Book of the Week: Bringing It To the Table

Title: Bringing It To the Table: On Farming & Food
Author: Wendell Berry (edited by Michael Pollan)
Published by: Counterpoint (2009)

Our Thoughts:
Long-time friends of the CiRCE Institute already know of our affection and admiration for the great Wendell Berry, a man whose canon of work includes some of the best novels of the past fifty years; some of the most beautiful, moving poetry of his generation; and essays that toe the line between prophetic criticism and inspiring instruction. He is a writer who, in all of his work, preaches the merits of community, who, indeed, insists that life lived within the context of a greater community is life lived best. He insists that we each must live responsibly, in our relations to one another and in our work, economically and educationally, and, this particular collection of essays (edited by author Michel Pollan) in the way we eat.

In his 1989 essay “Nature as Measure”, Berry wrote that “the fact is that we have nearly destroyed American farming, and in the process have nearly destroyed our country.” He wrote that “there is no longer a considerable number of people knowledgeable enough to look at the country and see that it is properly cared for – though the face of the country is now everywhere marked by the agony of our enterprise of self-destruction.” And he claimed that while we have acheived a “surplus of food” we have done so “by the ruin of [our] sources.” This, he claims, has led to a failure of industrial agriculture, a failure that is, at present, hidden by the good practices of the hard working farmers and food growers who tended the American soil during the few few hundred years of the country’s existence. He warns that the future of American soil, and therefore of American food, does not look as promising. After all, he writes, “good production is the result of good farming” (what he defines as “farming that does not destroy either farmland or farm people”).

But this collection of essays is more than a series of prophetic warnings. Berry does provide some possible solutions, including ways that the average urbanite American can help, the first and most basic of which is to “eat responsibly.” How does one do this? Well, first, he claims, one must “begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act”, with the realization that as eaters we are “consumers” who ought to know about the food we are putting in our bodies – where it comes from, how it is prepared, etc. “Most urban farmers,” Berry says, “would tell you that food is produced on farms…but most…do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are, or what knowledge or skills are involved in farming. They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. For them, then, food is pretty much an abstract idea until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.”

And here’s the key point: “We have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.”

So Mr. Berry provides steps towards responsible eating, towards freedom, steps that include participation “in food production to the extent that you can”, prepare your own food, determine where your food is coming from, deal with a local farmer when possible, learn about the economy of food, try to ascertain what makes good farming or gardening, and “learn as much as you can…of the life histories of the food species.”

“The pleasure of eating,” he writes, “should be an extensive pleasure, not that of a mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens at their best.”

We hope the education we provide our students will enable them to wisely and virtuously come to the table of society and culture, but I think it’s fair to ask this: can they do this successfully unless they can also wisely come to their own dinner table?


Summary:

Only a farmer could delve so deeply into the origins of food, and only a writer of Wendell Berry’s caliber could convey it with such conviction and eloquence. Long before Whole Foods organic produce was available at your local supermarket, Berry was farming with the purity of food in mind. For the last five decades, Berry has embodied mindful eating through his land practices and his writing. In recognition of that influence, Michael Pollan here offers an introduction to this wonderful collection.

Drawn from over thirty years of work, this collection joins bestsellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, as essential reading for anyone who cares about what they eat. The essays address such concerns as: How does organic measure up against locally grown? What are the differences between small and large farms, and how does that affect what you put on your dinner table? What can you do to support sustainable agriculture?

A progenitor of the Slow Food movement, Wendell Berry reminds us all to take the time to understand the basics of what we ingest. “Eating is an agriculture act,” he writes. Indeed, we are all players in the food economy. (from the publisher)

A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”
from the essay “The Pleasures of Eating”

About the Author:
Wendell Berry The prolific poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry is a fifth-generation native of north central Kentucky. Berry taught at Stanford University; traveled to Italy and France on a Guggenheim Fellowship; and taught at New York University and the University of Kentucky, Lexington, before moving to Henry County. Berry owns and operates Lanes Landing Farm, a small, hilly piece of property on the Kentucky River. He embraced full-time farming as a career, using horses and organic methods to tend the land. Harmony with nature in general, and the farming tradition in particular, is a central theme of Berry’s diverse work. As a poet, Berry gained popularity within the literary community. Collected Poems, 1957-1982, was particularly well-received. Novels and short stories set in Port William, a fictional town paralleling his real-life home town of Port Royal further established his literary reputation. The Memory of Old Jack, Berry’s third novel, received Chicago’s Friends of American Writers Award for 1975. Berry reached his broadest audience and attained his greatest popular acclaim through his essays. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is a springboard for contemporary environmental concerns. In his life as well as his art, Berry has advocated a responsible, contextual relationship with individuals in a local, agrarian economy.

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for “The New York Times Magazine” as well as a contributing editor at “Harper’s” magazine. He is the author of two prize-winning books: “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” and “A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder.” Pollan lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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