In the old European fairy tales, the eeriest and grimmest of fairy tales, a person, a regular person not a fairy, was safe in fairyland as long as she did not eat the food there.
Here is an example:
Anna goes for a walk in the woods behind her house. She sees a warm light in the distance. When she follows it she finds a tiny cottage and the door is slightly ajar. Anna, curious, creaks open the door. Behind it is an enormous hall with an enormous table and hundreds of people with clear skin and sparkling eyes and richly dyed clothes. They are eating more food than Anna has ever seen before, with the most exquisite textures—the juiciest birds, the most savory meats, the most emerald spinach and the most crimson apples, the latter of which somehow seem to have dyed everyone’s lips. Everybody smiles at her, touches her with cool hands. Someone pulls out a chair. Anna sits. The woman next to her bites into a peach. Juice drips down her neck. The man on the other side holds a turkey leg with his whole fist. Anna hesitates and then she bites into a gold, soft roll. It leaves a sweet sheen on her fingers and on her lips. Immediately she forgets her own home and history and people.
Here the important parts are these:
1. Anna’s life has heretofore been rather stark in terms of sensuality.
2. Certain traits, perhaps flaws, drive Anna more than sensible restraint, and they’re sort of her fault and also sort of not her fault. She becomes consumed (ha) by curiosity and by desire, which she has already in various quantities someplace inside her personality. But also some external force sweeps her toward the light, toward the door, toward the table, and ultimately, the crux of the story, toward the food. Anna loses control and she must eat.
The next thing that happens in the story is that Anna stays for what seems like a few minutes but when the spell is (luckily?) broken as a result of her clear-sightedness and willpower, and the hairy backs and pointy ears and beady eyes of the fairies emerge, and she stumbles out of the hall back into the woods, a hundred years have passed and everyone she knows is dead.
I think this is the most pressing problem in food systems.
In the story, Anna probably eats something like hard dark bread and watery beer most of the time, and then she enters into a rich sensuous world with rich sensuous food, and she consumes it, and then she is punished for her consumption/gluttony, and then she sees that the rich sensuous world was a lie, and then she faces a loneliness that is usually only hinted at in the stories, because the main point has been reached: do not trust sensuality. It cannot be real. Stick to your hard bread and watery beer.
As an undergraduate I studied for a semester in Cape Town. I remembered this fairy tale trope soon after I had gotten there. The juice of produce there dripped over my skin. Dates were fresh. The first banana I had was on the University of Cape Town campus, outside at a metal wicker picnic table, with my new friends at lunch. It tasted like how I never knew bananas could taste. It tasted like a self-actualized banana. We ate peri peri chicken sandwiches for lunch and we ate birthday cake made with springbok butter. We ate South Africanized versions of food we ate at home: red beans and rice, chili. We drank gourds of umqombothi. We ate beef and antelope and ostrich at braais. We ate, we ate, we ate.
I am here now, I thought. Once I eat this food I am a part of this place. This food is of this place and now so am I.
I thought maybe there could be a different moral to the fairy tale, a different way to read it.
We tell the same fairy tale now, in our United States food culture. The old storytellers used to know something that we now work hard to try to forget. Food has power. Food is a manifestation of place and an embodiment of place and a union of body and place. When we die we become part of a place because maggots ingest our organs and then our bones become the minerals in the soil. While we live we are part of a place because we eat it. We eat and we are eaten. Food is place. Perhaps my meaning was not clear earlier when I said this, but here it is again: food is the most powerful manifestation of place and our fear of this manifestation is the most pressing problem in food systems.
Food has the power to propel away our control and sweep us into connection, into identity, into base survival. Food is an equalizer—people of all classes need it and then shit it out—and food determines and describes class.
Did our fear start with some kind of Puritanical anti-hedonism? Did it start because the Catholic Church labeled gluttony as a Deadly Sin? Is our fear religious? Did we believe we could get closer to God by shunning our earthly bodies and our earthly places?
Then how conflicted did we feel at weddings and funerals and birthdays and evenings and first dates, when we ate? Did our eventual access to any food from anywhere year round increase our confusion and thus our fear?
Did we, white people in the United States, ever know what to feel about food?
We don’t now, anyhow.
