When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.
In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!
During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.
American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.
We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.
Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.
The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again. This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion. And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.
Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.
The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?
We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.
What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:
Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.” The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.
So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.
If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions. The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.
You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.
Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.
Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy. The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”
Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months.Roasted, mashed, or used in diversedishesfromaround the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.
Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”
Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.
Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.
We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.
 Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.
 Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.
 This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)
Peace Meal Supper Club #12: Juneteenth is a celebration of common ground and progressive hopes. The menu highlights foods that are loved across all classes in the South, and have been for generations. They are not unique to any one group, but represent a vast common foundational heritage, upon which we should be building a unified society.
It is a challenging topic this year: as racial violence foments to a fever, we must face the incomplete and duplicitous work of our predecessors. Proclaiming freedom for all, as did Jefferson, while utilizing captive labor is hypocrisy. Proclaiming those captives free in a limited fashion, as did Lincoln, is also hypocrisy. Freeing those captives then doling out small tokens of fairness only when things begin to look a bit grim is likewise hypocrisy. Like other efforts that have sought equality–women’s suffrage and the ‘right’ to manage their own reproductive systems, for example–the movement towards full enfranchisement of non-male, non-heterosexual, non-white humans has been beaten back continually. Grudgingly, turf is yielded by the aggressors. Surrendered ground is reclaimed through acts of terror, such as the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston last week. The terrorist has been apprehended, but sacred space has been violated once again.
As the Confederate flag flies full mast over South Carolina’s Capitol grounds–the US and SC flags are at half mast–Governor Nikki Haley declares that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Actually, Governor, racism is the motivation. President Obama laments the fact that a young man had possession of a handgun. (Check your Constitution, Mr. President.) But race-based crimes require no handgun. Hate will use any object it finds handy: a torch, a rope, or a pickup truck.
The Civil Rights Act of 1871 successfully led to the dismantlement of the Ku Klux Klan, but there was enough racist energy left to resurrect the hate group and its affiliates multiple times in the 1900s. Multiple Civil Rights Acts have been passed at the Federal level only to be challenged by various states, the President, or the US Supreme Court. Although all black males have been guaranteed the right to vote since 1870, the 21st century still sees virulent efforts to exclude black voters. These are not incidents in isolation, for bias runs as deep as bedrock, even at the Federal level. In 1999, a class action lawsuit was successfully executed against the USDA for its decades-long denial of loans to black farmers. And though slavery was outlawed in the United States by the 13th Amendment in 1865, we still possess an impetus towards involuntary servitude, particularly in agriculture.
I am a child of post-white-flight suburbia. I grew up in a Confederate state, institutionally shielded from even the mention of Civil Rights. I didn’t know Jim Crow from John Brown. It has stuck in my craw for a long time: the biggest social movement of the 1900s occurred during my lifetime, yet I discovered it in fragmentary fashion. Mythic rebel pride filtered every bit of learning. Cultural inertia inclined toward Confederate sympathy. Disturbingly, that momentum still exists, even in surprising places: a few blocks from my home in Watkins Glen, NY, there is a Confederate flag posted above a neighbor’s doorway.
I do not view my culture of origin with disdain. My family is profoundly less racist now than it was two or three generations ago. The company I keep these days is generally progressive. But the fact remains that we–speaking of white do-gooders–benefit from what our forebears gained through forced labor. And all Americans, whether we are descendants of slaves or of freedmen, are still reeling from the trauma of our shared violent past. We live under the inertia of previous generations, and though it is residual, it is still powerful and leaves a possibly indelible imprint. It expresses itself in fits of violence, righteous reactions, subversive terrorism, random eruptions, and institutional passive aggression. Institutionally–I am speaking of the government and its agencies and our capitalistic system–we have been socialized to act as though whites are important, non-whites are clearly secondary. When we excuse Jefferson’s holding of slaves, or Lincoln’s limitations on the Emancipation Proclamation, we are reinforcing the institutionally racist culture we inhabit today.
So to have a meal to celebrate the emancipation of American slaves is indeed a delicate matter. Apart from the risk of misappropriation of a holy day, there is the chance that it can come off as self-congratulatory towards all of us social progressives who truly believe we are changing the world. Those of us who have never been oppressed walk a tightrope of social tension whenever we speak of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.
I really, truly, sincerely want the world to work in united fashion along progressive lines. But I have inherited the ability to want whatever I choose, and to get the majority of it. I am light years away from the reality of 40 million Americans.
During the Civil War, my birth state of Texas was relatively battle free. This, along with its position on the far western end of the Confederacy, prompted many Southern slaveholders to emigrate there.
“The idea was [that] Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all,” says Jackie Jones, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.” Being on the fringes of the both the Union and the Confederacy gave Texans an excuse to ignore the Emancipation Proclamation and the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
The slave population in the state had risen to about 250,000 by the time Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston with an important announcement. On June 19, 1865, he stood on the balcony of the erstwhile Confederate Headquarters and read aloud General Order #3:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
The Executive he mentioned was already dead and buried. The proclamation was already two and half years old. And oh, yeah: the South had surrendered a couple of months earlier.
The newly freed people rejoiced in the streets, exhilarating in the unimaginable. The following year, many of them reconvened on June 19th to commemorate the day they learned of their freedom. It naturally became a regular annual celebration.
Finding themselves prohibited from using public parks for Juneteenth celebrations, many of the former slaves pooled their funds and bought parks for themselves, such as the Emancipation Park in Austin, another Emancipation Park in Houston, and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, Texas.
The multiple waves of the African American Great Migration
brought the observance into other regions, and celebrations flourished in Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other major cities. Juneteenth suffered during the early 1900s, with the birth of Jim Crow and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, then became a rallying date again during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Today it is officially recognized in 42 states, including Texas. To its credit, Texas was the first to make it a state holiday. This happened in 1979, six years after Confederate Heroes Day was recognized as an official state holiday.
In this, the 150th year of Juneteenth, there is renewed interest in making it a Federal holiday. It will come with a bit of compromise: already Juneteenth has been poured into the standard American festival template of multiple stages, corporate sponsorship, lots of beer, and scores of food vendors. But commodification is not what the holiday is about.
Traditional Juneteenth celebrations emphasize education and achievement. The first observance in 1866 was used as an opportunity to educate the former slaves on how to vote. Honoring achievements at the community or national level serves as a gauge to measure the progress of the people. There is reflection upon the shared experiences of enslavement, displacement, abduction, and other trauma, but there is even more emphasis given to rejoicing in the victory of freedom. Self-improvement is encouraged, as is planning for the future of the family and the community. All of these components build resilience and vibrancy.
And of course, there is the food. The typical menu for Juneteenth is dazzling: barbecue and Creole dishes, cornbread, sweet potatoes, collards and other greens, black eyed peas, fragrantly seasoned rice, fruit cobblers, and red sodas. Of course chicken, seafood, pork, and beef often figure into the festivities, but in deference to the emancipation of all beings, none of these will be served at Peace Meal Supper Club. We have significant common ground without resorting to bloodshed.
Here’s an interesting thing about the foods associated with Juneteenth and the African American experience: I was raised on them, too, in my white suburban home. These foods are shared among multiple ethnic groups, along a lower economic strata. I was raised distinctly working class, with a solid cracker heritage. I am only a generation removed from subsistence farming.
For me, as head cook and bottle washer of Peace Meal Supper Club, this is a chance to illuminate common ground, to speak of shared heritage and overlapping experiences which can draw in both sides. Food is a powerful binder: “There is salt between us,” says an old Arab proverb. Once you share that salt–that meal–you cannot be enemies. Common foods come from common grounds, wherein we can sow seeds of peace.
Course 1 comprises Maple-Braised Sweet Potatoes, a Cornbread Waffle, and a bit of Slaw.
Sweet potatoes will grow anywhere and produce prolifically, even in depleted soils. They are highly nutritious and keep well–perfect traits for food among the poor. They are reminiscent of African yams, and were quickly adopted by the displaced slaves.
Corn was a shared food between displaced Africans and the Native Americans, and directs us to the Seminole culture of pre-US Florida, where escaped slaves found safe haven. Once the US had negotiated the transfer of Florida from Spain, this culture was all but exterminated. Seemingly worlds away, my family also had deep ties to corn: my father’s uncle grew vast acres of corn as an East Texas tenant farmer. I remember us harvesting it by the pickup load, with my Mom working nonstop through the weekend to preserve it.
Course 2 offers Red Rice, Black-Eyed Peas, and Chow Chow.
Red is a significant color in Juneteenth celebrations. Some credit this to the hibiscus tea that was popular among the slaves, which we will also be having with our meal. Others say red is symbolic of the blood shed during the African American experience. In this traditional rice dish, tomatoes are slowly simmered in rich soul seasoning until they break down, brilliantly dyeing the rice as it cooks.
Black-eyed peas, originating in West Africa, are an ironic gift to white Southerners who consume them for luck on New Years Day. I swear by them, knowing that their power lies deep in multi-cultural mystery. Like many Africans brought to the Southern US, I was raised on them.
Both they and I accompanied the peas with a dollop of chow chow, a spicy sweet condiment made from green tomatoes, cabbage, and lots of vinegar. The chow chow I’ve made for Peace Meal Supper Club #12 was derived from my Mom’s recipe. It compares favorably to the recipe her grandmother used, which in turn is very much like that published by former Carolina slave Abby Fisher in 1881. Her book, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” was celebrated among the elite society of her adopted hometown, San Francisco.
Course 3 brings Tempeh Creole, Collard Greens, and Late Spring Turnips.
Creole means many things, and in this it reveals its chief characteristic: a mix of cultures. Creole cuisine descended from the fine skills of French chefs in colonial Louisiana. Based on a mirepoix derivative, utilizing New World ingredients, it forms the basis of New Orleans haute cuisine. As Americans moved into Louisiana and a territorial purchase was secured, Africans working in the kitchens further mixed the pot. Their influence on the fine cuisine of the South is incalculable. I am using one of their secret ingredients, which they borrowed from the Natives that they encountered. Sassafras, otherwise known as filé, provides both thickening for the sauce and an unmistakable Deep South flavor.
Collards are another poor man’s food, rich in nutrients, shared across every culture of the South–and many worldwide. Hearty, abundant, sustaining, and full of vitamin C, they are a powerhouse for the working class.
Course 4 is a burst of sweet tartness in the form of Blackberry Cobbler, served a la mode with Raspberry Sorbet.
During slavery and the early days of Emancipation, African Americans hadn’t much in the luxury foods department. But what they could forage, they could convert into a party. Wild berries provided a foundation for many of their pies.
Cobbler–a biscuit crust cooked over stewed fruit–was developed by the British American colonists, who found themselves without the proper ingredients or equipment for making steamed puddings. As the technique is simple, the ingredients common, and the equipment basic, cobbler was quickly adopted by those held as slaves. Cobblers have become strongly identified with Southern culture across all boundaries.
Juneteenth is a celebration of heritage and progress. In that spirit, I am proud to be serving this menu on my Mom’s china. She purchased it one piece at a time through a locally-based supermarket during the 1970s. Arrangements like this were common–such as towels being included in boxes of laundry detergent–and enabled the lower classes to acquire the trappings of the upper classes.
It is a wonderful inversion of class, which is also an important if unspoken element of Juneteenth. As related on juneteenth.com: “During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters’.”
“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” history professor Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.”
Peace Meal Supper Club has always been both celebratory and sobering. The menus have undoubtedly been about enjoyment and indulgence. The themes have always been about knowing more and vowing to do more. Being gently demanding and straightforward, PMSC always reinforces a generally gritty message: we have a lot of work to do. We must constantly work to reconcile the impact that our privileged lives have on the world around us. Our privilege came with a price which we did not pay.
The truth of the matter is that change is occurring. As African Americans have progressed, so has American culture. Change has come through careful negotiations, violent upheavals, broken promises, public demonstrations and silent vigils. While we are frustrated and angered with the backward steps–and plunges into white supremacy darkness–we stand in a much more unified and progressive world than that of June 19, 1865.
With Peace Meal Supper Club #12: Juneteenth, I do not intend to imitate or co-opt. I have learned so much from the complexity of our contradictory American heritage, as painful as it has been for many to endure. I gain from learning of the indomitable spirit that is central to Juneteenth. Therein lies perseverance and determination that I will never know. I am thankful for the spirit of Juneteenth, and celebrate our common human ground.
“Strengthening the ties that bind us should always be our objective. Unity and peace are our goals,” states a press release from a leading Juneteenth organizer. May that spirit be ours, eternally.
I’ve written enough essays for Peace Meal Supper Club that I know when to turn the mic over to the experts. This month’s theme of Fair–as in Fair Trade–quickly became a maze of acronyms, political initiatives and their undermining, international trade agreements and their undoing, wonky treaties, and government actions against humans. Dissension among the ranks of Fair Traders further complicate matters. It simply is too much to encapsulate, even by my wordy standards.
The best I can do is to direct the reader’s attention to the work of others.
Fair Trade, as a movement, has its origins in a couple of places: post-World War II Europe and late 20th century Latin America. In the former, impoverished war refugees banded together in cooperative efforts to sell their crafts. Eventually, religious organizations such as the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren helped establish fair trade supply chains into the developed nations. Ten Thousand Villages is the offspring of the Mennonite efforts. The Brethren, through their SERRV organization, became co-founders of the World Fair Trade Organization.
As for Latin America, after 19th century colonial land grants had marginalized the peasantry, multiple agrarian movements rose and fell, finally coalescing through the help of European alternative trading organizations in the 1970s. US organizations such as Equal Exchange joined the fight in the 1980s.
Of course the concept is much older. The Free Produce Movement, begun by American Quakers in the 1790s, focused on boycotting food and other goods produced by slaves, and encouraged the purchase of items made only by appropriately-compensated labor. Adam Smith, the cornerstone of modern economics, understood this, too: “Every business transaction,” he stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “is a challenge to see that both parties come out fairly.”
The exact identity of the “parties” involved is subject to many interpretations. We’ll confine ourselves to two chief options.
Option 1: The negotiating parties are national governments, who may sign tariff treaties or formulate multinational organizations in order to produce favorable results for national economies. The North American Free Trade Agreement was an artifact of these efforts. The pending Trans Pacific Partnership is another. GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was an international treaty active from 1948 until 1995, when it morphed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). In general, these parties are in pursuit of Free Trade across political boundaries.
Books and websites abound to dissect and analyze the pros and cons of these various government-led initiatives. But the overwhelming effect is that small producers are left in the cold. The benefits accrue at a national levels and frequently at corporate levels, but do not translate into better livelihoods for the people involved at the ground level.
The WTO presents an interesting picture. It is a rules-based organization wherein the rules are not well-defined. Documents that exceed 30,000 pages, agreements made in Green Rooms comprised of privately invited guests, a problem-solving model that rests upon Negative Consensus, a Grand Bargain that hobbles developing nations–these do not make for fairly negotiated terms. Throw in some obfuscating taxonomy–Single Undertaking, Most Favored Nation, General Agreement, Aggregate Measures of Support–and you have created a barely navigable maze. The WTO functions in spite of itself, and to the advantage of developed economies.
But benefits accrued by economies do not translate proportionately into benefits for people in those economies.
Option 2: The parties are the people actually producing the goods, who act upon their own agency in matters of exchange. They live in culturally-rich regions, just like our own neighborhoods, and they want to preserve their ways of life and educate their children and have access to health care. (Psst…it’s what we’d want for ourselves…) Acting upon their own accord, they can secure these things for themselves. This is at the core of Fair Trade. It enables people to provide for their own needs, rather than proscribing them to foreign political agendas. It is a shift from extractive trade relationships to a fully supportive ones.
