Last year I made a clear choice about how I wanted to approach 2022. I wanted to live. Live without overthinking, live without feeling scared, live without taking a (reasonable) risk. And so I traveled, I celebrated turning forty, I made some big decisions about what I wanted out of my life going forward. I had some unexpected experiences that forced me to adapt, change, and approach relationships and the status quo in a different way. I wrote 50,000 words for a novel I continue to dream about. And while I wasn’t always successful I realized that it was all right to take the unexpected path to reach my destination.
However, within all that self-reflection and acceptance, there was one thing missing. When I started working with a coach in January 2022 we talked about what I wanted next for my life. Some of it was talking about what I didnot want, while other goals were more specific.
But what was a clear through line on the other side of the equation was a desire to be of service to others. And while I know that as a volunteer board member for the National Council on Public History I serve our members and the field, that work is still, in essence, tied to the way I have shaped my life around my profession.
Over the last ten years I have shared—on or around January 1st—a vision for my future. These have never been ordinary resolutions. Instead I wrote mantras, hopes, and wishes for what I want my life to stand for, what I want it to mean. More often than not I talked about taking risks and leaps, harnessing optimism, searching for kindness, and in some of our tougher years, encouraged myself to dig deep for a well of defiance.
Earlier this week, as I continued to think about how to approach this piece, I saw a suggestion (by an old high school friend) to not look to resolutions, but rather to make a list of things you were proud of in 2021. So here’s my list:
We all know it wasn’t an easy year, but unlike 2020 it had moments of brightness made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. I know taking a vaccine is an odd thing to list as an accomplishment, but when belief in our ability as humans to take care of each other feels like a challenge, taking the three shots in 2021 felt like something I could do not only for myself, but for others. More selfishly, taking the vaccine allowed me to hug family, and friends, and to fly across the country to meet my new nephew just days after he was born.
Happy Thanksgiving! As we head on into the long weekend I thought it would be nice to think about food and foodways as a lead in to an event I attended at Woodlawn, the importance of our latest National Monument at Fort Monroe, and a review of a book about the evolution of a particular hearth and home.
A few days ago I learned that my professor from this course, Barbara Carson, had passed away, and so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned from her.
Food can tell us a lot of things about the past. On one level we learn about diets—how our ancestors (or grandparents even) got their nutrition. We learn about how advances in canning and preservatives allowed food from California to be eaten in Vermont. And with more and more advances in transportation commodities like tea, sugar, salt, and spices became less of a luxury and more accessible—removing these items as limited only to the rich.
How this food was prepared gives us insight into familial roles—and the role of mealtimes in the cult of domesticity. We learned more about how that expectation changed, and the how advent of TV dinners moved families from the dinner table to the couch.
This was on my mind when I attended the second annual “Vices that Made Virginia” program at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA. A National Trust property, this fund raiser was put on by Arcadia: Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture —a non-profit organization bringing farming back to Woodlawn while educating children and adults on how food comes from the farm to the table.
The program itself was set up to highlight Virginia vices: cigars, bourbon, wine and of course the fresh produce, while introducing visitors to the farm and the historic site where it lay. It was, in one word, delicious.
Thinking about local food, and eating local harvests is a current trend in being sustainable not only economically but also in establishing a healthy lifestyle. It is a matter of looking back into our pasts and recognizing that sometimes the best things to eat is in your backyard.
Professor Carson’s course gave me a foundation to understand the shifts in thinking about how we eat, when we eat, and why we eat…what we eat. She also provided me with the essential underpinnings on how to look at material culture and find meaning. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Designating a National Monument
A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. This mini-conference was a brainstorming session, a place for attendees to envision a way to save a piece of history that is not often talked about: the history of the contraband.
