January 4th, 2016
Everyone Gets the Madeleine They Deserve
As Proust crystallized for us, memory inhabits food in a very special way. With the season of traditions behind us, I’ve been wondering what kinds of food-memories are being laid down right now and how they will be looked back upon, come some other day.
We can find a hint in the NY Times, where the venerable Jacques Pepin has been revisiting the places and moments and food that intersect in his recall and it feels like a novel of a distant time. I’m not impugning his veracity, but his recollections don’t seem quite real. The childhood France that he evokes — these days especially — seems far too remote for anyone still living to have walked under its skies. His vignettes of the United States, too, seem to hail from a past that seems storybook despite its patina of modernity. It feels lovely, and innocent, too, and perhaps that’s because it really is from another time.
In England, a man by the name of John Letts is conjuring a very different kind of food memory. A farmer, miller, and kind of archaeobotanist, Letts has spent the last two decades bringing the grain fields of the distant past back to life. Before you assume this is an exercise in imagination, recall that England shelters large numbers of thatched roof houses, many of which are hundreds of years old. Those roofs, with their centuries’ accumulation of thatch, turn out to be time capsules, their lowest layers preserving samples of the grains that grew in medieval England’s fields. Guided by this and other research, Letts now produces a flour that would be familiar to medieval peasants, (a wheat/rye blend) another which might have fed the erectors of Stonehenge (einkorn wheat, the first cereal grown in England) and something a little more up to date, an “Iron Age[ http://bakerybits.co.uk/lammas-fayre-iron-age-blend-flour-1-5kg.html]” blend of spelt and emmer wheat. All of it goes by the name of Lammas Fayre Flours and though you can’t find it in the States, should you find yourself in England, freshly-baked time travel is not out of the question.
Memory of another kind is just aborning in California where the world’s largest zone of Class 1 agricultural soil is taking the elevator to the basement. The epic drought, in combination with desperate well drilling and a total failure of the law to keep up with reality means that California’s Central Valley is sinking; 1200 square miles are going down at two inches per month as the aquifer beneath it is drained. That comes out to 1/16th of an inch per day, which means you could just about watch it descend in real time. California may produce (at the moment) 40% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, but for someone growing up there — say, myself — the experience was closer to 100%. Whether it was cases of sweet grapefruit that my grandmother brought from her Coachella Valley home, the the avocados that rained from the abandoned orchards, so abundant that dogs scavenged them until they rolled with fat, the enormous, sweet strawberries in the fields just over the hill, or the nuts, grapes, lettuces, oranges and just about everything else that flowed constantly from the Valley with no regard to season — I never particularly thought about fresh food because it was everywhere and beautiful. I suppose the cornucopia has to vanish before it can become a proper memory.
A much more modest cornucopia has emerged, scattered across the country and across the water, too, in the UK. It’s called “Food for Fines” and these are programs allow people to pay their fines — overdue books or parking tickets or what have you — in food. To be sure, we’re a long way from Pepin territory with these collections of “durable” foods. But underneath the charmless facade, there’s a real vinegar-into-wine ethos at work. And memories are being made here, too, because the meals that we remember are not necessarily the ones that were the finest, but rather the ones that fulfilled an urgent need.
Finally, the delightful “Contrary Farmer” Gene Logsdon (a lifelong farmer who happens to write well, and with a healthy dose of humor) likes what he sees in the new generation of farmers. The memory that he invokes is the historical status of those who produce our food as the bottom of the social pyramid. “Despised,” is the term he uses, pointing out that it was mostly the work of one kind of slave or another, “peasants, sharecroppers, hicks, hayseeds, all terms of derision.” There were exceptions, of course. Cicero and Jefferson both held up the agrarian life as the highest kind, but, then again, they were both slave owners.
What Logsdon sees now is the emergence of farming as an occupation for a sophisticated and educated class. He calls it a “new image” of farming and he’s all for it, but not quite for the reasons you might expect. In fact, it’s his unpacking of the how the “old image,” our societal memory of what a farmer is or might be, which I find most illuminating. “If you wanted respect you got out of food production. As a result, economics practically forced farming out of an art form and into a technological industry where the main idea was to find ways to escape the labor and increase the quantity without increasing the labor.” That’s a big idea that helps to make sense of things from the way California’s big farmers are accelerating the destruction of the Central Valley, to the entire shoddy enterprise of “conventional” farming. I hope he’s right, and that we finally get a reality to match those Jeffersonian ideals. We’re going to need it in California.
Food for Fines (xmas)