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Taboo, sustainable eating and who we are not

Pha Lo has a wonderful piece at Salon on the ways that his family's history of locavorism was a source of shame and conflict for them, because it fit so badly into the American diet. He echoes a story I hear over and over again, both from immigrants and from Americans from traditional agricultural communities - we were embarassed about our diet, made ashamed or even punished for eating real food, told what we were eating was gross. He writes about his local, organic, sustainable diet:

I remember watching grown-ups lose their identities and self-worth, slip into depression and cycles of poverty, illness and suicide. These were clan leaders who once commanded the respect of entire villages, tough guerrilla soldiers trained by the CIA -- like my father -- and proud providers who had, without writing, committed to memory centuries of the best farming practices. And they were humbled, receiving welfare and food stamps because there was no opportunity then in urban America for their main skill. Still, they farmed in the city for two necessities: food and a wistful connection to the old way of life.

We grew crops in every plot of soil that hinted of fertility -- parking lots, front lawns, even inside discarded paint buckets, which made terrific homes for lemongrass and chili peppers. When I was in elementary school, the families in our apartment building worked a farm just outside of Sacramento. Every person, every age, had a job. Meals were planned around what we gathered: We scraped fresh cucumbers, serving them with sugar over ice on hot summer days; we pounded the signature Hmong mix of hand-picked peppers, cilantro, green onions and lime in a mortar and served it as a dip for meat and sticky rice. I remember loving our imperfectly shaped cucumbers because I got to watch each one grow into its own unique shape and thought they all had more character than the "beautiful" ones wrapped in plastic at the grocery store. And I loved mustard greens, which grew in abundance once a year but could be pickled for year-round consumption.

We bartered with each other. We raised chickens in the backyard, letting them out to roam and feeding them by hand. We didn't have a label for this back then, though now I suppose people call it "free-range," and it costs more. We slaughtered our own hens, sometimes with rituals honoring the sacrifice of the animal's life.

With the costs of vegetables offset by our gardens, all the families pitched in to buy a pig or cow from the closest farmer, dividing the meat. This way, we could also afford to buy rice.

But we had to keep our locavore tendencies secret. America's food rules, which seemed to us to go against nature, left us fearful of punishment. At the time, exactly one person from our clan had attended an American college and became our cultural broker, translating to shamans the world of Western medicine, and to lifelong hunters and fishermen the rules of hunting and fishing. What license was needed for what, how many of what thing could be caught during which season, if you could take fruit from a tree depending on which side of a fence it hung. All of it was too complicated to keep straight, and so it felt safer to keep our food producing regimens to ourselves. I can't remember how many times my father built, tore down and rebuilt the chicken coop, afraid that neighbors who heard crowing would report us.

"Don't tell the Americans," my mother would always say, and, eventually, as I grew into adolescence, I couldn't agree more. I was afraid of being judged.

This is a long and important story in America, and it tends to go this way - first generation immigrants (or those raised in traditional cultures in the US) try and retain some part of the food and agricultural cultures that they were born into. Their children, desperate to fit into America, judged and penalized for their difference are ashamed of their parents' "dirty" or "embarassing" habits of picking wild foods or slaughtering their own meat, and long for an modern American diet. Only later or even in the third generation do the children begin to realize the price of assimilation and attempt to reclaim something of what they've lost.

When I've written about food taboos in the past, I've noted that they can be understood as marking us out as a particular kind of person. We have taboos that say "we are not like those people over there who eat this" - and these taboos are very powerful parts of our identity.

America has food taboos just as powerful as the Levitican prohibitions against pork or boiling a kid in its mother's milk, and for most people, until recently, they are about constituting ourselves as unrelated to our agrarian past. That is, we eat food that is processed, sanitized, modernized and as removed as possible from our history of self-provisioning as possible. Anything that smacks of self-provisioning has been unmodern, and thus "UnAmerican" - it isn't just immigrants who were made ashamed of their food, but the children of American farmers who ate meat they raised themselves, eggs that "came out of a chicken's butt" and vegetables straight off the dirt. Uncounted of them begged for marshmallow fluff and store hamburgers, to remove the stain of being a food producer, and somehow not really of this place.

We spent so much time in the last 70 years making ourselves unlike our history that we failed to even notice that we were so unlike our agrarian predecessors that no one was in danger of mistaking us for them. Not a single person was in danger of imagining that most of us would ever eat a fresh egg not in a tidy styrofoam container or that we would harvest a wild vegetables. Such things were fringe and strange.

But then we noticed that we no longer had to constitute ourselves as "not farmers" and "not our immigrant parents and grandparents" - because it turned out that the farmers were gone and our grandparents were dead and we'd forgotten to ask where those especially delicious eggs came from and how to make the food that made us feel good - both in memory and body. It turns ot that we spent so much time saying "ewww...we aren't that" that we became something else, and lost a great deal.

Fortunately, we have begun to recognize what we lost, to turn towards those "dirty" foods and recognize they are cleaner than the highly processed foods that the USDA legislates may have a certain percentage of feces and insect parts in them, that the chemicals we used to make things clean aren't good for us. We have begun to reconstitute ourselves as people who do, in fact, grow and eat things that come from the soil. We cannot, however, erase the cost in shame and suffering and loss for everyone who paid for not being the right kind of American - we can only make it better now.

Pha Lo has become proud of what her farmer relatives are accomplishing, as the culture itself begins to recognize what they traded away from modernity "cleanliness" and homogeneity, and values what her family knows, their agricultural past and their agricultural future. I'm glad - perhaps in the future it will be as taboo to eat a twinkie in a styrofoam container as it once was to eat a fresh egg. After all, the problem with both is the same - you do know where it comes from.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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