The difference between a sun-ripened strawberry and a blast-chilled one is an inconvenient detail most recipe editors prefer to take out. “But,” I plead to the editor, “your rendition won’t taste anything like the berry salad you had at my restaurant.” It’s times like these that I take refuge in beloved books written by fellow practitioners of “The Slow.” They use their expertise to look at the particular in the context of the whole.
That approach—and this pithy quote by Carl Sagan—restores my affirmation about all things holistic:
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
Now that’s my kind of food writing.
Whether it’s Sagan’s “infinity pie” or an apple pandowdy for the rest of us, a well-considered meal doesn’t stay put long enough to be just one thing. Everyone’s food is becoming someone else’s as it cycles through the sun in a hand off of photons to chloroplasts, pollinators to compost-munching microbes. The ecologist will advise we eat it and send it on its way in gratitude, for it just keeps going round: turtles all the way down. This is because the ecologist knows that when we eat, we eat the world; that when we cook, we cook the world.
Okay, I know what you are thinking: our mise en place hopefully starts out in some lovely local corner of the world. But in truth, the arc of our ingredient choices has already gone and returned to our forks with countless economical, political, cultural, nutritional, and ecological consequences.
Following are snapshots of books that describe ecologies of interdependence, food, wine, nature, and cosmos. They come and go from a stack of dog-eared, underlined, and lovingly marked tomes at my reading chair. Taken in groups, they constellate, like proximate stars, each adding another dimension that makes new meaning. These are books radiating grand evidence of intelligent life at work in our overheated world. Oh, such as the ideas that launched this journal—Woody Tasch’s integral vision as presented in Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.
The authors I’ve interpreted below are pragmatic mystics who go into the depths of their subjects—from cheese and wine to intellectual history and cultural anthropology—and return to the boat with a net full of wriggling fractals and holograms, illuminating the realm beyond either/or choices.
When a presenter at the American Cheese Society said, “Everything is everywhere,” referencing microbes, it sounded a lot like cutting-edge physics. Viewed through Heather Paxson’s rubric, you could switch in string cheese for string theory—and the metaphors keep working. Paxson is currently a junior professor of anthropology at MIT, and like her renowned school’s physicists who study micro and macro properties of particles, Paxson has a scholarly foot firmly planted in both the micro and macro worlds of the cultures of cheese.
In her book The Life of Cheese, Paxson observes how microbial cultures teeming in meadows and ruminants support the cheesemaker’s culture, producing tastes that are uniquely of their place. Looking closely at this slower form of agriculture, Paxson studies the communities of artisans— many of them coming “back to the land”—who milk, make, age, and market this new generation of American cheeses. She documents how the ensuing cultures (of both people and the cheeses they sell) have inculcated a new ethos into the time-is-money juggernaut. The reader will quickly recognize versions of Slow Money at work.
In her first chapter she writes:
If the aim of twentieth-century industrial food production was to make “every farm a factory,” as historian Deborah Fitzgerald has detailed, then a central aim of twenty-first-century artisan food production is to make every farm a working landscape—one that generates, and will continue to generate in the future, multiple values: decent livelihoods, healthy ecologies, beautiful vistas, and, most immediately, good food.
Paxson makes a scholarly case for the cheese artisan’s monetization of slow and hard-to-quantify values. At another point in the book she writes:
Artisan cheesemakers illuminate this broader reality because their struggle to realize multiple values in and through their business enterprise is both self-conscious and valorized by others, whereas elsewhere the interplay of economic and moral values is often obscured through language that separates spaces of “work” from “home” and distinguishes actions carried out for money from those we do for love.
I love a scholar who uses the word love without apology in a scholarly study.
Here is a different example of Slow Money at work. This book takes on the big concepts of wine culture via an old world with centuries of patient arts of the soil under its belt. I traveled frequently to Europe while running my restaurant for 30 years in Wisconsin. What I saw models a future that I wish for all American artisans. Europeans simply have had longer to practice how vintage (weather), village (culture), varietal (species diversity), vineyard (place), and vintner (art and craft) merge into a whole that can intimately transmit locality.
Before I write further, I must disclose some caveats about this author. I know this guy well enough to have married him. He imports wine from some of the growers he extolls in these pages, and his book is definitely not a wine compendium. But if you have ever wondered what depths of meaning the axiom in vino veritas could hold, he is your bard.
Theise rolls comfortably between poetic metaphor and expertise earned over a lifetime of travel, tasting, and learning the language of winemaking. When he started out, his stomping grounds were “unpopular” categories: Riesling, grower Champagnes, Grüner Veltliner, and wines with impossible-to-decipher labels. When much of the world still wonders, “Why bother?”, he wades cheerfully into the mob to defend the nomenclature of locality, passionately explaining why we should care.
The book explores controversially complex topics like terroir, which Theise calls “the Earth’s erogenous zones.” Concluding the profile of a father-son team whose ancestors have worked their small vineyard’s steep slate slopes for centuries, he writes,
Families like this one are why I believe in terroir. It’s neither a dogma nor a faith. It’s just a simple fact. The wines themselves lead me to this belief. It’s not only a rational empirical matter; it’s also a question of Goodness.
