March 20th, 2016
Once Upon a Time
They say that the more things change the more they stay the same. But sometimes I wonder if that’s not quite right, if it isn’t that the more things change, the more they become the same. After all, it isn’t just the milk that’s homogenized.
So it’s helpful to glance over one’s shoulder and see what used to fill up the world. Take, for instance, Fat Men’s Clubs. They vanished in the first half of the twentieth century, but they had a pretty good run before that. If you want to get a sense of what they were, you’d have to go back to movies from before WWII, where substantial character actors strutted about in suits, almost inevitably playing the rich and powerful.
The Fat Men’s Clubs were a relic of a time when calling a fat man “prosperous” wasn’t just a sly jab. It was a reflection of the fact that food — in comparison to now — was dramatically more expensive, and the avalanche of trash calories that industrial food companies stamp out of corn was not yet ubiquitously available. There was, as difficult as it may be to understand, a connection between your size and the availability of the calories to change that size. Underneath this, there were also the beginnings of the shift to fundamentally sedentary lifestyle — the fat cats lived off the physical labor of others. The comedy lies in knowing that back then, you needed cash in order to get fat. Now, you need a degree of wealth to have time to be physically active, or a degree of wealth to pay your physical trainer. Fat Mens Clubs
In the age before information was searchable, knowledge resided in mobile containers known as people. It was an admirable system. People were self-maintaining, self-improving, and they even had a way of ensuring that their knowledge wasn’t lost. I’m not talking about books, though books are crucial. What I’m talking about are the kinds of knowledge that are rooted in the senses, which cannot be truly conveyed by written text or, god forbid, web video. These things were conveyed generation to generation by apprenticeship.
I don’t know who Felix Gillet apprenticed with, other than to know it happened in France in the 19th Century. But I do know that Felix had learned the arts of the nurseryman, that is, someone concerned with the collection and propagation of useful plants. He settled in the California Gold Rush town of Nevada City ten years after the first nuggets were found at Sutter’s Mill in 1849 and he had a particular interest in deciduous fruit and nut trees. From a nursery site on a hilltop stripped bare by mining, Gillet, it’s no exaggeration to say, founded the West Coast’s perennial agriculture industry. Nuts, strawberries, apples, pears, grapes and more, all arrived in California because he got them there, by transatlantic passage and transcontinental train.
Gillet is long gone and would be long forgotten but for the fact that fruit trees are survivors, and many of Gillet’s plantings still flower and fruit in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A delightful man by the name of Amigo Bob Cantisano — unreconstructed hippie and whipsmart botanist — is out there, finding Gillet’s trees and preserving and propagating them. It’s not just a hobby, it’s because these trees are survivors, quite capable of taking care of themselves in changing times and not needing the coddling of their industrialized descendants. Amigo Bob is apprenticing with Felix Gillet from beyond the grave, and if he can pull that off, then we may well have Gillet to thank for establishing the West Coast’s perennial agriculture — once again.
In Spain, apprentices can still find living masters, but just barely. That’s where shepherding is shifting from a dying family tradition to something the regional agriculture authority can issue a certificate in… after you’ve apprenticed the old fashioned way. It’s a charming and hopeful little story, but what particularly struck me is the role that bears have in it. Seems that it’s an EU project to reintroduce bears to the hills of Catalonia, which leads to wildlife/livestock conflicts which leads to EU funding to compensate by making shepherding a paying gig. But if you look past the cashflow, there’s more lurking in this, about how reducing the complexity of nature inevitably reduces the number of different ways that human beings can find to live. That, to me, is a totally different form of impoverishment.
There’s no one left alive to pass on the tradition of garum, the fermented fish sauce that seems to have fulfilled the same role in Ancient Rome that the cheeseburger does for the U.S. That said, we do have the recipe and it’s nothing more than the right kind of fish, salt and time. Now, if you’re wondering why the recovery of such a potentially vile food is of interest, it’s useful to recall that war-fighting, legion-marching, empire-expanding Rome was a fundamentally vegetarian society, which is an interesting thought for a red-meat culture such as our own. Garum, which was once thought to be a luxury item, turns out to have been everywhere in Rome, cranked out like ketchup. The difference between garum and ketchup is that garum had very real nutrition value and instead of being slathered on meat, it effectively gave the flavor punch of meat to the more modest vegetables and pulses that were Rome’s main source of food. Oh, and you never had to refrigerate it.
If you’ve ever walked along the Manhattan side of the East River, chances are you’ve seen the immense Pepsi-Cola sign on the opposite shore, looming like a unmoored fragment of the past. It really is unmoored as it once used to crown a long-demolished Pepsi bottling plant and has since been moved multiple times — no small feat considering that it’s nearly 150 feet, side-to-side. The sign, lighting up the night in neon, dates from the 1930s and it looks like the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission will give it landmark status this year, thus protecting it.
And I get that. While I’ve never been a fan of Pepsi, it’s not hard to imagine, particularly at night, that when you’re looking across the river at the sign, you’re looking into the past; the sign is so clearly of a long-gone era. In a time when the pinnacle of American industriousness is a limitless iteration of apps designed to facilitate banal communication or build up the serf economy by creating new ways to gig for immense companies, the nostalgia for an era when we actually made things is understandable.
But still. The invaluable Marion Nestle gives the notion of the NYC anointing this particular piece of the past with civic armor the trashing it so richly deserves. A lot of things that many think of as harmless nostalgia eventually turn out to be fundamentally despicable. Just ask South Carolina.