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What’s on Your Holiday Table? A Conversation About Health, Spirituality, Food, and Farming

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I’m talking with three friends who think about, and work with, food, farming, and culture. Catherine Newell is a Larson Fellow who is studying how consumers use scientific concepts about food and diet to build a spiritual practice. Danille Christensen was a Kluge Fellow in 2016. As a folklorist, she investigates the social meanings of food practices and is writing about home canning in the United States. We are joined by David Brunton, who leads a team that builds digital software at the Library of Congress, a job that puts him in close proximity with massive data sets, such as digitized newspapers and oral histories. Even more remarkable, though, is that, at the end of the day, David heads home to his Maryland farm to feed the chickens and milk the cows.

David (the new-generation farmer) and I (the city-dwelling food-lover) represent a tiny subset of the kinds of people Catherine and Danille study professionally as they examine U.S. food cultures.

The text of our Google Docs conversation was edited for length and clarity.

DT: Look around in many U.S. regions today: farmers markets are popular, artisanal food culture is flourishing, and cheese-makers, bread-bakers, and small-scale livestock producers dot the landscape. Urban farming is undergoing a renaissance too. But this wasn’t always the case, and many of these are relatively new movements.

How would you describe the last two decades in terms of the big trends?

CN: People are all around more interested in where their food comes from, but also suspicious of what they’re being told in terms of what to eat and why. There’s a very DIY sense of taking your health in your own hands by watching what you eat and paying attention to where your food comes from. Some people, however, take it to further extremes than others.

DC: Another trend in the last decade: gardening and food preservation in the U.S. have become more visible, alongside farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs). A 2014 survey by the National Gardening Association found that home food gardening jumped 11 percent after the 2008 economic crash, and by 2013 had increased by 17 percent – with a 63 percent increase in gardening by millennials.

But this is more than a question of economics: people are anxious about where economic, political, environmental, and social systems are headed, and focusing on food is a way to deal with those fears on a daily, intimate basis.

DT: David, a few years ago, your family moved from Capitol Hill to a farm in Maryland–what motivated you?

DB: The motivation was simple: a life centered around the home and the family. My wife and I read Michael Pollan before we moved to a farm, and that led us to Joel Salatin, who Michael Pollan wrote about. Salatin wrote a book called, “You Can Farm,” that we ordered from him directly. One of the things that most struck us about it was the way he talked about how to be successful on a farm. His key ingredient was simple: be on the farm.

The Brunton family on their farm in Millersville, Maryland. Photo by Amanda McMahon, 2015.

DT: How do food preferences impact friendships, family, and community patterns? We’re coming up on the holiday season. Do debates about food sources play out at tables all over the country around Thanksgiving?

CN: As with religious conversion, on many websites that advocate for a specific diet or lifestyle (ethical veganism, anti-GMO, Paleo, and so on ) there are sections where people describe how they “converted” to the diet. And part of that conversion often involves proselytizing to friends, family, coworkers, and so on, but another part of that conversion is the end of relationships, or the recognition that it’s hard to be social around food.

Younger people especially, many of whom describe having converted to a particular diet while away at school, come home for the holidays to some pretty heavy disapproval from their family, and so turn back to their online community for support. These communities, in turn, can become realtime support networks, where people offer strategies and suggestions for “staying strong” and sticking with a particular diet lifestyle.

One of the things I’m interested in is how people, who may or may not have grown up in a religious tradition, have now turned their spirituality on to their diet. It’s definitely cross-generational, but I think it’s maybe most prevalent with millennials, as they’re visibly concerned about things like foodways, the environment, personal health, and so on.

DC: There’s been some interesting work done tracking the religious language that’s part of food discourse–for example, speaking of foodways in terms of purity, corruption, “good” and “bad” food practices, conversion, missionizing for the cause. That kind of moral certitude can make some holiday tables a little stressful, as conviction about value systems meets actual practice head-on.

Puck Thanksgiving 1903. Image by L.M. Glackens, 1903.

DT: Do you think there are coherent, intelligible, ethical frameworks in place? Catherine, I know you’ve looked at the differences between vegan and Paleo communities. How are they framing their moral appeals? Are there certain values they prioritize?

