Potatoes for Change

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Feeding families and helping college students de-stress. (Image source: thehappyhousewife.com)

For our last day of class, we all assembled at a community garden in Medford to reflect on our experiences over the course of the semester and offer some extra hands to turn over soil and plant potatoes. It was Earth Day and, coincidentally, my birthday. And, even better, the day before my thesis was due. I was stressed, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed – not exactly looking forward to spending two hours (two hours I could have spent writing, my cranky self complained) up to my elbows in dirt.

Contrary to my pessimistic expectations, those two hours were enjoyable, relaxing, and rejuvenating. I could not have used my pre-deadline time better that day. Throughout our class, we touched on the healing qualities of the land and agricultural work – watering a plant, gardening, farming, anything that gets you out of a confined mental or physical space and into nature. Burying ugly little potato stubs one foot apart in the dirt that day was therapeutic. Simply going through the motions and noticing the sensory experiences of planting (whether I was actually any help or not) cleared my mind and relieved my stress. Community gardens are incredibly important, especially in underprivileged neighborhoods and areas labeled food deserts, not only for the food they produce and nutrition and education they provide to participating families and children. They are also important for the piece of mind they afford growers, a little patch of green to escape to in the midst of stressful situations.

Community gardens are popping up around the country in urban areas and can really impact the lives and well-being of the people who take part in them. For a map of community gardens across the nation and ways to get involved, check out this website. You can type in your zip code to find gardens in your area and get started! New food activists are policy-makers as well as farmers, organizers as well as gardeners. No act is too small.

The Rural Romance

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A little post-thesis light reading, or maybe some anthropological research…

We’ve all heard of historical romance novels, but there’s a new genre taking Australia by storm which, given the current trendiness of food/farming movements and back-to-the-land initiatives here, might be on its way to the United States. Called “rural romances,” these lusty reads focus on the agricultural pursuits of adventurous, intelligent female protagonists who value the environment as well as their families and independence (and who, presumably, meet a nice rural boy/man somewhere along the way). While I haven’t read one of these rural romances myself, I imagine they provide a little excitement – alongside good, traditional moral values and a fairytale ending – to women looking to live vicariously through the heroines.

According to an article in Jezebel, a satirical online news source in blog format composed by liberal, feminist, and surprisingly anthropologically-minded female writers, the rural romance genre debuted in 2002 with Rachael Treasure’s book Jillaroo. A self-proclaimed “regenerative agriculturist,” Treasure actually has a substantial professional background in farming and writing Her website is definitely worth checking out for an interesting twist on new food – or rather farming, in this case – activism. When asked by Jezebel whether other farmers read her books, Treasure noted that while people within “the culture” of agriculture comprise a large part of her readership, “I sell huge quantities in the city because people are hankering for the culture and community that rural living gives.” Farms and farming are not accessible to everyone, and rural romances are one way urbanites and suburbanites access the coveted (by some) stereotypes of life on the land.

I never thought romance novels were particularly anthropological, but the rural romance literary genre is certainly relevant to our discussion of the perceptions and values associated with rural life, how farmers may or may not play into these idealized visions when marketing themselves and their products, and the alternate entrepreneurial opportunities cash-strapped farmers can utilize for supplemental income. Some might see it as selling out, but I consider this a particularly advantageous hole in the market that creative and witty female farmers-turned-writers can fill. (You know, in all that free time they have while running full-time farming operations.)

Behind the Banana

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These cheery yellow peels hide a long history. (Image source: maria-brazil.org)

For one of our classes this semester, we each brought in a food that had an interesting or significant history. Looking around my kitchen 10 minutes before leaving for class, I spotted it – the banana. To me, the banana is the perfect snack or small meal – great before or after a workout, a good source of potassium, and easily transportable in its own convenient container, the peel. I feel very familiar with the banana, although I haven’t seen many banana trees in person and have never picked a banana myself. It’s a standby fruit, the supporting actor to more exotic pomegranates or pineapples, always there when you need it.

