Currents of Change: Thinking about the Environment and History in Portland, Oregon

For the next few days I’ll be attending the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Portland, Oregon. Not only is this city the furthest west I have ever been, it is also the first time I’ve ever been in Oregon. The topic of this year’s conference is “Currents of Change” and involves looking at the connections between history and the environment. The conference is particularly exciting because this year it is in conjunction with the American Society of Environmental Historians. You can see the program at but I’ll pull out a few highlights over the next few days (and will be tweeting @pc_presnation). Until then here are a few thoughts from the first day of the conference which also includes a celebration of NCPH’s 30th birthday.

Sustainability is something we at the National Trust for Historic Preservation have made a priority. We’ve had tweets, and resources and discussions at various events including the National Preservation Conference. I know its something we care about on many levels. On my way in from the airport I overheard a snippet of a radio conversation that asked about why young people aren’t involved with the fight against global warming like they were back in the 1960s for Civil Rights. The commentator whose name I didn’t really catch, wanted to know where the sit ins, the protests, the civil disobedience to urge government action. His conclusion: That its not happening because no one has put forth a call.

I think a bigger question is: If someone puts out a call how will historians and preservationists answer?

Which of course leads me to more practical questions: how does the green movement and history interact with the public? more importantly what strategies and ideas are currently being used to reach people on the local level? How can we use our knowledge of the history of the environment in America to reveal how historic preservation is also green?

I’ll be look for answers when I attend a panel that talks about historic preservation and sustainability, the opening plenary session with Adam Hochschild and my Friday tour of an organic winery, and much much more. So stay tuned!

Going Green, (Not) Eating Animals, and Finding New Stories

This post was adapted for a New Year’s Resolution Post on the PreservationNation Blog.

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 Economy and 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.

Being Vegetarian
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.


Some pictures from all veggie Thanksgiving.

The Menu:

Stuffed Shells (with shredded zucchini, mozzarella cheese and potato)
Eggplant Parmesan
Butternut Squash Puree (with sweet apples and orange zest)
Mushroom, Spinach, Pine Nuts in Phyllo (Note: The recipe includes bacon and is a lot fancier, we kept it simple)
Traditional Green Bean Casserole (with Campbell Cream of Mushroom Soup)
Melted Brie with cranberries and walnuts
A soup that my mom made which is I guess her own special recipe.
Potato Pave

Desert (aside from apple pie): Caramelized Pineapple, Apples, and Craisans in Phyllo (Note: We did not use dried cherries, and instead of rum put in Apple Juice, also didn’t do the ice cream mixture).