganism is gaining popularity in the United States. Many people are already familiar with vegetarianism and are learning from friends and relatives what it means to be vegan or trying it themselves. Articles, books, and websites (try these two for tips about being vegan) make it easier to get started and adapt a new lifestyle. In many places outside of the United States, however, a vegan diet is still very difficult to maintain. During my semester abroad, I did a class project on eating vegetarian and vegan in Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, where I was living. While we did find a few vegetarian restaurants, the response of one waiter exemplified the general attitude we found. After explaining what “vegan” meant (no animal products like meat, cheese, or eggs), we asked if he could bring us anything vegan. “Of course,” he replied in Spanish, “we have a sandwich vegetal [literally translated as a vegetable sandwich, a staple on most lunch menus in central Spain].” And what was in that, we asked? “Tomato, asparagus, ham, and cheese,” he replied. We had obviously encountered a cultural barrier in vegetarianism, never mind veganism.

It would be interesting to see a map of the United States, a map of the world even, showing the distribution of vegans and vegetarians. Would the areas of highest concentration correspond with blue states? Areas with many college graduates? Veganism and vegetarianism are responses to animal injustice in our food systems as well as larger ideologies concerning living beings, women, and patriarchy. When debating these larger ideologies, however, it is important to consider the socioeconomic positions that allow us to discuss them in the first place.

And for a lighter take on the prevalence of being vegan in pop culture, check out this SNL skit with Justin Timberlake.

The Great Tomato

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The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl “tomatl”.

As a girl who grew up with a father who fancied himself an amateur farmer, it’s not surprising that tomatoes are part of my earliest (and fondest) childhood memories. Every winter, usually in late February when the bitter New England wind seemed endless and everyone had tired of the snow, my dad would begin receiving a steady flow of organic gardening magazines (or regular gardening magazines, in the mid-1990s, before the desire for organic went mainstream) and planting seeds he had saved from the previous year’s crop in the basement under a contraption of grow-lights. I would always ask him excitedly what he was going to plant this year. Cucumbers, eggplant, yellow squash, pole beans, herbs, cabbage, beets, and pumpkins, he would say, depending on his level of ambition. And, of course, tomatoes. Roma, grape, cherry, beefsteak, as many varieties as he could coax out of his garden in the backyard. Tomatoes are notoriously hard to grow in Connecticut because they need a warm summer and don’t like to be surprised by the occasional mid-season frost. A perfect tomato, or a perfectly lopsided tomato in our case, was always cherished by the time it finally ripened in August after weeks of gentle care and shooing away birds. I remember few things as vividly as walking through the garden picking bright red cherry tomatoes off the vine and popping them into my mouth, feeling the warmth of the sun on my tongue right before their juiciness exploded.

Given these experiences, it’s hard for me to believe people who say they don’t like tomatoes! But what kind of tomatoes do they mean, exactly, when they say this? The conventionally grown, perfectly round tomatoes with a faded red hue that are neatly stacked in most grocery stores during every month of the year? Surely they don’t mean the beautiful, uniquely misshapen tomatoes of my childhood or the ones you find sitting on farm stands in the summer. But taste is learned and, as Bourdieu writes, class distinguishes taste in many cases. Perhaps my love of tomatoes is just as dependent on nostalgia as it is on the fact that I grew up in a middle class family and my father spent his leisure time after work in the evenings and on weekends converting our backyard into a garden and teaching me how to measure stakes for pole beans and surround tomato plants with protective cages. As a fruit (not a vegetable!), my preference for tomatoes and familiarity with how they grow is a commentary on how I grew up and my socioeconomic status. As a food in general, my preference for tomatoes demonstrates the strong bonds we form with what we eat through memories and experiences. For me, a tomato means more than what it actually is. Foods gain positive and negative associations by passing through good and bad times in our lives with us. These associations are powerful and help make any discussion of what we eat personally and culturally relevant.

The tomato, despite its prevalence in cuisine found in the United States and across the globe, was originally found in only one place: South America, and more specifically the Peru-Chile border. (For a detailed description of tracing the roots of the tomato and its journey to multicultural integration, see this chapter from Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland.) Cortéz and his conquistadores brought it to Spain, where it then made its way around Europe and eventually back across the Atlantic to the North American colonies. Italian cuisine first adopted the tomato, which many did not enjoy the taste of at first (they had to learn to like it!), as a staple ingredient. By the time the Civil War broke out in the United States, the tomato was being marketed to the masses and canned for convenience – Union soldiers even left a trail of empty tomato cans in their wake upon exiting the south (Estabrook). Today, you can easily find hundreds of mouthwatering tomato recipes and probably have a few of your own memorized. (For some great ideas, try this trendy and delicious food blog.) The tomato, then, has been fully integrated into the cuisine and culture of more than one country since its sixteenth-century “discovery”. More than distinctions of class or taste, it represents the ability of food to become localized in new places after being transplanted from its original domain and is a recurring reminder of colonial exchanges. My six-year-old self would have been shocked to know that the tomatoes she was gobbling down had origins far deeper and much farther away than her father’s garden. But tomatoes are just one of the foods we consume daily that link us to other countries as well as our own nostalgia. Just like us, every food has a past and a transnational history. Finding out this history reveals our own tastes as well as larger relationships of trade, class, and power.