But for such an ordinary and ubiquitous fruit that populates the majority of grocery stores throughout the United States, the banana is not local! Perhaps it has been localized in the sense that we are used to constantly having easy access to it, but the banana was originally domesticated in Papua New Guinea. The success of the fruit, discovered by colonizers and widely exported, contributed to the growth of Central American “banana republics” and was responsible for the exploitation of thousands of banana harvesters. Despite its sunny disposition at your local Market Basket or Trader Joe’s, the banana has a long and contentious history.

What if, instead of being a vegetarian or a vegan, you were a locavore? Depending on your definition of “local”, you only purchased and consumed produce and animal products grown and processed within your state or region. Living in, say, Boston, bananas would be out of the question. Instead of a daily snack, they would be a rare treat enjoyed only on vacation in Central American or South Asian countries. Thinking about the history of the banana, as well as the chains of production and supply that bring copious quantities of the fruit to the United States, gave me pause. The networks that transport bananas internationally and ship them across the country do not seem incredibly sustainable, and they certainly contribute to the excess and waste present in our current food system.

Knowing this, I still can’t bring myself to give up bananas. They’re just so practical. But the stories behind our food and how we get it are worth learning, especially when they involve a colonial past. Even if they don’t cause us to change our diets, we are more aware and informed buyers because of them. (Check out this NPR story for an interesting narrative about the banana’s “sexy, sordid history.”)

New Food Activism: State of the Field

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A farming family in Vermont looking happy and successful, courtesy of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition blog.

Over the course of this class, what has stood out to me the most is the incredible variety of community initiatives, national campaigns, people, and beliefs the term “new food activism” encompasses. While labels like “organic” and “locally grown” sometimes seem the domain of an upper class privileged enough to buy groceries from expensive supermarkets or up-scale farmer’s markets, new food activism both intersects class divides and provides a new framework with which to view those divides. A broad definition of “food” allows space for the varied expressions of new food activism: “all the processes that make animal, vegetable or mineral into something to eat and then all that is involved in what happens next to bodies and societies,” in the words of Rachel Slocum (2011:1).

New food activism is inter-class, inter-race, international, and even multi-species. It includes Latino immigrants fighting for their rights to a community garden in Los Angeles (The Garden) as well as a non-profit organization feeding orangutans with vertical farms in Borneo. While new food activism may seem elitist – a rich white woman lauding the superiority of organic produce does not give people living below the poverty line more access to chemical-free vegetables – it is actually accessible to consumers of all social, racial, and economic categories because, after all, we are all consumers. A conversation about food, including how we grow it and access it, is open to everyone who eats. And as people who eat, we each have a vested interest in our food systems and are qualified to participate in a discussion about food and farming.

As food movements develop and gain momentum in our country, the vocabulary we use to talk about them has not necessary kept up. As John Schlebecker demonstrates in his article “The Many Names of Farmers”, etymology makes it difficult to find words about farms, farming, and occupation that are devoid of some kind of connotation, either positive or negative, that frequently relates to class (1981). This difficulty reflects both our hesitation as Americans to discuss issues of class and to create appropriate terminology for this discussion as well the many values we have ascribed to the land and the people who cultivate it. While researching for my senior thesis, I noticed a similar trend in using Spanish to describe landholding categories in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Peru. Every term used to describe the variety of tenant or sharecropping arrangements indigenous peasants participated in denoted their inferior socioeconomic status. (For further reading, the most accessible and detailed account of this is Florencia Mallon’s The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands).

In a discussion of farming as it relates to new food activism, we have to consider exactly who farmers are and their specific priorities when labeling them with an identity they might not even call themselves. A “farmer” can be someone who owns thousands of monocropped acres or someone who works in a garden in the middle of an urban center; someone who is continuing generations of tradition or an Ivy League graduate venturing into new territory. In part because of recent food and farming movements, our vocabulary is growing to reflect this diversity – but we still have a long way to go.

