To eat responsibly is Wendell Berry’s recommendation to urban dwellers. He elaborates on his recommendations in The Pleasures of Eating, where he initially delves into his philosophical perspective on the agricultural act of eating and then catalogs a list of seven concrete steps the consumer can take to be a more conscious eater. Berry suggests that true freedom involves freedom from total control and reclaiming the food control that is now in the hands of the food industry that threatens to leave eaters “suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” (Berry, 56) The seven suggestions and my analysis of them are as follow:
I. 1. Grow your own food: Direct participation in food production can be as simple as growing a small garden, with the tangible benefit of fresh food for consumption and the intangible benefit of understanding the life cycle from seed to a dinner plate. Being fully responsible for the food grown instills a sense of accomplishment, understanding, and gratitude for the food that directly contrasts the concept of mindless eating that is characterized by ignorance of food production. This proposal is honorable, with understandable rationale. I suspect, though, that it can be impractical for most of the urban dwellers that Berry is addressing. Speaking for myself, I know I regrettably do not have means nor the time to grow my own garden. Depending on the climate, this too can be problematic. Urban dwellers, by definition, live in cities. Cities are crowded with living accommodations mostly made up of apartments that have limited space. My apartment does not even have a balcony. Full time working adults and students are generally crunched for time, part of the biggest reason for the success of fast food – both in restaurants and in packaged/prepared foods found in grocery stores. Addressing the American work culture, though a larger and more complex feat than growing a garden can be, ought to precede direct participation in the food system through growing your own food.
II. 2. Prepare your own food: Cooking! “…Reviving the arts of kitchen and household… should enable you to eat more cheaply and will give you a measure of quality control.” (Berry, 61) This is a more practical recommendation that I think people should take on, not necessarily daily, three meals a day, but maybe just to start on weekends, and then moving onto days of the week that have more time to schedule in cooking. Cooking is a rewarding, engaging, and fun activity that with a bit of practice and passion yields delicious results.
III. 3 & 4. Eat local, Buy Local: When possible, purchase locally produced and sourced foods, as the local food supply is “the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and influence.” (Berry, 62) This is all true. Eating local addresses many problems associated with the modern food industry and needs to be more encouraged. Living in Colorado, seafood is clearly not going to be locally sourced, so there are obvious regional limitations to this. My parents who grew up in the central coast of Tunisia describe living off of the land and not tasting certain fruits until later adulthood, as these fruits were not local to their region. A celebrated success of the food industry is this abundance of availability of diverse foods, regardless of the local limitations of production. I, of course, enjoy this luxury of eating oranges in the summer and watermelon in the winter. I doubt that with the current consumer culture people will accept a decrease in food supply due to seasonality and origin of produce. Consciously eating is not an all or nothing endeavor. When given the choice, always opt for the local food. Sometimes, local foods produced in smaller farms can be more expensive, as compared to the foods mass produced through industrial agriculture. If more people purchase the local food, the price will decrease. The difference in price, I think, is worth paying for the cause.
IV. 5, 6, &7. Feed the mind: Learning about food – its origins, history, biology, the science, industry, technologies, and techniques. These last three recommendations bundled together are the most important to me. To always learn and be proactively engaged, with an open mind and an eager interest to feed the open mind with facts and wonders. Conscious eating is equally about consciousness as it is about the actual actions involved in eating – purchasing, cooking, consuming. I genuinely believe that this is a cause that is not even about the food industry, though it does seem to receive much criticism and negative attention. This cause comes back to us, as a culture, as a society, as a people. The realities of the food industry among other industries are a sheer mirror of us as a society and one could argue all day whether the industry makes us the way we are or we make the industry the way it is. This ultimately just results in a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-argument. I don’t think it matters which came first, or which has more influence over the other – both consumers and producers indubitably play an active role in the relationship and feed off of each other. I do, however, think it matters the perspectives we share of ourselves and our role, and it matters a great deal that we primarily concern ourselves with what we have the direct power to change: which is us. We can change our behaviors and change the realities of the world through our deeds. And indeed, feeding our minds with the right knowledge will direct us toward the appropriate behavioral changes.
The Pleasures of Eating by Wendell Berry can be read here.