Friday, December 13, 2013

Dairy dilemmas: Milk and cheese as "wicked problems"

Dairy cows at Appleton Farms in eastern Massachusetts
Sandra Batie, an agricultural and resource economist at Michigan State University, uses the term "wicked problem" to describe issues so fraught with internal paradoxes and inconsistencies and so overlaid with competing and often contradictory ideologies and assumptions that it is difficult or impossible even to have a collective conversation about them, let alone figure out how to fix them.[1]  Batie sees agriculture as a particularly "wicked problem," and much of my recent focus on food and farm history arises from this same idea.  Because we have so little shared sense of how we got to the food system we have now, many of the attempted fixes and alternatives often feel fragile and ungrounded.

Take dairy.  It's one of the agricultural sectors most overlaid with both nostalgia (think milkmaids, butter churns, black and white Holsteins on a Vermont hillside) and ideology (think childhood nutrition, school lunch subsidy, and the raw vs. pasteurized debate).  It's also one of the liveliest frontiers of local-food revitalization (think urban professionals turned artisanal cheesemakers).  

Yet it's a component of the food system whose history is particularly murky and ill-understood.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Around the table in Ottawa: A report from the Working Group on Public History and the Local Food Movement

The Working Group at Ottawa's Experimental Farm, April 18, 2013
The series of posts that appeared here in the first few months of the year were written by members of the "Public Historians and the Local Food Movement" Working Group that was convened for the 2013 National Council on Public History conference, held last month in Ottawa.  The group held its face-to-face meeting at Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm, a visit that enriched our thinking about some of the ways that public historians do and might intersect with both agricultural practices and public interest in food and farming.

Participants came to the table with a very wide range of backgrounds in interpretation, training, research, advocacy, and community organizing. Some key ideas that emerged from our discussions included:
  • the importance of challenging the class distinction between manual and intellectual labor
  • how to use tangible/physical experiences of growing and cooking food as a way to develop stronger questions that can inform our work as historians
  • the need for long-term commitment to food- and farm-related projects
  • how to educate ourselves and others about the complex realities of farming, agricultural policy, and marketing food
  • ways to use public historical spaces and legitimacy to create new forums where people can connect across various class, political, and occupational boundaries.
The Working Group has a working lunch
One of the most stimulating parts of the meeting for me was the discussion of how our work as public historians can best relate to advocacy and activism.  Most of the people around the table were involved in some kind of food and farm education and interpretation, usually in ways that intersected with "the food movement" (broadly defined).  We recognized that our own values, tastes, and politics underpinned our interest in pursuing food-related projects, so we certainly weren't arguing that public historians should seek some kind of purely neutral or disinterested stance.

But at the same time, we found ourselves agreeing that historians’ essential neutrality (that is, our core commitment to critical, contextualized inquiry) is a gift that can help us to raise more nuanced questions and create useable spaces for discussion within a politicized and complex field. So while we generally saw ourselves as advocates and allies for those working to relocalize food systems and challenge the dominance of big, industrialized agriculture, part of what we wanted to advocate for is a balanced conversation that doesn't demonize "big ag" or romanticize "the local."

Another working group: the Experimental Farm's dairy herd
That's a stance that many museums and public history sites have adopted in an era of "civic engagement, so it's not as though we came up with anything entirely new here!  What is new about linking this approach to food and farming related issues, I think, is the way our own actions and identities become immediately much more salient than is usually the case.  We talked about the importance of being willing to get our hands dirty--in the field and in the kitchen--as a way to build credibility and accountability with partners.  We touched on the potentially uncomfortable ways that our own class positions come into play in relation to food and farming (for example, in the way that the mostly-white, mostly-middle-class demography of public history replicates that of the food movement in general, something I wrote about in a blog post last year).  Because food is such an intimate and everyday thing, as well as creating such a powerful cultural and political field, that balancing act between advocacy and neutrality becomes both trickier and more essential. 

