Excerpt — October 10, 2017, 2:48 pm

The Thing About Eating That Makes Me Stand Up and Say Howdy

From Know That What You Eat You Are: The best food writing from Harper’s Magazine

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.

“Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato.

–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.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Post
Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today