“We believe the most promising hope for the future of small farmers, rural communities, sustainable eco-systems, and a healthy food system is to support small farmer organizations, educated and engaged consumers, and democratic social movements. By bringing producers and consumers closer together through greater mutual understanding and appreciation, and concretizing that through action, we can build and strengthen co-operative supply chains and a food system that serve the needs of ‘people not profit.’”
Serving the needs of the people across all industries and cultures is not a simple task, but is certainly approachable. Key principles, shared among multiple Fair Trade organizations, help solidify the numerous efforts. These principles generally include:
Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships
Payment of Fair Prices and Wages
No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labor
Workplace Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
Democratic & Transparent Organizations
Safe Working Conditions & Reasonable Work Hours
Investment in Community Development Projects, Pensions, Scholarships
Traceability and Transparency
Fair Trade is about structural change, from a philosophy of selfishness to one of equal reward. It’s about knowledge sharing, not sequestering, so that all fields may flourish. It’s about recognizing that the welfare of others is as important as our own–and indeed may eventually be our own. It even leads to changes in leadership, as cooperatives are able to establish themselves in the marketplace and then in political arenas. It is the headwaters of a sea change.
But of course, there are struggles–some in the form of corporate co-optation of the Fair Trade label, and with governmental favor still being granted to industrial-scale concerns. But the convergence of so many efforts–Fair Trade, organic, “locavore,” small producers, cooperatives, and human rights–provides a favorable climate of change.
To help you become more in-the-know, I recommend the following:
The humble seed is the very antithesis of capitalist production: It will produce goods without the application of labor. It is abundantly self-regenerating. It is available to and reproducible by everyone, and it is freely-giving without regard to the market. It is the embodiment of diversity and social progress. It mirrors our own best behaviors.
It is a powerful force against rampant consumerism: it will prevent people from buying other products. And for this very reason, our economic system has been warring against the seed for almost 200 years. This should grate against our own best instincts.
Janisse Ray muses elegantly and personally about the seed in her recent book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Her book serves as a reminder of our existence outside the pulsations of commerce, of the strength we possess in our ability to carry culture, preserve life, and celebrate unconstrained forces. She understands that even during their dormant seasons, seeds are still powerful.
“Furthermore, between growing seasons, the seeds had to be traded, because traditional societies understood that, as in human reproduction, plants do better by outbreeding. To swap seeds is to keep a variety strong and valuable–a genetic currency, the exchange of priceless genetic material. How interesting that the agrarian within us understands that to survive, to keep our food crops viable, we have to be openhanded. Seeds have a built-in requirement for generosity. Otherwise, they suffer inbreeding.”
Yet this generosity has been heavily compromised by a system that we, the people, no longer control. Capital, as a force, lies in the hands of the few. We, the many, are subject to its relentless pursuit of commodity-forms–which it will own and will gladly sell back to us. The modern story of seed is a study in political economics.
Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., explores this avenue in First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. A book of daunting scope, it illuminates the impulses that have provided us with seeds that work against us.
The urge of capital towards universal commoditizing once stopped at the farm gate. Farms were once islands of self-sufficiency in an ocean of increasing consumerism. Farmers grew their own seeds. They plowed with animals which could reproduce themselves; fertilized their lands with the manures from these animals; fed the animals with hay produced on the farm. It was a strong and self-sustaining model, not without its challenges and certainly not fail-proof. But the model was robust and well-developed, having provided the basis of agrarian society for millennia. Until the 1900s, farms remained the impenetrable anomaly in capitalistic America.
The primary obstacle was the seed: it regenerated itself, multiplying with vigor the seed that preceded it. There was no need to purchase its replacement. In order for capital to conquer the seed, they had to disable its internal and external means of production. They had to alter the seed and those who used it.
“The growth of capitalism necessarily entails the destruction of modes of production based on the personal labor of independent producers.” The effects are far-reaching.
As Marx observed, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from earlier ones.”
This state of constant change is why we are endlessly presented with new cars, phones, blenders, computers, staplers, mops, toilet brushes, and innumerable other products. It really makes no sense: We have an economic model which requires that we constantly have to make products. When we exhaust all possibilities, we still have to make products. And when we’re saturated with products, we find other markets to sell our products. If we see something that is available for free–water, for example, or a seed–we must find a way to productize it, because our economic model will not allow for free stuff. That is the genetic urge of capitalism.
Seed has always been a critical resource for the United States. The region we inhabit is the native home of only five crops of economic importance: sunflowers, blueberries, cranberries, pecans, and the Jerusalem artichoke. The greater American crops–corn, squashes, beans, tomatoes, and dozens more–have origins south of our borders. Centers of origin are important, for they provide genetic diversity upon which civilizations flourish. Though many crops had made their way northward before the coming of the Europeans, they passed through multiple bottlenecks along the way.
In the early 1800s, the United States began a program of global seed collection. They scoured the planet, under the direction of the US Patent Office and the Navy. The collection of diverse crops, to augment what the settlers brought with them, was considered a matter of national importance. Our survival as a nation largely depended upon our ability to supply ourselves with a diverse and resilient larder.
Global collection of germplasm–a term used to describe the genetic packet within the seed–has never stopped. We are still engaged in large-scale collection of plant genetic matter. At times it is under the banner of national security, as in the programs of the early 1800s; other times it is under the flag of imperialism. Sadly, it is frequently operating under the aegis of humanitarian aid.
Under the early Patent Office program, Naval Commodore Matthew C. Perry made a series of “diplomatic missions” to Japan in 1853 and 1854. Best known for opening Japan to American trade, these missions brought the U.S. a tremendous variety of seeds. Perry’s foray is interesting for several reasons: it was overtly imperialistic, aimed at opening Japan for the U.S.’s own commercial benefit. Perry’s boats were armed with the most advanced guns available and he refused to leave their waters. He threatened to destroy towns along the harbor if he was not received. Japan had little choice but to cooperate. Such military-led acquisition of raw materials and the opening of new global markets should ring unpleasantly familiar to us today.
Regardless of their provenance, seeds from around the globe provided American agriculture with a solid foundation, “the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades.”
“The global distribution and transfer of PGRs (plant genetic resources) have been and still remain crucial elements of the political economy of plant biotechnology,” says Kloppenburg.
With so much plant matter at their disposal, American plant breeders began in earnest the adapting of crops to North American conditions. By the early 1900s, plant breeders’ rights had become an very volatile issue.
Connecticut plant breeders Edward M. East and Donald F. Jones lamented in 1919 that “the man who originates devices to open our boxes of shoe polish is able to patent his product and gain the full reward for his inventiveness. The man who originates a new plant gets nothing.”
We can argue that an improved plum–as in Plant Patent 13, awarded posthumously to Luther Burbank–is not a new plant, only an altered version of an old plant, but we will ultimately lose that argument. For the Plant Patent Act was signed into law in 1930.
“The Plant Patent Act of 1930,” elaborates Kloppenburg, “had granted patent protection to breeders of novel varieties of asexually reproducing plants, and the seed industry had long lobbied for provision of similar legislation for plants that reproduce sexually. In 1970, this ambition was partially realized with the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act, and capital has continuously sought to extend the reach of private property in germplasm.”
Another favorable development for plant breeders and seed companies came in 1980, with a patent case involving an oil-eating bacteria. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the bacteria’s ‘creator,’ Ananda Chakrabarty. The ruling left sufficient opening for seeds to be tossed in.
The decision also opened up the possibility for plant breeders to utilize utility patents for their products. This powerful avenue allows for proprietary protection of not whole plants, but discrete attributes of a plant: DNA sequences, genes, cells, tissues, and seeds. These traits are then licensed for use. The licenses carry very rigid constraints and intimidating enforcement trends.
“A variety lost to seed saving is a variety lost to civilization,” observes Ray. She continues:
“Three things result from varietal decline. First is the loss to our plates and palates…Second is the loss of sovereignty over seeds and the ability to control our food supply. Third, there’s another scary reality to this. All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens biodiversity. We know this–the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for its collapse. In shriveling the gene pool through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk.”
We often don’t think of this, deluged as we are by abundant product choices in our supermarkets. But we must look behind the glamour of consumer product packaging and see the dwindling supply of natural food resources. Modern agriculture has brought us 150 crops. Traditional agriculture brought us about 7000.
Apart from the growers of uniform, high-yield crops, “Growers with farms of less than seven acres preserve diversity through networks of seed and knowledge exchanges,” Karl Zimmerer, a Penn State University geography professor told a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The protection of seed diversity remains resident among farmers who are people, not corporations. Just as it always has. As long as capital will let it.
In the background of all this varietal development and seed diversity loss are two much-embattled institutions, the USDA and the network of land-grant universities (LGUs), which first served primarily as agricultural schools. Both institutions have complicated histories, far too serpentine to include here. Kloppenburg provides an engrossing look at their establishment, their neutralizing by seed producers, and eventual subjugation to industry in First the Seed. His application of social divisions of labor and exploration of the domain of research are eye-opening. Equally informative is his examination of the threat posed to capital by LGUs and especially the USDA. What capital sees it occupies, however.
By 1909, the conquest of LGUs and their associated experiment stations was nearing completion. Speaking before a convention in Washington, DC, Kansas researcher H. J. Waters stated, “It has been a fundamental mistake to assume that the duty of the experiment station is solely or even principally to benefit the farmer directly. A larger responsibility rests upon it–that of making an exact science of agriculture.”
He is appealing to business here, not the farmer. The science of which he is speaking is applied science, that concerned with making products.
As for the USDA, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz handed down its shiny new attitude for 1955: “Adapt or die, resist and perish…Agriculture is now big business. Too many people are trying to stay in agriculture that would do better some place else.”
Those people being booted by Butz were farmers. Small farmers who held agricultural tradition in their hands. They were a lot like the farmers who now hold 75% of global seed diversity in their hands.
Apart from all the talk of patents and big business, the conversion of seeds to proprietary status has major social impacts. Some are local, some are global.
The people most directly affected are the farmers themselves–those that are left. They find that their entire business model has been converted from self-sufficiency to industrial dependency, as purchased inputs account for the bulk of their materials. Due to the required use of fertilizers, they are linked tightly to the petroleum industry, and suffer from the diminishing oil and gas resources. Debt is the norm, and it mounts in complex forms. And of course the seeds are now of the single-use variety, and come with licensing agreements.
For the farmers’ customers, things have changed, too. Food prices reflect petroleum prices. The many layers of labor involved add to the price increases. Quality is down. Choice is becoming more limited.
Larger social impacts ripple like a tsunami into all sectors of life: “These include the exacerbation of regional inequalities, generation of income inequalities at the farm level, increased scales of operation, specialization of production, displacement of labor, accelerating mechanization, depressed product prices, changing tenure patterns, rising land prices, expanding markets for commercial inputs, agrichemical dependence, genetic erosion, pest-vulnerable monocultures, and environmental deterioration.”
In 1977, University of California-Berkeley plant physiologist Boysie E. Day addressed the American Society of Agronomy, and accepted the role of plant scientists in the social re-designing of America: “The agronomist has brought about the conversion of a rural agricultural society to an urban one. Each advance has sent a wave of displaced farm workers to seek a new life in the city and a flood of change throughout society.”
It is chilling to consider that in its pursuit of commodity-forms and markets, capital has wrought wholesale changes in the social structure of the U.S. It is not unlike the very deliberate relocation of rural peoples to newly constructed cities currently underway in China, for the specific purpose of making them into consumers.
The environmental effects are enormous, too, and are documented prolifically. One profound example regards the use of herbicides. While sellers of genetically-engineered seeds claim that less herbicide is required for these seeds, this claim seems to contradict the intended purpose of their developments. Roundup-Ready crops are specifically designed to endure the heavy application of Roundup. In fact, between 1996 and 2003, there was a 383 million pound increase in the use of herbicides in the U.S. This causes severe collateral damage to soils and waterways, hardly insignificant.
Beyond our own societal transformation and agrochemical saturation, the effects continue to mount–specifically in the Third World, often with U.S. intention.
In 1941, U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace–previously he was Secretary of Agriculture–met with Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond Fosdick to discuss the benefits of targeted campaigns into Mexico. One scientist assigned to the project reported enthusiastically: “When the war is over, there will be millions to feed, large communities of people to be resettled, and farms to be supplied with seed, fertilizer, machinery, and livestock…the leaders of some of our large philanthropic foundations have become convinced that the best way to improve the health and well-being of people is first to improve their agriculture.” In Germany, Great Britain, other war-torn parts of Europe perhaps. But Mexico?
Dr. Carl Sauer, geographer, author, professor, and champion of cultural diversity, warned against the program in 1941:
“A good aggressive bunch of American agronomists and plant breeders could ruin the native resources for good and all by pushing their American stocks. And Mexican agriculture cannot be pointed toward standardization on a few commercial types without upsetting native culture and economy hopelessly…Unless the Americans understand that, they’d better keep out of this country entirely.”
The research centers that were established as part of the Rockefeller-funded program served dual purposes: they provided a mechanism for encouraging capitalist development in Third World countries, and they provided a conduit for greater transference of genetic materials from the Third World countries to developed nations.
Kloppenburg highlights one critical aspect of this arrangement: “It is highly ironic that the Third World resource that the developed nations have, arguably, extracted for the longest time, derived the greatest benefits from, and still depend upon the most is one for which no compensation is paid.”
All this genetic material finds its way into seed banks which are situated principally in the industrialized North. Global germplasm collection and free exchange have been considered within the principle of “common heritage.” It is the property of all mankind, across all barriers. This principle has been considered inviolate. However, the U.S. has indicated its willingness to violate this honored principle–claiming some germplasm as property of the U.S. Government–and has refused requests from Afghanistan, Albania, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union at various times.
“If the U.S. now has a food weapon,” states Kloppenburg, “it is because nations such as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Iran, and China have supplied the germplasm for its arsenal.”
On this note, Janisse Ray’s indignation should be our own. Speaking of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “by 2004, the U.S. put into place a new foundation of governance for the conquered Iraq: one hundred orders enacted by Paul Bremer, chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority. One of them was particularly strange. Under the heading ‘Amendment to Patents, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits, and Plant Variety Law,’ Order 81 authorized the introduction of GM crops and instituted intellectual property rights for seed developers. The order made seed saving of GM varieties illegal and forced farmers who used GM varieties to purchase seed each year.
“Order 81 was not a law adopted by a sovereign country. This law was not enacted out of distress over the nourishment of Iraq’s people. The law’s lone purpose was to open a new potentially lucrative seed market for the multinationals that already controlled seed trade in other parts of the world.”
There were millions of acres of wheat under cultivation when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Almost all of it was produced from seeds saved by Iraqi farmers or their regional suppliers. The strains of wheat being grown had adapted over time to the region’s climate.
The order stipulated that farmers were prohibited from reusing seeds of protected varieties, which would seem to indicate only the GM seeds being introduced. That is, until genetic drift occurs and all seeds carry a GM fingerprint. Wheat, despite any lab manipulation, is still an openly pollinating plant. Cross-contamination of traditional crops with GM crops is an old and common problem. Add to this the fact that Iraqi farmers had already been subjected to GM crops, prior to the war, going back as far as 1991.
To help facilitate Order 81, the U.S. Army commissioned soldiers to hand out free wheat and barley seed, fertilizer, and even T-shirts, under the program known as Operation Amber Waves. It’s Japan 1853 again, only more insidious.
