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.
Cotton is the most significant crop in this narrative, but after the Civil War, it determined whether African Americans and poor whites could devote enough land to grow gardens to feed their own families, or whether they needed to depend on credit from not-always-reliable country stores. Yet food and agriculture are among the most universal of shared histories - after all, everyone has to eat. How then to reconcile a potentially uncomfortable conversation with the simple universal appeal of food?
|The Harriet Barber house in Hopkins, South Carolina|
The history of African-American agriculture has often been one of discrimination and exploitative labor - unpleasant topics, to be sure, but important ones. Food preparation and tradition, particularly when it's home-grown, seems to offer a friendlier and equally important narrative. What is the best way to combine these two facets of Southern history: delicious regional dishes with ingredients pulled from a garden, prepared by those who did not always control their own agricultural production? It's easy enough to pull recipes from a Junior League cookbook or even from a 1902 fundraising cookbook meant to establish free kindergarten schools "for the education and moral training of the children of the poor." Talking about the foods eaten by those "children of the poor" can be seen as more depressing, less "fun," and not as readily accessible without conveniently archived recipe books.
Today, the act of buying food is still stratified by class - certain stores are considered to be lower-class, while other stores, especially chains like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, are sometimes seen as only for those bringing home a certain salary. (For proof, look no further than my favorite SNL one-liner in recent memory, which defined the poverty line as "the invisible line that separates Target from Wal-Mart.") It's important to remember these common perceptions as we publicly present the history of food production and consumption.
I am currently planning a large exhibition on the history of regional food and agriculture in the Chattahoochee River Valley region of Georgia and Alabama. As I prepare this exhibit, I'm seeking to capture diverse stories from men and women of many different ethnicities and ages. There are older "traditional" farmers in the area, as well as a couple that has been featured in a Southern documentary about young organic farmers. As part of the exhibit, I want to spark community dialogue through the inclusion of contemporary voices and programming that introduces visitors to ideas, debates, and resources about local food. My hope is that all of these elements will create a diverse story that speaks to many people and provides a catalyst for more conversations about local food today.
~ Rebecca Bush, The Columbus Museum, Georgia