For my co-facilitator Michelle Moon and I, the next steps after the meeting in Ottawa involve the book project that we've been developing around these questions.  I'm hoping others in our Working Group will share a few thoughts here about where they see their food-and-farm-related work headed now.  What next after Ottawa?

~ Cathy Stanton 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Kate Christen: Kinetic history at play (and at work, of course…) in the fields of local food movements

Slavic Village Learning Farm, one of Cleveland Botanical Garden's Green Corps sites
The local food movement topic--all the topics our prior posts have highlighted (history, policy, community ramifications, etc.)--constitute a strong personal research interest of mine, and even more (especially since my research time is strictly limited!) a strong personal interest, full stop. Personal engagement plus research/professional interest clearly both factor for all of us in this workshop.

Doubtless also common amongst us is the draw of the topic's close framing in action-potential--its focus on historians as kinetic actors. From the initial description: "This Working Group is based on the premise that the methods and critical insights of public historians are crucial in uncovering and communicating those more nuanced histories, and that doing so is an outstanding way to link our own methods and values with vital public dialogue about a wide range of environmental and economic issues." Also in the original description (I think that's where): "developing or amplifying a historical and theoretical framework for thinking about the public history/food movement nexus and the opportunities for partnerships to extend civic dialogue and action in these realms." And as Cathy wrote this weekend, our posts show "that we're all groping toward defining a specific role for ourselves and our skills as public historians who want to strengthen efforts and discourses around local food while asserting the value of the kind of careful, contextualized knowledge that historians can help to build."

For our in-person time, I’m interested in exploring ways we may want to move on helping define and implement specific roles for public historians within these food-related settings, how we might pull these into action, including perhaps through some form of practice-oriented trainings.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tyler French: Attending to other tables as well as our own

I have just finished writing the copy for Nourish SC, a traveling exhibit of eight panels addressing community food security in my home state of South Carolina. I hope for the exhibit to become a rallying call for members of the local food movement to expand their efforts on the social equity front, which has been ignored in favor of the environmental and economic fronts of the movement. In creating the content for the exhibit, I interviewed 13 individuals involved in either the local food movement or increasing food security, including a local farmer, a USDA official, a food bank COO, social work and public health professors, and a board member of United Way of the Midlands.

I immediately encountered tension between the spoken and the actualized goals of the local food movement.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Plowing Boston Common

"Victory Garden Program. Secretary Plowing Boston Common, 04/11/1944" 
Maybe some of you have seen this image before, but it was new to me - I stumbled on it while looking for something else in the Flickr Commons.  The source captions it as above, and I'm assuming that the "secretary" is the state or federal Secretary of Agriculture, but that's not specified in the archival description.  (It looks like it could be Claude Wickard, FDR's Agriculture Secretary in 1944).

I love lots of things about the photo, but particularly the fact that they're using draft horses, which seems to suggest either that they were going for an "olde tyme" kind of association or trying to make a point about conserving fuel during the war (or maybe both).  And it raises so many questions for me, including where these guys in suits learned to plow with draft animals!

~ Cathy

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rebecca Bush: Farm families beyond “Farmer Bob”

Picture an American farmer.  Strong, independent, face well-worn with creases caused by worries about weather and money and the future - the image isn't too hard to conjure.  Dodge used this familiarity to great effect with its 2013 Super Bowl commercial, one of the most talked-about ads of the game:

So based on the majority of that lengthy ode to farmers of America, what demographic boxes can we check off?  Almost always, our imaginary farmer is a native-born white man over the age of 40, probably living in the Midwest, Great Plains, or certain areas of the South.  This may be an easy and effective advertising trope, but it doesn't begin to capture the complete story of agriculture and food production in the United States, either historically or today.

