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December 25th, 2014

Little Gifts

BY Christian Ford

I had a grandfather who lived to an extraordinarily ripe old age and was consequently born and raised in another universe, namely the last vestiges of the Old West.  This is not an exaggeration.  One of his earliest memories was of playing in front of the family cabin and looking up to find six braves on horseback looking down at him.  (His mother — following the “don’t fight ‘em, feed ‘em!” dictum — invited the braves to lunch.)  But other stories shed a pretty harsh light on frontier life.  One was the joke about the father who became so disgusted by his youngest son’s relentless optimism that he filled the boy’s Christmas stocking with horse shit.  Come the morning,  the father asks his three children what Father Christmas brought them.  The oldest declares that St Nick surely loves him because he filled his stocking with butterscotch.  The middle child demurs that that’s all very nice, but St Nick loves her more because he filled her stocking with oranges.  The father turns to the smallest child and is satisfied to see tears in his eyes — but, they’re tears of joy:  “Oh, daddy!  St Nick loves me most of all!  He brought me a pony, only he got away!”

All of which is a way of saying that sometimes you have to squint to see how the gift you got might have been something you wanted.

Like this: Congress has just demanded that the committee forming the newest version of the nation’s dietary guidelines not incorporate notions of sustainability and environmental impact into food recommendations.  Never mind that agriculture consumes half of all land capable of supporting plant life and that agriculture is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses.  It is the equivalent of reminding someone to look before crossing the street only to have the cops forbid you from doing so.  Now, you may be wondering how to consider this a gift.  My thought is that some day in the future, those of us still around who were adults now are going to be spending a lot of time explaining to the younger generations just how we left such a completely fubared world to them.  That’s where this story is like a package, a little box to tuck away for the future, which we can use to explain the remarkable combination of denial, fear, narcissism and willful stupidity it took to leave things such a shambles.

In the radical hotbed of food politics that is Vermont, another victory, and not just for food, but spelling, too.  The cheap fried chicken empire of Chick-fil-A (and let me pause to admit that it took several exposures to the name before I was able to figure out what this linguistic offal was supposed to decode into) has taken umbrage at the work of silk-screen t-shirt maker Bo Muller-Moore.  It seems that Chick-fil-A believes that Muller-Moore’s “Eat More Kale” t-shirts are sowing “confusion” and eating away at Chick-fil-A’s profits, built on the slogan “Eat Mor Chickin.”  On the face of it, it seems self-evident that the venn diagram revealing the intersection between people who want to adorn their bodies with “eat more kale” and the people whose appetite is sparked by the sight of “eat mor chickin” is, bluntly, empty.   But still, it seems a forgone conclusion that when a large company wails that someone is infringing on their ability to make money, all obstacles must be crushed.  Which is why it is astonishing to see the US Patents and Trademarks Office side with Muller-Moore.  Guess there is a Santa Claus, Virginia.

Hanukkah’s collision with the North American version of Christmas has lead to some wondrous and strange changes for an ancient tradition.  In particular, gelt, the child-friendly chocolate coins now associated with Hanukkah, was once real coin, in an adult transaction.  It’s easy to see how the shift happened amidst American Christmas’ intense commercial focus on children.  But the transformation is interesting on a deeper level, because its original version was a kind of social glue, a means of reaffirming and recognizing small but significant relationships.  The modern version, by retreating to the bosom of the family, highlights the shift of Christmas itself, from a community celebration of a religion centered on a rejection of violence and the embrace of all as part of one family, to an event largely contained with the nuclear family, and frequently featuring toys and games embracing violence.  Hanukkah’s not the only celebration with counterfeit coins.

The bumblebees that once buzzed among the fields of England’s southeast became extinct 30 years ago, victims of modern agricultural practices whose notion of  efficiency was too narrow to include “pollination.”  This, miraculously, is no longer the case, due to the bumblebee refuge of Sweden (who knew?) and a more enlightened breed of farmer.  What’s particularly heartening about this story is that it represents a tiny movement towards the only sane future farming has, one where the farm is not a monoculture fortress walled off from nature, but embedded within it, a source of sustenance for life in more than one form.

I’m suspicious of any social institution built on the premise of making women ornamental.  The most recent Miss Uganda competition, however, has made some real improvements to the genre of beauty pageants.  For one thing, this year’s pageant was run by the Ugandan Army.  Their theme was a “good woman” and the focus was on the core of Uganda’s economy, agriculture, so a variety of farm skills were on the roster.   In particular, the swimsuit competition got the axe in favor of the cow-milking competition.

The author of a Guardian piece about the competition is not terribly charmed, dismissing any notion of female empowerment amidst a slightly alarmist preoccupation with farmyard dung.  To be sure, I can see the argument that testing women on their farming skills is just a proxy for ensuring that they are “correctly” domesticated into an economic rather than ornamental role.  But when we discover that the winner, Leah Kalanguka, with her degree in computer science, had to the taught how to milk the cow, I see things a little differently.  She walked in with a socially sanctioned skill that shackles her to a wage-labor system which guarantees that she will be dependent on the good will of her employer to do important things, like eat.  She walked out with the ability to produce food herself, no intermediary required.  Sounds like empowerment to me.

In Naples, where coffee is a necessity, not a luxury, comes a real gift.  They call it “suspended coffee,” and it comes from the tradition of buying two coffees at the cafe, one for yourself, and one for someone else, someone you’ll never even see.  It’s a tradition that began in the hard times of WWII, and which has returned in the hard times of now.  There’s something about this that strikes me as just right.  The gift itself is modest enough to not incur guilt in the receiver, but potent enough to be substantial.  It’s a gift that brings warmth and sustenance, evoking our most primal feelings of being nurtured.  And, lastly, it accepts the reality that, as much as we might like to believe the opposite, life is largely random in both its highs and lows.  Suspended coffee embraces this instead of fighting it, understanding that the best we can do is to act with blind kindness and hope that someone will fleetingly find the world a kinder place.


Gelt by Fraser Elliot
Ankole Cattle by Mark Kortum
Kale Smoothee by Lars Plougmann
Bumble Hangout by StalkERR