Search This Blog

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sticking People Together, Making People "Stick" Out: Oh, Honey

Sticking People Together, Making People "Stick" Out: Oh, Honey

Almost everyone around the world eventually discovers that food brings people together and apart. Bread and rice start medieval peasant riots, GMO's strain or heal international relations, family business for many people happens around the table, and in some countries chocolate may win a girl's affections for a day. In Charlottesville, VA, the Saturday morning City Market clearly brings people together, but an interview with a local honey merchant shows that homegrown food can form communal relationships while also setting people apart from each other within that community.

The Hungry Hill Farms booth sits next to the popsicle stand, the first booth in a long row of organic and homemade stalls. The couple working the booth first caught my attention when the friendly man complimented my friend's "I'm no rocket-surgeon" shirt. Other people who stopped by to look at the honey often just stopped by to chat; two ladies paused because, as they said, "I buy your honey at the Cville Market." The honey they had purchased at the local store had become a way to open up alliance in conversation; it had created a social "debt", albeit a very small one, between the person at the booth and the customer, and while the customer and the vendor did not know each other, they both acknowledged a small friendly bond. Colin Johnson, the friendly man watching the booth, said that often regular customers will come solely for conversation, not to buy honey.

Conversation and social bonds actually started the Hungry Hill Farms business back in 1968 when Glenn Clayton Sr. had a conversation with a friend from the fire department. The fireman had kept two bee hives as a hobby, but became allergic and gave them to Clayton Sr. as a gift. The two beehives expanded to the current 500, and the hobby became a business as the honey became popular among friends and family, who received it from the Claytons on holidays and as gifts. Honey, then, drew people together, and the drawing of people together produced surplus honey. The Claytons soon found that they had too much honey for use year after year, and began to sell it. As they sold honey, they expanded their hives and social linkages, and so the cycle continues. Colin Johnson, who told me the story about "her grandfather," actually joined the business himself through social bonds: he is in a relationship with Mr. Clayton's granddaughter, the confident-looking lady who sold us honey sticks.

The basic needs of food-provision are still a very real part of why Happy Hill Farms exists. In addition to honey, the farm has ten acres of garden which supplies much of the produce that the Clayton family consumes. The farm also grows shitake mushrooms to sell. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that social and communal connections form a great part, if not most, of the push and pull of Hungry Hill Farms.

While honey brings people together, it also establishes distinctions between people. When asked what kind of people bought Hungry Hill Honey, Johnson told us that "a smattering of people", from the "crunchy hippie types" to those who looked like they "just came off their yacht." While the purchase of the same product seems to establish a kind of unified identity between these kinds of people, Johnson's division of the customer group along sociopolitical lines--rather than racial, ethnic, or otherwise--mirrors a general mental division in the local food conversation. A largely false stereotype does exist to make local and sustainable food a liberal "hippie" issue; an additional stereotype, that conservatives have all the money for highly priced goods, breaks down as in Charlottesville, where it's an upper-middle class liberal bourgeois that provides the purchasing power for farm products. Elsewhere, in more stereotypically "conservative" rural areas, the price of sustainable and local food goes down. Generalizations may not provide true pictures of a society on the outside, but in the local food conversation, they do show glimpses of the stark mental and social attitudes that surround food consumption in the minds of the consumers, vendors, and the rest of the society. People in Cville set themselves apart from each other through the food they eat.

A conversation with one of Hungry Hill's customers further illuminated the way that food purchasing establishes uniqueness. She buys Hungry Hill, she says, because it's a walking distance from her house to the Cville Market that sells it "and besides it's local," but she goes to the Farmer's Market because "everyone's here." It's where the politicians campaign, the people hang out, and you can buy sustainable and local food, she says. She described a communal event that brings people together. As she went on, she explained how sustainable and local food was a lifestyle for her, not "the latest social trend", because she grew up on a farm. The conversation, while demonstrating how food became a unifying event, succinctly demonstrated that my interviewee's identity became set apart by her history with sustainable food. She distinguished herself not only from those who do not buy local, but from those who have a different purchasing history with local food. She wanted that distinction.

Quite obviously, the food that people sell also sets them apart. Every business strives to point out why its food is different or better than everyone else's: that's simply a factor of business. Hungry Hill Honey comes with an additional degree of vendor separation besides that which comes naturally with business products. Vegetable and meat farmers work directly with the crop they sell: bee farmers work with it second-hand from other living creatures. 