In the American South in particular, agriculture and food is wrapped up in a messy racial relations stew, one that touches on the history of 300 years of unequal labor and land ownership determined by skin color.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Diana Lempel: With taste, smell, and imagination

I’m standing in the basement of Bondir, the intimate, award-winning Cambridge restaurant, watching Chef Jason Bond dismantle a hindquarter of beef, removing fat from muscle and muscle from bone. As he drops each chunk into its designated plastic tub, he explains to me what it will be used for. Every bit of this 200 pounds of meat will be consumed. The steaks will dry-age for some months; the fat, brightly yellow because the cow was grazing on bright green grass, will be rendered and used for daily cooking; the tough muscles will be stews, cooked with the stock made from the bones. This one animal will feed hundreds of diners; it’s the only way for high-quality meat like this, Chef tells me, to be economic.

But I don’t think it’s just economy that drives Bond’s pursuit of a "snout-to-tail" approach to beef, or his painstaking efforts to remove different kinds of pollen from every dried blossom of a fennel bush, or his abiding affection for his long-lived sourdough starter.To show what I mean, here’s a reflection offered by Sous Chef Rachel Miller, as she prepped spiced kuri squash. "I like to read a lot of old cookbooks because they’re more resourceful... it’s more about ingredients and a process... different ways to utilize what grows here, because that’s what we’re going to have a lot of."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Clara Silverstein: In the garden with Michelle Obama

I remember the crisp October day that I stood on the White House lawn, notebook poised, as First Lady Michelle Obama led the first official fall harvest of her White House Kitchen Garden. Mrs. Obama slipped on a pair of black gardening gloves, dug a pitchfork into the sweet potato bed, and pulled up a dirt-caked vegetable.

“Now, this is a sweet potato! Let’s see who can get the biggest,” she said, as fifth graders from the Bancroft and Kimball schools in Washington, D.C. prepared to help. One girl squealed, and Mrs. Obama laughed. Then she and the students went to work, pulling out radishes, lettuce, bell peppers, eggplant, and more than a dozen crops.

I visited the garden as part of my research for A White House Garden Cookbook, published in 2010 by Red Rock Press. The book chronicles the first year of the White House Kitchen Garden, and includes recipes from the White House as well as gardening groups around the country that work with children.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lisa Junkin - A question of the stomach: A museum contemplates its role within a movement

“It is a part of the new philanthropy to recognize that the social question is largely a question of the stomach.” – Jane Addams 

Five years ago, the Slow Food Movement was new to myself and my colleagues at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. We considered ourselves to be urban foodies in our own rights, but we were just catching wind of a broad movement that would soon sweep the nation and transform our museum. We wanted a place at the table, but we did not yet know where we belonged.

We read Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters, Raj Patel, Michael Pollan. We spoke with farmers, activists, chefs, economists, doctors and historians. We learned that while the Slow Food Movement has radical roots, in the United States it has been characterized by activists as elitist. Opponents argue that a movement dedicated to food shouldn’t be concerned with the pleasures of fine foods and preserving the "slow" traditions of the past, but rather should be committed to advocating for food justice and a better future for all.

Referring to The Jungle, a book that set off a food movement of its own, Upton Sinclair wrote: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” For the last five years, the Hull-House has aimed squarely at our audiences’ stomachs, developing a suite of food projects that includes a modern day soup kitchen, an urban farm, an artisan jam operation, an heirloom seed library, and an exhibit called 21st Century Home Economics. As a result of this work, we offer two responses to the divisions within the Slow Food Movement. The first has little to do with public history but everything to do with movement building, and that is that pleasure is not at odds with social justice. Alice Waters refers to the slow food movement as a delicious revolution, arguing that when pleasure and community-building are prioritized, ecologically and socially responsible systems will follow. This framework has transformed our understanding of what activism looks like. A hot bowl of soup, organic and made with care, serves as a reminder that we are fighting for all people to be nourished in body, mind and spirit. There is pleasure in justice, and in the ongoing struggle we do well to remember that medicine goes down easier with a spoon of honey.