In short, in May 1861, a little over a month following the shots at Fort Sumter a trio of slaves ran away to Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. When they arrived, the general, Benjamin Butler,chose to hold the runaways (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) as “contraband” rather then honor the Fugitive Slave Law and return them to their owner in the Confederacy. By the end of the war half a million formerly enslaved people had looked for freedom in the same way. Their legacy, which included camps in and around Washington, DC hastened Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery. [Learn more]
Political affiliations aside, this is a “win” for everyone. I know that we are in turmoil—that finding common ground between the left and the right is a place that our politicians can’t seem find. In designating Fort Monroe as a national monument, President Obama (in my opinion, of course) emphasized how important our cultural heritage is in our identity as Americans—not merely as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. That is, finding common ground may involve taking a risk that will make our country stronger.
Forty years ago, historians came together to look at American history through different eyes: the eyes of women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Today, we are still working towards that goal—looking at “the forgotten” and telling their story. This National Monument at Fort Monroe is one more step in the right direction–recognizing the wide breath of stories in the American past
Reviewing At Home
Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s a book that came out a few years ago that looks at a particular home, his home to be exact, and searches for the histories of particular rooms. I’ve read Bryson before (A Walk in the Woods), and have liked his meandering tales. However, this wasn’t quite what I expected.
It’s not that it wasn’t in the same style as his other books. He uses the house—an old rectory in England—as a touchstone in telling broader stories about social changes in European architecture, family life and industry. But I had hoped for something a little bit more….structured.
I know, I know. Having read Bryson before I should have known better—but it was a little disconcerting at times to go from talking about a bedroom or a kitchen to the history of bedbugs and then to a discussion on funerary arrangements and graveyards.
That minor disappointment aside, At Home is one example of how a broader story can be told through a particular structure. Certainly not the first to use this mechanism, however it provides insights into how rooms can spark interest in the unexpected.
And with that I would like to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, (shop local), and live large.
I can’t believe that April is nearly at an end. In a month that saw prep work for THE BIG EVENT in less than three weeks, and the NCPH conference in Pensacola I also had a quick, mini-vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona. While we spent a good amount of time by the pool enjoying the warmth (it was still very chilly in DC, something that is no longer the case) there was an opportunity for some good eats, hiking, and a moment to take in a historic house tour.
I’ll be honest and say that this trip had an agenda–it was my sisters bachelorette party–and the goal was relax, relax, relax. So while we did take a lovely hike up Camelback mountain (you can see me in the slideshow sporting my PreservationNation.org shirt) the rest of the time pretty much just involved….
While in Scottsdale we ate at a lot of places. I did want to take a second to mention that as great as the food at Deseo was , the private mixology class where we learned how to make three different types of mohitos was fascinating–historically speaking of course. The instructor gave us a brief history of the drink and explained the different variations of rum and how they are developed. From some of the courses I took on foodways I remember thinking about the different regions of the world that make the liquor and how the histories of those nations were affected and transformed by production. Specifically the history of sugar and the slave trade. If you want a really good book about the subject check out Sydney Mintz’s work Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
In addition to perfect weather, this restaurant had amazing southwestern/Mexican cuisine. Built from a 75 year old Adobe, diners at the Old Town Tortilla Factory sit in the open air. I would recommend getting the green enchiladas.
Brunch at Cafe Zu Zu was the perfect way to start our leisure filled Saturday. It also gave me an excuse to visit a very chic modernist hotel (part of the Historic Hotels of America collection). With awesome chandeliers, and a pretty trendy lobby–I thoroughly enjoyed my french toast. If you love mid-century modernist hotels I recommend visiting the Valley Ho–or just read about its past.
Our first stop when we landed was getting some food at Olive and Ivy. Despite it being the hottest day of the year (so far) in the area, we decided to sit outside. While we tried a lot of different food–the Sweet Corn and Tomato Flatbread was (to me at least) the star of the meal.
Earlier this week I posted this post over at PreservationNation about the perfect house tour. It stemmed from my general dissatisfaction of a tour I had received at Taliesin West. I wanted to elaborate on this a little. For me the typical house tour is symbolic of a time when great men dominated our history lessons. So while many tours work very hard to look “downstairs” or interpret slave quarters occasionally you get to a tour that hasn’t quite made the leap.