Iraq has an enormously rich agricultural history, reaching back to the beginning of agriculture itself. Farmers have been saving seeds for eons, and in modern times they were collected in a seed bank in Abu Ghraib. During the Iraqi war, the seed bank was destroyed. However, prescient curators of the seed bank had earlier sent a fabled ‘black box’ of seeds for safe keeping in Aleppo, Syria–hardly a stronghold of peace.
With the co-optation of seeds as items of commerce, and by extension tools of imperialism, what are we, the people, the foodies, the gardeners, the peaceful, to do?
As contrary as it might sound, we must maintain hope. Kloppenburg’s analysis indicates that agricultural biotechnology is not yet paying off in the way that it was originally hoped. Life is far more complicated than they had anticipated. Yet their need to satisfy their investors hasn’t waned. The GM seed giants, in contrast to their swagger, seem to be running scared.
“We do not have the luxury of doing this the right way. We are going to do this the way that gets it done the quickest, because our entire future depends on the success of this program,” stated Monsanto executives.
They are running from a number of things. Testing of their products, for example, which they have routinely resisted. The growing cry of environmentalists is mounting, and this adds to their fears. The highly publicized suicides of GM-adopting farmers in India has shined a very dark light on the GM industry in general. Historians, culturists, and other humanitarians are providing resistance. The social clamor will, I hope, bring down the seed giants eventually.
We can’t count on that, however. So we must be active on behalf of the underground. We must garden. We must save seeds or support those who do. We must re-establish our relationships with food-growers. We must take ourselves out of the commodity cul-de-sac and focus on progressive forms of commerce and sustenance. We must lose our inherited short-sightedness and develop long-term vision which will not allow life to become completely commoditized. We must be un-American.
We must advocate for peace and food sovereignty. We must be humble yet powerful, just like the seed.
Our goal is to preserve life so that it will flourish after the collapse. I realize that that sounds marginally kooky. But it is the truth, and we know it. We are collecting the artifacts out of which we will build the next world.
We see it happening all around us, with the rise of urban farming, hipster homesteading, rooftop gardens, an explosion of food writers. Social momentum is building, and change will come as a result. We will subversively dig our gardens, and in doing so, undermine the corporate hold.
“I want to tell you about the most hopeful thing in the world,” says Janisse Ray. “It is a seed. In the era of dying, it is all life. Every piece of information necessary to that plant for its natural time on earth is encoded, even though the world is changing and new information will be needed. But we don’t know what is in a seed; its knowledge is invisible, encased, secret. A seed can contain any number of surprises. A seed can contain a whole tree in its sealed vault. Even with climate change there will be seeds that have all the wisdom they and we need.”
We must trust in all those secrets. They got us this far, after all.
As I write for this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club #10: Seed, I am looking at my seed flats, erupting with varieties of tomato, legume, chile, squash and other cultivars saved by my friends, seed saver networks, and my partner and me. I envision their placement in the raised beds I have built behind the house, on the bluff overlooking Seneca Lake. My daydream is pierced by the lunch bell: every day at noon, the Cargill plant in town sounds its air horn, signaling the start of lunch for the crew. It noisily insinuates itself into village life four times a day, and Cargill’s products have silently invaded Americans’ every meal. But my garden and I lie close to the earth and do our work, under the corporate clarion call. We perpetuate life, even though trouble is temporarily in the air.
The menu highlights foods which are at risk in our present system, including apples, sunflowers, corn, peppers, various legumes and pulses, grains, fruits, nuts, and even maple syrup. It’s a delicious menu worth fighting for.
 Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1. Accessed online April 27, 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
 Kloppenburg, 46. The centers of origin are also known as Vavilov Centers of Diversity, having been originally identified by Russian geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_of_origin
 Chris Arsenault, “Small farmers hold the key to seed diversity: researchers,” Reuters, February 16, 2015, accessed April 27, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/16/us-food-aid-climate-idUSKBN0LK1PO20150216.
 Ian Johnson, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities,” New York Times, June 15, 2013, accessed April 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/world/asia/chinas-great-uprooting-moving-250-million-into-cities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
 Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years,” The Organic Center, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015, http://bit.ly/1IhtK20.
 Kloppenburg reports about their pressure to get the FDA to drop required nutritional testing, page 127. Also, the patent procedure typically requires some type of quality test of the product for which a patent is sought. This has not been required of seeds, whether GM, hybrid, or other derivation. Kloppenburg, 139. To make matters more unbelievable, university research conducted with or on GM seeds has been withheld from the public due to the information being deemed proprietary. Kloppenburg, 232. And finally, many licensing agreements specifically forbid testing for quality characteristics. See also http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-seed-companies-control-gm-crop-research/
Progress often requires significant sacrifice–and sometimes the offering is the idol itself. Peace Meal Supper Club #9: Chavez is an unexpected exercise in iconoclasm, wherein sentimentality must yield to reality. A strong respect for tradition benefits us so long as it is not errant nostalgia.
“Hero,” “suffering savior,” and “celebrity” are uneasy concepts, requiring liberal parsing of reality. Much like a golden idol standing upon clay feet,[i] their vulnerability is built in at the ground level. One only needs to cast a properly-aimed stone. Our personal choice dictates whether we cast the stone or continue to honor the idol. Which choice will foster progress?
Since idols don’t come out of nowhere, we need a preamble, a view into the world of farmworkers in the early to mid 1900s.
American farm labor in the 20th century was a roiling cauldron of complexity. The challenges inherent in vegetable farming–such as the seasonal need for work force versus year-round need for workers–were already difficult for growers to manage. How can one afford to keep a workforce in place when they are only needed for a few months at a time?[ii] Further complications came with the great economic depression and drought of the 1930s, which stimulated mass displacement of the population. The military’s need for soldiers to fight in two world wars only exacerbated the problems.
To supply a steady and affordable workforce for the nation’s farmers, the US entered into an agreement with Mexico, wherein Mexico would supply seasonal workers to US farmers.[iii] The US government would guarantee basic needs were met, such as pay and suitable housing. This guest worker program–known as Bracero, ‘one who works with his arms’–has a very rich and controversial history, extending far beyond its 1942 to 1964 lifespan. Emotions ran high through the program’s official years, and we have yet to resolve our relationship with Mexico and its people. First we’ll have to come to terms with our own duplicity in the relationship.[iv]
Concurrent with the guest worker program was the general neglect of farm workers’ rights. They were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938; this exclusion continued until 1966.[v] The migrant nature of the work, which required workers to move from region to region throughout the year, made it impossible for them to develop permanent ties with society. They largely lived in temporary housing provided by their host farms. The housing was substandard, often without proper water or sanitation facilities. Their migrancy also reduced their ability to use their voice through voting. They were rootless and unrepresented, and therefore invisible. It was the perfect recipe for exploitation, even for a legal citizen.
The plight of migrant farm workers was the subject of a provocative 1960 documentary by American journalist Edward R. Murrow. His introduction contained the shocking admission from a farmer: “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”[vi]
Workers attempted to organize before Cesar Chavez’ campaigns of the 1960s. Growers had fought off every attempt, but by 1959 the move to unionize was gaining mass and momentum. Religious ministries, social workers, the AFL-CIO, and other groups had raised enough noise that it seemed destined to be.[vii] Into this fomenting brew strode Cesar Chavez, son of farmworkers and a veteran of the fields himself.
He was also a veteran organizer, through his work in the 1950s with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grass-roots group aimed at helping Mexican-Americans claim their civil rights.[viii] Chavez earned praise from his teacher, civil rights activist and CSO co-founder Fred Ross. Ross established the house-meeting technique that is a hallmark of many movements since. Chavez tirelessly held house-meetings, in different towns each night. He developed a reputation as an inexhaustible activist who would survive for years on four hours of sleep per night.
Chavez’ years with the CSO ended in frustration, and he set out on his own to form a union among the most powerless workers in the nation, those excluded from protection under virtually every relevant health and labor law.[ix] It was a long-shot, going up against the most powerful industry in California, attempting to organize workers who were reluctant to upset their already fragile existence. To complicate matters, the Teamsters had begun courting growers, offering deals well in the growers’ favor.
Chavez’ ability to pull people together for a cause is legendary. He invoked the Virgin of Guadalupe, Gandhi, JFK, King–also Hitler and Mao–in his efforts, and amassed enough support that he was able to co-opt a grape boycott that had been initiated by Filipino American agricultural workers.[x] The strike and subsequent boycott–directed with more brilliance from Chavez–lasted five years. Through managing the strike and engaging the public, Chavez acquired a national presence. No longer just a civil agitator and troublesome farmworker in California, he had become a rising star on the civil rights stage. He excited the public with his historic 300-mile march from the fields around Delano, CA, to the state capital in Sacramento. A subsequent 25-day fast cast him in the same light as Gandhi, attracting the attention of not only the populace, but its leaders: Robert Kennedy traveled to Delano to be with Chavez when he broke his fast.[xi]
The efforts paid off in diverse ways. Chavez became a larger-than-life figure, a suffering savior whose life was being sacrificed for the benefit of farmworkers everywhere. For the farmworkers themselves, they won the right to organize, growers agreed to better conditions and higher wages. Chavez’ fledgling union, the United Farm Workers, had won the right to represent the workers. It was a major leap forward. Robert Kennedy also benefited: Chavez motivated voters in Los Angeles, helping Kennedy win California in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries. Chavez was invited onstage by Kennedy to celebrate victory at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Chavez, however, had already gone to bed.[xii]
From here the UFW’s story should be one of continual progress, of sequential victories and further betterment for those who feed us. The great leap forward, however, ended in a cul-de-sac of counter-culture cult building. As his persona grew, Chavez retreated from organizing, failed to meet the needs of his union’s members, and refused to administer contracts he had won with growers. It is a tragedy of errors and hubris.[xiii]
Over the following years, though his union conducted more major strikes and claimed more victories, Chavez lost himself in his own aura. He began building a dream community in the Tehachapi Mountains, miles from the clamor of the fields. He sought managerial advice from cult leader Chuck Dederich,[xiv] adapting his confrontational group therapy technique–the “Game”–for UFW board meetings. Meanwhile, growers could check off the box “Honor union contracts” with the confidence that no contracts would be forthcoming. Workers continued to pay their mandatory dues and got little in return. Moses had led them out into the wilderness and gone up to the mountain. Yet he never came down to finish what he started.
In her book The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, journalist Miriam Pawel chronicles the rise and fall of the iconic leader. Working through volumes of correspondence and meeting notes, 1500 hours of tape recordings, and personal interviews with Chavez’ closest confidantes, she paints a picture of a man quickly divorced from his cause just as he began to win: In 1975 California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the most progressive labor law in the country at that time.[xv] Chavez worked hand-in-hand with Governor Jerry Brown to craft the historic legislation. Chavez lamented its passing: “The whole fight’s going to change. Because once you’re recognized, that’s essentially what the law does, then the essential fight of recognition, which is the one that appeals to the human mind and the heart, more than anything else, is no longer there. Then from that point on, you’re talking about wages, you’re talking about money, you’re talking about benefits, you’re talking about…something more diffuse and not as crucial and critical.”[xvi]
He continued to dream, but about intentional communities and a national Poor People’s Union.[xvii] He spoke about building unions in Europe, the Philippines, and Latin America. But his own union, the identity of which he had deliberately and carefully crafted to be synonymous with his own name, decayed from his vigorous neglect.
But his abdication was not the only cause for concern. He purposefully and forcefully opposed the formation of agricultural unions in Arizona and Texas, although he had once attempted to organize there.[xviii] These upstart unions were not of the UFW fold, and in Chavez’ world, he would be the pope or there would be no pope.[xix]
From the beginning, he adopted the principle of non-violence, in keeping with his adoration of Gandhi and King. He worked hard to present the UFW as being a peaceful organization. Along the US-Mexico border, however, his cousin Manuel Chavez engaged in terrorist activities along the “Wet Line.”[xx] Mexican nationals attempting to enter the US were routinely beaten, robbed, and left naked to make their way back into Mexico. These efforts were funded by the donations that poured into the UFW.
His uneasy relationship with illegal immigration extended beyond the bloody involvement of his cousin. He also became an INS informer, passing information to the powerful agency to aid in locating undocumented workers.[xlix] Chavez understood that undocumented workers were a powerful strike-breaking tool for California growers. In the earliest days of the UFW, the Bracero program was still active; he did not consider them “true workers.”[xxi] Later he relented, realizing that they could help his cause, papers or no papers. At best, his relationship with them was opportunistic. At worst, it was deadly.
As he continued to build his ideal community in the mountains, where residents were required to wear UFW buttons each day, he became more paranoid of outsiders.[xxii] He had always created enemies out of thin air: first the growers, then the Teamsters, all immigrants, communists, other upstart unions, and his favorite villains, “those assholes,”[xxiii] and “whores in the camp.”[xxiv] He played his board members against one another to identify the most loyal. He ousted Filipinos, Mexican nationals, most Latinos. He recast Governor Brown as an enemy.[xxv] He even turned his poisoned darts upon his innermost circle. Marshall Ganz and Jerry Cohen had been with him from the beginning, and Chavez prided himself on having the support of the Jewish community. By 1981, however, they were also exiled. Chavez felt the Jews were trying to take over the union.[xxvi]
So while he can be credited for much early good, his final decades–say from 1975 to 1993–were occupied with the destruction of his own achievements. This would be forgivable if not for the fact that others paid the cost.
Icons are to some degree self-generating, something of which Chavez was very aware. He began retelling his own story as soon as he had a wider audience.[xxvii] His use of the Virgin of Guadalupe[xxviii] and other religious motifs were deliberate choices.[xxix] He crafted the UFW flag–a red field, a central white circle containing a black Aztec eagle–holding in mind the impact of the Nazi flag.[xxx] He knew that assuming the mantle of the “suffering savior” would win the support of the Mexican-American farmworkers. He walked in constant and visible pain during the march on Sacramento; his feet were re-bandaged nightly by his followers.[xxxi] Fasting for the greater good had long been sanctioned as a holy act. He even claimed the ability to heal through his hands.[xxxii] But holy acts and faith healing do not make a man holy, regardless of how persuasive the image.
The crowning of a hero usually indicates a battle won. A monument is erected as an acknowledgment of human progress. Unfortunately, the progress we perceive is not always actual. We must be willing to tear down the monument in order to see what is hiding underneath it.
Our breaking of this icon is of critical importance, for it gravely impairs our view of the shocking reality. The farmworkers movement he purported to lead never found a universal resolution. The conditions exposed in Mr. Murrow’s 1960 documentary still exist across the country in 2015.[xxxiii] Agricultural workers are still among the most disenfranchised and abused laborers in the US. And that 1960s statement about renting slaves? Well, many growers are back to owning them. The battle has not been won. It was abandoned by its general, its workers betrayed.
It is childishly naive to accept stories without verification, whether it be the founding myths of the USA, the transparency of the Obama Administration,[xxxiv] or the accomplishments of a populist champion of the downtrodden such as Cesar Chavez. When I chose Chavez as the central theme for Peace Meal Supper Club #9, I was an accepting and ill-informed believer. I leave in cynical amazement. And with a stone in my hand which I long ago overcame the fear of using.[xxxv]
Long before Peace Meal Supper Club was conceived, I paid a visit to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. In a blog on my former website I called the museum to task for presenting international civil rights as ‘done.’
