From Know That What You Eat You Are: The best food writing from Harper’s Magazine. The book is available for purchase in the Harper’s Store.
–Wendell Berry, “Think Little,” from A Continuous Harmony”
I love to eat. Don’t you? How can you not? When it comes to favorite savory occupations of sentient, opposable-thumbed, mammalian life, you’ve got: woodworking, and assembling jigsaw puzzles is a treat, for sure, not to mention forest-perambulating, comprehending written language, making sweet love, and fishing, but (with apologies) what really takes the cake is eating (mainly food, though, to be clear—while I have at times feasted upon such unfortunate entrées as crow, my hat, my words, and humble pie, those experiences were slathered rather more with regret than relish).
The thing about eating that makes me stand up and say howdy is that it can fully titillate the five senses in its execution: the knee-weakening glimpse of a beef brisket breaching the oak-wood smoker; the clarion perfume of frying garlic in a Thai kitchen that can draw me from blocks away, floating like a cartoon varmint under the thrall of a windowsill pie. The sound of anything frying. The muscular flesh of a fresh apple in one’s hand, cleanly calving against the incisors like straight-grained birch under the splitter’s maul. And, of course, taste (sigh). The mouth memory of a warm, butter-slathered slice of my dad’s home-baked bread conjures details and emotions worthy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In many households, breaking bread with loved ones can also be considered the main campus of the school of good manners. As we take sustenance onboard together, we learn how to comport ourselves in the presence of others, and how to share (or not, depending on your standing in the sibling hierarchy). I have learned from my family the traditions of a lovely human instinct for seeing one’s company well-fed, and I know that I always try to behave impeccably so that I will be invited back for the next lesson. When we eat appropriately, we are fed more than nutrients and protein—we also taste the founding notions of human decency.
Speaking of “those who feed,” there is among our race a sect of heroes that has done and continues to do the great service of experimenting with every one of the earth’s known edible compounds, mixing and manipulating ingredients and flavors like so many mad but benevolent scientists—and all for our gustatory appreciation. Like so many kitchen ninja, they leap from cutting board to skillet, wielding spatula and spoon like deadly nunchaku. We call these noble men and women cooks. With their attention (born of affection) solely focused upon us and our meals, together we get to upgrade the daily necessity of caloric consumption into a regular self-pleasuring.
That’s it, right? Cooks cook food, and eaters gobble it down. Right? Wrong. Our modern industrial food providers would love for us to believe that food magically appears in the grocery store, so that we need never be troubled by or even aware of the devastation much of their industry has wrought upon the small American farmer. The sour truths behind the lion’s share of our nation’s current agricultural practices will serve to ruin our appetites but quick, as you’ll read in some downright chilling anecdotes of farm production in “How Now, Drugged Cow” (1994) and “Cage Wars” (2014). Therefore another deeper enjoyment of eating can be derived from a curiosity and resultant knowledge of your food’s source. Expending a little extra energy and budget to ensure that what we eat is actually good is an ever-growing responsibility for all of us. Not just good for our personal health, but good for every participant in the chain of produce, from soil to table. Acknowledging this obligation can make those radishes go down even easier, on many levels, which is a central theme of the excellent body of food writing by thinkers like Michael Pollan, here represented with “Cultivating Virtue” (1987).
Even if you don’t adore devouring comestibles as much as I do, you have to admit that we all do it. We have to, because of the, you know, nutrition and whatnot, the sustenance-of-life type stuff that eating provides. “Food helps to enlongen our lives,” is a thing I presume a professor would say (a little bio-ology for you, not to brag), and she would be right. I’ll bet you didn’t expect a science lesson from this altar boy turned thespian/scribe, but I can assure you that this revelation won’t be the last surprise you’ll apprehend in these pages. This collection of pieces, selectively harvested from the garden of Harper’s Magazine across the last 160 years or so, will elucidate the definitive way to serve a proper meal in “The Art of Dining” (1875) as well as some examples in which modern eateries take the form exceedingly over the top in Tanya Gold’s hilarious “A Goose in a Dress” (2015). You’ll find stories of foods coldly regarded as mere commodities demanding our continued vigilance in “The Quinoa Quarrel” (2014) and “The Food Bubble” (2010), and some of our hilarious/frightening efforts to innovate new treats to tuck away for our ever-burgeoning contingent of consumers in “Brave New Foods” (1988) and “Ticket to the Fair” (1994). These examples and many more paint a rich representation of the ongoing marriage between us eatin’ types and the types of eats we favor, as well as the welfare and history of those various foods and those who cultivate or fabricate or sell them.
Marriages, as you may know, are not always filled with sunshine, even in the most loving of homes. Despite its initial disagreeability, this inclement state of being is to be ultimately revered, for it is the occasional rain that instructs us just how precious are those moments of sunshine when they do return. In our perpetual wedlock with our daily grub, there are certainly moments that might be likened to a honeymoon, e.g. a bountiful sweet corn harvest or the arrival at table of a sizzling rasher of bacon, just as there are patches of stormy weather (most salad courses).
Within the narratives that make up this book, I most enjoyed following the loose thread tracing the overall evolution of this matrimony between Americans and their provender. As you might have surmised by the quote kicking off this writing, I am a particular fan and student of the writing of Wendell Berry, whose body of work holds the clearest instructions for all of us interested in perpetuating healthy human life on this planet. The further back one looks into our collective history, back before we became such adept and devoted consumers, the more one witnesses a populace who had a working knowledge of Mr. Berry’s aforementioned potato.
This satisfying spread of essays then (including two by Mr. Berry himself), while an excellent tasting menu of the many-faceted relations between Americans and their foodstuffs, serves as a clear journal of the ways in which we have done our eating right, and of course, how we have burnt the toast to a crisp, as it were. This buffet of critical writing offers flavors that range from jocular to imperative to abhorrent, but in properly pacing our consumption of their mixed courses they will do us a great deal of good service. Why not digest them fully and then share the recipes so that our earthly family may enjoy a renewed awareness of (and affection for) the foods we eat and the people who provide them to us. And don’t forget to help with the dishes.
Know That What You Eat You Are is available for purchase in the Harper’s Store.