When educating about the less familiar sub-appellations that comprise the region of Champagne, and the unique bottlings produced there by families without the benefit of luxury branding, Theise came up with the phrase “Farmer Fizz.” His shorthand helped break down the door of overpriced and confected champagne “big houses” and won new visibility for the landed vigneron capable of making great wines:
And this leads me to consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them.
So, it follows that Theise can’t help challenging those who try foisting authenticity on generically sited industrial wine and who pass sweetness hidden in high alcohol for gravitas. One more caveat and you might spill your wine chuckling.
Thinking Together at the Edge of History: A Memoir of the Life of the Lindisfarne Association, 1972–2012
If quaffing wine and cheese tasting of culture and place is an investment to savor, reading this next author—a brilliant cultural observer whose viewfinder spans millennia—is like sipping enlightenment from a fire hose. William Irwin Thompson is the Ur-Ecologist of our age. He weaves ecosystems of thought—including theoretical physics, religion, history, art, sexuality, and earth sciences—into a coherent Gaian vision of whole-planet dynamics.
Thompson formed Lindisfarne Association to take “a further step toward the articulation of this new culture of science and a post-religious spirituality” and invited many of its finest articulators to his communal table: Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, Stewart Brand, Hazel Henderson, Carl Sagan, James Lovelock, E.F. Schumacher, David Spangler, and countless others, each as brilliant as the next.
Listening in on them with Thompson over the last five decades, I can hear a future built on inclusiveness, calling for our loyalties to come down to earth. For example, writing about his decision to homeschool his child, Thompson could have been warning about the danger of money that has lost relevant touch with the body of the planet:
Many spiritual philosophers, in differing religious traditions, claim that we take on a body to experience the world of love and compassion. If we lose the body in collective systems and networks of data processing, we can lose the compassion and become intellectually cruel and economically insensitive. We forget that it was through the body that our child was brought forth, and we forget how to be with another in a sense of presence that enhances our feeling for the meaning of life. Like the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhist philosophy, we become wraiths—grey shades whose lives have been parasitized by computer and cell phone— and do not realize they are dead and only haunting the place of life.
Thompson is difficult to reduce, so I leave it here. Check him out if you dare.
The sugar rush of too much computer-enabled information works a lot like industrialized agriculture’s blizzard of empty calories. Too much of anything scrambles the brain, rendering us never able to get enough of what we really don’t need. Add money to that trifecta, and evolution for humanity seems perilous.
Our health depends on our ability to scale information into nourishing patterns. At this, Paul Fleischman excels. A distinguished psychiatrist, Fleischman is a dedicated practitioner of Vipassana meditation, and he connects contemplative disciplines, the Tao, and the revelations of science:
Just as the ancient civilizations imagined the world consisted of four basic substances—earth, air, fire, and water—we have our creative quaternity: matter, energy, entropy, and information. . . . Wonder forges diverse scientific narratives into a single vision of our identity within the universe.
His sense of wonder stretches from electrons to marigolds:
The laws that birthed and expanded the universe can also converge and cooperate. A marigold startles us because it brings together electrons, protons, atoms, electromagnetism, photosynthesis, ATP, DNA, and so much more into a temporary coherence. Within the cosmos that is mostly black, cold, and empty, there is also a governance of marigolds.
He writes, “The mind that sees and understands the star is no less radiant than its object.”
He could have been describing the mind of Thoreau.
Thoreau did not live to complete the works collected in this book, yet in these pages he gives us all the time in the world to reflect on what he saw most intimately. Thoreau’s genius is his capacity to observe the world through the prism of his soul and his naturalist’s eye. He can see the forest in the seeds and tease out the thread of a miracle in progress.
This volume is composed of recently brought-forth manuscripts, including “Dispersion of Seeds” and “Wild Fruits.” They are patiently reconstructed and instructively annotated by Bradley Dean. The foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan and introduction by Robert D. Richardson are inspiring reads on their own, making for very good company in this collection. Abigail Rorer’s illustrations complement the writing and are placed throughout the book with understated grace.
In his foreword, Nabhan imagines Thoreau’s journey:
It was on the wings of seeds that Thoreau sailed home, where he found peace before he died. Although often itching to travel to the far reaches of the world, and always cosmopolitan in his readings, Thoreau gradually became convinced that what he could learn closest to home was what was ultimately of the greatest value. If literary historians sense that he had ceased to emulate Wordsworth and Goethe in his poetry and lofty philosophical essays, they misread his intentions. Instead of turning his back on these literary traditions, Thoreau tried to incorporate them into his search for a language more difficult but more enduring: the language of the forest itself.
There is no end to Thoreau’s reach; even the finality of his words on the page launches a new round of inspired writing by those who study him. I am indebted to Robert Richardson for these words: “Thoreau …revealed the world around us in so concentrated and passionate a way as to convince us that every single day is a whole new season.”
Over the years I ran L’Etoile, my restaurant in Madison, I thought I had identified nine distinct eating seasons in the Midwest. Our menu, which changed daily to track ingredients, told the greater truth.
Through 2005, I kept this book on a shelf where I would see it every time I entered the kitchen. This was an emotional year for me—the year I turned my restaurant of 30 years over to new hands. I dipped into the book’s pages randomly, divining perhaps, to illumine my faith in the seed which held L’Etoile’s next generation, continuing my journey, begun long ago, to discover the distance of local.