“It is a commonly known fact that women struggle for basic rights in Arab nations. Lesser known is that migrant farm workers in the US—citizens and ‘illegals’ alike, adults and children alike–are excluded from very basic labor and protection laws. Somehow, the trafficking of women has not yet been outlawed the world over. Somehow, ‘honor killing’ is still legal, pardoned, or ignored in various countries, East, West, Moslem, Hindu, and Christian. Shall we mention Guantanamo? Or perhaps LGBT struggles in Indonesia? Is the museum brave enough to discuss the plight of Leonard Peltier? Would they like to remind us that our dependence upon cheap foreign labor is a global expansion of our historic race issues?”[xxxvi]
The UFW still exists, but it primarily seems to serve as its own museum, marking its great accomplishments of the past. Its website provides tacit mention of present victories, but they are small in comparison to the union’s acclaim. In keeping with Chavez’ exclusion of other unions, they make no mention of similar, more active groups such as Farmworker Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
As Miriam Pawel reported in a series of stories in the LA Times, the union’s chief aim is to enshrine in perpetuity its founder.[xxxvii] Donations roll in, but “the money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs. Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.”
We could be gracious and say that the man is not responsible for what his heirs do. But Chavez himself had extensive holdings, albeit in the name of the UFW. In 1988, there were eighteen nonprofit and commercial entities associated with his movement.[xxxviii] Literally millions were rolling in–some of it in the form of federal grants, which the union misspent.[xxxix] Interestingly, with union membership declining steadily, there were fewer workers to collect pension checks.[xl] Just as his heirs have done, he used non-union labor to develop his real estate holdings.[xli] Just as they have done, he diverted donations into funds that answered only to him.[xlii] The present UFW leadership is faithfully carrying on the family brand.
Meanwhile, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act has become a rarely-visited relic. On the national level, the National Labor Relations Act still excludes agricultural workers, just like it did when it was signed by President Roosevelt in 1935.[xliii]
Growers still employ non-citizens in order to evade labor laws. Human trafficking is the norm in some regions of the southern US. The harvest of shame continues–and was revisited by CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts in 2010.[xliv] He found conditions among workers much the same as Murrow did.
But he also found hope: for in the tomato fields of Immokalee, change is happening. An additional penny-per-pound has been negotiated by a worker-led union, and this penny will add up to as much as $7000 in additional annual pay. The extra penny is collected at the retail level, passed through the store–such as Whole Foods or Taco Bell–to the grower, who pays it to the workers.[xlv] The program is flourishing and conditions are improving. Other unions are making headway, and thankfully they have foregone the Oz-like lionization of their founders.
“No hay mal que por bien no venga” was a favorite saying of Chavez’.[xlvi] “There is no bad from which some good does not come.” In the larger story here, this maxim proves true. For the present-day unions have learned from the UFW’s mistakes. They’ve also learned from the tactics: the CIW has mastered the art of the house-meeting. I have been fortunate to attend a few and meet the activist-workers. They have also learned the power of economic pressure to bring about progress. The CIW’s boycott campaigns against Taco Bell, Publix Supermarkets, and Wendy’s invigorate and embody the principle.[xlvii]
Negotiations between workers, growers, and retailers, however, do not add up to increased civil rights. Those have to be negotiated politically and signed into law at a federal level. There is still much to do. As agribusiness deepens its ties with the US government, our grass-roots efforts are even more critical.
One more thing must be acknowledged before we cast our stone at the idol’s clay feet. Cesar Chavez, with great conscience and foresight, assigned all UFW correspondence, meeting notes, speeches, and tape recordings to the Water P. Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.[xlviii] In spite of all his careful image-building and contrariness, he provided us a means of pulling back the curtain to see the man operating the machine. Such warts-and-all honesty is to be admired. So let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
The menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #9: Chavez was developed under a charming cloud of naivete. Its brilliance, if you don’t mind my saying, lies in the fact that its composition has only grown stronger with knowledge. The original descriptions can be found on the announcement page; only slight modifications appear in the text below.
El Festín de las Hormigas ~ Rosewater Vinaigrette ~ Lavash
A vibrant salad with mixed lettuces, grapes, berries, and sprouted wheat berries, portraying multiple farmworker campaigns which brought fairness closer to the fields. Lavash represents the flatbreads with which Chavez broke fasts.
Chorizo Taquitos with Piñon Crema
Tacos are a classic workers food, and were a frequent celebration food for the United Farm Workers and their companion organizations. This adaptation matches Chavez’ own shift into veganism.
Seitan Adobo ~ Pinakbet ~ Pancit Noodles
In recognition of the Filipino workers who began the grape strike on September 8, 1965. Their work provided a foundation for Chavez’ fledgling UFW. The strike’s success is a testament to multi-cultural coalition building.
Capirotada a la Mode
This traditional bread pudding from the borderlands is popular in Mexico during the Easter season. It represents a culture from whom we continue to draw so much of our own sustenance. Easter brings a message of renewal, which should resonate through all our efforts towards fairness.
A little more about the menu:
Hormigas are ants–represented on this salad by sprouted wheat berries, invoked to symbolize the highly sophisticated, near-mystical social network that enables progress.
Adobo is a preserving preparation common among Native American, Latino, and Filipino cultures. Pinakbet is a Filipino vegetable braise akin to ratatouille. Pancit noodles are customarily served to honor one’s birthday. Chavez was born March 31.
The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel. Bloomsbury Press, 2014
The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahammovitch. University of North Carolina Press, 1997
Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe. Random House, 2008
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook. Andrews McNeel, 2012
These articles provide compact histories of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez:
Miriam Pawel, “Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots,” LA Times, January 8, 2006, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ufw8jan08-story.html#page=1
Miriam Pawel, “Decisions of Long Ago Shape Union of Today,” LA Times, January 10, 2006, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-history10jan10-story.html#page=1
Nelson Lichtenstein, “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers,” Dissent Magazine, April 8, 2012, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/story/154859/the_rise_and_fall_of_cesar_chavez_and_the_united_farm_workers
Mark R. Day, “Review: Chavez Remembered, Warts and All,” Labor Notes, April 14, 2014, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/04/review-cesar-chavez-remembered-warts-and-all
Other relevant websites:
Bracero History Archive, http://braceroarchive.org/about
Farmworker Justice, http://www.farmworkerjustice.org
Coalition of Immokalee Workers, http://www.ciw-online.org
[i] Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, Book of Daniel 2: 24-31; https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel%202
[ii] The challenges of migrant labor are brilliantly related by Cindy Hahammovich in The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, University of North Carolina Press, 1997
[xiii] Nelson Lichtenstein, “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers,” Dissent Magazine, April 8, 2012, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/story/154859/the_rise_and_fall_of_cesar_chavez_and_the_united_farm_workers
Peace Meal Supper Club #8: Cacao is about taking chances and trying to reconcile the expansive outcomes. It’s an engaging culinary challenge: take an ingredient which has been pigeonholed as ‘confection’ and use it as a major ingredient for three savory courses, appealing to a diner’s sense of adventure. Add the further challenge of following those three courses with a dessert that will still register as ‘chocolate!’ I was continually drawn deeper into rediscovery as I explored this wondrously complex food.
Our modern ideas of cacao are firmly cemented even though we have greatly repurposed it. For its initial 28 centuries of use it was the ritual drink of a privileged few: priests and kings among the Olmecs, then the Mayans, then the Aztecs. After a vigorous vogue among European elites, it finally became as commonplace as vanilla, abundantly adulterated and sadly situated in plastic wrappers and paper cups. Distressingly, its journey to those wrappers required–and still utilizes–a multitude of forced, unpaid laborers.
There is an epoch-spanning story here, one which involves global conquest by 15th-century imperialistic powers, government-sponsored and church-sanctioned slave trade, and the destruction of indigenous culture. We are making progress regarding labor and fair sourcing, but the story is largely the same as it has been. Global economic forces have only gotten stronger and more insinuated since Columbus’ voyages.
In this case, the menu also offers tales of culinary experimentation, from the curious ancients who first ‘discovered’ chocolate to the novel trends of current-day molecular gastronomy.
To start with, the Olmecs would have never cooked with cacao. Neither would have the Mayans nor the Aztecs. To do so would have been analogous to a Spanish priest cooking with transubstantiated wine. It took centuries for someone to use cacao in a cooked dish, and though we applaud their ingenuity, we have to cringe at fried liver dredged in chocolate and lasagna filled with chocolate and anchovies.
All of these experiments aside, chocolate wasn’t generally eaten in solid form until 1847, following a major accomplishment by Fry & Sons in Britain. Their experiments in blending specific proportions of cocoa powder, sugar, and cacao butter allowed for bars to be cast, thereby providing the world with its first eating chocolate. Our meal, however, will begin with a longer stride back in time.
Amuse Bouche: Aztec Prelude
I vividly recall the galvanizing buzz that filled me as I sipped my first ‘ancient’ cacao beverage at Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe. The impact was immediate, both physically and intellectually. I had ordered the ‘Aztec Warrior,’ three ounces of liquid intensity modeled after the drink enjoyed by Moctezuma, last of the Aztec emperors. He shared this beverage with Hernan Cortes in 1519, a deeply significant and darkly sinister communion with earth-shattering consequences. We can rightly vilify Cortes for his role in genocide and cultural destruction, but Moctezuma himself was far from innocent. His possession of cacao was a result of his own imperialistic urges. Cacao trees did not grow in Tenochtitlan, site of present-day Mexico City. He received his cacao as tribute from the peoples he suppressed in the Yucatan.
Preceding the Aztecs in this cult of cacao were the Mayans (2000BCE to 900CE) and the Olmecs (1500BCE to 400BCE), the foremost pioneers in the story of cacao. It was they who discovered, through means unknown to us, the complicated process through which cacao seeds become chocolate.
First, the large fruit pods must be properly harvested. They are split open and the pulp and seeds are scraped out. They are left massed together and allowed to ferment. The seeds are then extracted and dried. After roasting, the seeds’ paper husks are winnowed away. The seeds are then ready for grinding into cacao paste.
This process requires a very specific fermentation period, as well as particular roasting temperatures and duration. These two steps build flavor in the seeds, which upon harvesting are tasteless and odorless. This process was deciphered 4000 years ago–and it hasn’t changed since.
We have no clue as to what prompted this experimentation. Much like the domestication of corn, it is an unparalleled achievement in the food sciences. We have done nothing as substantial since.
Due to the labor-intensive process–not to mention the utterly delicious result–the seeds became a form of currency, and therefore too expensive for the common classes to drink away. As currency fosters trade, trade builds empires. Olmecs give way to Mayans, Mayans succumb to Aztecs. Enter the Spanish.
During that communion between Moctezuma and Cortes an observer noted the drink-making process. To date, it is the best ‘recipe’ we have of the ancient chocolate beverage. Though the observer is specifically describing an Aztec preparation, it is believed that the Olmecs and Mayans made their drink similarly.
“These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point, and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit.”
I have patterned our amuse bouche after this historic preparation.
First Course: The alchemy of the unexpected. Roasted Cauliflower Soup ~ Cacao Caramelized Onions ~ Cherry Chocolate Sourdough
I have called the First Course “The alchemy of the unexpected.” It embodies the gruesome impact of the conquest, certainly, but also the culinary explorations that followed. Cacao has had an interesting post-conquest history, although most of it falls well within the political arena. On the culinary side, it has been a story of risk-taking.
Revered French chef Pierre Gagnaire has commented that “combining five ingredients to make a dish is taking five risks.” Granted, the risks are artistic and not at all life-endangering. But they do challenge expectations and ask that diners be open to change.
Perhaps for that reason, most modern chefs will experiment lightly. Googling ‘savory cacao recipes’ reveals some very high-level chefs doing some very underwhelming things. Adding cacao as garnish to an arugula and speck salad, for example, is not really ground-breaking. We must go farther. After all, cacao has one of the richest and most complex flavors of any food, according to food scientist Harold McGee. Within its 600 different kinds of volatile flavor molecules, a discerning palate can identify bitterness, fruits, wine, sherry, vinegar, almond, floral notes, nuttiness, earthiness, and spicy undertones. Cacao really can do much more than decorate a salad.
It is no wonder then that cacao has been a favorite of food chemists like Hervé This, whose work is foundational to the modern trend of molecular gastronomy. Often misunderstood and quickly bastardized by the masses, this approach is described by McGee as simply the “scientific study of deliciousness,” or in other words, an exploration of compatible flavors based upon an examination of molecular structures. For example, caramelized cauliflower shares key volatile molecules with cacao. Might they be compatible in a dish? Sounds risky, doesn’t it? It also sounds intriguing.
Chemist and food enthusiast Martin Lersch leads an online community of flavor geeks who explore such scientific pairings. He posed this pairing in his regular “They Go Really Well Together” challenge. Community members posted their own findings, including recipes they had worked out. But a slab of roasted cauliflower accompanied by a block of gelled chocolate seems a bit austere for Peace Meal Supper Club. We need something that feels more like home as it stretches our boundaries.
Now a creamy caramelized cauliflower soup sounds pretty homey. Garnish it with some onions that have been cooked slowly in a generous measure of cocoa powder. Then provide the real star attraction: take a generous measure of unsweetened cacao, couch it in the funk of an ale-based sourdough starter, and increase the drama with Bing cherries. The result is a bread with a smoky aroma and mellowed bitterness, with overtones of tobacco. It’s worthy of wine-speak. The soup and the bread fit into each other seamlessly, and on my palate I can sense a subtle shift from one to the next. It really is amazing. Soup and bread: looks like home, feels like home, and wow, it actually tastes like home, too. An accepting, progressive, world-changing home.
As we’ll see in the next course, our world does need progressive change. As modern as we are, we still procure our comfort through a very Old World method.
Second Course: Complex relationships and enduring flavors. Tofu with Pomegranate-Cacao Rub ~ Shaved Fennel ~ Chocolate Stout Reduction
In the post-Columbian miasma, trade flourished and became truly global. Modern history can be viewed as the story of trade, as nations rise and fall based upon their ability to engage in worldwide economics. This is frankly how things operate today, as third world countries are evaluated–by industrialist and imperialist nations–based upon their financial potential. They are encouraged to enter the global markets if the leading nations deem them valuable. These complex relationships have far-reaching impacts, not the least of which extend to third world citizens.
Since 1994, “the world’s poorer countries have been forced to open up their markets to foreign imports, while the rich countries [notably those in Europe and the USA] keep their markets more protected. Many have also been encouraged to maximize their foreign earnings by increasing their exports in order to pay off international debts. Land that was used to grow food for local consumption has been turned over to ‘cash crops’ such as coffee tea, cocoa, and horticultural products. This has led to countries becoming dependent on just a few crops for their foreign income. …Individual farmers…are extremely vulnerable to a drop in commodity prices on the world markets. They do not have any reserves to tide them over a bad patch, are often forced to sell their crop at less than cost price, and lose their livelihoods as a result.”
In 1980, cacao was selling on the international market at 118.6 cents per pound. By 2000, it was selling at 40.23 cents per pound. Today it trades at 73 cents per pound.
It is a simple fact: buyers benefit from a low price, but sellers do not. Another simple fact: the buyers–in this case developed economies–have a disproportionate influence over the selling price. Third world farmers and citizens lose.
Cacao was traded ‘internationally’ well before Columbus and Cortes. Some findings in New Mexico indicate that cacao was brought in from Mesoamerica in return for turquoise. Large-scale trade also figured into the prevalence of cacao among the Aztecs; it certainly didn’t grow within their natural domain.