So we tell the fairy tale, with the moral that Anna made the wrong choice to eat the fairy food. Our resulting fear looks like my parents, Atkins one half-year and vegan the next. Our fear looks like our obsession with weight loss and with eating disorders and with liposuction. Our fear looks like fat-free sour cream and frozen TV dinners that are SINFULLY DELICIOUS but GUILT-FREE. Our fear looks like the gap between what we yearn for—connection, fulfillment, identity, pleasure—and the bland universality we confine ourselves to and that we confine each other to. Our fear looks like our judgment of other people’s eating habits and fatness. Our fear looks like nutrients-not-food. Our fear looks like tapping on our smartphones while we eat, fast. Our fear looks like our fad diets and our nutritionists/prophets. Our fear looks like my friend Debbie who ate only spinach for a week so that she wouldn’t have a muffin top when she ran into her ex-boyfriend. Our fear looks like the phrase “muffin top.” Our fear lurks in our language. Our fear shows in our girdles and our secretive bingeing and the breach between what we eat in public and what we eat in private. Our fear is gendered and it is racial.
Food has power and we are afraid of it. So we strip it of its place in hopes of stripping it of its power.
In some ways, I don’t quite know what all this means. I don’t know what local means. I don’t know where place ends and someplace else begins. Food, both its physicality and its tradition, is usually from someplace else: bananas are a New World food, and I ate them in Africa. Peri peri is influenced by Indian cuisine. “Braai” has Afrikaans origins, which has Dutch origins. Umqombothi beer is Xhosa, and the Xhosa walked to South Africa from the Great Lakes in Tanzania in 1400. So where is the beer from? Is anything local? How can food be a manifestation of place, a union of our bodies with place, if it isn’t actually from the place?
Maybe it’s all in the preposition: of versus from. A food could be of a place without being from the place.
What distinguishes the prepositions is the individual food’s history—where was it grown and harvested and sold?—and also its role in the area’s culture—do people in that place identify themselves with it in some way?
The banana and the dates were grown in South Africa. South Africa claims peri peri, braais, and umqombothi. South Africans own those foods. They own them like they own their feet or their hairstyles or their languages. Those foods are inherently, unambiguously, South African. Peri peri in India has different spices and a different name. There are no braais in Holland. Xhosa people are their own people in South Africa as they were not in Tanzania, and umqombothi is theirs. In these ways—where they are grown and who takes cultural ownership—these foods are of South Africa without necessarily being from South Africa.
I’m not sure how this works in the United States. It’s harder for me to see my own culture, and to distinguish cultural ownership. Easier to label a food as locally grown—but even then, I’m still not certain where the local map ends.
So, add that as a sub-problem: how do I define place and locality? How do we begin to talk about food and place?
But we must, in order to begin to conquer our fear of food as union of our bodies, our identities, our culture, with place.
This is an international squeamishness, but perhaps it is most salient here in the United States, where hard, attractive food grows in supermarkets like videogame Life Points: snatch it, hear a ding, add to the Life bar at the top of your personal screen. We do not know where it is grown. Our cultural ownership of foods is mysterious to us. We eat non-jiggling yogurt on our way to work and frozen pizza at night. In this way, food is rendered harmless. In this way, we barricade ourselves from the sway and the seduction of a place and a people. We can walk in the woods and see no cottage and return to our lives unaltered. We can stay in control. We can remain untransformed.
In this way, we do not risk our lives or our identities, and we remain unruined. In this way, we aren’t lonely but we aren’t fulfilled. We never meet the Others. We die without the sensual wisdom of place and without having found who we could be. And now we are sick with heart disease and cancer and diabetes and general ill-being, we are disconnected, and we don’t know how to fix it, from a scientific or cultural or spiritual or folkloric or personal standpoint.
We have made a food culture where we do not have to risk an accidental fairy feast.
There is, though, another way of reading the fairy tale. Lately, we have found that stripping food of its place does not successfully strip it of its power and further we have found that perhaps we really don’t want to strip food of its power. If we strip food of its power what is our power, what is our identity, what is our pleasure, what is our connection, what is any possibility of magic? We have begun tentatively exploring, in farmer’s markets and in our kitchens, what food could mean, again or anew. We are wandering in the woods again and there is, for some of us, the possibility of coming across a cottage that, if we say yes, could perhaps envelop us in something we haven’t known in a long time. We aren’t at the cottage yet, but its possibility is in our weariness with fad diets, in our exploration of local foods, in our acknowledgement of food as something more than sustenance/guilt. The cottage’s possibility is in community gardens and small farms and in ranchers we have met. It is in our kitchens and our bellies and our classes and our talk.
Our culture will accommodate the cottage if we make room.