Our American Food Culture Revisited

When you think of American food culture what comes to mind? Burgers and fries, mac ‘n cheese, quick, easy, and cheap—that is until it is time to go on a diet when you cut everything “bad” out for a short period of time until you are suddenly allowed to eat it again. The American relationship to food is puzzling at best, most likely because there is very little emphasis on the actual food and more emphasis on how (quickly, easily, cheaply) it gets into our stomachs.

two cheeseburgers with  fries

Our relationship with food has shifted immensely over the past century from smaller scale farms to industrial agriculture. Interestingly enough the shift came after World War II when the factories that were used to make nitrogen for bombs no longer became necessary, and they shifted over to making nitrogen-rich ammonia as fertilizer for farms. The use of fertilizer became much more widespread largely because the supply was there. Simultaneously incentives for growing a monoculture such as corn or soybeans were increasing so farmers were no longer rotating crops or fields. Once the monoculture became regular practice, nitrogen had to be added into the soil to support these notoriously “needy” crops (both corn and soybeans pull nitrogen from the soil). So this has culminated into a culture of industrial agriculture—pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, huge machinery—all to grow a massive amount of cash crops that have to be processed to be edible. And so the process continues because it is the cycle we have gotten ourselves into and we have come to expect and even like the kind of food that this system produces. We look to big corporations to grow, process, make, and deliver our food to as close to our houses as possible and the result is slightly terrifying. There are children in cities who don’t know what a carrot actually is, don’t know that fries come from potatoes which grow in the ground, and have no idea that the burger they are eating is actually from an animal. Before industrial agriculture really took hold there was a culture of plant and food knowledge that was passed down through families and among friends. Most people knew how to identify between a tomato plant and a weed because someone they knew had a garden and found it important to pass this knowledge along. This is slowly coming back, people are beginning to realize that far too often they have no idea what they are putting into their bodies or how to grow a garden.

We are lucky to be part of a current cultural shift where good food is once again taking precedence, where the face of the farmer is important, and where we know that food takes time and good company. Grist Magazine did a series called Farm Size Matters in which they have several articles explaining the agricultural system we have in place and the mid-sized farmers that “are too busy to sell at the farmers market and too small to compete” with the large-scale farms that dominate the food system. More and more people are becoming aware and publications are beginning to give time to delve into the maze of the food system in which we live. Urban farms are cropping up, food artisans are appearing, food and environmental education are beginning to be emphasized, and people are slowly beginning to learn how to truly interact with their food. We have the exciting responsibility to create a vibrant and interactive food culture for ourselves and for our children.

farmers market

It is times like these when it is important to collect and share stories of others around the country that are living the countercultural lifestyle immersed in food. The Bitter Southerner is a fantastic blog featuring beautiful stories from the South. A recent video and article was posted on their website about an urban forager/CSA farmer/author named Tiffany Noé. Noé lives in Little Haiti in Miami and has created a lifestyle revolving around growing food and foraging for food around her neighborhood. In Miami there are tropical fruit trees growing in public spaces that are free for anyone who is willing to harvest. She argues that this is the best way to get to know where you live—walk the streets and look for the food among the weeds and the trees. She advocates a knowledge of place and food that connects us to our home in a way that has been lost and connects us to our neighbors simply by meeting and talking to them as we explore. Raleigh has a similar group called Piedmont Picnic Project, that emphasizes local food history and wild edibles and connect us all to the Piedmont in a beautifully delicious way.

Similarly, there are food staples (especially in the south) that have been ultra-processed for a for a while and are being reclaimed. Grits, for example, have a bad reputation because of their widely used and impressively tasteless imposters—instant grits. In the wonderful words of the first witness in the movie My Cousin Vinny: “No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.” It hasn’t been until recently that people have begun to seriously seek out different corn varieties and mill grits in a traditional way. In another beautiful Bitter Southerner post, the world of freshly milled grits is revealed. We have a great source of local grits in North Carolina from Carolina Grits & Company. These are high quality, freshly ground, dent grits (which refers to the the type of corn best for making grits), that are packed with flavor. They take longer to cook but they are well worth the wait–especially during shrimp season!

Slowly, alongside those who have already begun to pave the way, we can create a vibrant, local food culture. It will involve telling stories, sharing recipes, eating communal meals, going on walks, reading books, and cooking a lot. This unique time calls for our creativity, collaboration, and a sense of adventurousness. We can find the roots of our food and make it our own once again.

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