While trade will always happen anytime one group wants the product of another group, we are speaking of vastly different scales. Apart from the global aspects, we are also talking about the scale of cacao’s consumption: whereas cacao was used as an elite beverage in pre-Columbian Americas, it is now consumed daily in multiple forms by the average world citizen. In Britain, Germany, and Switzerland, the average person will consume about 24 pounds of chocolate each year. The industry itself is valued at $83 billion per year.
Taking a crop into hyperactivity, as we have done with cacao, coffee, sugar, and other international commodities creates severe imbalances in economies. But while ‘economy’ can be considered an intangible chimera, third world poverty and human rights abuses are extremely real.
We must redefine our relationship with cacao, both as a consumable and as an actor in the lives of others.
Conveying the concept of change in a dish is a challenge in itself, as Hervé This and Pierre Gagnaire explore in their wonderful book, Cooking: The Quintessential Art. My style has always been simple, so playing this hand subtly suits me well. The use of cacao as a savory seasoning is different in its own right. There’s no need to be gauche about it.
Simply stated, I’ve paired cacao with pomegranate in a marinade for tofu. Tofu and cacao don’t meet regularly: the Chinese, originators of tofu, are not big chocolate fans. India and Iran, native homes for pomegranate, are also low consumers of chocolate. Perhaps we can follow their lead, and adopt a more sparing use. It is a powerful flavoring, and a little goes a long way, especially on a neutral substance such as tofu.
After marination, the tofu is baked in a paste composed of cacao, pomegranate, and tamarind. In addition, I’m preparing a reduction sauce using Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout. It is the very embodiment of bitterness, but it will be offset by a splash of pomegranate juice reduction. Served on a bed of shaved fennel, this dish, with its black-on-white color scheme and sweet-and-sour flavors, is the very embodiment of contrasts. Thus is the world of cacao, but the contrasts are not always this palatable.
Third Course: Hands across the waters, indigenous and ancient. Roasted Winter Squash in Cassava Empanada ~ Jollof Rice ~ Mole Oaxaqueño
This course is about harmony, which is in a way a subset of contrast. While the Swiss are consuming record amounts of chocolate each year, in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and dozens of other tropical countries cacao’s harvesters are subsisting on la comida de los pobres, the food of the poor.
For at the shorter end of that $83B economic stick live the people working in the cacao forests. In a 2012 story, CNN introduces us to one of those workers, whom they call Abdul: “He squats with a gang of a dozen harvesters on an Ivory Coast farm. [He] holds the yellow cocoa pod lengthwise and gives it two quick cracks, snapping it open to reveal milky white cocoa beans. He dumps the beans on a growing pile…Abdul is 10 years old, a three-year veteran of the job. He has never tasted chocolate.”
And he is not alone. As the CNN investigation progressed, they found what many NGOs already knew: that “child labor, trafficking, and slavery are rife in an industry that produces some of the world’s best-known brands.”
It’s a long-standing tradition, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the Americas. Finding the indigenous people to be unwilling slaves, they imported West Africans to work their cacao plantations. Later, cacao trees themselves also crossed the Atlantic, first to islands off the coast of Guinea, then into the African continent itself. European imperialists were then able to utilize forced African labor without the bother of transporting slaves across the Atlantic.
Though we would like to consider ourselves past the practice of forced labor, this is sadly not the case. “UNICEF estimates that nearly a half-million children work on farms across Ivory Coast, which produces nearly 40% of the world’s supply of cocoa. The agency says hundreds of thousands of children, many of them trafficked across borders, are engaged in the worst forms of child labor.”
Since 2001, the chocolate industry has garnered over a trillion dollars in profits. Only about .0075% has been invested to improve working conditions for children in West Africa. We shouldn’t even be talking about the working conditions of children, anywhere. We should be past this.
However, the problem of child slavery is so common in West Africa that Hershey, Nestle, and the US Congress once vowed to combat it. In 2001, eight major chocolate companies, three US Congressmen, several international ambassadors, and others signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a non-binding voluntary agreement aimed at ending the “worst forms of child labor.” Thirteen years later, the problems persist. “The issues are systemic,” concludes one researcher.
Unsurprisingly, Fair Trade has become a hot topic for the chocolate industry. While it is far from perfect, Fair Trade Certification is a major step forward. It gives us consumers a great deal of influence. I’ve carefully selected the cacao products I’m using for this meal, and I deeply appreciate that they have been carefully produced as well.
There is a long way to go and a lot of meals to prepare. I’m thankful that my carefully directed dollars can help provide those meals. Perhaps they will look something like our Third Course: Roasted Winter Squash in Cassava Empanada, with Jollof Rice and Mole Oaxaqueño.
Cassava is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. It is the third largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics–the region in which cacao grows. It also makes a wonderfully malleable dough, which in this course softly encloses roasted butternut squash. Termed ’empanada’ in Spanish, the form is almost universal.
Jollof rice is closely associated with the Wolof tribes of Senegal, but has spread throughout other West African countries. It is very similar to the pilaf of Asia Minor and some Spanish-influenced dishes of the Americas, with seasoned rice being sauteed briefly before it is simmered in stock. For seasoning, I’m using a traditional West African blend called tsire: roasted ground peanuts, ground chile, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. These warm spices are perfect complements for the bitterness of cacao; in fact, most of them have been mixed into cacao beverages for centuries.
Chile and cacao have a long history in the sauce we’re highlighting, Mole Oaxaqueño. It is not as ancient as the Aztecs, for they never considered using cacao in a sauce or other cooked form. Rumors abound as to the origin of sauces using chocolate, but the most likely story centers upon 17th-century Catholic nuns in Puebla, Mexico, who anxiously improvised the sauce to serve to their visiting bishop. This makes for a wonderfully cinematic scene, a more peaceful blending of the New World with the Old, in a dish that distills a moment in time. My Mole Oaxaqueño is inspired by two very different Oaxacan chefs, Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo and Nora Andrea Valencia of Casa de mis Recuerdos.
Admittedly the risks in this course are minimal. That is by design, as I was focused on cross-cultural yet universal sustenance of the people on the ground level. The food is always much better among the poor, and I say this respectfully without any irony. Their food is their consolation, so it is imbued with richness and passion as counter-balance to the troubles that reappear once dinner is done.
I have subtitled this course “Hands across the waters, indigenous and ancient.” The words are ambiguous: the hands could be those of oppression or of liberation. Which hands are ours?
A good time to answer that question is when you are buying chocolate or another cacao product. Are you picking up items with a Fair Trade label? Did your fingers do a little googling before you went shopping? Please see the websites listed below for help in choosing your chocolates.
Final Course: Brooklyn tryst with a twist. Chocolate Egg Cream ~ Flourless Chocolate Torte
The risks return in the closing course, as I have to upstage every use of cacao in the preceding courses. Dessert is chocolate’s home turf, so subtlety is no longer on the program. Intensity takes its place.
First, the easy part: Brooklyn’s unofficial national beverage, the Chocolate Egg Cream. It contains no egg, and no cream. And not just because Peace Meal Supper Club is an all-vegan venue. These two ingredients have been a part of the drink only in name, and the definitive explanation for the misnomer is debatable.
It seems fitting to include a modern chocolate beverage to bookend with the most ancient one. They are worlds apart. The older one was made from ground cacao, vanilla, and chiles, vigorously mixed with water. The modern one comprises, in the words of Lou Reed, “Some U-Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk. Stir it up into a heady fro’–tasted just like silk.” The former beverage was ceremoniously poured from vessel to vessel to produce foam; the latter is simply stirred by a seltzer-wielding jerk. We have just traversed the path from sacred to profane, it seems.
In such a journey, we find the distillation of not only pop culture, but our culture in general. While the mainstreaming of chocolate has its egalitarian victories, it has come at a tremendous price, where even human life is not deemed worthy of our consideration. Pondering the state of third world labor runs counter to convenience. There is a message in there somewhere if we will take the time to read it.
Our chocolate egg cream–which in deference to Mr. Reed is made with my own chocolate syrup and milk of a non-dairy source–is accompanied by a flourless chocolate torte, containing some degree of risk: black beans form its foundation. Their rich texture and mild flavor provide the perfect canvas for a mighty brushstroke of cacao. The result is a luxuriously smooth dessert that one could live on quite happily.
It wouldn’t be complete without a glossy covering, which I’m providing in the form of dark chocolate ganache. To make the dessert scream “chocolate!” a little louder, I’ve topped the ganache with buttercream flourishes composed of cacao butter. It’s another white-on-black contrast, reminding us that change is overdue.
It is true: chocolate is still the prerogative of the privileged classes. Those who labor in its production exist outside that privilege–and have for millennia. The world has changed for us, but not for them.
My hope is that my creative use of cacao will stimulate creative discussion regarding our rendezvous with progress. It should not be a surprise that our every action, every day, occurs at a crossroad of change. We either embrace it through enlightened choices, or we reject it by acting according to a legacy of status quo. It is our responsibility and privilege–I should say it is the responsibility of our privilege–to make great changes in the way the world operates.
Several organizations exist for the sole purpose of helping us make these changes.
The Food Empowerment Project “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. We encourage choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, the unavailability of healthy foods in communities of color and low-income areas, and the importance of not purchasing chocolate that comes from the worst forms of child labor.” http://www.foodispower.org/
Fair World Project: “an independent campaign of the Organic Consumers Association which seeks to protect the use of the term “fair trade” in the marketplace, expand markets for authentic fair trade, educate consumers about key issues in trade and agriculture, advocate for policies leading to a just economy, and facilitate collaborative relationships to create true system change.” http://fairworldproject.org/about/introduction/
CNN Freedom Project: “CNN is joining the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery, amplifying the voices of the victims, highlighting success stories and helping unravel the complicated tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life.” http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/
End Slavery Now “launched in 2009 with four features: an action database, an organization directory, learning resources and a store. The project’s founder, Lauren Taylor, envisioned a digital space that could empower every person willing to help end modern slavery and human trafficking. Along with providing tools, information and opportunities to everyday abolitionists, Taylor also wanted to help antislavery organizations increase their efficiency.” http://endslaverynow.org/
Something We All Can Do Today:
The Food Empowerment Project maintains a list of fair, slavery-free, environmentally-conscious chocolate manufacturers. Our purchases can easily be in line with those fighting for positive worldwide change. Their list is even available as a phone app. http://www.foodispower.org/chocolate-list/
Immaculata High School, Somerville, NJ: “The students and faculty of Immaculata High School are very concerned about the problem of child slave labor. Each year, the senior U.S. History II Honors class, taught by Miss Joann Fantina, publishes numerous newsletters throughout the year covering many aspects of child slave labor. A new group of students takes over the project each year as the previous class graduates. It is a common interest among the students and is continued enthusiastically year after year.” http://ihscslnews.org/
Industry Voices, for the sake of contrast:
Culture and History:
“An Act of Resistance,” an episode of The Perennial Plate online documentary series
 I am being a bit brief here. Fry & Sons based their experiments on the earlier advancements of Coenraad Johannes Van Houten. Following Fry & Sons were the Cadburys, Nestles, and Hersheys. See Coe and Coe, 234-253.
 As did the Maya before him and Cortes after him. Coe and Coe, 57, 176.
 “Rhythm and Risk in Cuisine: Chef Pierre Gagnaire.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.starchefs.com/cook/features/chef-pierre-gagnaire.
 “How to use chocolate in savory dishes.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.bonappetit.com/people/chefs/article/how-to-use-chocolate-in-savory-dishes.
 Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 2004), 702.
 “About Khymos.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://blog.khymos.org/about/
 “Flavor Pairing.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://blog.khymos.org/molecular-gastronomy/flavor-pairing/
 A rather unsettling portrait of this is the ProSAVANA Project in Mozambique. It is discussed in the following article from The Guardian, accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jan/01/mozambique-small-farmers-fear-brazilian-style-agriculture.
See also http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4703-leaked-prosavana-master-plan-confirms-worst-fears. The project’s website is http://www.prosavana.com/index.php.
 Andy Jones, “Developing Trade,” in The Penguin Atlas of Food, ed. Erik Millstone, et al. (Penguin Books, 2003), 72
 http://www.icco.org/statistics/cocoa-prices/daily-prices.html, accessed February 23, 2015.
 “Prehistoric Americans Traded Chocolate for Turquoise?” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110329-chocolate-turquoise-trade-prehistoric-peoples-archaeology/. Also, Coe and Coe, 55.
 “Who Consumes the Most Chocolate?” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/17/who-consumes-the-most-chocolate/
 “Child Slavery and Chocolate: All Too Easy to Find.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/
 “The human cost of chocolate.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/16/chocolate-explainer/
 ” Fair Trade USA Undermines Fair Trade Principles and Producers to Accommodate Products Such as Hershey’s “Greenwashed” Chocolate.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://fairworldproject.org/press-releases/ftusa-undermines-ft/
 “Cassava.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassava#cite_note-5
Dirt is perhaps the most under-respected culinary ingredient around. But try to cook without it and see how far you get.
More crucial for flavor development than onions or garlic, providing more balanced nutrients than classic 1970s food-combining, funkier and more complex than any fermentation process, dirt is seldom welcome in the kitchen. It is scrubbed off and swept out, lest it land on a diner’s plate.
But now and then, we should consider the world comprised by all those grains of dirt. Ecologist Peter Warshall describes it as a richly populated and bustling micropolis whose citizens vastly outnumber us.
“One teaspoon of rich grassland soil can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and 1 million protists. More microbes live in a teaspoon of earth than people on the planet.”
“Within the grand variety of earths, amoebas slide over grains of sand, hunting bacteria; bacteria swim through microrivers in search of nutrients; viruses puncture the bodies of bacteria and borrow their DNA; nematodes hunt and graze in teeming microforests of algae, devouring like hyenas almost anything that lives.”[i]
Over a square meter, the first few inches of soil contains thousands of ants, spiders, beetles, and fly larvae, along with thousands more of earthworms, slugs, and snails. Outnumbering them all are the nematodes, registering above 10 million.
The roots of our food plants are not passive overnighters in this underground community. In a wonderfully complex symbiotic relationship, plants’ roots exude the proteins, carbohydrates, and other nutrients that the underground microbes need for survival. In exchange for all these “cakes and cookies,” as microbiologist Elaine Ingham terms these micronutrients, the bacteria and various other deep-dwellers bring the plant its much needed vitamins and minerals.[ii] Fungi spread their filaments, fostering trade over immense areas. Microbes build rain catchment systems, providing water management and drought resistance.
In a properly functioning closed-loop system, we would also be participating in the exchange, consuming the nutrient-rich fruits of these plants, leaving behind the inedible portions of the plants themselves, and returning the digested remains to the soil. All in the same area, keeping the system vibrant–very much like the rest of creation does.
Healthy dirt hums with activity beyond our imaginations. Yet puncture its surface, pour in foreign matter or withhold the natural exchange, and things can come to a standstill. The nutrient balance in the soil–that exchange of goodies between roots and microbes, bacteria and fungi–becomes compromised, sometimes to the point of complete breakdown. The effect is passed along to us, in the reduced nutrient content of our own foods and, eventually, completely unusable soil.
It is very easy to point the incriminating finger at modern industrial agriculture. While that is entirely appropriate, we must increase our depth-of-field: all agriculture contributes to degraded soil, and has for over 10,000 years.
