Savoir-Vivre: Some Thoughts On Culture In A Bowl

This afternoon I’m drinking a Wasatch Devastator Double Bock (creamy, malty, yeasty and bananany) as I simmer diced onion and bacon (Revival Farms) in charred leftover bits of sirloin (Augustus Ranch).


Grounded in the kitchen?  Dwelling and being.  I stir the pan and think through rural America, national parks, salmon on the Columbia River, returning again to sizzling bacon.  The above picture is a farm for sale in Henry County, Kentucky.  This is where Wendell Berry writes from, where his experience as a farmer has shaped his view of agriculture and culture.  In Chapter Four of The Unsettling of America, he addresses food as culture, as Henry County.

My point is that food is cultural product; it cannot be produced by technology alone.  Those agriculturalists who think of the problems of food production solely in terms of technological innovation are oversimplifying both the practicalities of production and the network of meanings and values necessary to define, nurture, and preserve the practical motivations.  That the discipline of agriculture should have been so divorced from other disciplines has its immediate cause in the compartmental structure of the universities, in which complementary, mutually sustaining and enriching disciplines are divided, according to “professions,” into fragmented, one-eyed specialities.  It is suggested, both by the organization of the universities and by the kind of thinking they foster, that farming shall be the responsibility only of the college of agriculture, that law shall be in the sole charge of the professors of law, that morality shall be taken care of by the philosophy department, reading by the English department, and so on.  The same, of course, is true of government, which has become another way of institutionalizing the same fragmentation.

However, if we conceive of a culture as one body, which it is, we see that all of its disciplines are everybody’s business, and that the proper university product is therefore not the whittled-down, isolated mentality of expertise, but a mind competent in all it concerns.  To such a mind it would be clear that there are agricultural disciplines that have nothing to do with crop production, just as there are agricultural obligations that belong to people who are not farmers.

A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity.  A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.  It reveals the human necessities and the human limits.  It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other.  It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.  A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. (43)


Deep within this idea of culture rests a belief in a wholeness, a poesis assured in the making of the world by bringing all of its parts together, further, in never seeing them separate in the first place.  Yet, often fragmentation appears to be the ruling assumption in how knowledge classifies and divides without bringing back together in one body what has been discovered.  The whole does not hold because each separate part exits in an echo chamber, unaware of the realities outside of its voice.  This problem of division and the solution is the subject of an Op-Ed in the New York Times this Sunday (July 6)–Rethinking the Wild, by Christopher Solomon.

The law’s definition of wilderness (maybe you’ve read it on a trailhead sign as you shouldered an over-heavy backpack) reflects the idea of these places as a bulwark against humankind and its thirst for domination: “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  These places of “primeval character” should be maintained, the law says, to preserve their “natural conditions.”  For the last half-century, that let-it-be philosophy has carried the day, with few exceptions.

In recent decades however, several pillars upon which the act was built [Wilderness Act, 1964] have eroded.  One is the idea of “naturalness,” that nature exists in some unadulterated state apart from humans.  Work in paleoecology and other fields has shown that humans have shaped many of the ecosystems on the planet for thousands of years (and not always to their detriment).  Research has also dismantled ideas about a stable, primeval world. Nature is always in flux.

Now comes our jarring latest contribution: climate change, with all its rippling effects, as the planet continues to heat up.

Faced with such a change, “there’s increased recognition that the paradigm has to change,” said Cat Hawkins Hoffman, the national climate change adaptation coordinator for the National Park Service, which manages 40 percent of America’s wilderness acreage.

“The real conundrum is, how much manipulation in wilderness is acceptable in order to protect the values for which wilderness was established,” she added.

In short, we need to accept our role as reluctant gardeners.  (SR 6)

The above photograph of a Joshua Tree in the national park of the same name supplies evidence for Solomon’s argument, where up to 90 percent of these trees could disappear by the end of the 21st century.  As Solomon asks, do we step in?  Do we know what’s best, or always tragically do we exceed our possible understanding?

The idea of working to create or remedy a natural disaster also resonates through Carl Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean, especially in the section on the plight of the salmon; and of course, not just the salmon but Douglas Firs, owls, and humans in Washington, Oregon and California.