This distinction creates interesting environmental and political consequences for farmers. Johnson explains that large companies truck their bees across the country to try to hit all the different blooms. The first, the almond blooms, come in very early spring, and when the bees have gathered as much as possible, the companies truck them elsewhere, hitting cotton blooms down south, cherry blooms, and everything else. This travel weakens the bees' immune systems, and understandably leads to disorientation of their internal compasses. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon rocking the bee industry over the past five years or so, occurs when bees simply stop finding their way around, or fly away and leave the colony for good. Bees without a colony die, and the suicide of the colony becomes a suicide for the bees. A year or two ago Hungry Hill Farms also lost several colonies, even though most of their colonies remain stationary all the time. Johnson and Ms. Clayton attribute CCD primarily to bee diseases spread by the large bee businesses. 

The CCD discussion shows that inherent in the honey itself, and the manner in which it can be practically harvested and grown with minimal bee loss, one finds social and economic distinctions and decisions. This occurs, of course, for all products, but for honey, with its unique nature and source, these choices become especially pronounced and complex. The purchasing and selling of honey, then, says something about the people who purchase and sell it. Honey sticks people together in community; it also shows us who we are as individuals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vikings, Rice Pudding, and Being Different, Goshdarnit!

Risalamande: How Different is Good

              Throughout history, the descendents of the Vikings on the small peninsula and islands of Denmark have distinguished themselves by embracing the different. Champions of all variation, good and bad, the Danish not only travel abroad in astounding numbers and integrate LGBT identity into their cultural framework: they also marked themselves during WWII as the only country to successfully evacuate all of their Jewish citizens. Scholars--and my Danish mother--credit this success to the high level of acceptance and integration the Danish had achieved with their Jewish residents, to the point that when Hitler required Jews to wear yellow stars, the Danish king ordered all citizens to wear these symbols of Jewish separation. These Danish cultural attitudes in everyday life come out most clearly in the Christmas rice ritual of eating risalamande.
              This fluffy rice pudding dish is traditionally created once every Christmas out of whipped cream and rice porridge, often accompanied with a cherry or cranberry sauce. In my family ground nuts sometimes find their way into the risalamande to tempt or tease the eater, as a constant reminder of the whole almond hiding in some lucky person's bowl. This whole almond universally becomes the central part of the ritual, and when eating risalamande, each person rolls the rice over on the tongue slowly to feel for any irregularities, for the person who finds the whole almond receives an extra gift. The winner must not immediately reveal the almond, however--she must keep it hidden in her mouth until the end of the ritual, at which point she may reveal that she has won. I have observed risalamande consumption where the winner was allowed to hide the almond in her napkin, rather than in her mouth, but the concept remains the same. In this Danish tradition, the "different" person remains modest and non-obnoxious about his difference, but in the end, uniqueness receives a reward.
              According to an interview with John Hyltoft, an eighty-year-old Danish immigrant to the United States, risalamande actually evolved from the much simpler rice porridge, risengrød, comprised purely of rice and milk sometimes topped with cinnamon and butter. Mr. Hyltoft, who changed his name from the Danish Johannes upon immigrating, actually remembers having eaten risengrød with the almond, instead of risalamande, at some point in his life. Risalamande, as suggested by the spelling of the name (Ris a la mande), actually carries French desert influence, but risengrød dates back to the old Danish farm life "back in history," says Mr. Hyltoft. The incorporation of foreign influence into a long-treasured tradition again demonstrates the openness and fluidity of Danish culture. Risengrød itself became an important part of Danish agricultural life because farmers used it to pacify the nisse, the mischevious house sprite or fairy. A well-placed bowl of risengrød up in the rafters for the nisse would bring good to the house; otherwise, says Mr. Hyltoft, the nisse would "figure out all kind of crazy thing" like "tying one horse to another, something like that. Not like burning down the house or something, just, you know it would make things irritating." We see, then, that although a long-held tradition adapted as tastes changed to foreign comforts, food within this ritual connects Danes to a common national, agricultural and mythological history. Importantly, the nisse--the foreign, different, other--becomes incorporated into the household through risengrød, again underlining the Danish emphasis on accepting uniqueness into a part of the home fabric.
              The social mores around the manner in which risalamande is consumed today continue this tradition of incorporating the "other" into "us" while hinting at additional cultural values. Mr. Hyltoft remembers that when he ate risalamande with his family as a young boy, somehow one of the young children always wound up with the almond. We can see here the connection between food and age through the process of celebrating and bringing children into the cultural context with the rest of the family, teaching the children a cultural value of being "different." Mr. Hyltoft, without thinking much of it, also said that the younger sisters in the family often received the almond. He was, however, the youngest child in the family. The gender-based selection of the sisters over Mr. Hyltoft did not register with him and he saw the selection as age based, showing just how inherently and naturally cultural values affected the ritual. More telling, when the meal did not involve children, the guest--from outside the family--would always receive the almond. I remember even today when my future husband ate risalamande at my Danish mother's table for the first time, as the newest guest, he wound up with the almond. My mother made the situation appear accidental, and everyone told Brian that the almond had wound up in his bowl through good luck, but of course we all knew my mother had selected his bowl. The almond became a way of making his "outsider" status a positive thing that ultimately bonds him together with us through celebration of his unique fortune. As he enters my family, in some way I suspect this almond also serves as initiation. Next Christmas, he probably will not get the almond, for, as Mr. Hyltoft explains, "without guests it was always a fair fight."
              The consumption, history, and social preparation of risalamande demonstrate the value of the "other" within Danish culture, as well as hinting at gender, initiation, nationalism, and age identities within Danish thought. As the Christmas ritual of risalamande continues to move from generation to generation, however, the dish not only demonstrates cultural mores but actually helps to create and maintain them. Much of the way adults think about separation and uniqueness develops through celebration or rejection of these values during their childhood. Children brought up celebrating the "lucky special one" every Christmas inevitably feel a pull towards the different and the other. Risalamande, then, not only cements a constant of Danish tradition, but additionally catalyzes Danish foreign openness and cultural change.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kind of Poorly Written Essay on So-called "Social Darwinism" in 20th Century Europe