Our second response has everything to do with public history, which is, the past is not at odds with the future. At Hull-House, our foray into the food movement is lens for investigating issues of social justice, past and present. Many of our food related programs reflect the fierce urgency of now, but they are grounded by a site-specific historical context that inspires and shapes our participation in the larger movement. (For an in-depth examination of how Hull-House’s food programs relate to our site’s history, see article by former director Lisa Yun Lee: “Hungry for Peace: Jane Addams and the Hull-House Museum’s Contemporary Struggle for Food Justice.”)

To be honest, we didn’t know much about how Hull-House residents engaged with food when we started this work. But as we learned more about the food movement, we began to ask new questions of the past. Who cooked at Hull-House? Where did immigrants purchase their food? Were there community gardens in the 1890s? What solutions to food insecurity were devised 100 years ago? Not surprisingly, our research yielded a bounty: the Progressive Era residents at Hull-House helped create the field of Home Economics and engaged in research on nutrition. They advocated to collectivize housework, to “light one fire instead of many.” They created a public kitchen that served affordable food to families, factory workers, and school children. They created the first pasteurized milk station in Chicago, helping to end a public health crisis that claimed the lives of hundreds of infants. And they formed urban farms alongside their immigrant neighbors in order to nourish and sustain their community.

When we examined our site’s history around food, suddenly the past no longer felt distant, nor did the movement feel quite as fraught. This historical content became the foundation of our food programming and contributes significantly our conversation on contemporary issues. For example, at a program about rapidly increasing desires for raw milk, small batch ice cream and other artisan-made foods, Hull-House staff offered insight about why Settlement residents advocated for the regulatory agencies that many foodies today reject as authorities on what foods are safe and edible. During a conversation about so-called food deserts-- neighborhoods lacking food security--we grappled with how the Hull-House Diet Kitchen failed due to the residents’ lack of knowledge and sensitivity about immigrants’ palates and inflexible notions of nutrition.

We now understand the museum’s role as such: to bring together doctors, farmers, chefs, students, economists, and artists in share meals and discuss the food movement today, and to share a broad historical narrative that offers critical insight and inspiration. Five years after we began our love affair with food and justice, we have found our place within the movement. It is in the dining room, on the farm, inside the archive and out in the streets.

- Lisa Junkin, Interim Director, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Photographs: Re-thinking Soup in the Residents’ Dining Hall, 2008; The Urban Heirloom Farm at the Hull-House Museum, 2011; Canning Labels, 2011; Seed Starting Workshop, 2012.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Linda Norris: Moving beyond the butter churn

I’d been tossing around in my head what to write in this blog post, and thought I would be writing it from eastern Ukraine, but circumstances intervened and I’m actually home in chilly upstate New York. Luckily, this photo appeared in my Facebook feed one January morning, with Katya’s caption, “my daily winter tea.”   And somehow, amidst this glorious tumble of collected herbs, my thoughts began to crystallize.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work in all kinds of different places, but one place that has captured more of me in the last four years has been Ukraine.  I first went in 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar and have continued to return on an irregular basis, co-founding the Pickle Project with fellow Fulbrighter Sarah Crow to encourage conversation in both Ukraine and the United States about food, culture and sustainability.

When I asked about the tea in the photo, Katya replied, “I don't know the exact meaning of those herbs, but I believe they are much better for me as usual tea from a shop, because gathered by my mom on my motherland.”  In that one phrase—her mom and her motherland-- she shared both the intensely personal and the intensely political nature of food in Ukraine.   

The personal means that the local food movement isn’t a movement in Ukraine; it’s a way of life for many.  The idea of a local food movement generates many bemused smiles. But that way of life depends on shrinking generations of mothers and grandmothers who still make the time to collect herbs, to pickle and to preserve, either in their home villages or in their dachas (summer homes) where intensive small cultivation is how every weekend is spent.   

The political nature of local food is harder to see than the village gardens and root cellars, but like the old Soviet system, it pervades every part of Ukrainian life. Most Americans have never heard of Holodomor, the enforced famine of 1932-33 during which Stalin’s orders starved millions of Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens to death, despite living in the region known as the Bread Basket of Europe.  And few Americans understand the full extent of the extreme privations that happened on the Eastern front during World War II. But most of us do know a bit about Chernobyl and the contamination that continues to resound on many levels—including the food supply.    

