On Gleaning 🥔
The ideas I’ve been picking up throughout space, time, and disciplines.
There are ideas that continue coming up, ideas that one must pay attention to, dig toward. I was reading a book called, simply, Food put out in 2008 by the MIT Press and edited by John Knechtel. He’s Canadian, and the book has a lot of Toronto in it, and I bought it in Montreal at the Canadian Center for Architecture, but it’s about food everywhere and the changing relationship to food systems that seemed to be happening in the 2000s. This was the time when every article started with some line like, “Everyone cares about food so much these days,” even though that couldn’t have been true. This generalization drives me mad, because no one should really have to care about food for the global food systems to be equitable and bourgeois care has, as we’ve seen, led to basically diddly-squat in terms of real change. But in this book, thankfully, people aren’t saying that too much, which is why I really like it. It’s specific.
There’s a great piece in it on public fruit called “Take Back the Fruit: Public Space and Community Activism” by Matias Viegener about an activist art project in Los Angeles called Fallen Fruit, in which they mapped available fruit trees in the Silver Lake neighborhood. The project announced to folks that they should plant fruit trees at their property perimeters to create “a kind of gift economy.”
“Fruit allows us to create new psychogeographies of neighborhoods, new ways to see and experience social space,” they write. It’s all quite exciting and reminded me immediately of the work of photographer William Mullan (his book Odd Apples was also for sale in the store where I bought Food), who documents and shoots public fruit in New York City. But it was in the last paragraph, which I enthusiastically underlined in red felt-tip pen, that I got into the idea and the citation that would really send me digging.
Curator and food writer Debra Solomon has coined the term locative food to describe “food that tells me where I am and where it’s from by its very name and nature… food that is not created by food product designers but by local people from local ingredients.” In studying how the public in Europe and North America think of their food and the system by which it is delivered to them, one of the primary things researchers found is that food is personal: people connect it to eating and health, and they resist thinking of food as having systemic and political implications. The proposition behind Fallen Fruit is that new social formations can be created when we link the personal to the political by careful and playful attention to the local, to our own neighborhoods.
Where has this paragraph been all my life? I thought to myself, sitting alone at the dog park having a transcendent moment. I was especially taken by the idea of “locative food” and immediately went in search of Debra Solomon and her blog, culiblog.org. At the end of 2021, it was still online—it no longer is, though some of the pages are able to be read via the WayBack Machine.
Here on this blog that had been defunct since the early 2010s, I found the mind, the work, I’d always been seeking. There were fun posts about learning to make seitan, about the soy pâté Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was feeding people in the ’80s that made them come up with code names for meat, and recipes for elderflower syrup, as well as other ideas that were sourced from local food or her own permaculture project. She wrote about being a city vegetarian and a country omnivore. There were more theoretical ones, such as the quoted one here, called “All I really want is locative food,” as well as companion pieces, about what locative comfort food means and looks like to someone from the United States living in Amsterdam. There were honest blogs about craving imported fruits. The blog was a demonstration of complexity, of deep engagement with food, and reminded me that that looks messy, and the mess is the only way such engagement makes any sense.
In short, I guess, I had the feeling of finding a kindred spirit, albeit one who through art projects and community projects was far more out there in the world (and totally inactive on Twitter). It felt like being on the old internet again, without an algorithm feeding this person to me but me finding her organically.
I started listening to the podcast “Mirror With a Memory” more or less organically, too—I probably saw it recommended in ArtForum or something. But I got to the episode titled “Land” in which host and artist Martine Syms talks to Kate Crawford, author of The Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. She mentions the idea that a person might now ask their Alexa or Siri or whomever what they should cook for dinner instead of opening a book, which meant being part of a long chain of exploitations of land and labor; basically, that the ecological costs of our dependence upon technology for the most minute, once-intrinsic tasks having been made invisible (much like the ecological costs of our food and our clothing).
I downloaded a preview of her book and started reading, which pointed me to the article “Towards Humble Geographies” by Samantha M. Saville, in which Saville is writing about being a geographer but really about knowledge:
Recognition of the resources, actors, infrastructures, and positionalities that contribute to knowledge production enacts humility by pointing us towards and placing us within the messy world we research.
