Ann Arbor area events encourage participation in changing 'food culture'
I've been thinking about food culture recently. I'm reading two books with food culture as the central theme, and they couldn't be more different. Carolyn Steel's "Hungry City" is about the development of the modern city and the symbiotic relationship of the built environment with food, culture and agriculture.
By contrast, Della Lutes' "Country Kitchen" is a memoir about growing up on a farm south of Jackson, Mich. in the 1800s. Both books lift back the veil on sweeping changes in our food culture over the past 100 years.
Last fall, in search of some of that culture, my husband and I made the long trip up to the Leelanau Peninsula (aka Michigan's pinkie finger) to visit Kilcherman's Christmas Cove an heirloom orchard with over 200 antique apple varieties. I had a hunch they would have Ashmead's Kernel, for what might be my only chance to taste this small, knobbly, utterly delicious and endangered apple described by Carolyn Steel in "Hungry City." Steel's description of the apple's development and ultimate demise is the story in a nutshell of the corporatization of all our food.
At one time, the U.S. boasted more than 14,000 named varieties of apples. Now only about a dozen are commonly available. Everyone knows Red Delicious, that rock hard, insipid sugar lump, and the new Honey Crisp, remarkable in its similarity to the older Macintosh but enjoying huge popularity thanks to an incredible marketing campaign.
But who remembers Ashmead's Kernel, or the Shiawassee Beauty, developed in Michigan?
We've gone from incredible regional diversity and specialization in usage to a breathtakingly systemic leveling to what is fast, cheap and easy. Apples we can buy now are the lowest common denominator of what is shelf stable, easy to transport and inoffensive in taste.
Carolyn Steel argues that the groundwork for corporatized food was laid in the late 1800s, when "successive waves of Irish, Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Poles landed on American shores from the 1880s onwards, (and) a desperate search began for a common food acceptable to all. Many felt obliged to 'Americanise' their native cookery by taking out all the interesting bits — talian garlic, German blood sausage, Hungarian paprika — that might offend others.
"The result was a lowest-common-denominator cuisine, devoid of character or flavor, whose only saving grace was the vast quantities of fresh meat it contained; something few immigrants had enjoyed back home. As people began to eat larger portions, they also began to add more of the only flavor enhancers — salt, sugar and fat — offensive to no one."
It's not just the food itself that is now inoffensive and "Americanised." Where and how we eat has also changed. A 2006 study by the Economic Research Service of the USDA finds that "the away-from-home market grew to account for about half of total food expenditures in 2004, up from 34 percent in 1974."
It's all but impossible to find an Ashmead's Kernel apple, but you can now get apples pre-cut and wrapped at fast food joints. So what if kids don't recognize a potato that's not a french fry. Fast food, omnipresent on our streets and in our neighborhoods, is now showing up in grocery stores. Their miles of hot bars relieve us from ever having to cook.
Steel says "to reduce any foodstuff to a commodity is to miss the point. It is food culture we need to be worrying about preserving, and that means everything that surrounds food, not just food itself. If we lose sight of that, we might just as well get all our nourishment in tablet form and have done with it."
It's true — meals that come in tablet form were supposed to be here around the same time as rocket cars. I haven't seen a brochure for either yet.
By contrast, "The Country Kitchen" is all about life when food was at the center of every day's activity. Growing food, preparing food, and eating food were the main aspects of human interaction and culture in southern Michigan 100 years ago.
That way of life is mostly gone now, and we have to look for ways to participate in our food culture now. It seems like often we're forced to rage against corporate hegemony, persuading the FDA to give us the right to know what's in our food. Or telling Governor Snyder that the Michigan DNR has gone too far in outlawing heritage breed pigs with the Invasive Species Order.
But it struck me that this coming week, with a surprising number of food-related events, is an encouraging example of the re-development of food culture in our area and of the positive things that are happening around it. I'm planning to participate in a number of these events. Are you?
Tilian Farm Development Center 2012 Kick-off
When: Saturday, March 31, 2012, 6:30-9 p.m.
Where: 4400 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor
Washtenaw Food Hub Outdoor Cleanup Day
When: Saturday March 31, 2012, 1-3 p.m.
Where: 4175 Whitmore Lake Rd., Ann Arbor
Help with outdoor tidying up at the Washtenaw Food Hub — raking, trimming and general picking up — can be done by all ages. Bring hat, gloves, water and a snack to share.
From 6-8 p.m.
- Film Screening/Spoken Word/Conversation: "Getting Real About Food and the Future" and "Thought for Food" featuring Lucas DiGia, and Walter "Soul" Lacey
- Location: Towsley Auditorium, Morris Lawrence Bldg., Washtenaw Community College, 4800 E. Huron River Dr., Ann Arbor
- Map: http://bit.ly/Api8jV
Preserving Traditions - Bulk purchasing: Where to buy, how to store, and who to share with
When: Sunday April 1, 2-4:30 p.m.
Where: Pittsfield Grange, 3337 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd., Ann Arbor
Buying in bulk saves money and time, and can make local and/or organic purchases more feasible. Come learn where to find bulk grocery items like flour, beans, rice, and pasta. We'll also discuss where and how long to store it all, where to find inexpensive storage containers, and protection from pests and spoilage. The last part of the meeting, we'll discuss a large bulk purchase. Hopefully, we'll place an order which will be picked up and distributed at the Grange a week or two after the workshop. Bring your checkbook if you plan to participate in the purchase.
Local Food Summit
When: Monday, April 2, 2012, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Washtenaw Community College
A day of networking with food system stakeholders, and for finding inspiration in local efforts to create a healthy, just and sustainable regional food system for all.
The American Way of Eating talk and book signing by Tracie McMillan, author of the newly released New York Times bestseller
When: Wednesday, April 4, 2012, noon-1:30 p.m.
Where: Room 1030 CASL Building, University of Michigan-Dearborn
Directions and Campus Map: http://www.umd.umich.edu/maps_directions
The New York Times compares McMillan's book to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and says "This is a voice the food world needs." The book addresses issues of food production, poverty and low wage work.
For her book McMillan worked in the fields of Central Valley, Calif. in Wal-Marts near Kalamazoo and Metro Detroit and at an Applebee's in New York City. She critically comments on Detroit's 'food desert' status and she talks about the role of urban agriculture in sustaining Detroit's food system. She's a native of Michigan and grew up in the Holly area.
Sponsored by the UM-Dearborn Center for Labor and Community Studies, Office of the Provost “Text in Community” Series, and the Urban and Regional Studies Program. For more information call: 313-583-6400.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.