Rattan Lal, Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University explains: “Nothing in nature repeatedly and regularly turns over the soil to the specified plow depth of 15 to 20 centimeters. Therefore, neither plants nor soil organisms have evolved or adapted to this drastic perturbation.”[iii]
One of the chief effects of all this plowing over the millennia is erosion. Environmental historian J. R. McNeill tells of three major ‘pulses’ of erosion worldwide, the consequences of each of which are still present with us today.[iv]
The first pulse began around 2000 BC, although we still experience its chief side effect: China’s loess plateau has been eroding for 3000 years. Present losses approach 2.2 billion tons of soil annually.
The second pulse occurred in the wake of the European conquest of the Americas, as European farmers used methods which were inappropriate for American soils. The effects of their actions reached into the 20th century, as dust bowls clouded skies around the globe.
Large-scale industrialization of agriculture in the 1950s kicked off the third great pulse. As a consequence, American farmland still loses topsoil about 17 times faster than it is formed.[v]
David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, states it this way: “The world’s farmlands erode as much as the high Himalaya…Think about it: it’s quite a trick to make flat-as-pancake land behave like the highest mountains in the world. We’ve managed to transform Iowa and Kansas into places that erode like Nepal.”[vi]
Plowing, that ancient technique so central to modern farming, dislodges root systems, triggers evaporation of the water stored in all those microscopic rain barrels, and disrupts the trade among plants and microbes. The soil’s population dies due to starvation and thirst. Additionally, plowing exposes the soil’s carbon stores to oxygen. These two rekindle their ancient love affair: they join to form CO2, and head for the atmosphere to alter our climate. It is estimated that land misuse accounts for 30% of the carbon emissions entering our atmosphere.[vii]
But it’s not just the plow that is wreaking havoc with our soils. One of modern agriculture’s hallmarks is the chemical enhancement of soil. In mid-1800s, wealthy countries began importing Chilean and Peruvian bat guano to enrich their fields. In 1842, an English farmer named John Lawes developed a method for producing artificial phosphorous. This was followed by the more the complex developments of Franz Haber and Karl Bosch in the early 20th century, which yielded artificial nitrogen. Up till then, nitrogen had been produced only by lightning and the bustling symbiosis of the underground.
Other artificial nutrients were developed, and by 1940, 4 million tons of industrial fertilizer were used worldwide. By 1965, that total had risen to 40 million tons. In 1990, 150 million tons were utilized. McNeill considers that this “development was and is a crucial chemical alteration of the world’s soils with colossal economic, social, political, and environmental consequences.”[viii]
McNeill states with chilling understatement that the long-term effects of the use of industrial fertilizers is unclear. In other words, we are still conducting the experiment, in the field, on our sustenance, daily.
Whatever the final outcome, the current observed truth is that these artificial inputs disrupt the communal exchanges in the soil web. They completely alter the nutrient exchange, and when combined with the use of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, reduce the soil’s population to nil. In Peter Warshall’s words, soil has become “simply a utilitarian medium in which to grow profitable crops–a substrate which can be improved upon and re-engineered.”[ix]
Lost is the symbiotic relationship between fungi, bacteria, and plants. Lost are the microrivers and microforests, with their battling microbes. The worms are gone, as are the millipedes and centipedes, beetles, ants, spiders, and slugs. Absent are the nutrients, those hotly traded commodities of the underground markets–which means that they no longer filter upwards into the foods we consume. There are some gains, however, in the form of unhealthy pathogens, soil compaction, and the tendency towards erosion and flooding.[x]
Some have rightly described agriculture as an extractive process, similar to mining. We take out, but do not put back. Consider some of the world’s major crops, those which are grown in massive monocultures and traded internationally: coffee, bananas, citrus, cacao, and even beef. They extract the nutrients from the soils where they are grown. The nutrients travel with these products into other countries, often on distant continents, never to return. The ideal closed-loop process I mentioned earlier is shattered, no part of it remaining intact.
This happens not only with our present-day, internationally traded crops. It began long ago, as cities grew and foods were brought into their markets from outlying farms. The nutrients left the farm for the city, and the city rarely sent back the compost or waste products. The nutrients therefore flowed, and are still flowing, into the sewers, rivers, treatment plants, and oceans.[xi]
Poor agricultural practices are not a new thing, and even in our relatively new country they are as old as the hills. Yale professor Steven Stoll, in his book Larding the Lean Earth, recounts the crisis that hit the United States within decades of the Revolution: its soils were completely exhausted. The depletion of farmlands among the original thirteen colonies were a major impetus for western expansion. Unsurprisingly, the western lands–and the ones further west of those, all the way to the Pacific Ocean–were soon exhausted, too. Exhaustion of land is not a limited phenomenon: arable land is degrading worldwide, at a steady rate.[xii]
Amidst all these tangible losses are more esoteric ones, losses which touch upon our enjoyment of food. The dominant agricultural system produces a limited variety of foods, and it does so even out of season. This quite naturally results in a lack of flavor within specific foods and across the larger spectrum. Diversity among foods–just as among cultures–provides an unquantifiable dimension of enjoyment. It provides an adventurous backdrop for the simple act of eating: flavors become more distinct as we have a greater array to choose from. Seasonality allows us to enjoy these flavors at their peak. Locality allows for truly ripe harvests. And healthy soil transmits a full supply of nutrients.
Foodies and wine enthusiasts–winies?–talk of terroir, the sense of place that accompanies certain foods and beverages. Connoisseurs speak about the slope of the terrain, the vineyard’s proximity to water, fluctuations of temperature, and length of growing season being discernible in a single taste of wine. This almost mystical quality is also applied to chiles, tea, coffee, cacao, and San Francisco sourdough. Perhaps in the distant past it was also apparent in sweet potatoes, peanuts, basil, peaches, and every other food one should choose to eat. Do potatoes grown in Texas taste distinctly different from potatoes grown in the Andes? Perhaps. But with our soils under such duress and being artificially manipulated, the days of terroir might be coming to a close. We are well into the age of homogenization.
But esoteric tasting aside, something larger is missing. It’s our connection to the soil. We shouldn’t need to be connoisseurs fixated on nuances. We should have pride in the things grown in the earth around us, by farmers who love their lands and nurture them in a sustaining and healthy manner. We should value true craftsmanship, as opposed to mass production.
Yet the defining characteristic of our food supply is displacement. Soils are displaced through rampant erosion; nutrients are displaced by artificial inputs; soil-dwelling organisms are displaced by pesticides and fungicides; nutrition is displaced by emptiness. Croplands are displaced by deserts. Climate is disrupted. Social justice is compromised.[xiii]
As a chef, the esoteric qualities mentioned above do matter. But as a progressively-minded human, the displacement, disruption, and compromises matter even more. And as a food-dependent animal, the functioning of our soil matters the most. Dirt is life.
So what is to be done? We certainly cannot discontinue agriculture. But farmers can adopt more progressive practices, using a mix of old and new methods. Consumers can vary their approach too, in meaningful ways.
E Magazine, in its 2006 article “The Scoop on Dirt,” provides a succinct overview: “Progressive farmers can reduce damage to soils by reducing tillage, managing irrigation to minimize water loss (and hence salt build-up from evaporation) and planting cover crops. Planting wind barriers on hillsides and maintaining healthy grass cover on pastures can help prevent erosion. If streams run through a farm property, planting grassed waterways along the stream banks can help trap eroded sediment and bind it up, keeping it from entering and polluting larger water bodies.”[xiv]
Wes Jackson, noted agrarian and the founder of The Land Institute, advocates planting mixed crops in one field,[xv] much like the milpa practice of ancient and modern Mexico.[xvi] In addition, his institute is working on ‘perennializing’ crops such as wheat: growing perennials, as opposed to annuals, greatly reduces disruption of the soil.
In conventional agriculture, fields are often left fallow for a year, and this typically means they are devoid of any plants. More progressive farmers, however, plant cover crops during fallow years. Cover crops benefit the soil in multiple ways. For one, they reduce erosion due to wind. They provide a vibrant root network to protect against water erosion. They continue the energetic exchange among soil-dwelling microbes, and, of crucial importance, they help build nitrogen in the soil.[xvii]
By keeping the underground exchange intact, cover crops are also keeping flood-and-drought resiliency intact. In the estimates of Eliav Bitan, a policy associate at the Rodale Institute, even a modest mixture of cover crops–clover, alfalfa, lentils, vetch, fava–would result in a 90% reduction in sediment runoff. As a bonus, this practice would sequester a metric ton of CO2 per acre.[xviii]
Further, by utilizing a system of integrated pest management, wherein crop rotation and natural prey/predator relationships are encouraged, pesticide use can be greatly reduced if not eliminated.[xix]
We eaters have a progressive to-do list, also. Perhaps the biggest thing we can do upfront is to become more knowledgeable about our food. We have been passive consumers for too long, and this has enabled the development of a very dysfunctional system. Set aside time to read a few books, some of which are recommended below. Trade out some of the time you currently spend watching The Game of the New Orange & Black Throne, or whatever it might be. This is of far more importance.
Second, become a regular at your local farmers’ market.[xx] This is a common recommendation, because it really is crucial. Go weekly, get to know the farmers, let them know who you are, make them a part of your social circle. It’s not automatic like picking something off the supermarket shelf and going through the express lane. It’s far more than that. You’ll be engaging in your community in a meaningful way, which is something we all say we are missing.
While you’re getting to know your farmers, offer them your compost. Offer to deliver it to their farm. Then walk around their farm and let them tell you about how they feed their soil. They will be happy to have you in their world.
As an eater, include foods that are not the latest vogue. We all love heirloom tomatoes, but we also need to embrace legumes and other soil-feeders. We must make it profitable for farmers to engage in sustainable practices.[xxi]
Remember, even in the best scenarios, agriculture is tough on the land. The biggest single thing we can do is reduce its extent. This means, without apology or equivocation, that we must remove animal products from our diets. It is an indisputable fact: more than half the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.[xxii] To engage in the eating of animals is a deliberate act which actively worsens the problem.
Finally, those of us who are not farmers still need to restore our connection to the soil, to understand this vibrant underworld which supports us. Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute believes this is fundamental to our future. “We need people to grow something—tomatoes, raspberries, flowers—so they understand the land, returning soil to its rightful place in the very center of our lives.”[xxiii]
Yes, it is true: the most important ingredient in my cooking is dirt. It is the genesis of all the foods I enjoy. It provides bounty well beyond my needs. It will feed me forever, if I will return my respect. When I consider flavor development, nutrient supply, diversity, and deep-down satisfaction, the answer is dirt. Glorious, life-giving, sustaining and delicious dirt.
So, giving thanks to the dirt, here is the menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #7: Dirt.
Carrot Ginger Soup ~ Pine Nut Sour Cream ~ Seeded Sourdough Roll Cake and cookies for the underground.
Golden Beets ~ Cover Crop Cocktail Salad ~ Sesame Miso Vinaigrette Indulging a nitrogen fixation.
Pu’erh-Smoked Maitake ~ Ful Medames ~ Roasted Sweet Potato ~ Pinot Gastrique The quest for terroir.
Tiramisu ~ Chocolate Espresso Syrup Healthy soil is no trifling matter.
[x] Not to stray from the agricultural focus of this piece, but it must be said that another human activity contributes mightily to erosion and general soil disruption: construction. Exposed soils at construction sites erode at an alarming volume. Wal-Mart alone may be responsible for the loss of between 1.5 million and 11.25 million tons of topsoil. Tamsyn Jones, “The Scoop on Dirt: Why We Should Worship the Ground We Walk On,” E Magazine, September/October 2006, 34. Accessible online at: http://www.emagazine.com/magazine-archive/the-scoop-on-dirt
[xii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Sustainable consumption and production,” FAO at Rio+20, http://www.fao.org/rioplus20/75189/en/; The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Earthscan, “The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture: Managing Systems at Risk,” 113.
[xiii] I make this statement as I consider the Third World countries which supply us with most of our key crops. Cacao, bananas, coconuts, coffee–the list is long. Each of these crops leaves depleted soil in its wake, soil which the developed world will not have to deal with long-term.
[xx] Local Harvest lists farmers markets around the country, even in your town: http://www.localharvest.org/
[xxi] Jocelyn Novak, “Why Chef Dan Barber Thinks ‘Farm-to-Table’ Isn’t Good Enough,” The Huffington Post, June 25, 2014. Accessible online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/25/chef-dan-barber-a-pionee_n_5530207.html
[xxii] United Nations Environment Programme, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” 66.
Utopia glimmers throughout the menu for this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club, as we face the New Year with thoughts of a New World. What would we want it to look like? As we take mind excursions into perfect worlds, it helps to have a few ideas in our pockets. Having a good meal as we depart is nothing if not practical.
The menu comprises elements of Utopias past, reaching from Greece’s Golden Age through Eden’s Mesopotamian homelands, over the Himalayas into Shambhala, finally arriving in a mystical “no place” in China, where the Peach Blossom Spring flows eternally. It’s a journey of innocents abroad and innocence lost, leaving us wiser and more resilient for our disappointments.
As self-appointed chief cook and bottle-washer of the Peace Meal Supper Club, one of my most enjoyable tasks is to pull together a harmonious cross-cultural menu, one which draws attention inward rather than scattering it hither and yon. Ancient cuisines provide ample room to play; they are supple in their simplicity, bending and blending gracefully as they support a progression of ideas.
For this month, I have an additional voice weaving the harmony: the network of trade routes known as the Silk Road. From its early beginnings in the 2nd millennium BCE, this conglomeration of routes eventually stretched from imperial Rome to Beijing, only falling into disuse in the mid-1400s. As an early expression of globalization, its avenues ring with ominous tones: dun dun duuunnn…
Though trouble might be over the next horizon, we can sample local flavors as we tramp along the Silk Road to perfection.
First stop: the shadow of Mt. Olympus, where the Golden Age of Greece began with the creation of humankind. There, as Hesiod tells us, women and men lived in joyful leisure, equally sharing the abundance that the earth provided them, in a state of innocence. Their paradise went up in smoke, however, when Prometheus gifted them with fire. Hell further engulfed them upon the subsequent opening of Pandora’s box.
Echoes of the Golden Age are found in Mesopotamia, in the Bibilical stories of Eden. The garden’s inhabitants were sinless, and through no labor of their own, enjoyed the abundance of a garden. They lived in close communion with their god and had a long life–and apparently a vegetarian diet. Their Utopia vanished in much the same fashion as the Golden Age: an outsider, portrayed as a serpent, introduced them to the Socratic method. Being subsequently banished from Eden, they could not re-enter, as the gate was guarded by an oscillating and presumably righteous sword of flames.
Shambhala, our third stop on the Silk Road, lies unreachable in mountainous ranges of Tibet. It is commonly considered a place of peace and happiness, ageless living, and universal enlightenment. The Dalai Lama considers it unreachable by the average person; it can only be found by someone with a special karmic connection.[i] In apparent contradiction to this, it has been vigorously sought by Nazis, Soviet communists, Theosophists, hoteliers, and garden-variety British adventurers. But a land of purity is seldom entered by people with uneasy obsessions.
Equally unreachable is the land of the Peach Blossom Spring. This legendary Chinese utopia is found in a fable dating from 421 CE.[ii] The story tells of a fisherman who happens upon a grove of peach trees. Exploring further, he comes into a glen bustling with happy activity. The inhabitants tell of their ancestors’ flight from civilization many centuries prior, and how presently they will never leave. They entertain him for a week, after which he departs. They admonish him to never seek their utopia again. Although he marks his path on the way out, he can never find his way back.
