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Lessons in food and life

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

I recently went to the rolling and colorful hills of Vermont. It was a lovely trip replete with fall colors, old friends, new friends, farmstead parties, fabulous food, and a multitude of conversations with activists in the local food-security movement. 

It is not for nothing that Hardwick, Vermont, has been called '"The The place buzzes with high hopes and hard work. These folks ain't gentlemen farmers. Nope, there’s dirt under those fingernails, and sun on those necks. These are folks who put their shovel where their mouth is, and I dig it.  

There is nothing new to this culture of small-scale farming in Vermont. Or, rather, it has a long history. Vermont once had a thriving dairy industry, but like many small thriving industries, it was replaced by a BIG thriving industry that could not be bothered with all the incidental needs of small farmers. Economies of scale, or rather BIG economies of BIG scale — the type that allow for “good deals” on your grocery shelf — prioritize differently. Social and environmental concerns are not high on the list, if they make it there at all.

I’m not saying anything new. We, as an enlightened consumer class, understand how paying more, or simply what is fair, will support small farmers and producers who likely cannot, will not, cut costs at any point in their system. As a result, producers within small-scale systems will not be able to offer you a good deal as much as a beautiful one. Which is not to dismiss the double bind. No, let's be honest: Small is not only beautiful (to borrow a phrase from the Schumacher Foundation), it can be expensive.

[%image marilyn float=right width=300 caption="Marilyn, the newest member of the University of Grandmothers."]

This is not a rant about sticker shock at the farmers' market, nor an investigation into the inherent elitism (if that is the word) of the local and sustainable movement. We are well past such discussions. It is still true, however, that the quest for thriving farms and main streets comes with a cost that those of us holed up in our apartments or homes with two sticks and a prayer can relate to. Talk about small economies — anyone look in their wallet lately? 

So while many of us want and do support all the goodness that comes with smallness, we are feeling a certain belt-tightening that makes a five-pound bag of potatoes for $2 look pretty damn good. Which brings me to the very best part of my trip to Vermont and my conversation with Marilyn, the newest member of the University of Grandmothers.

I wrote about the University of Grandmothers in my book. It is a phrase I once heard Vandana Shiva use, and it has stuck in my head and heart ever since. 

It suggests a lifetime of knowledge and experience, along with a show-don’t-tell ethic that we, of the blogging world, don’t quite get. I mean, who, after a season or two, cannot write about making jam or pickles, raising chickens, and growing food in meaningful and important prose advocating for the “life”? Not to dismiss the overture, but old-timers who really know what the hell we are talking about we are not. Or at least I am not, which is why when I meet a grandmother, I get humble and listen.   

At age 79, Marilyn had a remarkable life story. Besides the six children (five in five years, if you can fathom that), she spoke of living low to the ground in a way that I cannot really imagine. Her family grew, raised, and put up darn near all their food, and had a small dairying operation that served as their cash crop. (Until, that is, the logic of BIG economies of BIG scale discarded their efforts.) 

To think there isn't a clear and radical articulation of the breakdown of America’s farming system out there is to imagine, as we kids will do, that we invented radical thought. But that is not so. Our elders have felt the pressure and consequences of BIG for quite some time, and have responded in ways that seem to elude our sophisticated conversations about “resilience” (today’s favorite word). Which must have been why Marilyn’s simple and obvious expression of stewardship rocked my world.  

We had very little, Marilyn said, but “we knew how to be poor.”

OMG if that did not strike a chord.

Walking through her pantries, jotting down her lists of foods put up in a year, talking about the varieties of produce she grows (she had her Fedco catalog close at hand), and learning of her tricks of the trade (each grandmother has a few), I thought about being poor. I thought about what it means, and how many of us are feeling just like that these days. I thought about the skills required to do it well — to be poor with dignity, poor with meals on the table, poor with enough to pay for the rent. These are real concerns for so many, and my own attention goes there on a daily basis. Marilyn thinks about it too, because she’s afraid folks aren’t prepared.  

“I don’t know what folks are going to do,” she said “because they don’t know how to be poor.”

[%image jars float=left width=400 caption="Marilyn's larder."]

She went on to tell me stories of the local food pantry set up to help those in need. Evidently people came for everything but that bag of potatoes or big hefty winter squash. They left good food, she said; they wanted things in cans or mixes. One woman wanted instant pudding, but would not take the stuff in the box that you had to mix with milk and cook. That was too much work; she wanted the stuff in cups that was already made. 

Marilyn just shook her head. She was worried. Really worried. I thought about it, too. What are we going to do? Clearly the question is topical to the times.

