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Food for Thought?

<vie Window to Paris made right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of disheveled Russians are magically transported to the prosperous, liberated streets of the French capital, yet find the locale contemptible. “In Russia,” one character waxes, “we huddle together eating scraps, talking about the arts, philosophy, how to improve the country. Here” – he declares, gesturing around at bourgeois couples scattered about a Parisian cafe – “all they do is talk about their food!”

Between Food Truth, Eat the Lawn, Farm House, Firebellies and the like, we Carls certainly talk a lot about food. If those same Soviets came here and saw our Honors Convocation speaker extolling the virtues of yogurt, a Farm House picnic operetta using Mozart as a means to sell their food message, or the former Viewpoint editor/philosophy major penning a weekly column about food (because she thought the topic was “safe and unpretentious”), perhaps they might conclude with the same distaste that our food obsession is nothing but a mark of cultural decadence. They would declare it a sign we’ve devolved into Nietzsche’s town of Motley Cow or Plato’s City of Sows; that is, too mired in mundane matters to cultivate a real taste for “the higher things.”

I won’t go down that route, however. First, because it’s not true; second, because the Carleton food crowd features some of the most interesting people and personalities on campus and I don’t want them not to like me; third, because unlike those French, our foodies don’t just talk about food, they do many different productive things with it (promoting social justice, youth education, cross-cultural discussions, etc.). There isn’t another collective on campus that works as vigorously or accomplishes as much. But why it is food – of all things – that occupies the attention of liberal arts students is still a fruitful question to consider.

Someone once characterized the shift from modernism to postmodernism as from “high theory to prosaic expressions of belief.” We’re through with the insistence that we see ourselves as mere byproducts of the interplay of abstract forces in the ephemeral struggle between communism or capitalism or any other ideologies, as pursuants of God or the Good, or in the shadow of concepts like “American” or “Human.” Even hoopla about “global warming” is just another “high theory;” parts-per-million per million of this-of-that chemical too distant from our everyday lives to be existentially satisfying. It seems natural response is the return to the concrete and immediate. And what’s more tangible than tangerines (and the foods whose sustenance we rely on to live.)? It’s no coincidence that a generation that believes all truth to be contextual insists on knowing where, by whom and how its food is produced.

My great grandfather was a farmer, my grandfather a chemist, my dad an economist. Whatever I end up doing is pretty much guaranteed to be even less tethered to Mother Earth, nature, reality… Yet the birds, the trees and the blackberries concern me not because it’s possible when I’m older that they might not be there, but because I worry I won’t know enough about them to tell the next young folk their names or when they bloom.

And so perhaps the food movement arises as a reaction not to the fact that we’re destroying our world but that we’re drifting away from it altogether. The great problem that occupied modern thinkers was that of violence. The great problem of our age is indifference.

If I’m right that the local food movement is fueled as much by the positive search for a more authentic mode of living as it is the fear of environmental degradation (and this ought to be disputed, ‘cause though I love food, my own cooking skills never really progressed much past blue box pasta so y’all probably know more about this than me), I’d just like to point briefly to one pitfall the local food movement will perhaps be prone to falling in to.

I went to a production of the Uncle Vanya at the Guthrie I last week for which the translator had marked up Chekhov’s masterful script in order to play up the environmentalist message. The doctor Astrov monologues thusly about why he has dedicated his life to trying to protect Russia’s forests: “ I feel as if I’ve had a teeny share in improving the climate, and if mankind is just a teeny, teeny bit happier a thousand years from now, I know I’ll have been a little bit responsible for their happiness … and that makes me a teeny – no, enormously – proud.”

This is all well and good in general, but we Carleton student ought to think ourselves not just capable doing a teeny bit but of doing a heck of a lot. I’m reminded of what Stevie P said last fall when I asked him what one thing that Ivy League student have was that Carls lack: “I look at Carls and I’m blown away by their brightness, their decency, their passion and talent and I feel like the world would be a better place if we had more Carls out there in positions of … I’ll use the word leadership, though I won’t define the word leadership as “man on horseback,” “CEO of a company,” or something like that. Leaders lead in a lot of different ways – you can sometimes lead by making a comment at the end of a session rather than driving the meeting – but I think the world would be a better place if I saw more Carls running for Congress or starting their own non-profits or helping shape public discourse, and sometimes I wonder whether we’re less good at aspiring and wanting to have that kind of direct impact in the world.”

And so contentedness at having contributed a small part to a larger struggle should never blind us to the possibility that we ourselves are capable of enacting enormously real progress. “The whole food system is broken,” is something one hears a lot from the food crowd. Of course, as good postmodernists, we know, perhaps, that every system everywhere is necessarily broken and that every solution must necessarily be a local. And so this position doesn’t answer the practical fact that there are still positions of power that afford more and less control to being able to address problems. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’d rather have in the big chair a Carl than some Ivy League pooh-bah, but unfortunately things that are conducive to the Carleton food scene here being so great might create a ceiling for putting us in positions to do real things about global issues in our time after.

I told a friend what I was writing for this article and in response he sent me a cartoon transcript of a commencement address Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson gave. Watterson notes, “in a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.” The cartoon shows someone forsaking the job in an advertisement firm to take an undemanding job because it affords him the time to raise children and pursue other interests and activities. It concludes: “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

I’d answer by saying I’m not advocating that we all sell out, but until 1950s America, personal happiness and meaning (whether it be created by joining The Man or fighting him) has never been the sole aim of any serious life. There seems to be little difference between Watterson’s ideal and Nietzsche’s Last Man, who proclaims “‘We have invented happiness” and then blinks. We should afford ourselves enough happiness only to maintain our sanity. And so the greatest danger I see for the food movement is if becomes only about authenticity and not about the real consequences of what it achieves then it will indeed be mere indulgence.

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