Off the menu, and as off the road as the Peach Blossom Spring, is the Village Green of one Raymond Douglas Davies, CBE. He is more commonly known as Ray Davies, principle song-writer and leader of the Kinks.
“Out in the country/far from all the soot and noise of the city/there’s a village green.”[iii] These hardly seem to be subversive words. Yet in the late 1960s, as London was swinging, Detroit was burning, and San Francisco was tripping in a lysergic flower shower, Davies and the Kinks released a “suicidally unhip”[iv] album that set out to subvert the subversive. It didn’t actually work out that way, of course.[v]
Like the Peach Blossom Spring, few people knew of its existence. But to those who were able to find The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Utopia was presented anew. Its thesis—that Utopia was to be found in a small life in the British countryside—sprang from the refusal to accept the world as it was. Equally rejected was the world as proposed by the counter-culture. Our only hope was to go backwards. We must return to “little shops, china cups, and virginity”[vi]—that is, we must expunge ourselves of modern complications and return to days of innocence in the garden.
Contrasting with the fits of violence in the real world around him, Davies’ songs present characters and scenes to serve as touchstones: childhood friends “Walter” and Daisy (she whom he kissed “by the old oak tree”); the motor-biking renegade “Johnny Thunder;” and the local prostitute, “Monica,” much adored as she stands knowingly and enchantingly under the street light. Even ready-made characters are presented for children’s admonition: “Wicked Annabella,” the local witch who will snatch up any children wandering past bedtime, and the flying “Phenomenal Cat,” whose worldly travels have led him to extreme omphaloskepsis.
Among the scenes are family celebrations, with laughter-filled photographs; the big sky, metaphorically standing in for the god of the garden; and the music hall, where performers embarrass and redeem themselves in front of their friends. In perhaps the strongest indictment against the world around him, Davies inhabits an “Animal Farm.” “This world is big and wild and half insane! Take me where real animals are playing!” Ditching the world where dreams often fade and die, he prefers the dirty old shack among the pigs and goats. You can have London, I’ll take Hooterville.[vii]
Reaching to a time before even the village green, Davies’ “Sitting by the Riverside” echoes the words of Zeng Dian, an early disciple of Confucius. When asked about his ambitions, he replied: “At the end of spring, with the spring clothes already been finished, I would like, in the company of five or six young men and six or seven children, to cleanse ourselves in the Yi River, to revel in the cool breezes at the Altar for Rain, and then return home singing.”[viii]
All Utopian writings—from St. Thomas More’s Utopia to Plato’s Republic and the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu–carry with them a disdain for the present world. But they also carry a strongly fabricated nostalgia. In the case of Village Green Preservation Society, Davies was noted as “pining for a simpler, quieter England that probably never existed.”[ix] Like him, we continually insist that the place of perfection did once exist. Enthuses Davies in “People Take Pictures of Each Other:” “People take pictures of the summer, just in case someone thought they had missed it, just to prove that it really existed.” Such emphatic insistence that the alternate world is actually real: this is what gives Utopia its strength. We really believe we can get there.
In the philosophically Eastern world, perhaps, but not so much in the Western.
Lyman Tower Sargent, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Utopian scholar, writes of the key contrast between Western and Eastern utopian traditions: It is the presence in Western myths of a Fall, an act of transgression which irreparably ruptured our relationship with the god(s).[x] We are therefore no longer fit for their kingdom. The best we can hope for is an increasingly degrading existence until such a day as Christ returns. For some Christian philosophers, “Utopian thought is itself evil.”[xi]
Conversely, writes Sargent, Eastern traditions have no Fall, no traumatic loss of relationship and place. We still retain the formula for paradise. We can regain the bliss of the Peach Blossom Spring if we would simply follow the formula as it is given. It is ever present with us, if we will stop fighting against it.
As for our hero in Village Green Preservation Society, he chooses unwisely. Just outside the village was that silky, seductive, serpentine road “I sought fame,” he tells us matter-of-factly. Two lines later he laments, “I miss the village green, and all the simple people.” He feels that he cannot return, for his world is now too big to fit into the small life. The villagers might find his worldly self a bit much to take, also. As Michelle Shocked states in “Memories of East Texas,” “Their lives ran in circles so small/they thought they’d seen it all/and they couldn’t make a place/for a girl who’d seen the ocean.”[xii] There’s only so much outer world that Utopia can bear. That’s why the route to the Peach Blossom Spring remains hidden. As for Shambhala, the Dalai Lama has presumably sealed that route for everyone but himself.
This longing to return to a place already built upon nostalgic fantasy maps well against the contemporary vogue of sustainable living and backyard-DIY. Yet, ever like Voltaire’s Candide, we must persevere long enough, and with enough hope, to establish and tend to our own gardens. We must subvert the notion that Utopia cannot be regained.
Luckily, the strength of utopian thought is its subversive nature.[xiii] It can be exercised anywhere at any time. Occupy Wall Street was a utopian experiment, as are monasteries, intentional communities, animal sanctuaries, and this humble supper club. They serve as antidotes for the perceived poisons of the world-at-large. They offer suggestions for a cure, and if their idyllic post-card portrayals don’t carry with them exhaustive instructions, they still provide glimpses of an alternative. That alone is motivational: you can’t climb the mountain until you see the mountain.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”[xiv]
We iteratively establish Utopias as stepping stones, mile markers to which we can refer when our course needs correction. With each new stone, we are more resilient and capable, winnowing ourselves into the core of what matters. As the powers-that-be successively nudge us closer to calamity, we revert to the soil and the sun and the simple. In this sense of recursion, Utopia is Tao:
Small country, few people
Let them have many weapons but not use them
Let the people regard death seriously
And not migrate far away
Although they have boats and chariots
They have no need to take them
Although they have armors and weapons
They have no need to display them
Let the people return to tying knots and using them
Savor their food, admire their clothes
Content in their homes, happy in their customs
Neighboring countries see one another
Hear the sounds of roosters and dogs from one another
The people, until they grow old and die
Do not go back and forth with one another[xv]
Finally, to get back to supper club matters at hand, we wrap up with a quote from the inimitable Pete Quaife, whose exquisite bass lines adorn The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society: “The Kinks all agree that Sunday dinner is the greatest realization of heaven.”[xvi]
Welcome to Peace Meal Supper Club #6: Utopia. God Save the Village Green.
Lemon Rice Soup ~ Dolmas ~ Pita A reflection of the Golden Age of Greek legend.
Root Vegetable Braise ~ Licorice Root and Juniper Reduction Edenic abundance from the Fertile Crescent.
Momos (Vegetable Dumplings) ~ Roasted Barley ~ Winter Greens Stir-Fry Elusive Shambhala beckons from the Tibetan plateau.
Green Tea Poached Pear ~ Ginger Peach Pastry Cream Peach Blossom Spring takes a Taoist twist into the Great Unity.
‘The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it in due course the emancipation of animals also. The two reforms are inseparably connected, and neither can be fully realised alone.’ (Henry Salt, Seventy Years among the Savages, 1921)
In the beginning there was a Great Chain of beings[i]—presumably.
It rattled from Plato through Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, surged through medieval thought and into the modern era. In short, it described a god-ordained, spiritual hierarchy of the universe, descending from God to dirt. The chain was rigidly linear, no double-linking or parallel paths. Man occupied the link between angels and animals—and therefore possessed spiritual as well as physical attributes. Animals, linked to man above and plants underneath, were denied any spiritual attributes. Thus disenfranchised, they found themselves subject to greater and greater demeaning, as subdivisions were installed by Aquinas. Positions were later inserted to classify humans of different ethnicities, social standing, and gender–as was to be expected. A being’s position on the chain was, of course, a product of the chain-maker’s spiritual worldview.
As the great chain wound its way through western thought for millennia, it provided an invisible, institutionalized foundation for several major philosophical viewpoints, upholding Christianity’s pronouncements of man’s holiness, Descartes’ decree of animals as automatons, and various destructive philosophies regarding race.[ii]
Surprisingly, no peace came from all these centuries of rattling chains. However, at times visionary men and women have risen up against all the noise, working to end the oppression inherent in such ancient unrelenting systems.
In this edition of Peace Meal Supper Club, we are honoring four modern reformers who fought for fairness on multiple fronts, each of whom left indelible marks upon human progress—and irreparably damaged the great chain.
Anna Kingsford (1846-1888), was a British anti-vivisection activist, women’s rights advocate, and vegetarian writer. In 1874, she left her home in London to study medicine in Paris, at Faculté de Médecine, then the leading medical college. She undertook her education specifically to be a better-informed advocate for animals. Her chief concern was the practice of vivisection, which was being championed by contemporary French doctors and researchers.
Among Paris’ medical elite was Dr. Claude Bernard, Europe’s most prominent proponent of vivisection at that time. He was not only its champion, he was its sociopathic romanticist. He wrote: “The physiologist is no ordinary man. He is a learned man, a man possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea. He does not hear the animals’ cries of pain. He is blind to the blood that flows. He sees nothing but his idea, and organisms which conceal from him the secrets he is resolved to discover.”[iii]
Dr. Bernard and most other scientists typically performed vivisection without anesthesia or regard for the animal’s pain. Kingsford wrote of the screams that echoed through the campus, and that she had found her hell within the academy’s halls, “one that fulfills all the dreams of the mediaeval monks.”[iv] Animals were frequently left bound overnight on the tables, simply abandoned after experimentation.
In this atmosphere, and facing extreme prejudice from the all-male faculty, Kingsford completed her degree in 1880. She was only the second woman to become a degreed doctor—and the first person to ever complete the program without performing a single vivisection.[v]
Her final thesis, L’Alimentation Végétale de l’Homme, explored the benefits of vegetarianism. The irony is rich: her thesis had to be approved by the very faculty she came to condemn. Her thesis was later published in English under the title The Perfect Way in Diet. It was widely read and proved to be hugely influential; among its readers was a young Mohandas Gandhi.[vi]
She died at the age of 41, only a few years after receiving her degree. In those years she published several books on diet and spiritualism, traveled a lecture circuit, founded vegetarian societies, spoke out against bull fights, and campaigned for women’s rights—the latter of which she summed up succinctly yet comprehensively: “Equal rights and equal experiences.”[vii] In these words, we can hear the straining of the old hierarchical chain, links distorting as a new order begins to emerge.
Kingsford had a brief tenure as editor of a lady’s periodical, during which time she met our next honoree, Frances Power Cobbe.
Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) is the embodiment of socially progressive reformers during the Victorian era. Born in County Dublin, Ireland, to a prominent family, she was a prolific writer touching on many topics, some dealing with the status of women, others on the science of the day or historical events, and large number dealing with vivisection. She was blessed upon birth with an extremely active mind and a proclivity towards unconventionalism.[viii]
An influential figure in the British Unitarian movement, she could not comprehend God’s care for all of his creation, contrasted with man’s destructive treatment of creation: “If there be one moral offence which more than another seems directly an offence against God, it is this wanton infliction of pain upon his creatures.”[ix]
To her, there was an undeniable link between feminism, animal rights, and vegetarianism, as they all centered upon the rights of all living individuals to possess their own agency.
Among her more prominent activities was the founding of two anti-vivisectionist societies: Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection in 1875, and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) in 1898. The former was the first organization of its kind; when its governing board began to compromise on vivisection under certain circumstances, she left and began the second organization.[x] Compromise was not a means of progress in her view.
As a women’s rights campaigner she was equally relenting, serving on the executive council of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in London. She advocated for battered wives, leading to a Parliamentary bill that allowed women to legally separate from abusive husbands. She also pioneered same-sex marriage, entering into a de facto marriage with sculptor Mary Lloyd, which was widely accepted and honored by society.
Her work was comprehensive and tireless, in a world that was very contrary. Her work endured, also: both anti-vivisection groups she founded are still in existence. One of them, the BUAV, is very active internationally in banning the use of animals in testing of products. Products approved by them carry a familiar “leaping bunny” logo.[xi] In addition to lasting work for animals, her work on behalf of women led to lasting reforms, and same-sex marriages are finding acceptance in many countries.
(A harrowing view of the world in which she worked can be seen in accounts of the Brown Dog Affair, a political controversy that raged for seven years in London. A labyrinth of intersectionality and violent oppression, it found medical students rioting in the streets, attacking feminists and anti-vivisectionists as well as police officers. It led to the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the use of animals in experiments. The Wikipedia article is well worth the read.)
Frances Power Cobbe understood that all humane reforms are tightly connected. All must be pursued as a general program for improving us as humans. We can be better—this is not a judgmental statement; it is one of purpose and direction. Our next protagonist exemplified this in his writings.
Henry Stephens Salt (1851-1939) was an English writer, ethical vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist, pacifist, socialist, and reformer in many fields, including prisons and educational systems. He was a well-regarded classical scholar, conservationist, and literary critic. Salt’s writings influenced Gandhi to embrace vegetarianism. Gandhi was also introduced to the work of Thoreau by Salt.[xii]
Salt has been credited with taking a great step in defense of animals, writing about their rights rather than their welfare. He based this on the fact that the same principles are present when talking about human reforms: “animals, as well as men, though, of course, to a far less extent than men, are possessed of a distinctive individuality, and, therefore, are in justice entitled to live their lives with a due measure of that ‘restricted freedom’ to which Herbert Spencer alludes.”[xiii]
He rejected the notion that there is a fixed separation between man and animals, a “great gulf” that kept them forever separated from justice.
“[The] notion of the life of an animal having ‘no moral purpose,’ belongs to a class of ideas which cannot possibly be accepted by the advanced humanitarian thought of the present day—it is a purely arbitrary assumption…If we are ever going to do justice to the lower races, we must get rid of the antiquated notion of a ‘great gulf’ fixed between them and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”[xiv]
In his book Animals’ Rights in Relation to Social Progress, he addresses the use of animals for food, fashion, sport, and research, posing arguments that are still valid today. Peter Singer, writing in the Preface to the 1980 reprinting, “marvels at how he anticipates almost every point discussed in the contemporary debate over animal rights.” If defenders of animals have added very little to the case Salt outlines, Singer states, they can console themselves because the attackers have come up with few objections that Salt hadn’t already dealt with.
Throughout the book—one of 40 he wrote—his wit and humor shine through.[xv] His was not a bitter pen—he could certainly be acrid when necessary, but compassion is the dominant character of his writing. His sincere desire is for us to create a better humanity, one that is enlightened in its treatment of prisoners, school children, women, domestic animals, wild animals, and even our enemies. It is time for us to take a collective step forward, for the sake of humanity and the world we all inhabit. We cannot be chained down.
“The humane instinct will assuredly continue to develop. And it should be observed that to advocate the rights of animals is far more than to plead for compassion or justice towards the victims of ill-usage: it is not only, and not primarily, for the sake of the victims that we plead, but for the sake of mankind itself. Our true civilization, our race-progress, our humanity (in the best sense of the term) are concerned in this development; it is ourselves, our own vital instincts, that we wrong, when we trample on the rights of the fellow-beings, human or animal, over whom we chance to hold jurisdiction.”[xvi]
Salt extended his work through that of his friends, which included George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Annie Besant, and Leo Tolstoy. Due to his friendship with Gandhi, we find him extending his influence through to Martin Luther King. His pacifist bearing and social ideas have influenced countless people working towards peace. His thoughts on animals’ rights have likewise inspired key individuals, such as Peter Singer, and through him, millions.
Peter Singer credits another writer with sparking his interest in ethical vegetarianism, the English writer Ruth Harrison.