When thinking about food and farming movements, it is important to remember that contemporary trends in food, nutrition, and returning to agriculture have historical precedents. For me, this makes conceptualizing our future less daunting. As a society, we have “left” the land and “returned” to it repeatedly, discovered the ideological importance and health benefits of specific diets like vegetarianism, and transformed our food systems. We encounter new problems and seek new solutions, but the struggle for personal and social betterment, as well as the racial, political, and economic tensions we find along the way, are characteristic of an American (if not universal) experience that extends far beyond the twenty-first century.  In Back to the Land, Dona Brown traces back-to-the-land movements across the nineteenth century, concluding that various economic, environmental, and even spiritual motivations have prompted us to escape industrialized city life, and capitalism itself, by purchasing or renting land outside of urban centers and cultivating it individually or communally.

At the core of past and present efforts to return to farming, I think, are universal aspirations enmeshed in the values we have come to deeply associate with the land. Individuals of every background have sought and continue to seek “autonomy, skill, independence, [and] self-sufficiency,” writes Brown, and some turn to the land to find these qualities (2011:12). But while farming and the values associated with it seem individualistic, farm labor and the initiatives established to support new farmers are the work of many people striving toward a common goal. In particular, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition is doing great things to get new operations started and connect farmers with resources and a larger national (and virtual!) community. (Check out the progress of five new dairy farmers here.) Financial independence (or at least a reliable source of grant income, etc.) means a sustainable operation for one farmer and a more sustainable future for the stakeholders – all of us.

Discussions of food and farming also revolve around aesthetics – what displays at farmer’s markets are most visually appealing, how farms can market themselves as tourist destinations, or how to offer potential CSA customers a certain kind of experience with their weekly or monthly baskets. New food movements have to attract interest to successfully accomplish their goals of revamping consumption and production systems, and this is often done by presenting beautiful produce, attractive displays, and idyllic landscapes. We gravitate toward perfectly red, plump tomatoes and freshly scrubbed potatoes more than we do toward those that are lopsided, discolored, or have dirt clinging to them. We have been conditioned (and this can begin another debate about learned tastes and how society differentiates “good” from “bad” and “clean” from “dirty”) to value aesthetically appealing produce over vegetables that are perhaps closer to their natural state, and are willing to pay more for this produce.

Farming is a business, and farmers need to grow food and produce animal products that sell. Some of us might prefer a manicured public market of strictly local food to noisy pushcart vendors selling conventionally grown fruit at bargain prices (the current Haymarket debate), which causes some farmers to feel pressured to live up to stereotypes of romanticized rural life and present food to customers that belies the hard work, dirt, and sweat that went in to growing that food. Through marketing schemes and the desire to be “close” to our food, we have come to expect more than just food from farmers. For me, one of the best parts of this course was hearing how farmers balance the challenges of doing what they love with limited resources with giving the public what they want in local food and the people growing it.

Food is powerful. It possesses both utilitarian and perceived values, reflects our ethnic, political, and socioeconomic identities, and transmits heritage and memory – a true intersection of culture and biology. Discussions about food are related in some way to almost every other issue concerning our society in general and us as individuals. Politics are involved when delegating public spaces for community gardens and passing farmer-friendly legislation or combating the use of GMOs. Economics determine who has the money to eat what and which neighborhoods are food desserts. Religion or spiritual beliefs also determine who eats what and how. Cooking and preparing food passes on traditions, and sharing meals together solidifies group bonds.

Our last class activity, planting potatoes at the Medford Community Garden, perfectly reflected the nature of current food and farming movements – individuals come to farming, or more generally participate in some aspect of “new food activism”, on their own terms and for their own reasons. Whether omnivores are debating vegans about feminism, new farmers are lobbying Congress for aid, or college students are playing in the dirt alongside elementary and middles schoolers, it is most important that we are all engaging with our food and food systems. I agree with many of my classmates when they say that current condition of food production, consumption, and access within the United States presents a grim outlook for the future of our country’s health, environment, and principles.

But I think there is much hope to be found in the enthusiasm, which bridges barriers of race, class, and education, for the various aspects of “new food activism”. Food and farming movements are no longer limited, if they ever really were, to the wealthy philanthropists or activists with deep pockets or college degrees. Every person can and should – and, I argue, is morally obligated to – participate in improving our food systems, expanding access, and helping farmers with similar values. A singular solution to achieving equal nutritional access and healthy, humane, and sustainable food production does not exist. Rather, the combined effort of all sectors of society and all types of people will yield working ideas to move us all forward.

