Hi-Fi Infidelity: Your Cheatin’ Heart

My brother and I sat on the front stoop, with impressively out-of-tune plastic guitars in our hands. With sibling harmony decades removed from the Louvins, we proudly proclaimed, in front of god and everybody, things we couldn’t possibly have understood.

I was six, he was nine. The song we sang was “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

People stopped to listen, remembers my brother. It could be that we were charismatic beyond our years, two prepubescent Elvises commanding the attention of all passersby. Or it could simply be that our audience was amused, just as I am now, by the dichotomy of life in a Bible-brandishing nation.

I was raised in a traditional, Christian, conservative home, firmly docked in the blue-collar mainstream. A scion of generations of preachers, I went to church three times a week. I was not sure what adultery was—except that it must be reserved for adults. Yet there I was, bellowing at the top of my lungs about a wife’s infidelity and the miserable night of judgment that she was enduring.

It’s fitting that such a contradiction was fostered by Hank Williams, a man whose personality was so complex that he had to establish an alter-ego just to manage it all.


“Your Cheatin’ Heart” paints a dire picture: An unfaithful woman finds herself tormented by her own heart, during a seemingly endless night. She can’t sleep, she can’t sit still, she can’t stop crying tears of remorse. Heartbroken by her own actions, she can only pace around her room, calling the name of the man she did wrong.

As for the man himself, all he can do is predict deepening despair for her. Tonight, she’s certainly tossing and turning, crying out for him; this will soon give way to cravings for his love, immersing her more deeply in the blues. That’s as happy as the ending gets.

There is one shared experience between them: “You’ll walk the floor the way I do,” he tells her. Possibly, they have different motivations for wearing out the linoleum: For her, it’s the pain of her guilt. For him, it’s the sting of being done wrong.

In the lyrics’ austere narrative, we get the sense that he’s content to let her heart torment her. He doesn’t relish condemning her, and her pending collapse doesn’t bring him any satisfaction. He’s simply telling her, almost clinically, what happens in these situations. There is a sense of knowing behind his words.

Her life crashing down in an eternal, sleepless, apocalyptic night might happen only in his imagination. His claim of “the time will come when you’ll be blue” is only a prediction. He could be dead wrong on that.

In truth, she might not have had one unrestful moment. But it’s obvious that he has.


A model of economic poetry, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains only 117 words. Fifty-eight of them are used in the two repetitions of the chorus. The song has only three words consisting of more than one syllable: cheatin’, away, and fallin’. Dr. Seuss could hardly make it easier to read.

If it didn’t focus on matters of the heart, we could be dismissive about its status as poetry. Yet it transcends its simplicity, for Williams, as all good poets, had a command of the words he knew. His literacy was no match for Shakespeare’s, but he was on equal footing when it came to understanding the soul.

Whether consciously or unaware, Williams frames his message in a non-durational, future tense. In so doing, he’s made the night seem perpetual. It’s not just tonight or tomorrow night. It’s a relentless lifetime of nights.

When the word day finally appears, it’s only as a marker of time. That day is far from cloudless and bluebird-filled. Rather, it brings another curse: She will pine and crave his love. Pining is leagues deeper than wanting, a significance that would be clear to Williams, with his roots in southern vernacular. She would yearn endlessly for something that was no longer attainable. He is clearly not taking her back.

In concert with his stark lyrics, Williams’ delivery is visceral, naked, and unpretentious, yet it is far from unadorned.

There is a harrowing quaver in his voice, borne not of uncertainty, but from hard-earned cataclysmic fear. He sings as if he’s just had the very literal Hell scared out of him by an Alabama fire-and-brimstone preacher, expounding the darker side of the gospel. He underscores his pronouncements by elaborating each line’s ultimate word, stretching out the vowels and lingering on the consonants m and n. These nasal constrictions provide the ubiquitous moan behind his blues.

As a vocal stylist, Williams has had many followers but few peers. His attention reaches deeper than a phrase or a word, expressing itself syllable by syllable. The elongated finish he applies to some words is matched by his halting delivery on others. This serves to create tension and imbalance, a clear portrait of his own suffering.

As music writer Cub Coda states, “Williams’ vocal is filled with regret and recrimination, coming from the bleakest of feelings, absolutely brimming over with despair.”

From his first utterance of the word make it’s obvious that he’s holding back his emotions. It matters little whether he’s filled with misery at his own state, or with pity for hers. There are plenty of heartaches and tears to go around, as indicated by his following the word weep with the phrase “cry and cry.” A less confident poet might edit such repetition. Williams self-assuredly resisted such editing, however. He knew that repeating the right word at the right time added incomparable impact. For example, to refer to a “Cold, Cold Heart” as a ‘very cold heart’ would leave it eviscerated.

From the opening liquid twang of Don Helms’ steel guitar, the Drifting Cowboys support every intonation of Williams’ voice. The song is resplendent with pathos.