If the Occupy movement is saying nothing else, it is that people are feeling the pain. They are out in the streets speaking of the pain, and sometimes I am there with them. But at the end of the day, I always wonder what to do in the here and now. Yes, ask the masters of the universe (aka the masters of BIG economies of very BIG scale) to give up mammon. Yes, raise a fist at the utter disregard, criminality, and entitlement that went with the greed. Yes, demand regulations and a comeuppance that can only be seen as just. All this must and should be done. But while we are waiting for the audacity of hope to take hold, I wonder if it is not high time that we follow Marilyn’s tactic and learn the elegance and skills involved in being poor.

I am not speaking of the type of poor the makes you want to hide in shame or poverty as a wrong-side-of-the-tracks social condition that we imagine we can fix by stigmatizing and subsidizing it with endless hurdles and disregard. This is not the type of thrift that embarrasses you, or your children, as you walk in your coat of many colors. This is proud poor, low-to-the-ground poor, post-carbon poor. This is radical poor, and we need to respect it, embrace it, and teach it. 

Yes, some people are caught in the ugly poverty of classism and racism and social marginalization and, as a result, feel the endless longing for stuff that is beyond their reach. Make no mistake, however: advocates of BIG, BIG scale economies and systems have made book (as they say in Bronx betting parlors) on the longing. They have been betting long and short on the debt that longing has incurred. I’ll not go into the hows and whys, but do not imagine otherwise. BIG has made book on the longing and need of the least of these; it always has. Which is, again, what you are seeing out there in the streets these days. People have been had, and they are just waking up to how badly. If not for themselves, then for their brothers and sisters here and across the world. 

Which is also why, along with the protests, I think we need to learn how to live in different economies, small economies, the smallest of economies, the economies of the home. Just so. 

h4. Home ec

These days we are beginning to hear the call for home economics to be taught in schools again, and I salute the notion. But what will it look like? 

Little is out there that speaks of the skills I am thinking about, if only for good, or rather logical, reasons.

It is my position that the marginalization and demise of home economics as a respected discipline has tracked, and run concurrent to, the marginalization of small-scale farming in America. Just as BIG foisted an ethic of industrial farming into the lives of farmers, so did it offer industrial foods to the farmers' wives. 

Run that forward a century or so, and you discover an ethic that considers homemaking (and thereby home economics) antiquated at best and sexist at worse. We are now citizens of the upwardly mobile class, and have better things to do with our lives. We have bigger horizons, bigger dreams, bigger lives. And, as it can happen, bigger debts. Which is why home economics became a joke of sorts. Who wanted to learn cooking and homemaking skills? Who was ever home? Fair enough. But here we are, fat and broke and calling upon the revival of home economics to save us. 

[%image virginia float=right width=300 caption="Virginia of 'Virginia's Pantry'."]

When thinking about what a new home-economics curriculum might look like, I imagine it is more than cooking that must be taught. I think about the University of Grandmothers and what they have taught me over the years. I think about what I have taught others in my back yard, ever aware that I knew a little but not much. I think about how to expand what I know and the future and whether I can get Marilyn and my good friend Virginia (as in Virginia’s Pantry) and Mrs. Hatch (who gave me her green-tomato mincemeat recipe) to teach. 

I think about all the other fabulous elders who knew, and know, how to be poor, and I wonder if there is time enough to get their stories, their tips, their teachings. More importantly, I wonder if any of us are willing to live as they do.

Will we be willing to go backwards and unwind the narratives of our culture that suggested upward and out was the best way to live? Can we unwind our perception of ourselves as consumers — local, sustainable, or otherwise? Will we know what to do with ourselves if we are not out shopping or eating or being seen? Will we embrace budgeting and the know-how to distribute our small holdings to the small holders of the land as they, along with us, rub two sticks together attempting to live close to the ground in small economies of scale that will always, only, forever, leave us feeling poor — proud poor, if we can manage it?   

[%image mrshatch float=left width=300 caption="Mrs. Hatch, another member of the faculty."] 

I wonder about the history we all share and think how that, too, must be offered in the new home-ec curriculum. It is the history of an economy we have all participated in. It is a history and economy that will take a minute to unwind. Along with all that jam and pickles and cute chicken coops and eggs, along with the protests and the occupations, we must learn the history of small if we are to undo BIG, or at least BIG’s control over our lives and planet. I believe we must remove ourselves from what BIG likes to offer: “good deals” in lieu of the beautiful ones we are hoping for. 

In the end, I believe we must learn how to be poor again. So hail the new proud and beautiful poor. Hail the small things. Hail the University of Grandmothers and a revolutionary guide to home economics. 

These days, I am dreaming of inviting the grandmothers to come this summer to teach in grange halls near you. If not them, then tomorrow's grandmothers today. May we make them proud.

jars, l

reference-image, l

mrshatch, l

virginia, l

marilyn, l