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.