A Very Gourmet Spring Break

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Our very own Oysters Rockefeller, not too bad for a bunch of college kids on vacation.

Eating can be an individual experiences—food choices may reflect personal convictions as well as economic limitations, and calories might be counted to achieve weight loss goals. But eating can also be a collective act, undertaken by a group of people at the same time to affirm unity and a shared identity. During my spring break trip this March, I especially felt the connecting ability of food and food preparation. We rented a beach house in the Outer Banks for the week, and as 14 of us Tufts seniors piled in our cars for the 14 hour drive from Boston to North Carolina, I think even the most optimistic of parents had their doubts—will they trash the house? will they eat junkfood all week? will they be at bars every night? I admit, I didn’t know what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised by the result of our combined skills and interests—a communal dinner every night that showcased our own individual identities (ethnic, culinary, or otherwise) while affirming a common one.

Each dinner had a sort of theme: Mexican, seafood, grill, and flatbread pizza, to name a few. We had vegetable tempura the way one friend’s parents learned to make it in China, key lime pie from a secret family recipe, and oysters caught by a few of us in the bay. The food was very local, in the sense that it came from nearby waters (in the case of the fresh seafood) or the grocery store down the street (where the produce was actually grown, I’m not sure). But international influences were also strong, either from family heritage or learned preferences (I’ve never been to Mexico, but I love fajitas). A different group of us cooked together each night to produce multiple courses to feed everyone, and we all sat down together in the dining room (this beach house was huge and behemoth table accommodated everyone) to eat.

 Out of everything we did over the course of the week, these moments were my favorite—looking down the table at some of my closest friends, getting closer with people I didn’t know well by cooking with them, and feeling the accomplishment of preparing a well-received meal. Cooking and eating together was an occasion to share recipes, stories, and memories. For me, spring break crystallized the ability of food to bring people together and the powerful connections we form to others as well as our own heritage through cooking and eating.

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.

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.

Eating Local = Thinking Global

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So that’s where pineapples come from! Spotted on a spring break well-spent in El Salvador.

Academic institutions do a lot of things. They educate the future leaders of our country, wreak havoc on the lives of high school students when acceptance letters start (or don’t start) rolling in, take our parent’s hard-earned money…you get the picture. But universities nationwide are actually some of the biggest supporters and funders of sustainability projects and the “farm-to-college” model that brings local produce to dining halls and campus farmer’s markets.

At Tufts, the administration tries to encourage a “think global, buy local” attitude when it comes to the quality of foods offered on meal plans and accessible nearby. Locally and regionally grown food is used when possible to cut down on transportation and environmental costs and a seasonal farmer’s market brings community members right to campus to share their produce with students (for more information, go here). I can honestly say that one of the things I like most about my university is its commitment to food-centered and nutrition-based initiatives. When friends would visit and I would take them to eat, I was proud knowing that my dining hall was better – because it certainly wasn’t bigger – than theirs. (Yes, I know, I’m a little competitive, but hey! Have you ever tried to eat at UConn? For a school with the nation’s first agricultural program, they really need to step up their dining halls.)

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Some healthy (and maybe even locally produced!) options at Dewick Dining Hall, Tufts University. My plates certainly never looked like this…but they could have!

Anthropology is one discipline that is giving students, administrators, and community organizers the framework to engage in these local and sustainable initiatives. For a comprehensive look at which colleges around the country are making the effort and how they’re doing it, check out this article about campus food projects. The author, a professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, relates one student’s surprised reaction upon walking past a small food garden on campus: “Oh…so that’s how broccoli grows!” I think this anecdote really captures the important work sustainable food projects are doing and must continue to do on campuses across the country. Many college students, especially those at top-tier universities, are a privileged bunch compared to, say, the millions of Americans identified as “the working poor.” And local produce and sustainability projects like pesticide-free CSAs and organic urban farming are frequently criticized for only catering to the “elite” and not to the people who actually need their efforts. But, as I think this story makes clear, the average college student might not even know where broccoli comes from! And in order for these movements to be successful among any demographic in our society, we all need to be a bit more knowledgeable about the origins of our food.