Monday, July 6, 2009

The Hagiography of Those Who Grow Good Food

In my senior year of college I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the infancy narrative of Ethiopian Christian saints' biographies, or, as they're technically called, hagiographies. The narratives were all the same: There was a barren but righteous woman; there were bees hovering around the door of the house where the child was born; there was some kind of miraculous revelation in childhood and then Poof! A child became a saint.

I thought about these narratives yesterday after I read the compelling story of Will Allen in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Allen, a former athlete and wildly successful salesman, grows a lot of food on relatively little land in Milwaukee. He's committed to bringing good food people of color. He's not interested in fetishizing the perfect tomato and he loves his donuts, although he appreciates one. He's interested in equitable and sustainable agriculture.

As compelling as the story is, it's also as predictable as the infancy narratives. As an American over fifty, he had to have a period in Europe to awaken a certain Je ne sais quoi about food. For Alice Waters it was seasonal produce in Provence and for Will Allen it was compost in Antwerp where he lived and played basketball. He has his gaggle of admirers hovering at the door. And he has his -- you know what's coming -- MscArthur genius grant!

Now, I don't want to take away one thing from Will Allen. I put down that magazine yesterday and I thought: "I want to be an urban gardener! I want to teach children in gardens and grow my own food and actively reject the food-industrial complex! Will Allen says it's OK if I don't like to garden, I can shop at a farm market. But I don't just want to shop, I want to garden! Why don't I like to garden at all?" It was so comforting, the story, and frankly I'm really glad to be inspired by someone other than Michael Pollan. But my response to it was so predictable, almost, oh no, ritualized. I think that's the problem....unless it's the solution to easy food. Make the getting and cooking of good food something of a ritual with weight and meaning and purpose and then it might be easier to resist the easy packages. I don't know. I do know, though, that I have got to get to the market!

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