My organic approach to knowledge-building (because it’s the way of learning that’s always suited me)—my hopefully humble approach, rejecting an impossible pursuit of mastery but hoping for connection—is certainly something that makes me feel totally inadequate around academics (whom I am always “around” online). Yet I was affirmed in my digging, my rummaging, my gleaning for insight by watching Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, where she follows folks who pick up produce that is left after a harvest, what food is on the street after a farmers’ market, what a bakery throws out at the end of the day.
Varda considers herself a gleaner of images; she is especially struck by heart-shaped potatoes and a handless clock. But what I was especially struck by in the movie was its certainly humble focus on people who glean out of necessity. This was in contrast to the chef who gleans and forages and serves 600 Franc tasting menus, a juxtaposition that would be extrapolated upon to death in any intentional food waste documentary meant to tug at heartstrings and shame. The gift economy, which has been coming up in my readings and in my life so much lately, is also part of the documentary, by those who have so little money and ample ingenuity, ample generosity.
“I don’t earn much, but I still have to eat,” says a man who sells newspapers outside a Paris train station and teaches French for free to his neighbors at night.
This movie brought me back to an exhibit at the Museo de las Americas called “Las Sonrisas del Barrio: Eco-Poéticas de Agua, Sol, y Sereno,” about the Puerto Rican art collective Agua, Sol, y Sereno formed in 1993. There’s an installation based on their play Comer, about the archipelago’s relationship to canned foods. Empty cans hang and so does the table, while pumpkins and bunches of plantain made of paper are illuminated—inviting yet ghostly. Why has this bountiful place been fed so much canned food from elsewhere? Why isn’t local food more present on its tables? We know why, but the case cannot be overstated: Real nourishment, locative food are essential; keeping them from people is both a political and community act. (I talked to Dr. Hanna Garth about her related concept of “a decent meal.”)
All of this digging lately has made me excited again, excited about food writing that doesn’t take for granted the idea that just because people are watching Food Network or something that they care about food, that understanding hunger and locality and gleaning and gift economies that must be experienced to be understood are as integral parts of talking about food as restaurants and chefs and recipes. It’s interdisciplinary, maybe, like I discussed with Krystal Mack; it’s about linking the personal and political, to show people that even when we care about food from a gastronomic or systemic perspective, we know that what matters at the end of the day are people’s full bellies, full satisfaction.
This Friday’s “From the Kitchen” will feature a recipe developed by Wordloaf’s Andrew Janjigian using my Burlap & Barrel Pumpkin Spice Blend: Pumpakryddbullar! A take on a Swedish bun called kardemummabulla. I also provide my passion fruit panna cotta recipe so it’s available in the archive!
The following Friday, I’ll be telling you how I make mushroom pâté.
Nothing by me, though I filed an essay. I am open for assignments! Editors, please hit me up—I’m happy to do all kinds of things, and I’ve got ideas. (And the only good way to write for yourself is to also keep writing for others, so you don’t rest on your little laurels—so you stay humble!)
I was a source in Lia Picard’s piece on finding style in the pandemic, in which I became the main photo somehow through doing ballet in Old San Juan. This picture was literally on the Times homepage. The photographer, Gabriella N. Báez, is fantastic. As ever, the fashion media is good to me. What can I say?
I’ve been going through all the issues of MOLD in order to prep to interview one of its editors and founders, LinYee Yuan, about how this magazine has had such a deep and artful approach to a concept that most define as tech-only: The Future of Food. Podcast returns soon!
I’m also reading Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from Around the World. I’m obsessed with his approach, which is a true humble geography!!! I’m interviewing him for the podcast, too.
If you have questions for either Yuan or Katz, leave them in the comments.
Cocoa butter experimentations. Guava barbecue sauce. A coconut cake with Diaspora Co. Chai Masala with white chocolate-turmeric frosting for my friend’s birthday. All will eventually be revealed in future editions of “From the Kitchen” for paid subscribers.