Now of course, the difference with Taliesin West is its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on American architecture–but the same principals apply. Instead of trying so hard to convince the captive audience of his greatness, the tour may have been better if his concepts and ideas were relayed narratively, using the house and the school to illustrate the points. Instead, as an audience member, the conversation felt a little condescending. Rather than talk about the school in a way that talked curriculum and how it uses Wright”s vision to train new architects, we got discussions of accreditation and how many students are accepted. It felt, at times, much like an advertisement for applicants rather than a story of Wright’s legacy–continuing on beyond his lifetime. I am willing to concede, as I mention in the post above, that the temperature may have contributed to the ineffectiveness of our guide–or that it was a particular off day–but when you feel like the hour long tour could have been concluded in half the time, there is a problem.
The tour aside, if you do have a chance to visit this masterpiece do so. Every angle produces a new vision — of sky, water, stone against Arizona’s natural landscape. A is for Arizona–which means it was absolutely amazing.
Note: Speaking of historic moments. While we were in AZ, some of the party attendees stayed up all night to watch the final cricket match of the cricket world cup between India and Sri Lanka. At this moment the Indian team was playing against a team that had dominated the series, while they had fought tooth and nail to make it to the end. It was a team that had not made the finals since the year I was born (1982). While very much an important part of Indian culture, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in witnessing the exciting win–and felt like I was a part of a nationwide moment of joy. So I say Bravo India!
…and this one is the last. As always NCPH brought with it a meeting of minds, and a reminder of why I love history so much. The commitment and passion that comes with this yearly gathering forces me to look at how I work, and how I see the past with different tools and audiences. Often, I leave with a lot of great ideas, without enough time to bring them to fruition–and I would love for this year to be different. Specifically, I am excited about the next five years and what the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this morning with shots being fired at Fort Sumter) will mean for the growth of historical discourse and memory in this country. How can we look to and learn from other commemorations to make sure that this volatile and game-changing period of America’s past is understood to its full measure?
It’s an exciting time for public history–and I am proud and exhilarated to be a part of it.
Food. Food. Food.
What would a blog post about my travels be without a conversation about food. While I did eat at various places in the Historic Pensacola Village, there are three that I wanted to highlight
Dolce in Historic Pensacola Village: I really should only have to type out the following words–home made ice cream. With chocolate flavored with beer, or vanilla with fig each of the flavors at this store were great to eat. Especially in the lovely spring weather. The fact that it is located inside one of the Village’s restored homes makes it even better.
Five Sisters Blues Cafe: The marquee at the left may give you an idea of what the ambiance of this cafe was like. With live blues music, and perfect fried chicken and macaroni I was left in a puddle of southern home cooking goodness. I ate far too much for my own good, but would tell you that even if you eat until you can’t eat any more, you must try the mashed potatoes.
Nacho Daddies: I know the name is slightly ridiculous, but I loved the pineapple-mango salsa on my vegetarian/chicken tacos. It’s a great, independent fast food place with an excellent vibe. The sopapilla‘s were flaky and sweet and complimented the light nature of the tacos.
The last time I came to Austin it was a whirlwind—a quick cab ride to the city with an hour for the state capitol (majestic dome etched in color, open, expansive), and forty minutes for the Lyndon Johnson library (exterior—an image in white, interior thoughtful, humorous, inspiring). Both sites I would recommend to anyone coming to this city.
In short—the Texas state capitol is easily summed up in one word. Awesome. The architecture is phenomenal, and it apparently is one of the few capitol buildings that stands taller than the National Capitol in Washington, DC. Nearby on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin is the LBJ Library—a building that includes an animatronic LBJ cracking his trademark jokes, while one floor beneath is a testament to his work on civil rights in this country. This library, if anything, emphasizes just how complex one man could be—and how he has the power to effect so much.
This trip has been a bit leisurely in that I still have plenty of time to see the city, and instead spent time setting up for the swarms of preservationists descending on this city. I have, however, eaten well
Moonshine Grill (Apparently the Trout is fantastic, I loved my chicken Almondine).
Polvos—a Mexican food place in the South Congress area. Chicken Enchilada with Mole, be still my heart.
