Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Agriculture and culture

There's linguistic beauty in the way the word agriculture wraps around "culture" at its core.

Ethnic foods are particularly good at illustrating the connection. Attending a Mennonite Relief Sale recently, I was surrounded by crowds enjoying the chance to eat rare traditional foods and interact within a unique sub-culture. Words of greeting at such an event run along the lines of “Are you Marvin Neufeld’s son? I’m Paul Penner’s sister…” followed by standard farmer talk such as “Are you dry out your way?” rapidly devolving into a subtle contest over who is drier. (“We did get two inches back in September, but it’s all gone now…” “Well, we’re still waiting on our two inches.”) As the daughter of a Mennonite-raised farmer, I already know it is always too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold, on every farm.

Traditional German Mennonite food is stout, starchy and somewhat bland. The pre-eminent challenge traditionally wasn’t the aesthetics of looking sleek but surviving with enough energy left over to do hard physical work. Meat and potatoes, sausage and bratwurst, verenikas blanketed in white cream gravy (pan-fried pockets of dough stuffed with dried cottage cheese) New Year’s cookies (fried donut-like dumplings) and tart cherry mousse (a pudding made with flour, cream and sugar) are common iterations. One of the healthier dishes is the homemade sauerkraut; cabbage was often the closest my ancestors came to getting their greens. The dietary world has changed, obviously, but these are foods flavored by memories, passed on as a cherished inheritance.

(A note about the German sausage: it makes a great partner with the big gorgeous head of cabbage from Marcy Nameth and the boys at Greenhorn Acres. Add in a little diced Applewood smoked bacon, chopped red onion, cherry tomatoes — is there anything on earth better than a cherry tomato? — chunked up baked winter squash, grated cheddar and rosemary... maybe my new favorite herb, in part because it thrives in winter. I’ve also turned some of the cabbage into a simple slaw for making fish tacos with flaky chunks of halibut from Ranch Foods Direct topped with chile-flecked peach chutney, an ode to our wonderfully long Indian summer.)

Memories make food taste special: I went on a quest this fall to find a Hubbard squash for my mom, who fondly remembers my grandmother growing and baking them on their farm in North Dakota. In recent weeks, I lugged around the big oblong blue-tinged gourd the size of a turkey before finally delivering it to mom's kitchen. (Susan Gordon at Venetucci Farm warned me not to leave it outside or in my car where it might freeze.) A home gardener, cook and canner (also the product of a Mennonite upbringing), mom recently invited me to a saved seed exchange in her rural community featuring a woman who has managed to preserve ancient strains of native purple corn and calico-colored beans. The theme of food as connected to a culture, as a window on the past that might help us make a better future, seems to spring up everywhere.

I have to wonder if the amount of interest in Ranch Foods Direct's recent small-scale slaughtering demonstration, hosted by Venetucci Farm, is another example of the hunger people have to connect food with a context, with people they can meet and talk to, with work that they can understand and participate in and even learn to do themselves. As the great animal welfare pioneer Temple Grandin says of her recent book and movie promotion tours, people are genuinely curious and interested in how food gets from the farm to the table. One basic lesson of seeing a 1,000 lb. animal slaughtered is to understand the enormity of the undertaking, that the lives that keep us fed can't be taken for granted.

Then there's Emma Piper-Burket, a filmmaker I heard about recently who is making the connection between food and culture by asking important questions about what is happening in Iraq, birthplace of the world’s wheat. Why is the original breadbasket now forced to import grain? Her Iraqi Seed Project explores threats common to every agrarian-based economy, explains why so many food and agricultural traditions are becoming a rare treat, rather than a vital part of the fabric, in modern culture.