One of my favorite author-poet-farmers is agrarian writer Wendell Berry. He addresses food growth and production with a prophetic voice that denounces consumerism and commodification of food. Instead of treating what we eat as just another consumer good that can be used or wasted as we please, he urges readers step back and look at the larger picture. In his zoomed out perspective, the health and particularity of land and communities is the basis for the health of cities, people, and our future. We are all interconnected.
You may think that we already think about food a lot here at Mary Lee Kitchen; we do. But no matter how much I consider food from an allergy and dietary-restriction perspective, Wendell Berry’s work asks me to approach food from additional angles. His essays and poems have forced me to take a serious a look at the ways I buy food. I am necessarily more mindful of the local and glocal impact of my consumer choices.
Below are some of my favorite passages from his book of essays, The Art of the Commonplace. All italics are original. Other books to check out include (but are not limited to) Bringing it to the Table, Given: Poems, The Gift of Good Land, and The Unsettling of America. Hopefully you will find him as inspiring as I do!
“What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes to our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth’s ability to produce. We will see that beauty and utility are alike dependent upon the health of the world. But we will also see through the fads and fashions of protest. We will see that war and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are aspects of the same issue. Amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place – a much humbler place than we have been taught to think” (p. 89 in essay “Think Little”)
“If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a place people. Since there obviously can be no cultural relationship that is uniform between a nation and a continent, “community” must mean a people locally placed and a people, moreover, not too numerous to have a common knowledge of themselves and their place. Because places differ from one another and because people will differ somewhat according to the characters of their places, if we think of a nation as an assemblage of many communities, we are necessarily thinking of some sort of pluralism.” (p. 178 in essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”)
“There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free. … We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to ‘recreate’ ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation – for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hell-bent on increasing the ‘quality’ of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable, obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and purposes, of the life of the body in this world.” 323-324 “The Pleasures of Eating”
“Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship. What can one do? … 1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. … 2. Prepare your own food. … 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced the closest to your home. … 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. … 5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. … 6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.” (pp. 324-325 “The Pleasures of Eating.”
- 1 medium sweet potato
- 1 cup chopped crimini mushrooms
- 1 cup crumbled sausage
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage + some whole for garnish
- 1 cup shredded asiago cheese
- Cut the sweet potato into ¼-⅓ inch slices, depending on how crispy you want the tarte “crust” to be.
- Begin sauteing the sausage, using a little oil if necessary. Add in the chopped mushrooms, walnuts, and fresh sage. Cook until the sausage is just done.
- Sear the slices of sweet potato on each side so that the outside is crispy. I transferred the topping to a bowl and used the same pan, but you could use another one.
- Place sweet potato slices on a baking sheet and top with mixture.
- Bake at 350 for 15.
- Top with shredded asiago cheese and bake for 5 more minutes.
- Remove from oven and place on a serving platter. Top with sage for garnish.
- Voila! Devour, enjoying the contrast of crispy and crumbly, lightly sweet and savory. YUM!
- Note: Sausage could be replaced with tofu to make this vegetarian.