Ruth Harrison (1920-2000), a noted pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, wrote the first book that exposed to the world the intensive, industrial processes being used to raise food animals in Britain and America. Animal Machines, published in 1964, is a chilling first-hand account of her visits to concentrated animal production facilities, where layer hens, broiler hens, veal calves, rabbits, and pigs were being raised. These systems are best explained by their proponents.
“Rapid turnover, high-density stocking, a high degree of mechanization, a low labour requirement, and efficient conversion of food into saleable products, were the five essentials for a system of animal production to be called intensive.”[xvii]
A system like this necessitates small living spaces—often too small for the animal to turn or lie down—massive application of antibiotics even in the absence of illness, complicit media and government, and a collective disregard for the individuality of animals, all of this “taken to a degree where the animal is not allowed to live before it dies.”[xviii]
It was a system that was coldly calculated to turn living animals into factory cogs, where their job, 24×7, was to produce their own flesh and by-products for our consumption. It was a cheapening of life on every level, from the human consumer through the ‘farmer’ and his small workforce, and certainly of the subject animals. As she drolly notes, “A danger of accepting any form of life as cheap is that each successive generation might accept slightly lower standards.”[xix]
Her expose goes on to prove that very thought, and the theme of “cheap” recurs frequently. But “cheap” now is expensive in the long run, as antibiotic resistance builds in animals and humans, toxicity concentrates in the environment, and the quality of food degrades rapidly.
The biggest casualty, however, is to our humanity: “How far have we the right to take our domination of the animal world—in degrading these animals are we not in fact degrading ourselves?”[xx]
Her question is worthy of intense examination—deeper even than she anticipated. For while she does connect our treatment of animals to our humanity—as did Salt, Cobbe, and Kingsford—she still allows for our domination of them. Though she questions their treatment in the factory, she never questions their presence in the factory. One can almost hear the old chain rattling itself back together.
Her presentation is not without emotion. In fact, she makes pleas throughout the book toward our sense of compassion, asking us if we can really accept such treatment of animals. In her chapter on “Cruelty and Legislation” she approaches us with both rational and emotional demands, and is unrelenting in her call-outs to the Minister of Agriculture as he defends the faulty Protection of Animals Act of 1911. Her efforts did ultimately lead to greater domestic and international protection of animals in industrial confinement, such as the landmark European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, established in 1976.[xxi]
All humane-oriented reforms of industrial animal agriculture, including roomier battery cages, free-range facilities, and the banning of gestation crates, owe a debt of gratitude to Ruth Harrison. All animal advocates owe her their thanks, in truth. For her detailed and unequivocal reporting of the conditions has informed each one of us. Her tour of the facilities occurred with the consent of the industrialists themselves—something which will not happen in today’s ag-gag environment.
But as I read her book, landmark and influential and vital as it is, I kept hearing that chain lurching back into place. Her pleas ended at humane treatment, never resolving into pleas for release.[xxii] She seems to accept that the chain is in place and that its existence is proper, provided we tidy things up a bit. Something great has been lost—perhaps in more arenas than one.
Oxford professor Chien Hui Li observes that “the two great wars in the first half of the twentieth century and the repressions and reconstructions that followed were low times for social movements in general and animal defence in particular.”[xxiii] As movements gained momentum again, they lost that sense of connection with one another. Further, in the early postwar period, as industrial techniques were being perfected, we were somehow distracted with an illusory return to normalcy.
However, Professor Li’s painting of the context of the animal rights movement presents a strengthening picture. Writing of the reformers such as Salt in the latter 1800s, she says:
“This radical shift of ideologies in reform politics had a direct bearing on the animal cause and offered it opportunities for change. In general, with the new concepts of ‘kinship of life,’ ‘brotherhood,’ ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ brought by evolutionism and socialism, some people began to see animals not as objects of pity, but as having a right to just and fair treatment. Their watchwords now became ‘justice’ and ‘rights,’ no longer ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness.’”[xxiv]
As disruptive as the 20th century might have been to all social progress movements, we still inherited a strong radical shift in thinking. A benchmark has been set, one that never existed before. We still have their foundation to build upon.
“…[F]ar from being marginal and isolated,” states Professor Li, “[the animal rights movement] has always been closely associated with the major literary, religious, and political traditions contributing to the broad development of humanitarianism. Rather than growing at the expense of each other, reform for humans and other animals developed side by side and showed parallel patterns of emergence, consolidation and transformation from eighteenth-century humanitarian sensibility through Victorian philanthropy to political radicalism in the late-nineteenth and again in the late-twentieth centuries. And despite their different tasks and short-term objectives, the two spheres of reform for the most part shared the same ideological origins, cohered in moral vision, and employed similar rhetoric and tactics in their common pursuit of core human values such as charity, equality and justice.”[xxv]
Li offers advice to current activists, which we would all do well to heed:
“While there may be every need for the animal movement to focus on sharply-defined targets in order to achieve short-term goals, there is an equally urgent need to engage with wider literary, religious, scientific, political and other traditions, and to cultivate the state of mind of belonging to much broader social forces striving in the same directions of charity, equality, and justice. This could not only strengthen activists’ faith in something of a deeper nature and broaden their outlook, but also affect the spirit in which their work is undertaken and make it all the more powerful and appealing to others.”[xxvi]
As Salt might describe it, the gem itself is a greater humanity, the facets of which are numerous. We are the honored lapidarians to whom the essential task of rediscovery has been granted.
While many labor in fragmented movements, there are some who vigorously utilize the comprehensive approach of Cobbe and Salt. Here are just a few:
The following are from the writings of Henry Salt, and comprise a sample of his witty and adept pen. These have all been borrowed from the website listed above.
The Altruistic Flesh-Eater
(“What would become of Esquimaux?”)
This doubt not: if my choice were free,
A vegetarian strict I’d be.
My heart is in your Cause; but oh!
What, then, of those poor Esquimaux?
I dread to think what might betide them,
If flesh were suddenly denied them;
In Greenland, too, so short of green!
How would they get their Vitamines?
They must have blubber, so, in grief,
(All for their sake) I must have beef.
The Cry of the Might have been
“Sir Leslie Stephen’s remark, that no one is so much interested in the demand for pork as the pig, is surely quite valid.” — DEAN INGE
We are the Pigs Unborn, the Pigs Forsaken;
O’erlooked by heedless folk who eat no bacon.
In blank pre-natal Nothingness we pine,
Robbed of that prerogative of swine,
The born pig’s birthright—to be penned in muck,
In garbage grub, be fatted, and be stuck.
Mere ghosts of porkers, pork we’ll never be:—
This, Vegetarian, this we owe to thee!
O deaf to cry of Pigs that Might have Been,
Art thou not cruel? Ask the learned Dean.
The Sufficient Reason
“A fellow feeling makes one wondrous kind.”
“Be kind to animals,” you’re told.
The reasons? Well, they’re manifold,
And some are new, and some are old;
But when all’s said and done,
The motive that you’ll find most strong,
The simple rule, the short-and-long,
For doing animals no wrong,
Is this – that “you are one.”
“I am aware that many of my contentions will appear very ridiculous to those who view the subject from a contrary standpoint, and regard the lower animals as created solely for the pleasure and advantage of man; on the other hand, I have myself derived an unfailing fund of amusement from a rather extensive study of our adversaries’ reasoning.” – in the Preface to Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress
“We must meet this ridicule [of the animal rights movement] and retort it without hesitation on those to whom it properly pertains. The laugh must be turned against the true ‘cranks’ and ‘crotchet-mongers’—the noodles who can give no wiser reason for the infliction of suffering on animals than that it is ‘better for the animals themselves.’”—Animals’ Rights, Chapter VIII, page 123
[xxii] The organization she founded in 1967, Farm Animal Care Trust, continues to educate only about animals in the system. They do not advocate release from the system. http://www.fact.uk.com/index.html
As undercover footage from slaughterhouses and factory farms hits the news media, the public has become more aware of the harm caused by the animal agriculture industry to workers, the environment, and the animals imprisoned in the system. In this system, we breed animals for production efficiency, often using artificial insemination. We cage them, disrupt their natural social groupings and behaviors, ship or transport them over long distances with little concern for their comfort or safety en route, and cull any animal we deem unsatisfactory. We feed them unnatural and unhealthy diets, push them to produce, and routinely treat them with antibiotics to prop them up in spite of stress and illness.
These standard industry practices—routine treatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens—occur out of sight of the general public. Even more invisible is our similar treatment of the honeybee.
While some bee species lead more solitary lives, honeybees, an introduced species in the Americas, live in tight-knit colonies where each bee plays a vital role and each relies on the community for survival. For communal bees like honeybees, the life of the colony revolves around the queen, the only fertile female and the mother of all bees in the hive. The colony’s ongoing survival relies on her reproduction and, while she lays her body weight in eggs each day, the other bees tend to all of her needs, including feeding her, cleaning her, directing her to prepared brood cells, and raising the next generation. In observing colony dynamics, beekeepers have discovered that they can control the hive largely by controlling the queen.
A queen can live five years or more, however many beekeepers replace their queens every year or two for maximum production (similarly, egg-laying hens and dairy cows are routinely discarded as “spent” at only a fraction of their lifespans). Beekeepers generally purchase new queens from professional breeders who regularly ship queen bees, accompanied by a few attendants, in matchbox-sized cages through the postal system. As with newly hatched chicks routinely shipped to backyard chicken fanciers though the mail, the bees are subject to rough handling, temperature extremes, and abandonment at the post office. The fact that companies that ship bees have refund policies for orders that arrive dead indicates that this is not uncommon.
In nature, a queen bee leaves the hive at one week old for her “wedding flight,” in which she mates with up to a dozen male drones, supplying her with enough sperm from diverse sources to fertilize her eggs throughout her life. In contrast, queen breeders, like other livestock breeders, often use artificial insemination to control a colony’s genetics, selecting for traits such as docility and honey production. Unfortunately, breeding for production efficiency also means narrowing the gene pool, which weakens the overall honeybee population. Some beekeepers further control the queen by clipping her wings to prevent the colony from swarming. 
Honeybees collect pollen and nectar—the latter of which is converted into honey and other glandular secretions—to feed the colony throughout the year. The honey supply is especially vital to the reduced colony that survives through the winter. Depending on the size of the hive and the winter conditions, a colony may consume upwards of 100 pounds of honey over the course of the winter. As with the unnatural grain- and byproduct-based diets of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock, bees’ diets are frequently supplemented with artificial and nutrient-lacking substitutes. In the case of bees, these substitutes include sugar water and corn syrup, fed in times of stress or when a beekeeper removes too much honey from the hive.
Furthermore, because many large-scale beekeepers have shifted their focus from honey production to pollination services, millions of honeybees are now routinely shipped coast to coast. With monoculture now the dominant system of farming, almond, blueberry, apple, and even alfalfa farmers depend on bees shipped in to pollinate their thousands of acres of crops. No bees can live in a monoculture year-round; there is only food available to them during the crop’s two- to three-week bloom. Instead of planting diverse crops that flower successively throughout the season, farmers rent a truckload of bees to come pollinate their crop for a few weeks, and then the bees are trucked—often thousands of miles—to another farm to pollinate a different crop. This migrant existence stresses honeybee colonies, as does the unbalanced diet of a monoculture.
Humans further manipulate bees to pollinate some of their less preferred plants. In the massive USDA document Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, S.E. McGregor states that honeybee disinterest in strawberries “can be overcome with saturation pollination, or overstocking the area with colonies so the competing nectar and pollen are removed;” in other words, an imposed food scarcity can drive bees to pollinate plants they would otherwise pass over. Other suggested methods include caging honeybees with the strawberry plants to eliminate other food options, although studies indicate that caging excludes more effective native pollinators. 
Honeybees, like all of us, are especially at risk for disease when they are stressed, overcrowded, genetically limited, or poorly nourished. Since management of bees and other farmed animals expects high production often under these unhealthy pressures, beekeepers and other farmers turn to antibiotics and other medications to treat or prevent illness. Unfortunately, reliance on drugs while continuing to compromise the animal’s overall health and wellbeing can lead to antibiotic resistance that impedes our ability to treat disease in the future.
It is hardly a surprise that recent years have seen a decline in both managed and feral honeybee populations, an increase in newly introduced diseases in bee colonies, and outbreaks of drug-resistant pathogens and parasites. These crises came to a head in 2006, when bee keepers around the United States discovered their hives mysteriously empty, the bees simply vanished. This disappearance, termed “Colony Collapse Disorder,” has been attributed to the compounded effects of pesticides, malnutrition, weakened genetics, parasites, and other stressors.
Interestingly, as far back as 1923, Austrian philosopher and founder of the biodynamic movement Rudolf Steiner predicted a collapse of bee populations–and a decline in ecosystems—by the by the turn of the Twenty First Century, if human manipulation of bee colonies continued. Practices he specifically condemned included:
The raising of larva in separate quarters, arbitrary feeding of royal jelly to produce queens, then shipping by post to keepers.
Selection of bee populations for docility, de-selecting for aggression.
In contrast to the normal 5 or 6-year life span of a queen, “re-queening” after one or two years
Using chemical control agents for disease and pests.
Providing ready-made combs [and wax] in place of bee-constructed combs, to save work (production time) for the bees
Moving of hives over long distances at the will of human intention.
Clipping of queens’ wings.
Agricultural practices consisting of monocultures that wreak havoc on honeybee diets, limiting options once the dominant crop is no longer flowering.
Steiner’s prophecy appears to be coming eerily true as we continue to treat honeybees—and the rest of the natural world, domesticated and wild alike—like pieces of machinery that technology can repair or replace. There are clear indications, however, that this mechanical approach does not work. For the last few decades, apple and pear farmers in Maoxian County in China’s Sichuan Provence have been forced to pollinate their fruit trees by hand, climbing to each of the billions of blossoms with a paintbrush and pot of pollen. A history of heavy pesticide use in the county killed off native pollinators, and commercial beekeepers refuse to bring their bees in to pollinate because of the dangerous levels of toxins. While employing humans to pollinate crops does have the economic benefit of job creation, it comes at a high ecological and monetary cost (hand pollination costs the farmers 8 times the cost of bee pollination). If the United States were to rely on hand pollination, it would cost an estimated $90 trillion per year.
Is this the future we can we expect if we continue to commodify and exploit our fellow creatures, from 1/10 gram honeybees to one ton cattle? When it comes down to it, isn’t it more advantageous—not to mention compassionate—for us to view our fellow creatures as having intrinsic value all their own, without regard to their commodity benefit to us? What would it take for us to respect other species—and individuals—as having inherent value, independent of their usefulness to us? I believe the time is overdue for us to turn the tables and give back to those from whom we take.
What can we do to help bees?
Plant a garden to feed pollinators and other wildlife
Set out dishes of water for bees and other thirsty animals
Build a bee house to shelter native bees or adopt a hive of honeybees
Avoid the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in your yard and garden to keep bees and other visitors safe and healthy
Buy organic produce to limit bees’ exposure to toxic pesticides in the fields
 For example, http://www.draperbee.com/beesupplies/Package_Bee_Prices.htm and http://www.honeybeesonline.com/queens.html
 Swarming is a honeybee colony’s method of reproduction. Bees swarm when the colony grows too big for the hive. The queen and older bees leave to seek out a new home, leaving the old hive to the young nurse bees, who will raise a new queen. From a beekeeper’s perspective, a swarm represents the loss of the prime workforce as well as the original queen’s genetics. http://www.gobeekeeping.com/getting_started_with_queen_reari.htm