Social Darwinism waited in the shadows for worldwide attention for eons, and still lurks over humanity today. The idea that the human race could improve by selective breeding dates back to Aristotle's teacher in ancient Greece. It finally got its “big break” through Social Darwinism under Herbert Spencer's manipulation, and people identify it most with Germany, but in reality it existed among the elite all over Europe. Lombroso in Spain wrote in the late 1800s that some people just had criminal genes. A harsher breed of colonialism, opposed to the idea of the “white man's burden” to educate the ignorant natives world-ever, held that the fitter civilizations had the right to take over the weaker or the foolish. In these situations, Social Darwinism had the effect of promoting discrimination based on culture, and suspicion based on parentage. 

In Germany Social Darwinism had the greatest power as race-based discrimination. In some ways, it was not anti-Semitism that drove Hitler, but Social Darwinism that drove him to anti-Semitism. Interestingly, some educated Jews in Germany accepted the idea of Social Darwinism, but included themselves in the “chosen race.” Hitler himself explicitly stated that one must follow science (as opposed to a societal, religious, or other code) when deciding on morality. The only really fundamental moral right, then, he said, was the moral right of one race to subjugate the other. In fact, this competetive right became the duty of every superior race, and he even explicitly stated that he took pride when people labeled him as a barbarian because nature supported competetive barbarianism. Social Darwinism originally targeted the “less accomplished” (in Hitler's eyes) races, and of course, blacks and other very distinct people became immediately unfavorable, as did the old, weak, and sick. Many Jews often had liberalizing or, on the other end of the pendulum, distinctly communist tendencies. This political enmity probably prompted Hitler to notice the differences they bore biologically to himself, for to him their widespread "political ignorance" certainly had something to do with their genetics. At any rate, Social Darwinism, if not the motivation for anti-semitism for Hitler, became the justification for all of Germany.

Some feel that only fringe fanatics, like Hitler, would apply the principles of biology to human society, and even today continue to argue against the use of the term “Social Darwinism.” However, they fail to realize how widespread and natural the extension from biological evolution to evolution of human societies really seemed to people. Not all the reasoning behind Social Darwinism produced death and discrimination: Andrew Carnegie did not believe in welfare handouts, for he hoped that the deserving poor would succeed, and the undeserving poor would not succeed (and thus eliminate their genes from the gene pool). In order to help the deserving poor he built libraries and other public outlets for aid that required effort to access. Most of the legacies of Social Darwinism, however, have deep roots in racism and bigotry. In the US, between 1910 and 1930, 24 states passed eugenics laws, and Congress passed a migration law restricting who could enter the United States based on race and genetic/ethnic fitness. Margaret Sanger, the avid contraception and birth control activist who founded Planned Parenthood, suggested that her ideas of contraception would best apply to the blacks in the US. She actually wrote that she hoped to convince black women to have as many abortions as possible, and to use contraception as much as possible, in order to gradually eliminate the race, and suggested that people convince black pastors to tell their congregants that contraception and abortion would benefit their families. Ironically, probably through economic disadvantages or other social factors, today minorities are overrepresented in abortion clinics as compared to whites, and Margaret Sanger's dream has in some ways begun to come true, not through social planning as she had suggested, but by accident. Ms. Sanger's plan, like that of Hitler and others, however, held the utmost of intention. They really did believe that science needed to dictate their morality, and that to follow nature's example required the subjugation of the unfit. The harsh legacies of Social Darwinism still remain with us today.