Friday, November 18, 2011
So, there you are, a genuine good-eater, sitting at the table having just finished, or maybe right in the midst of, a really lovely meal, thinking about what might be good to eat for your next meal. Smiling now are you, remembering the times that you have done just that? Aren’t we lucky to be in the position to have done that? (Yes, I have to put up my hand and admit to having been an enthusiastic participant in that scenario too.)
Small-boulder sized clods of newly-turned black earth, fields of stubble and the occasional truck with a stream of corn being shot into it: that was the landscape-beside-the-roads that I recently was driving. Sights to warm the heart of any good eater: that’s what I saw while travelling Indiana during this harvest season. Calls to mind that lyric from the Joel Mabus song, “And a big cornfield looks mighty pretty.”
This season of harvest and Thanksgiving stirs not only my good-eater self, but also prods that sleeping pioneer stock that’s down in my soul from just a few generations back. Even though it’s where it comes from now, I know that food didn’t always come shrink-wrapped. Subsistence farming was the toddler persona of this nation’s adult-self.
Harvest time with its incredible abundance dope-slaps me into reflections of what plenty we have in this country. Think about the irony of our oftentimes deliberately attempting to limit our intake of food while others have barely enough. Truly, we often are the poster-people for the case of living to eat rather than eating to live.
Reflections on the topic of food, brought about, no doubt, by this time of harvest and Thanksgiving, led to my reading Thomas Keneally’s recent book, “Three Famines.” In it, he gives a general overview of the physical and mental processes of starvation – pretty horrifying and unimaginable from where we sit – then writes specifically about the three hunger-events. Ireland in the 1840’s, Bengal in the 1940’s and Ethiopia in the 1980’s are the “three famines” of the title. Although seemingly unrelated as to world-area and time period, there is a striking commonality and it’s not the traditional “act-of-God” explanation. “Acts of God:” droughts, floods, etc. often begin the privations, but the human hand exacerbates the problems into a cataclysm.
I have long heard that the cause of hunger is not lack of food, but rather a problem of distribution. Keneally’s research shows that to be the case. The root of that distribution failure is not, as we might suppose, remoteness and inaccessibility of those starving, but rather of “tyrannical powers.” Nobel-prize winning economist, Amartya Sen says, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” In other words, famine is not a production problem; it’s a political problem. People don’t always “play nicely” as their mothers admonished them to.
Although we are in an economic downturn, we remain a nation of plenty. We all have heard the story of the person, supposedly from an old Soviet-block country, who shortly after first coming to this country, was taken into a supermarket. When viewing the selection and overstocked shelves, that person broke into a bout of weeping. The cause of that loss of composure was explained as the person’s mental comparison of the array in the supermarket versus the long lines for meager provisions in the person’s homeland. Plenty versus privation can be a powerful contrast. But, it’s a contrast that we often fail to consider.
As Arthur Miller had his character say, “Attention must be paid.” As we tie on our good-eater bibs for celebration and partaking of the fruits of the earth especially over this next week, give some thought to those who our mothers used to refer to as the “starving children in other lands.” Attention could be the beginning of the solution. It would be right and just if everyone had the opportunity to be a good-eater. Beyond that, there is no punchline. To quote the inimitable Porky Pig, “That’s all folks.”
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