On knowing and food

By Claudia Campeanu

In response to a question about marriage patterns and choices, a man in M.* told me a story about an old friend who had emigrated to Germany.  The friend’s daughter was about to get married and the friend was not happy at all with her choice, not because there was something wrong with the groom, but because they didn’t know much about his family.  “You know, even when we buy a pig, we first want to know about the family it comes from.  It’s true,” he laughed.

Far from me to advocate slipping into a nostalgia about the good ol’ times when men joyfully exchanged women and pigs along kin lines.  No.  But, I think there’s value in thinking about what these men’s discomfort about not knowing makes visible for us.  How has this not knowing become such an unquestioned part of our lives?  And, what does it mean to ignore the ways (some profoundly social) in which we are connected to and disconnected from our food, and, through extension, the so-called “natural world”?

First, we know very little about the processes through which various things and creatures are produced and make their way into our stomachs, and this allows us to fend off responsibility for what these processes are connected to and implicated in—be it all kinds of unreasonable land and resource uses, cruelty, labor exploitation or whatever.  We really don’t know what happens along the way and we pretend we are not connected to the different beings—human and non-human—who touch and are touched by what becomes our food.  What if we had to treat them all as if we knew their family, and their family knew us, with all the little obligations and shame games those relationships would involve?

Second, these long and complicated connections are compressed, for most of us, into the relative instantaneity of a trip to the store or a walk to the fridge.  Entire worlds are flattened and narrowed into whatever can fit onto a label: a list of abstracted ingredients, some nutritional information and maybe an address.  Paying attention to the lives of many people in M., how they are tied to the rhythms of growth and life itself, made me think of this more than I did before.  Producing food is about waiting and vulnerability, and capitalism (broadly) is about erasing them all from the memory of food itself.  Waiting, for months, for the plants to grow, watching and touching them, waiting to see what they turn into, worrying and talking about all kinds of little things—soil, weather, bugs, diseases, available labor.  All that disappears, as are all traces of our dependence on “nature” and its complexity.

Of course, we don’t live in a world of one degree of separation from all of our food and its attached realities.  But, really, can we do something about this?  Anything?  Maybe first becoming more interested in knowing.  Knowing what goes into producing a head of cabbage, for example, and how long it takes.  And who puts the labor in and under which conditions.  Maybe growing what we can (even if it’s some parsley in a pot), buying locally and in season, and, why not, some foraging.

*M. is a village in my study area

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One thought on “On knowing and food

  1. I just read in a food magazine that we should not only ask for organic food, but rather ask where it does come from, why it is expensive – so how long it took to grow, and how did it get there (on the market, in the shop).
    So “knowing” where stuff comes from (if it is a groom 😉 or your carrots) and being curious should be important.
    This is a cultural value – to be interested (or not) in certain things and to aim for knowledge, as Claudia suggests. Values are personal – the problem of them beeing subjective is at the same time an opportunity: They can be taught/learned.
    Personally I invite friends and cook for/with them, and hope to get them interested. It works 🙂

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