November 11th, 2014
I’ve got mixed feelings about the DIY/Maker ethos. On the one hand, anything that counters our status as captive and hapless “consumers” is good. But on the other hand, I wonder if DIY/Makerness is a distraction, if “look, I can program an arduino!” is a substitute for fundamental competency in any of the things which we (a) actually need and (b) access solely through purchasing power.
But just when I feel myself becoming too cynical, along come people whose maker-ethos threatens to do something interesting. This can take a lot of forms, some of them even just a little too hip.
That’s the case with switchel which, if you’re like me, is a word that evokes absolutely nothing. Our first record of the word comes from 1790, a time when it had apparently been around long enough to earn comments such as, “not wretched switchel and vile hogo drams.” (A “vile hogo dram,” in case you were wondering, would translate to “awful, overly-flavored drink.”)
About a hundred years later, Washington Irving was writing that “the dauntless Yankees still drank their switchel,” by which I can assume that it was considered both rather pungent, and the kind of regional specialty that not everyone could appreciate.
Switchel was a North American original, a folk drink also known as haymaker’s punch, the kind of thing you’d brew up in the farmhouse and then bring with you when you went out to the hot work of harvesting the fields. Recipes would vary depending on what was local, but it was generally a sweet-spicy drink with the un-local ingredient of ginger and it was intended as a thirst quencher and energy booster, basically a Colonial-era sports drink.
And that’s where it gets rather interesting, because there’s another drink which at least began in much the same way. Only nine years after Irving commented on Yankees and their Switchel, a Southern version was brewing, another invigorating, refreshing, sweet and spicy drink with un-local ingredients. The drink, of course, was Coca-Cola and the zip came from caffeine via kola nuts and cocaine via coca-leaf. The inventor, however, was one-time slave owning, morphine addict, ex-Confederate officer. Kinda gives you a whole new appreciation of the Brooklyn-dwelling farmers market hipsters who are giving switchel another chance at glory.
The moderately ambitious home cook receives some pretty conflicting messages. On one hand, there are a lot of specialized kitchen tools that you rarely need, but when you need them, you really need them. On the other hand, it’s impossible to store all the stuff without a McMansion and what’s more, there’s a significant manufacturing/advertising complex whose business model is dependent on selling things that people only need twice a year. In Toronto, Dayna Boyer has neatly outflanked all of this and gotten to use the gadgets, too. What she’s done is to found a Kitchen Lending Library, where all those things are available and — oh glory be! — where they can live when you don’t need them.
Speaking of things you need but can only access through purchasing power, the Grocery Store comes to mind. For many of us, our interaction with the market aspect of food retail is choosing which grocery we prefer. But under the hood, the humble business of selling food is tough, ruthless, and low-margin. Smaller and weaker chains are constantly gobbled up by larger ones — which rarely change the names on the stores in order to keep loyal customers in the dark.
It’s been going on long enough that the food retail has become an oligopoly — that’s an arrangement in which a monopoly is effectively shared between a few companies. Groceries are a little sneaky in that they are actually a “spatial oligopoly.” That means that they don’t need to own 75% of all stores everywhere, they just need to own 75% in the markets where they do best, because everyone shops at grocery stores that are close enough so that the ice cream doesn’t melt on the way home.
The point of oligopoly in food retail isn’t to raise prices and get rich, it’s to cut costs and get rich. And one way of cutting costs is to shut down stores that don’t make as much money — like stores in the poor parts of town. It’d be a reasonable business strategy… our would be if the big grocery conglomerates hadn’t already bought up all the smaller stores that might have stepped when the big boys stepped out.
One of the many places where this happened was Northeast Greensboro, North Carolina, where the the closure of the local Winn Dixie fifteen years ago turned the neighborhood into a food desert. After repeated efforts to lure one of the big boys back, the locals smartly opted to DIY it and are now building their own grocery store, the Renaissance Community Cooperative, a real market with reasonable wages that will flow back into the local community. And a dignified name to boot.
Paul Goodman once made a crucial distinction about poverty that is almost completely absent in the American understanding of what it means to be poor. His point, taken from a French Socialist poet of the early 1900s, was there are the pauvres and then there are the misérables. The difference between the “decently poor” and the miserable is that the decently poor have security. They’re not worried about losing their homes, or starving, they just don’t have a lot of disposable income. They would have been the norm in a typical French village from 100 years ago or pretty much any rural society and in that way, the pauvres and the robber barons are different from each other not in economic security but rather in degree of disposable income. The misérables on the other hand, live life on the precipice, never certain of what turn of fate will send them plummeting. (If you note that this definition includes a substantial fraction of the American middle class, you’ve caught my drift.)
In the perennially poor mountains of Appalachia, we’ve had both the misery of urban poverty overlaid onto the self-reliance of rural poverty and it’s left the rest of the world with an image of these mountain communities as a benighted backwater. But it turns out that enduring poverty has kept alive traditions that haven’t survived elsewhere — like saving seeds.
Do that for enough generations, and what you end up with is not “Deliverance,” but the most diverse foodshed in all of Canada, the US and even Northern Mexico. The same rugged hill-and-valley topography that creates insular communities also creates crops that are specific to their particular “holler.” In a world dominated by Big Food and the alarmingly few food species that fit into its world view, the biodiversity of Appalachia is a spectacular hoard of real wealth.
One of the most fascinating and unique books that I’ve ever come across is Woody Tasch’s Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. Tasch is a money guy, but with a difference. For one thing, he’s got a wry sense of humor. For another, he was always interested in finding ways for capital to support sustainability, instead of undermining it. This eventually evolved into Slow Money, the movement devoted to transforming the extractive model of venture capital into the sustainable model of nurture capital.
Now he’s taken it to the next level by introducing a new virtual currency (complete with wry humor), “Beetcoin.” Now, in truth, Beetcoin is really a kind of Slow Money kickstarted, a crowdfunding platform. As Tasch puts it, “Beetcoin is the opposite of Bitcoin. It is the world’s first CDO-free, dismal-science-denying, non-violence-promoting non-currency, more real than that virtual currency.” But even if you’re not planning on loading up with Beetcoin, I do recommend Tasch’s overview of why such a thing is needed, because it’s a delightful nutshell version of how the dysfunction of our food system is completely enabled by the dysfunction of our money system.