Those 20th century events created powerful national and personal memories.   Those memories mean that the political is personal.  For many, the safest path in the food chain is to rely on your own family’s hard work--or the babushka at the market selling homemade pickles--no matter that every day you pass a McDonald’s outside the metro station.

The transition from a peasant economy to the Soviet collectivization of agriculture is something virtually unaddressed in Ukrainian museums, much the same way American local history and outdoor museums often take a pass at the transition to corporate agriculture.  It’s complicated—so it’s often ignored.   If museums everywhere cannot address the big changes of the 20th century, it’s equally hard to imagine how they will address the big changes of the 21st.  

I think of my extended experiences in Ukraine as a continual, surprising, process of turning my own thoughts and assumptions around, looking at them from different angles and perspectives.  As public historians, I think that’s one role we can play, no matter where we are, creating situations where farmers, foodies and everyday people can look at food from different angles.  We can create dialogues that cross boundaries, including those of class and location. I’m interested in exploring how historians could contribute to--and how museums might create--a model such as Conflict Kitchen, the amazing Pittsburgh pop-up that only serves food from countries that the United States is in conflict with as a way of encouraging conversation, including international Skype parties between citizens of Pittsburgh and those in Iran and Afghanistan.

In 2011, with support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Pickle Project sponsored a series of four open public conversations in four Ukrainian cities.  Such open conversations are unusual in Ukraine—and not surprisingly, we found that the food conversations opened up much broader conversations about politics, memory, a sense of place, and the future.   (You can read more about the conversations both on our blog and in an article in the Spring, 2012 issue of Museums & Social Issues).   

Such work means though, that we have to go out of our comfort zones, as historians and as museums, take a hard look at our own biases and assumptions and move beyond the butter churn.

~ Linda Norris


Tea by Katya Kuchar

Preserves and pickles for sale at the market in L’viv by Sarah Crow

Workers on a collective farm, undated.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Briann Greenfield: What row to hoe?

The author picking spinach in February.

What role should a state museum, like the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS), play in preserving and interpreting the history of agriculture and food? How can such an organization tell the history in a way that fits its specific mission, institutional strengths and priorities? I ask these questions from a several perspectives. I am a Professor of History and Public History Program Coordinator at Central Connecticut State University where I teach courses in museum studies and material culture that regularly use the museum’s collection. I am also a member of CHS’s Collections Steering Committee and Deaccession Task Force, two groups charged with enhancing the collection’s strength, relevance, and overall quality. Finally, I’m interested on a very personal level as someone deeply involved in the local food movement as a 4- season gardener on my own city lot and a regular volunteer at Urban Oaks Organic Farm, a 12-year old farm in an urban food desert. These perspectives make me see both the potential for agriculture and food history, but also make me cautious about committing limited resources to its pursuit.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Anna Duhon: Windows onto the farmscape: Becoming part of the story

FEP researchers Anna Duhon, Conrad Vispo, Claudia Knab-Vispo
How do we help facilitate people’s connection to the land? This is the central question that drives our work at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, a small, community-based research and outreach initiative on a working educational farm in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Our trio of researchers includes a botanist, a wildlife ecologist and a social scientist. Together we strive to open different windows of knowledge onto our county’s ‘farmscape’--the term we use to describe a landscape that even in its most out-of-the way corners has been shaped by a long history of agricultural land use and for which agriculture continues to be a defining factor.

