Food histories, philosophies and complexities

| February 15, 2011

Has healthy eating today become synonymous with reading Michael Pollan books, being a vegan or paying a lot for “organic” food?

Braided heirloom corn from family fields. This corn will continue to dry and be used as a food source.

The answer to this is complex. There is much to be said of popular journalists like Pollan whose work has reached many in the U.S. who otherwise may not have become conscientious about the role of industry in food production, which has had damaging social, economic, environmental and health results. Understanding food sources and processes is undeniably a good thing—to know where your food comes from and to teach others, like your own family and children, to also question and explore.

Harvesting white corn at my family farm in Peru

However, while watching a recent Oprah episode where Pollan was a guest and Oprah staff were challenged to go vegan for a week, I was struck by two thoughts, like little lighbulbs going off above my head. Mind you, these thoughts are tangents that actually have very little to do with Pollan whose investigative approach to some of the biggest diet problems of our time is highly influential. The first thought I had was when Pollan asserted that American tradition has historically included eating meat—“we are big meat-eaters in this country, we always have been”—which is why he believed many Americans struggle with the idea of not eating meat. Pollan’s personal choice was to eat meat provided by sustainable farmers who could offer naturally-raised alternatives to the current standard of hormone-infused, questionably raised animals. While the number of conscientious farmers in both rural and urban contexts grows, hopefully setting a new standard, the notion of any singular American historical tradition begs the question—whose tradition?

A meat rack in Little Italy, New York (I think for St. Anthony's celebration)

The second issue I was struck by was that in making an argument for veganism, Oprah’s guest Kathy Freston pointed out that Pollan’s selection of meat was not affordable for many—to which Oprah responded jokingly that she could afford it. The problem is that many of us, especially those with large families, single-parent households and others struggling with the ups and downs (and waaaay downs) of our economy, cannot consistently afford these options.

In no way is this intended to be a diatribe against Pollan, Oprah or Freston. But what these little lightbulbs intend to point out is that 1) There is a disparity between good food and cost and 2) There is a long history of food practices often swallowed up or marginalized by the notion of any singular American tradition. For example, in the Americas, which include Canada, the U.S., Central and South America, there are long-standing cultural traditions where meat was historically not the staple of daily diets. While we are all impacted in some way (some more than others) to issues of access, affordability and conscientiousness about food, I believe we also need to look for the strengths in all of our communities that are reminders of existing and potential resistance to industrial food monocultures. It’s important to be aware of and open to the understanding that conscientiousness comes in many forms and traditions that are part of the fabric of these lands.

Bison at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Wild bison was an ancestral food source for many American Indian peoples.

For example, many Indigenous communities represent sites where the worst violations of human relationships with food have occurred and where the best practices in food conscientiousness can be found side by side. Working with Indigenous communities in North and South America, and being an Indigenous person from Peru, I have seen how our disconnect from food traditions for various reasons has resulted in our deteriorating physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. But I have also seen food traditions maintained and revitalized where conscientiousness is ingrained in amazing cultural practices. For example, in my community in the highland Andes, we raise animals from birth, care for them, love them, work alongside them. Children in my community are raised with a sense of responsibility for small to large animals and develop empathy as a result. We believe that every living thing merits our respect and attention—from our water sources to our trees and mountains, to the very crops we plant. Furthermore, in my community, eating meat is not a daily affair. We prefer grains, corn, vegetables, legumes, potatoes. Meat is reserved for special occasions.

Anishinaabe fishermen will set out to spear walleye during spring each year, exercising their treaty rights with the U.S. government.

In other parts of the Indigenous Americas, the process of hunting for meat is seasonal, carefully planned and involves various traditions that bring together family and community and where respect is demonstrated through offerings made to the animals. Nothing is ever supposed to be just taken. For example, among Algonkian peoples, stories are told of the beautiful gifts of life that each living creature, from plants to animals, made at the time of creation of human beings. These stories serve as cultural markers for Indigenous people that remind us of the instructions provided to us by our ancestors—how to live well with everything around us.

