Whole Foods, Whole Lives …

Whole Foods, Whole Lives …

I’ve been thinking for days about Michael Ruhlman’s tribute to his dad — it’s just a tiny note in a really beautiful piece, but Ruhlman points out that his father died in his house, among family, and with his ex-wife by his side. We should all be so lucky, or perhaps, we should all aspire to lead the kinds of lives and build the kinds of relationships where our family and loved ones will want to be there with us for that last mile. Another dear friend just buried his beloved, last week, an incandescent woman who went far too soon, who fought to stay with her daughter with a ferocity that left us all awestruck, and who died at home, with her beautiful daughter and my friend and her sisters and brothers and her mother at her side. It is unbearably sad, but there is something real and comforting in the fact that she died like a real person, surrounded by love, and not in some sterile hospital bed hooked up to things that beeped and shrieked, that she died surrounded by people who were heartbroken, but who helped her make that crossing.

And while it might sound glib at first, I can’t help wondering whether when we all write and talk about food in the way that many of us have been these past few years, what we’re really writing about is our relationships with one another and our deep desire to connect with what is real, and elemental and whole in the world. Our primary relationship with the physical world is through what we eat and what we feed one another — do we want that to be products so mediated that they are unrecognizable, or do we want to eat and feed our loved ones food that is whole, food that comes from known sources, food that was grown and harvested by people with whom we have a relationship, even if it’s as slight as a smile across a Farmer’s Market table once a week?

For much of the late 20th century, the impulse was to outsource all unpleasantness — we removed butchers from supermarkets and hence, removed any evidence that meat came from actual animals. We removed our old people to “homes” where they are cared for by strangers. We removed our sick and ill and dying to hospitals filled with florescent lighting and beeping machinery all designed to preserve the illusion that no one need ever die. We divorced our eating habits from the seasons to the point where we’re flying grapes and oranges and flowers from Chile and Australia and Columbia and we think this is perfectly normal.

I think these things are connected. I think that a growing awareness that natural limitations are not simply challenges to be overcome by technology might be a good thing. And I can’t help but think that there is a connection between chefs like Michael Symon and Chris Cosentino insisting that we learn to honor those animals we eat by not wasting any of their parts, by reviving the old habits of husbandry and thrift, habits which are delicious when done with care — and the movement to bring our dying loved ones home, where with the help of those dedicated hospice workers we can help them through this last transition. When my youngest brother died it was in a hospital, a hospital to which in the 1970s we weren’t even allowed to visit him. He went away, we were sent to our aunt’s house, and then he was gone. It was very sanitized. It still seems unreal. I grew up in a cancer cluster so this happened over and over — and I can’t help but think that while there is nothing more traumatic than losing your mother, that my friend’s daughter will be stronger from actually having been there instead of having her mother whisked away for her “protection.”

The whole/local/SOLE food movement gets a lot of flack for being elitist, for being a yuppie affectation, for being out of touch with “real” people — in this it reminds me of the environmental and adventure sports movements in which I spent so much of my teens and 20s — but there is a deep human need to connect with the unmediated realness of the world — whether that comes by putting on boots and a waterproof jacket and getting up at five in the morning to climb a mountain peak or by building a relationship with an actual person who raises animals or grows produce for you to eat. To seek out ways to connect with the elemental forces of the physical world is a powerful drive in a culture in which we are swaddled in layer after layer of corporate mediation, and perhaps simply deciding to find out where your food comes from is a first step in reconnecting with the world.

Feeding ourselves and our loved ones is our most basic act of love. Michael Ruhlman says his father was a man who loved to be the host, who wouldn’t sit down until everyone had everything they needed, a man who took care of his family. Jim and Mari and Isabella welcomed me into their French idyll that fall when I was so heartbroken over Patrick’s death. I was still very raggedy around the edges and it was generous of them to welcome me to their little green metal table outside that farmhouse near Aix, a green table where we sat and talked and drank wine and ate delicious veal chops we bought from the local butcher (who proudly displayed a photo of the steer who now resided in the case). If what we feed ourselves and our loved ones is the most basic building block for the relationships we build, then it’s not elitist to take more care, to build a food system that relies on actual relationships between people, between people and the land, between people and the animals they raise. Because when it comes right down to it, these relationships are all we really have in this world.

5 thoughts on “Whole Foods, Whole Lives …

  1. Charlotte, my own thoughts have been traveling similar paths for a couple of years now, maybe longer, and there seems to be so much to say about this. I’m struggling with starting, and I waver between wanting to address it in a fiction piece and wanting to write a non-fiction polemic. We want to get “back to the land” but don’t know how to do it without the corporate intervention — Patagonia and REI. We want “natural childbirth” but have to hire a stranger to aid the delivery. It’s no longer even legal in this country for the wife or mother or daughter (or father, son, or brother) of a deceased person to prepare the body for burial. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m creeped out in the grocery store when I see “fresh” meat packaged with a brand name on it, particularly when I know that company is headquartered in a completely different part of the country. I’m lucky to be in an area that is thick with farmer’s markets, I’m never wanting for locally grown food. I really feel for my family members who live in the midwest — “America’s bread basket” — but can’t get fresh local strawberries or green beans anywhere within an hour’s drive of their home. And where, within that hour’s drive, can they find the “local” produce? Why, Whole Foods of course! Because we still need the corporate mediation, as you say. No local farmer’s markets for the “real” people of central Ohio — why not? Not because they don’t like good food, that’s for certain. But darned if I can come up with the real reason.