CN: In much of what I’ve observed, the science of a particular diet is foundational. But which science serves as a foundation changes with the diet. So, with ethical vegans, for example, the proofs for the efficacy of the diet is grounded in, say, ecosystems science and the overall effect of industrial agriculture on the planet. People who follow a Paleo diet, by contrast, appeal more to physiological arguments or paleo anthropology. In both cases, though, the science that supports the diet — and thereby the lifestyle — becomes something like gospel.

The trouble arises when scientific narratives appear to be in conflict. One science says that humans evolved as omnivores, and that it’s written in our DNA to eat meat, but the other has facets that suggest that eating meat (or too much protein, in general) can “turn on” genes that cause cancer. It’s a conundrum, but everyone seems to retreat to the science that supports their lifestyle.

DB: Catherine’s points above resonate with me personally in terms of motivations, even though we are not millennials. Our family does not attend religious services; our children do not attend public schools; we are, to put it generally, not “joiners.” But we celebrate Christmas and Easter (in our home); we hold hands and sing a song before dinner (The Sun and The Rain and The Appleseed!); and our food in particular is a moral choice, as often as possible. The bread we bake every day, the cow we milk, the chickens whose eggs we eat–they are all moral choices to us.

CN: I love that you sing a song before dinner! What a lovely tradition.

DC: David, do you think you’ve developed a different aesthetic by being on the farm, involved at a very deep level in all these processes, or do you think producing food realizes an attention to form, taste, and meaning, etc. you already had?

DB: Danille, that’s an awesome question, and yes! Both! Absolutely! I’ll give you an example of a new one, and an example of a connection to an older one. Our farm sells cut flowers commercially, grown in our fields, in ways that we are very proud of. They are an emergent property of an ecology that we’re very proud of. When I go into the grocery store now and I see long-stemmed red roses flown in from South America, covered in poisons (both required for growing and required for importing), I have an aesthetic revulsion that is new. I don’t like them because I know what they are.

The connection to the earlier attention is this: I grew up in a house with fresh bread. It’s a practice that works well in a life that is centered on a home. I live in a house now that has fresh bread, of a different sort, but that feels very connected to me to the life that came before. Same goes with our vegetable garden, I suppose.

DC: I feel the same way about buying peaches from the grocery; we bottled our own–my parents literally doled them out as precious goods in the winter–and later I learned to work with family trees. Knowing what peaches could and should taste like means that I often go without until they’re in season. And I see beauty in well-pruned trees. To me, they mark what cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has called “fields of care”–places made and maintained through daily ritual and practice.

West Virginia peaches preserved by Danille Christensen and family, Hocking County, Ohio. Photo by Danille Christensen, 2014.

I don’t have my own fruit trees now, but I try to know–and make “good”/thrifty use of–other food spaces in my neighborhood: sarvis planted as landscaping, abandoned mulberries and sweet cherries, etc. Nothing like moral satisfaction to enhance deliciousness!

Dilly beans preserved by Danille Christensen, Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Danille Christensen, 2014.

DT: What do you hope to see in the next decades in terms of how consumers relate to food and health? What are the blind spots? And how do you hope your research, or lifestyle, will address these?

DB: Our hope for our farm is that it would be a wonderful place for our family and that there would be enough commercial demand for the kind of work we do that we can make it go. We also hope that other people can do the same.

CN: I hope my research will open a conversation about what it means to be spiritual and/or religious in the twenty-first century. Religion has been telling people how to eat for centuries (pretty much every religion has some kind of food prohibition or dietary suggestion), but now people are turning to science for answers to questions that still feel tied to the question, “What is sacred?”

I think people are voting with their forks, as it were, to say that how we eat, how we care for our bodies, how we care for our planet, what we need to do to remember where we came from as a species – that these are scientific questions, but they’re also related to a profound spirituality. I love that people who consider themselves Paleo feel a connection to their ancient ancestors, and I love that people who are vegan are trying to make themselves and the planet healthier. It’s beautiful, and it’s profound. And it’s all about food.

DB: What Catherine said above: “What is sacred?” Wow. Yes.

DC: As someone who studies vernacular skills and creativity, I love the increased attention to the larger ecologies that make food production satisfying and successful (or frustrating and debilitating). I think all sorts of knowledge and beauty reside in people who have learned to produce food, at whatever stage of the process. I also think it’s important to recognize the complicated social and structural issues that constrain people’s actual food choices and food practices.

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