Les and Frances Clark live in a place not quite a town, called Chinook.  In their kitchen, where we are sitting, hang two pictures of Celilo Falls, where Les used to fish until water backing up from the The Dalles Dam flooded and buried the falls in 1957.  He’d started fishing in 1943, just a few years after Bonneville, the first and lowest of the big dams went in on the Columbia.  In those days, there were neither sportsfishermen  nor environmentalists.  “The region was young. The farmers liked the young salmon comin’ through the irrigation ditches onto the fields because they said they made good fertilizer.  The smolts came out of the ditches into the fields by the millions.  They still do.”

Fran says, “I know families who are down to their last hundred dollars.  They’re hard workers, but they are in a bad situation.  My youngest son, good fisherman–single parent–was within a week of losing his house recently, before a refinancing came through.  Almost every fisherman I know barely got through the winter, hoping to have a good season in Alaska, hoping that this year it would be better here.  Now we see it will be worse.  I don’t know what some families are going to do.

Les, waving his hands in disgust, offers, “We’ve had a lot agencies and a lot of interagencies working the Columbia Basin for years.  Stacks and stacks of papers and draft papers and all kinds of stuff and studies.  None of it has ever borne any fruit.  You’ve got Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho, the tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the electric industry, the logging industry, the farming industry, the ecology people, and so on and so on.  And you can’t get them to sit down and decide to do something.  They’re all protecting their turf.”  (206-07)


So if integration is the answer, if the university-system of separate disciplines (where I work) should be avoided, if all interests need to see their shared goal and humanity, where can this conversation begin?  Where does an onion meet a pig meet human hands meet art, history and philosophy?  The kitchen.  If we are the cooking animal, if we are what we eat and what we eat is what we cook, if our evolutionary path received a protein-rich bomb by mastering the art and craft of cooking, then what are we doing eating processed food as we watch Iron Chef and gaze longingly at the meals Anthony Bourdain eats in Lyons and Quebec?  Michael Pollan considers.

If cooking is as central to human identity, biology, and culture as Wrangham suggests [Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire], it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have serious consequences for modern life, and so it has.  Are they all bad?  Not at all.  The outsourcing of much of the work of cooking to corporations has relieved women of what has traditionally been their exclusive responsibility for feeding the family, making it easier for them to work outside the home and have careers.  It has headed off many of the conflicts and domestic arguments that such a large shift in gender roles and family dynamics was bound to spark.  It has relieved all sorts of other pressures in the household, including longer workdays and over scheduled children, and saved us time that we can now invest in other pursuits.  It has also allowed us to diversify our diets substantially, making it possible even for people with no cooking skills and little money to enjoy whole different cuisine every night of the week.  All that’s required is a microwave.

These are no small benefits.  Yet, they have come at a cost that we are just now beginning to reckon.  Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking).  They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

The rise of fast food and the decline in home cooking have also undermined the institution of the shared meal, by encouraging us to eat different things and to eat them on the run and often alone.  Survey researchers tell us that we’re spending more time engaged in “secondary eating,” as this more or less constant grazing on packaged foods is now called, and less time engaged in “primary eating”– a rather depressing term for the once-venerable institution known as the meal.

The shared meal is no small thing.  It is the foundation of emily life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.  What has been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism”–its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on–are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.  (7-8)

When we visited Gabriela’s sister and her family in San Diego we cooked meals together and sat down and talked about our interests and lives, caught up on family gossip, debated the World Cup; in other words, we became a family, we practiced a culture.  The bacon, beef and onion along with thyme swims in the chicken stock I’ve been working on for a few days, actually it’s a continuation of the “blood” I achieved in my last post.  Soon, I’ll ladle the stew into bowls and Gabriela, Demian and I will sit out on the back porch and dig into Minecraft, Neymar’s injury, what we’re going to grow in our garden, the usefulness of spiders, all the while bringing our family into being and possibly laying up a store of “culture” that may help return respect and understanding to the farm, determination to working with the wilderness, and compassion for fish and humans struggling to live together.  Maybe the answer is in bowl.




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