Amazing artwork by Ojibwe painter Rabbett Strickland. Title: Assimilation. Citation: http://www.rabbettstricklandgiclees.com/artwork.htm

These beliefs were prevalent prior to the subjugation of Indigenous peoples in the Americas, and understanding this history shows us just how deep attacks on food traditions can be. For example, during different periods in history, Indigenous peoples in the U.S. were forced to give up their lands, religious practices, their lifestyles and even their children to make way for settler expansion and domination where Indigenous people were considered sub-human. Starting in the 19th century, entire Indigenous hunting, fishing, farming and gathering societies were forced onto reservations where they were not allowed to leave and made to be dependent upon government rations of processed foods. Known as commodities, these foods, many of which were given to starving people, were not only often rotten, but also a complete departure from the natural way of living Indigenous people had known for thousands of years.

The proposal for Indigenous people to reclaim their foods has been strongly made by Indigenous scholars, researchers and community members, as instrumental to a process known as decolonization, or resisting, reclaiming and rebuilding Indigenous communities.

Given these histories, it’s not hard to see why the notion of what is American tradition needs a lot of work. We need to understand how diverse cultures, including Indigenous communities, have been impacted by past and present attacks on their food systems, while simultaneously recognizing that “tradition” is made up of lots cultures—European, Asian, Latin American, African, and so forth—that carry histories and lessons that we can all share.

My absolute favorite: Indian pies and cookies made by my dear friend's mother for a Jemez Pueblo feast day

Today, in spite of our difficult histories, Indigenous communities in the Americas still exercise traditions that assert strong beliefs about land and foods. We offer our prayers and our actions to demonstrate that we still remember how to live carefully. Yes, we have been invaded for a very long time by non-foods, Western chemicals and now GMOs, but we also have within our communities generationally-perpetuated ways of nurturing foods. And these ways do not cost a lot, just our time, just our participation.

Wild rice just harvested by canoe by Wisconsin Anishinaabe men. The rice is considered one of the sacred foods of the Anishinaabe and will nourish many families throughout the year.

You may be thinking that regardless, it does cost more to produce real food in the U.S., especially with an organic label. But isn’t it interesting that what is considered normal (as in naturally-produced foods) in Indigenous communities like mine, is so prized now by wealthier post-industrial societies? Just as important as asking how we’ve gotten away from these practices is asking why we’ve gotten so far away. We have only to examine our histories, including both how we’ve been targeted and how we’ve resisted, to start learning some answers.

I would argue that it’s not necessarily about the price tag. Our food issues require more than trying to be conscientious about food through learning about its sources and critiquing unsustainable agribusiness. What is required is a re-examination of our history, our humanity, our cultural philosophies, and our own daily practices where our beliefs are enacted in order to remember that we all have instructions rooted somewhere that remind us how to live well with each other and our earth.

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Category: Featured Articles: Food Politics, Food Politics, Mexico, Lat & South America, Travel & Culture, US & Canada

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  1. Veg-Head « rogiemac | March 3, 2011
  1. This blog is pure prose! It has to be one of the very very very best blogs I receive. Love your work. Love the way your write. Love the content and photos. Well I guess that means, I just love it!
    Hugs,
    Pen

  2. Simply Life says:

    Great info/feedback – I didn’t see that episode but have heard about it all over the blogworld and am so interested by all the different reactions!

  3. How beautiful. What an amazing post. So much to chew on here – it’s brilliant.

  4. Thought provoking, as always! I think it’s up to us as individuals to make choices and changes that are within our means. That may mean eating less meat, going purely vegan, starting a backyard garden, etc. Generally, one change leads to another, and so on…theresa

  5. Biren says:

    Great write up! While many people would like to eat meat and vegetables by sustainable farmers, sadly cost can be the determining factor.

  6. rebecca says:

    good post get back to basics less processed food