Sixth street feels a little bit like Nashville’s main drag—music piping out of every building (though I heard it is the place to hang out for the students of UT). And the bat’s are only a few blocks away.
I also stopped by the Driskill Hotel (a member of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels Program). The building as a whole is pretty cool, but I loved the wood paneling on the ceiling, the mustangs and the glass domes on the interior. I also think it is pretty cool that it is the site of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson’s first date and, like many old hotels, might be haunted.
More to come: Tonight is the opening plenary and reception so I’ll be tweeting up a storm—and will report back if I can by early tomorrow. In case you haven’t heard yet you can also watch the opening plenary live. It will be streaming on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s webpage (www.preservationnation.org).
More pictures from the conference will be uploaded here (and on the NPC Flickr page soon). Want to be a virtual attendee? Check out the Virtual Attendee page here.
The third part of my trip involved a long needed vacation within my vacation. At this point my sisters and I had shopped for six days straight and it was time to kick up our feet. So we traveled (a quick 1 hour flight) to South Goa, but because it was right before the start of peak season everything was fairly quiet…so we took it in stride and did a whole lot of nothing.
First, let’s clear up some confusion. Before deciding to go on this trip I had concocted a vision of Goa—one smallish city filled with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. I was half right. One side of Goa is covered with beaches, but it is actually a small state in India with many localities. An allusion to the state’s history can be seen in the name of its largest city “Vasco de Gama.” While the area has an ancient history, it was colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and was annexed by the Indian government in 1961. Consequently, this state is filled with historical sites that range from the ancient to the modern.
Here are a few of the places we traveled to during our stay:
Vargota Beach: The infamous rocky beach. The pictures speak for themselves.
Fort Aguada: Built in the sixteenth century, the fort was meant as a way to guard the Portuguese from attacks by sea. While the lower part of the fort is now a beach resort, the upper part provided some awesome vistas.
Bom Jesus Basilica: A World Heritage Site, this basilica is also the site of Saint Francis Xavier’s body. A friend of Ignatius Loyola, Xavier was also a co-founder of the Jesuits. I couldn’t get any pictures of the actual casket (and couldn’t see the body), but from others who have seen it before its apparently extra creepy.
Food, Glorious Food
In general, I eat a lot of home cooked Indian food when I go to Mumbai, mostly due to our tendency to succumb to what my cousins’ call the “weak American stomach.” So most days our meal includes the traditional Indian meal, with slight twists that depend on the house we are eating at. This consists of what I call Dhal, Bhat, Rotli, Shak (so Lentils, Rice, Bread, and Vegetable). When we ate out the food included South Indian Dosa’s and Uttapum–and some delicious butter chicken/tandoori and some food in the non-Indian variety. For anyone heading out to Mumbai here are some suggestions:
American Continental: Just Around the Corner (Mumbai–Andheri)
The last three days here were filled with the usual end of vacation running around, but first let’s talk about the verdict. Here in the United States, the one verdict that I remember EVERYONE paying attention to was the OJ Simpson trial. That was a verdict filled with racial tension and class tension. This was not that kind of verdict. One week before we were supposed to leave the High Court in India was to give the verdict in the BabriMasjid Case, a sixty year old dispute between Muslims and Hindus that involved the destruction of a Mosque on what Hindu’s believe is the holy birthplace of Lord Rama. I won’t go into detail about the actual case, just that the verdict has been long anticipated, and will probably still go up to the Indian Supreme Court before it is laid to rest. In talking about what might happen family members reminisced about the riots in the 1990s, when it was too dangerous to even step outside the home. The insanity and the fear, and the worry that the decision in this case might launch the city and the country into another round of craziness.
Postponed to the day before we had to leave, the good news is that the verdict, coming from three different judges, divided the land into three parts for the three disputing parties (1/3 to the Hindus, 1/3 to the Muslims, 1/3 to the wrestling group that used to have property on the land) fair and even. However, since the tension was palatable–you could almost sense the city and the country breathing in relief as the decision was read. And so…business went on as usual.
