On Love

and approaches to an ecological crisis.

“Loving practice is not aimed at simply giving an individual greater life satisfaction,” writes bell hooks in All About Love. “It is extolled as the primary way we end domination and oppression.”

Ever since a teacher put on Brother Sun, Sister Moon back in seventh grade, I’ve been in thrall to St. Francis of Assisi and have never wavered. This is the most obvious saint for a tween girl to latch on to, and he continues to be the most popular, within Catholicism and without, for being gentle, talking to birds, rejecting his family’s wealth, and accepting an ascetic existence. He is what many wish Catholicism actually were (and we can see a send-up of how that crumbles the Church as city-state, imperialist financial institution, and colonial empire in Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope), something closer to what hooks writes: a light-footed meditation on love that is in communion with the Earth and her creatures, one that rejects domination and oppression. An existence in community, not colonization.

I cling to this vision, his vision. When I read Rachel Cusk in her essay “I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” in Coventry, excerpted from The Last Supper, doubt the purity of his motives and his sanity, I was scandalized (though I adore the phrase “spiritual melodrama,” to which I am quite clearly prone).

This lifelong commitment to an idealized vision of Catholicism converged with my current readings on energy, ecology, and capitalism by Ivan Illich, a philosopher and once active priest who spent time at a Catholic university in Puerto Rico in the ’50s before doing his most influential work from Cuernavaca, Mexico, while also railing against the colonizing presence and violent imposition of the church in Latin America.

I’d been reading about the Green New Deal, too, because I wanted to better understand its vision for the future of the food system, at least in the U.S. Where did it all come together, I wondered, and that’s when I opened up Pope Francis’s famous 2015 encyclical on climate change. (I especially wanted to read this after internalizing the bone-chilling reality that New York City is now subtropical.)

He of course shouts out his namesake early on, calling St. Francis “a mystic and a pilgrim” who was “particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast.” He writes:

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

The pope goes on to sound like a more mystical Illich in his talk of the “continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity,” the overbearing impact on the poor in the Global South who are forced to migrate, the treatment of “symptoms” of the problems of climate change with technologies rather than radical changes being made to “current models of production and consumption.” I haven’t finished reading the 180-page document in its entirety, but it’s been an illuminating pairing along with more action-oriented policy proposals.

Figuring out the Green New Deal, which is only 14 pages, and what its vision for the future of food can really be has sent me in numerous other directions, none of them conclusive (because they couldn’t be, at this point) and none very reflective of what I’ve actually read in the document, which states its goals on food and agriculture as:

working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including— (i) by supporting family farming; (ii) by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health; (iii) by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

It seems the authors have been intentionally vague to allow people doing work on the ground to set the agenda, which seems dangerous; we know what kinds of power win out went sent to the “marketplace of ideas.”

But Data for Progress has a proposal set forth by Meleiza Figueroa and Leah Penniman in “Land Access for Beginning and Disadvantaged Farmers” that discusses how the federal government supports only “monolithic farming” and has created prohibitive barriers for any new farmers who want to start small. It’s a decolonizing, reparations-based perspective: They note the significant roadblocks that especially Latinx and Indigenous people face in farming, despite their possession of “valuable agroecological knowledge at risk of being lost without opportunities to put it into practice and pass it on.” Figueroa and Penniman also write that in 1910, “one in seven farmers were African-American and held titles to approximately 16-19 million acres of farmland.” Ninety-eight percent of Black farmers had their land taken by discriminatory federal practices. Today, less than one percent of private rural land is Black-owned. 

Figueroa and Penniman’s hope is that the Green New Deal can provide the resources needed to grow localized agroecological practices, bring land back to Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples who have historically been stewards of it, and generally enable new farmers who will make ecologically sound choices.

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Are we too far gone, though? What does it all look like in practice, and how does this transformation of agriculture and, along with it, transformation of gastronomy feed everyone?

For further practical perspectives, I’ve turned back toward Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing by Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, which offers mainly vegan recipes using a diverse array of ingredients from Mexico and the U.S. west that harkens back to a more traditional way of eating, before the Spaniards brought dependence on sugar, wheat, and beef (and, yes, Catholicism), when corn, squash and beans were grown together.

“Decolonization entails dismantling colonial systems of power and knowledge,” they write, and go on to apply that to agriculture, to cooking, to gender roles. The book is beautiful and I’ve been happy to see it increasingly cited: This is a blueprint, right here, to go to in order to see how colonization and the corporate, globalized food system has torn a people from traditional food practices and what it can look like when those are restored—decolonized. (It reminds me, of course, of Alyshia Galvez’s Eating NAFTA, and of the “Acid” episode of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat.)

What Pope Francis wrote about St. Francis, about how if we’re not in harmony with the earth, we are its exploiters—its colonizers, even if he didn’t use that word? That is evident in the white ownership of farmland, the difficulties faced by Black, brown, and Indigenous farmers, and how both colonization and, more recently, NAFTA reshaped Mexican foodways. The pope means decolonization, even if he doesn’t say it, and I wonder whether the U.S. government is willing to say decolonization in a potential future. It’s doubtful, but it’s good to imagine what that would look like. It feels good to read Figueroa and Penniman imagine that in concrete ways; to read Calvo and Esquibel live it out in their kitchen, in their garden. It’s good to consider where the love would come in, to cultivate it now.

Tomorrow, there will be paid-subscriber discussion focused on what’s giving you hope for the future and a decolonized food system. On Wednesday, the new weekly kitchen supplement will debut with a recipe from the Dishoom cookbook.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Anna Sulan Masing, a writer, editor, and academic, co-founder of Black Book, and co-founder of the new project SOURCED. We’ll talk about her work, her inspirations, and decolonizing the food system.

I was interviewed about kitchen culture for the podcast “Andrew Talks to Chefs” and about the concept of the “foodie” for this piece at Shondaland.

All About Love by bell hooks after seeing a page from it in my friend Melissa’s Instagram story, and diving forth into Iulian Ciocahn’s Before Brezhnev Died, translated from Romanian. You should hear me say “Brezhnev,” using my Russian training from watching The Americans.

Moving to Wednesday, for paid subscribers! But the first one will be free.

Luz Cruz does brilliant work in food justice, and was instrumental in efforts post–Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to restore local farms and feed folks with well-grown, lovingly preserved produce. They are now in Minneapolis, continuing their work, and are raising funds for reliable transportation. Listen to an interview I did with Luz and Ollie from Cuir Kitchen Brigade, and maybe drop a couple of bucks in their GoFundMe, if you can spare it.