Leonard Cohen is justifiably impressed, as he indicates by placing himself below Williams in the “Tower of Song:”

I said to Hank Williams, How lonely does it get
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Cohen’s portrayals of extra-marital entanglements are complex, such as in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” wherein he expresses thanks to his partner’s lover for taking the sorrow from her eyes. While Williams’ relationships were also comprised of many overlain triangles, his representation of them is positively Spartan.

Songs by Cohen, Dylan, and similar singing poets can demand a great degree of deciphering, but Williams’ art is direct enough to be understood by all. In visual terms, his songs are more like Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” and less like Pollack’s “Blue Poles #11.” We don’t have to stand mystified by a cubist’s alternate reality or by the angels of Chagall. It’s obvious what is being said. And in its way, void of veneer and obfuscation, Williams’ approach requires more of us, for we have to look unflinchingly at real life, acknowledging its potential for shame. His art embodies stark, stoned-in-the-gutter minimalism, a grimace in the glow of the tavern lights.

Likewise, he didn’t dull his pencil with metaphors. He kept it sharp and took deadly aim. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains a lone but wondrously efficient simile. As stark in its construction as is the remainder of the song, it compares her tears to the rain. With his relentless references to weeping and crying, by the time this simile appears we understand this is not the ordinary teardrops-as-raindrops comparison. We’re looking at a biblical deluge.

Like most folk art, this song is backed by a philosophical understanding. At its core, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” magnifies the heart as if it were the sum total of the person. It is a living, breathing conscience, standing in the center of the being, evaluating every misdeed, and mandating the appropriate punishment. But it’s not really that simple: With an Escher-like sleight of hand, the heart is also held responsible for the very desire to cheat. The heart is the instigator, snitch, prosecutor, and persecutor. It’s unrelenting. Just like those tears.


Aristotle considered it important that there be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; we draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen to us. It is important, however, that the observer be able to identify with the text across this distance. If this doesn’t happen, then we cannot empathize with the characters. In short, the play or song must be both distant and recognizable.

When a stylist such as Ray Charles or Beck Hansen records “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” it is evident that they are removed from the tragedy itself. They sing it as interpreters or commentators, but not as participants. As Williams’ alter-ego Luke the Drifter might term it, they are only describing a “Picture From Life’s Other Side.” Williams, however, lived on that other side every day of his life.

Legend has it that Williams wrote the song following a suggestion from Billie Jean Jones, his second wife, that he write something about how Audrey Mae Shepherd, Wife Number 1, cheated on him. He dictated the words to her as they drove around town. Audrey, however, maintained that Williams wrote it about the misery his own heart was giving him.

Their mutual infidelities are the stuff of daytime television, not to mention country songs. Hank wasn’t faithful on the road, nor was Audrey faithful in the town. Williams’ struggles with his unfaithful wife—and his own darker tendencies–inspired many of his songs. “The news is out all over town, that you’ve been seen out running around,” he sings in “You Win Again.”

Apart from cheating, domestic unrest was also prevalent. “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do,” “Why Should We Try Anymore,” “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’,” and “You’re Gonna Change or I’m Gonna Leave” stand in the core of his canon. The titles call to us like tabloid headlines.

Williams did have songs that reflected the euphoria of love, too, such as “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” in which he suggests they paint the town with their romantic fervor.  “Comb your hair and paint and powder/You act proud and I’ll act prouder/You sing loud and I’ll sing louder/Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.” But gleeful celebrations too often succumbed to the steamroller of reality: Williams and his partners were simply too dysfunctional to make it last.

Lucky for Williams, he had not only tailored suits and a fine Martin guitar, but a gift for putting his life into meter. He also had a shepherding manager and a recording contract. While he missed many live performances—either due to his physical absence or his inebriation—his truancy was offset by his reliability in the studio. He was jukebox gold, and his records sold by the millions.

Audrey, although she was a major factor in Williams’ success, hadn’t similar talents. The duets she recorded with Williams are models of a warring partnership. Country biographer Colin Escott writes:  “Her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life in that she fought him for dominance on every note.” Or as Williams himself said above: “you sing loud, and I’ll sing louder.” Loud was the only way she could sing, and that came through sacrificing pitch and control. She simply hadn’t the voice to carry her counter-propaganda.

Hank’s version of their story prevailed. And as if she needed it to get worse, soon major pop stars were crooning about her infidelities, and a movie loomed on the distant horizon.


Leo Tolstoy described art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. In a particularly creepy example of this, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was released shortly after Williams’ death on January 1, 1953.

Says Nathan Rabin, of the AV Club: “Williams’ passing adds immeasurably to the haunting, almost ghoulish nature of the song; it’s as if he’s accusingly pointing a bony finger from beyond the grave, getting in one last good kick in his longtime war of wills and words with Audrey.”

In this context, the characteristic moan in Williams’ voice is amplified by the chill of death. His lyrics are a harbinger of judgment to come, grounded in his own after-life torment, validating all the Fundamentalist warnings he’d known from childhood. His warnings from the grave are wholly compassionless. Apocalypse is a dish best served cold in a diner on the Lost Highway.