And by usual I mean last minute visits to relatives, collecting clothing post-alteration, and my favorite activity whenever I visit the other city that never sleeps–bangle shopping! Like fabric shopping the rows and rows of colorful bangles provide so much potential for pretty, and is also a highly valued art form. You walk in, give your price point and the bangle vendors put the set’s together according to the outfit’s they match up with. Super fun. Check out this video at Priya Bangles (Yes, I do think its funny that the store has the same name as me).
My trip ended in the same way it progressed, with a mad rush. My cousin got stuck in traffic so I ended up going to the airport three hours before I needed to for a 1:45 am flight. I ended up getting into a great conversation about World Cup Soccer and American Sports with a South African-Indian family (4th generation South African, whose history in South Africa began with indentured servitude for the British). I also got to take a quick break in London (six hour layover) to visit some cousins for breakfast (Giraffe in Richmond–two thumbs up).
Back to the story. I did learn something about my family while I was in India. My grandmother told me about her father and how he made his way up in the world–taking care of everyone around him and how to this day his name is respected. I also learned that my family is full of singers, and are talented in many, many, ways that I never expected. It was a great three weeks–and I came away with more than just clothes. I came back full of memories.
Click here to view the full photo album from the trip.
In the last two months I have done a lot of traveling and eating. I’ve been up the east coast to New York City, then across the country to Portland, Oregon followed by a quick vacation in Miami. Each of these trips was for an entirely different reason but in the end the food made me smile.
In New York City we went to…..
I have nothing but good things to say about the Rocking Horse Cafe. Suggested to me by a co-worker we landed there more than 40 minutes late for our reservation (we were essentially traveling the Friday after the crazy snow storm in DC so our sure fire travel plans landed us in the city a full half day later than expected) and had to get out of the restaurant within the hour to see Wicked. They got us in and out with fifteen minutes to spare, and while we inhaled our food I know each and every one of us will go back next time we are in the City. Want to know why? Check out these images of delicious Chicken Enchiladas with pomegranate sauce.
We also ate at Elmo’s (for one dinner and brunch). The decor and music were great, and my food was delicious. I had the latin american chicken tacos and the creme brulee (can I help it if I like Mexican food?). During brunch I had the baked french toast with grand mariner and baked apples.
The last place in New York City we ate at was a Otto’s Enoteca Pizzeria. While the Pizza was naturally really, really good–I loved how knowledgeable our server was and the great variety of cheese we had to pick from.
In Portland, Oregon….
All places I would suggest you try? The Flying Elephant Cafe for lunch, if you want a variety of different bar food try a McMenamins bar (I tried the Ringler’s Annex next to the Crystal Ballroom). The Cajun tater tots were delicious. I also was picked up by a friend and driven out of the main part of the city to the Hawthorne District (I think?!). Where I ate a great meal at Savoy Tavern (I guess the website is coming soon). Here I ate a great salad, sauteed mushrooms that were a little garlicky and a really good onion soup. This meal was quickly followed by dessert at Pix Patisserie where we got individual desserts whose names escape me. I think I was charmed by the toy monkey’s hanging from the ceiling. Of course, let’s not forget about the incredible doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnut for breakfast. Really good, quirky and enough to give you a great sugar high for hours. Also, if you’re in Portland you have to get lunch from one of the carts. I had a great Kabob Sandwich that made me smile.
As for Miami
I’m just going to write you a short list. I ate at Opa’s Tavern on Ocean Drive. The food was good, very filling. They had great entertainment that was maybe a mite too loud for dinner unless you are prepared to dance on your table while you are eating. We picked up sandwiches along the boardwalk and some so-so Cuban food at a place whose name I sadly can’t remember. That being said if you are in Miami make sure you eat at Big Pink’s, but I would recommend sharing unless you have an appetite for four people.
So…that’s the food run. Are you hungry yet? I know I am.
Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city. It’s not too enormous or too small in its harmonious setting between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, which are flanked (on a clear day) by the snowy peak of Mount Saint Helens reaching into a beautiful blue sky.