  2. Yes, we build the bonds of friendship at the table
    Which leads me to wonder if one of the main malaises of our modern society is the lack of care and attention to food, its purchase, preparation and comsumption
    So many people buy ready-meals, microwave packets of gunk and eat in front of the TV in a mindless act of filling the stomach when they should be nourishing body and soul around a table with their family and friends
    And all the time that is saved?
    It’s spent in front of a computer screen trying to communicate with virtual people in cyberspace
    All wrong!

  3. Thanks for the good comments folks — this is a complicated issue I’m still working my way through (and trying not to let the fact that Wendell Berry has been doing a better job of it than I for 40 years get me down). Kristi — as someone who has led canoe trips back in the days of rubber raincoats and wool sweaters, I’ll always be grateful to Patagonia and REI for bringing us fleece and gore-tex, but I get your point. When I started climbing in high school it was a sport for weirdos, for those of us who really were seeking an encounter with something undeniably real — if you didn’t pay attention, then you could fall. Then someplace in the 80s and 90s those sports were taken over by the “extreme” people, climbing, boating and skiing were taken over by corporate entities chasing the lucrative 18-to-35 demographic and it became less about having some sort of authentic experience of the self in the natural world than it was about some kind of “radical” adrenaline high. But throughout this entire transition, these sports were accused of being elitist yuppie sports that only wealthy white people could afford — no matter how many “hoods in the woods” programs we ran, there was a point there. When I lived in Telluride, it was very white, very wealthy, and pretty monoculutural. But despite all that, there was still an honorable core value there — a desire to live in a more authentic way than we had in those suburbs we’d grown up in, a desire to live in beautiful landscapes, to encounter the mountains first hand, to test our physical selves and our characters against challenges we weren’t sure we could manage.
    The food movement seems to me to be going through a similar transitional period — the original crunchy hippies are starting to be successful, they’re building farms and businesses — Slow Food Nation is taking place in San Francisco, and there’s a lot of noise in the media about elitism. Part of this is just “tall poppy” syndrome — the who do you think you are? backlash that is always aimed at those folks who insist that things can be better, that it is important to insist on quality, that food can be beautiful and clean and that we can support the people who want to raise such things.
    But what struck me this week as I was walking the dog (when I do my best thinking) was that there’s a common desire running through all these things, the longing to connect with one another, the longing to encounter the physical world — whether by navigating a river in a canoe or trying to coax a carrot out of the ground — in both cases there’s an encounter with forces we can’t entirely control. We’re forced into this fruitful relationship with the world. That’s an ongoing fascination for me …

  4. C., count me among the people who are made uncomfortable by Slow Food. I think saving rare products, plants and artisanal methods is essential and noble. But to me the organization feels, to paraphrase the NYT, like the coolest party you’ll never be invited to — very high level foodies exulting in the stuff that they have access to and you don’t. (This is a fact-based rant, btw; my circle of friends is heavily larded with professional foodies.)

    Putting Slow Food Nation in SF is a perfect example of this. On the one hand, yes, the choice makes sense, because SF is the artisanal food capital of the country. On the other hand, SF is the one place that doesn’t need Slow Food Nation, because they’ve already got everything that underpins a sustainable food culture: Mediterranean climate, very lengthy growing season, local small producers, abundant farmers’ markets, excellent public transportation, and – very important – tons and tons of disposable cash.

    There are very few places in the US that can meet those conditions – and it’s those places that most need the help of Slow Food or something like it. If Slow Food or people who identify with its goals want to create change, the Ferry Building is the wrong place to be. Where they are really needed is in the parts of the country with growing seasons short enough that people can’t grow enough food in their backyards unless they work at home, with few local producers because industrial-scale ag killed them, with bad urban planning that forces people to drive 50 miles to buy food, with no organic or local produce because that doesn’t fit the buying schemes of the big supermarkets, with low income levels so spending more for food doesn’t make sense for the family budget. The food deserts in the current phrase.

    It is very troubling to me that the new food culture is so class-identified. We need to insist “that things can be better” for everyone – not just for those lucky enough to live in places like Berkeley where these issues are easy.

    There’s so much more to engage with on this (but I have a deadline and took more time that I should have just to agonize over this post). You’re doing a great job tangling with the topic on this blog, the more so because of where you live – in a place that, if you didn’t think carefully about it, could easily be a food desert, and for some of your neighbors probably is. It’s very valuable.

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