The theme of this blog is food and how we nourish ourselves. We call it, “The Compost Pile” because that’s where the process of growing food starts. There is a kind of alchemy involved in the process of microbes turning waste of all sorts into soil nourishing black gold. In the same way, good food – whole, organic, and unprocessed, can work magic in our bodies, souls, and communities. In this world of fast food, processed food, genetically altered food, and just plain junk, I am interested in real food and how we can rebuild our culinary culture and eating habits.
We started our farm primarily to feed ourselves, but also to make a living by selling our food in the community. Feeding ourselves is pretty easy, but making a living by farming is not. Here in Maine, we are lucky to have a relatively strong local food culture. However, we are not immune to the American nightmares of drive-through meals and large homogenized grocery chains and the ingrained assumptions they have created. The most obvious assumption, created by a combination of clever marketing and government subsidies to “big ag” is that food should be cheap and fast. This assumption is making us a very fat and a very sick country. This assumption is also the reason why it is so hard for small local farms to succeed financially. When people breeze through the drive-up window and don’t think twice about spending $4 on their super-sized, super-syrupy bucket of caffeine, yet wince at the prospect of paying $4 for a dozen pasture raised eggs, we have a problem.
So when I talk about “real food” and rebuilding our culinary culture and eating habits, I am talking about addressing these kinds of assumptions that have taken over our national consciousness. Rather than launching into a political rant about the evils of American mass culture, I would like to get back to the basics of food.
To this end, it seems appropriate to turn to the French, and specifically to an internationally acclaimed gastronomic and philosophical masterpiece. After more than 30 years of research, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published The Physiology of Taste in 1825. The text I am reading from was translated by an American gastronomic legend of our own time, M.F.K. Fisher. Brillat-Savarin prefaces the main text with twenty “Aphorisms of the Professor”. These witty and opinionated statements cover a lot of gastronomic ground but begin with the basics:
1. The Universe is nothing without the things that live in it, and everything that lives, eats.
2. Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
3. The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.
The first aphorism establishes the interconnectedness of everything on Earth. Little did he know that the very soil we depend on to grow our food is full of microscopic organisms that also “eat”. For someone in an age without the benefit of the scientific research to which we are privy, Brillat-Savarin had a magnificent grasp on the way the world works.
The second aphorism establishes the difference between feeding and eating, and then further between eating and the “art of eating”. According to Brillat-Savarin, men who simply eat are not much better than animals that feed themselves. By contrast, “only wise men know the art of eating.” Hence the contrast between eating to survive and eating as something more refined.
In the third aphorism, just what does he mean by “nourish”? The Oxford English Dictionary begins with an obsolete definition of nourish as a noun, meaning nurse. Other obsolete definitions include: bring up, rear, nurture, cherish, and promote the growth of. During the time of Brillat-Savarin, food was actually connected with a more holistic and mindful approach to health as well as being of aesthetic concern. Eating was for actual nourishment and enjoyment rather than for simply filling the belly. These definitions are more satisfying than the modern, “to sustain with proper food or nutriment; to supply with whatever is necessary to promote growth or formation”.
Yes, food is practical and literally sustains us. However, as Brillat-Savarin’s second and third aphorisms imply, food goes beyond biological function as an essential part of customs and rituals that maintain the fabric of society. This blog will explore food in all of its variety and functional dimensions. For now, I will end with my favorite of Brillat-Savarin’s 20 Aphorisms: #14 “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” The French certainly have a way with food….and words.