That’s what Saturday was like at the National Council on Public History Conference, revealing to me just what a walkable, bike-friendly city looks like. I spent one of my breaks eating at Voodoo Doughnut and at various food carts, all while meandering through street fairs and Powell’s Bookstore (their architecture and history sections are like time warps – prepare to lose four hours in a flash). All in all, a good ending to a fantastic four days.
That being said, let’s take stock on the last two days of the conference. Friday morning I moderated a panel with David Brown (the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive vice president), Ian Fawcett (deputy executive director of the Land Conservancy of British Columbia), and Liz Dunn (consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab). The session explored the work of the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) and how climate change is being thought about by their member organizations across the globe. In putting together this panel, I wanted to spread the great information from the INTO conference in Dublin this past year. You can read one attendee’s reaction here.
Following this, I boarded a bus out to Dundee Hills to visit the Sokol Blosser Winery, an organic sustainable winery that is home to the first LEED certified silver wine cellar. The owners of Sokol Blosser understand the need for sustainable farming and viticulture and have adopted it wholeheartedly, managing to convince the vineyards surrounding them to work with them to accomplish their goals. More on that in a bit.
So, what does all this have to do with preservation?
On the one hand, the story of the vineyard speaks to what historians can accomplish (the founders of the vineyard were both history majors in the 1970’s), but it also attempts to answer a question we struggled with earlier in the week – how do we reach the public and show them that sustainability is a part of our future, and more specifically that historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand within that future?
When I first started at the National Trust almost four years ago, I knew almost nothing about how the environmental movement was linked with old buildings (aside, of course, from the role of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in the creation of the National Park System). It took time reading and listening for me to understand why this is an integral part of what we do.
As a public historian/preservationist, it is important to recognize all the ways that history and the past connect with the public, even when this connection reflects highly volatile and controversial current issues like global warming and sustainability. We always throw around the fact that history is relevant in the here and now – that it is an important part of daily life and is ingrained in community character. The acknowledgement of this link between the public at the grassroots level and our role as historians/preservationists/public historians at the professional level needs to happen in sync with the work we do on policy and other legislation.
Let’s take a step back to the vineyard. The owners of Sokol Blosser knew they wanted to have a vineyard that was organic and sustainable, but they knew they couldn’t do it by themselves. So they reached out to their neighbors, trained their employees, and created a mindset within their own community about the importance of being green. Similarly, we recognize that the work we do on this issue is about more than just saving historic places; it is about preserving ecosystems and landscapes that are a part of historic view sheds, and consequently a way of life. We work within our organizations to communicate this belief and to spread the word to our memberships. We are ambassadors that are helping to usher forth an engaged, knowledgeable, and determined public.
Yes, this is a slow process, but it will continue to be advanced by gathering at conferences like the 2010 National Council on Public History/Environmental Historian Conference, where we all stepped out of our disciplinary silo’s and talked to one another.
What happens when you decided to make a decision that involves dramatically changing your eating habits. Imagine avoiding processed food, or deciding to stop eating meat—and learning how these decisions impact not only your own health but also your sense of community and place.
One of the keynote speakers in Nashville (at the National Preservation Conference) was Bill McKibben who gave a talk that involved thinking about the environment in terms of our historic built environment (you can take a look at what he said here on Mother Jones). I finally got around to finishing his book Deep Economyand became very interested in the one chapter that describes his year of eating locally. Now, admittedly this is something that is a lot easier to do in Vermont then here in the middle of DC but it seemed like an exercise that would essentially lead (by the end of the year) to food that was boring (I mean how many times can you eat a salad made of ingredients you froze?).
He started in September (harvest time) and buys up as much fresh vegetables, fruits and produce that he can manage, freezing, brining and apparently also Cryovacing things to maintain their usage for a longer period of time. By the time he gets to February and March his menu has changed to eggs, soup and cheese sandwiches. As for his meat he goes local there as well, making his way over to local community farms.