The windows we open are often very different--a look into the native butterflies and the fields they thrive in, or the industrial history as it impacted land use, or the new farmers that are just marrying their visions to a piece of land. With the landscape as the connecting core of our research, we are always striving to mesh our different disciplines into a more holistic picture. This involves bridging areas of research that are often separate or even at odds, such as the cultural and the ecological, or agronomic and conservation sciences. By opening such different windows, we hope not only to deepen our own perspectives, but also to invite further exploration and engagement with the land from a broad base of interests; creating entry points that might draw in farmers alongside history buffs, or wildflower enthusiasts alongside local food lovers.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Angi Fuller Wildt: Communicating the virtues of local foods

Olives grow in the U.S. too!
As both a co-owner of a small-scale sustainable agricultural business and a public historian, the work that I do synthesizes public history with actively producing and marketing locally and regionally produced foods. In addition to cultivating, growing and selling mushrooms, herbs and produce to local restaurants and at our Columbia, South Carolina All-Local Farmers' Market, our business sells olive oil made from olives grown in southeast Georgia. One aspect of our marketing entails informing our customers about the 18th and 19th century exportation of olive oil as a commodity from coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Most people are quite surprised that olives can be cultivated in the southeast United States. Sharing the history allows them to have a sense of connection to the roots of the region. Many customers appreciate that the product isn’t shipped across the country or an ocean and that it supports economies close to home.

Another educational opportunity takes us into university classrooms and local venues to engage in dialogues about the ecological and economic benefits of growing and consuming heritage varieties of produce and other foods grown organically and locally.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Will Walker: Oral history as a way in to complex discussions

Farmland, upper Delaware River, New York state, 1943 (Library of Congress)
Interviewer: Do you feel you have a different attitude towards food than someone from a more urban area?
Narrator: Well, I think something that a lot of people don’t realize and I think that they should start thinking about it more is our water supply. A good water supply, we’re losing it, for drinking water. Now my house, my farm is all on spring water. The farm up there, that’s gravity feed, we don’t even have a pump on it. The water runs freely to the three houses, the barn, and the cows. It’s self-flowed, runs right to the barn. Up on my house where I live in Pierstown, that’s all spring. The farm when we had it up there was all spring. I think that with this drilling and spoiling the water with doing things, building houses and stuff, we’re losing a lot of our good water supply and I think that we should be thinking about it.
This past fall, several of my students and I used oral history selections like the one above as the starting point for dialogue sessions on issues related to farming and the environment.  These narrative pieces offered a way into complex discussions of land use, natural resources, and agriculture.  Such conversations are urgently necessary in the area in which I live and work—upstate New York—as the natural gas industry presses for authorization to drill using the controversial technique known as hydrofracking.  Fracking was not, however, the only topic of discussion at the four dialogue sessions we convened in the fall.  Longer-term questions of agricultural and environmental change were also consistently part of our conversations.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A New Year's Toast: Let Us Begin

Greetings all, and thanks to Cathy, our host at History at the Table. I'm delighted to be the first guest blogger in our discussion of public history and the local food movement, which will of course culminate in our Working Group meeting at the NCPH 2013 meeting in April. This will be the first of many posts on this intersection in coming weeks, as each member of the Working Group takes a turn offering insights and questions. Knowing that the conversation to follow will be lively and provocative, I raise a metaphorical glass to all present and say "Let us begin."

I'll be speaking from personal experience first, describing how my work at one museum led me into the local food movement, and then making the case more generally for a strategic re-evaluation of food interpretation in museums.

How One Museum Got Slower

In 2004 I became education director at a historic site and museum called Strawbery Banke,  a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH. Its more than 20 restored houses (with associated period landscapes) feature a mix of traditional interpretive strategies - first person roleplaying, didactic displays, period rooms, guided programs. 

Like many such sites, we faced the challenge of maintaining audience attendance in a time of widespread decline. With tongue only partly in cheek, Cary Carson, chief researcher at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, predicted "the end of history museums" in 2008, noting that attendance has been sinking for three straight decades . Reach Advisers found that history museums,
compared with 7 other museum genres, ranked lowest in popularity with all demographic groups. Only 31% of family museum visitors even venture to historic sites.

What could we do to forge new connections with potential participants? We didn't have to look far for inspiration. The local food movement was blossoming around us.