But what does this all mean? I’m still not sure I buy the fact that its not that expensive to buy local as we think it is (once again, think Vermont), but I do believe that the food is better for you in every way. I also get McKibben’s central argument that we need to make a change in the way we live in order to help ourselves and help the environment. That being said, his strongest argument is when he points out that he has had to “think about every meal, instead of wandering through the world on autopilot, ingesting random calories” (Deep Economy, 94). Furthermore he’s “gotten to eat with my brain as well as my tongue: every meal comes with a story. The geography of the valley now means something much more real to me, I’ve met dozens of people I wouldn’t have otherwise have known“( Deep Economy, 94).
Which leads me to the idea of (not) eating animals. Last week, I was given an extra ticket to listen to Jonathan Safran Foer talk about his latest book Eating Animals, a book that describes his path to vegetarianism. While I have yet to read the book, he started off his talk telling us about how our eating habits are always connected to “stories we are told, tell ourselves, and stories that are impressed on us.” That the food we are trained to eat at a very young age is connected to what our parents fed us—in his case what his grandmother fed him.
The majority of the conversation dealt with looking at where our food comes—and pretty much like the narrative on a recent episode of Bones about the horror of large scale meat farming. But like Bill Mckibben he offers a solution, describing the importance of being able to see where your meat comes from.
Of course it all comes back to the story, at the start of his talk Foer told us about his grandmother, who spent all of his childhood feeding him—impressing upon him the importance of having food. He then described a moment when his grandmother was scavenging for food during the Holocaust. She came upon a Russian Farmer who offered her some ham. She then made a decision that I don’t know if I could have made. She said no. When Foer asked his grandmother why she chose continued starvation over some sustenance (because the meat was not kosher) she said the following, “if nothing matters, there is nothing to save.”
This phrase takes on an even broader meaning when you think about McKibben’s thoughts after his year of eating locally—that the “good taste was satisfaction. The time I spent getting the food and preparing it was not, in the end, a cost at all. In the end it was a benefit, the benefit. In my role as eater, I was part of something larger than myself that made sense to me—a community. I felt grounded, connected“ (Deep Economy, 94).
Everything we do has meaning. Where we live, who we interact with, the choices we make—and, as it turns out, what we eat. While I’m not sure what changes I’ll make in my eating habits, I know that I’m now looking at what I eat and why I eat with a more critical eye. I know that the Indian food my mother has made me from birth invokes a sense of homecoming, and that mint chocolate chip ice cream makes me think of my older sister. I know that every time I eat Italian food I’m going to think of the best tiramisu I’ve ever had (randomly at Canary Wharf in London)–which brings up memories of the summer I lived there and traveled around Great Britain.
So something to think about this holiday season as we embark upon our traditional fruit cakes, gingerbread cookies and other Christmas food traditions. Of course this is something that can be seen from a variety of perspectives, so I wanted to bring in another perspective. After that, take a look at some pictures from my all vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner.
By Guest Blogger: Sarah F.
As a somewhat recent vegetarian, I’m often discouraged by the flak meat eaters give vegetarians—and vice versa—in my own experience, in the food blogs I read, and even on my favorite shows (hello, Top Chef! Please stop treating us like second-class culinary citizens!). I enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s talk because he mentioned that the issue of factory farming doesn’t have to pit meat eaters versus vegetarians; it’s an issue of extending our moral consideration to include animals and the environment, which anyone can do. He even argued that the term “vegetarian” has done a disservice by making dietary choices seem like one extreme or the other (also, I know I often feel like I am not living up to some imaginary vegetarian ideal).
That people get so impassioned over eating meat or not shows the extent to which food is tied in to our culture and our identities. The food you eat can help define you as health-consious, socially or environmentally conscious, “real” or “elitist,” a manly burger eater or a dainty salad bar eater. Perhaps we’ve been wrong to think of it in such binary terms.
While I try to think critically about what I eat, it is hard not to get discouraged. Eating locally seems too expensive and too time-consuming. Processing all the labels at the grocery store can be overwhelming, especially when certain terms (organic, free range) seem to have lost all meaning. I haven’t read McKibben’s book yet, but from Priya’s description it sounds like following his example would be a tall order. I’ll be keeping in mind Foer’s point that eating responsibly doesn’t necessarily have to be an extreme or some impossible state of dietary perfection, but a goal to keep striving towards.