Cohen adds relish: “You’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song.”


“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and its writer weren’t the first in any category. The marriage of cheating and country blues existed long before Hank Williams sharpened his first pencil, as in songs like the wildly successful “Frankie and Johnny,” a genre-hopping hit for Jimmie Rodgers in 1929.

A heavy influence on Williams, Rodgers had already fused hillbilly, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, and folk styles, and was a bona fide superstar. He wrote many of his best recordings, and was able to relate with the common people. He felt what they felt, thought what they thought, worked the railroads, and died young of tuberculosis. Through his recordings, he proved the commercial viability of country music.

Vernon Dalhart, who mastered opera, pop, and country, had already set a high-water mark for record sales. His 1924 rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97” was the biggest selling non-holiday record during the first 70 years of recorded music. The Carter Family also preceded Williams with their singer/songwriter ethic, aided greatly by the nationwide reach of legendary border station XERF.

The difference with Williams was the depth of his darkness, and his ability to articulate it with more grit and guts than his predecessors. His was not a good-natured confession of “I’m a rounder,” but a rather curdling acknowledgment that “I’m a wretched sinner.” He laid his soul bare in a way that transcended his class and origin.

Another advantage Williams enjoyed was having a pop music veteran, Fred Rose, act as his publisher, manager, and producer. Through Rose and other A&R men like Jerry Wexler and Mitch Miller, Williams sold his songs to a large variety of pop singers.

Joni James, with Williams’ sanction, was the first pop artist to record the song. Eerily, she recorded it on the day of his death. Her version reached Number 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1953. Frankie Laine soon followed suit, as have Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Van Morrison, Don McLean, Beck Hansen, and anyone who’s ever stepped onstage in a disreputable—and therefore self-respecting—honky-tonk.

While Williams’ legend grew, someone had to collect the royalties. The terms of their divorce had already promised half of them to Audrey. She later secured, for $30,000, the right to use the title “Hank Williams’ Widow.” She also established herself as a behind-the-scenes force in the industry: music publisher, booking agent, label owner, talent agent, and touring all-star show woman. She even served as a consultant on the 1964 film of Williams’ life, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Williams might have delivered the final word with no chance for a formal rebuttal, but Audrey held the option of laughing all the way to the bank.

Hank’s cumulative portrayals of Audrey suggest that she had never listened to a word he had said. She developed a reputation for out-of-control emotions and substance abuse, as if she hadn’t witnessed the slow death of her ex-husband. Forty-two years after Hank died, Audrey herself died—one day before the IRS was scheduled to repossess her home.

Peace Meal Supper Club #17: Sanctuary

The global refugee problem defies succinct summary. The topic is fraught with myths, competing agendas, inflated numbers, political abdication, and more than its share of propaganda. Syrian refugees have taken the center spotlight today, but they are not at all the only ones who need a safe place to wait out violence at home.

Globally, we established a new high water mark in 2015—and it is nothing to celebrate: “an unprecedented 59.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 20 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”[1] Never before has the world held so many displaced persons.

PMSC #17 Menu
The PMSC#17 menu is a culinary journey through the world of refugees.

And yet, U.S. immigration officials planned a month-long series of raids for May and June 2016, “to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally,” reported  Reuters.[2] These raids are the most recent extension of hostility towards refugees which the US has exhibited for decades. But are refugees really here illegally?[3]

Peace Meal Supper Club #17: Sanctuary is an attempt to penetrate the official slide show, to see beyond destructive nationalistic rhetoric, to reclaim identity and definition. The menu spans the globe, reaches across centuries, and ventures over borders between nations and species. It offers hope that we will reconcile competing inertia, that our natural urge towards compassion overtakes the myopic momentum of established force.

It’s a struggle of the most beautiful position against the most likely one.

As to the most beautiful position, humanity has compiled an admirable catalog of documentation regarding the treatment of refugees. Take, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It was borne of the horrific experiences leading to and during World War II, as hate and racism drew the developed nations into global war and sent millions fleeing for their lives.

As that conflict’s refugees sought safe haven, the United Nations shepherded the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which declared the rights of people who have been forced out of their homes and homelands by war or other threats. It upheld the duty of all nations to assist. This multilateral document was followed in 1967 by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which further elaborated on the aid due anyone fleeing strife in their homelands. Signatories, which included the United States, bound themselves by international law to provide refuge to anyone fleeing violence at home.

These three modern statements reconnected us with practices in our shared past. Greece, Egypt, medieval England, [4] and the Jews of the Old Testament[5] all took care to take care of the troubled stranger. Their compassion reached over all conflicts to help the innocent victims, declaring that the powerful do indeed have an obligation to the powerless. It’s a tradition that needs our attention and refocus.

Because purposeful practice of the most beautiful position has not been immune to xenophobic criticism.

Consider these words from Senator Pat McCarran: “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.”[6]

McCarran spoke these words in 1953, in defense of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, of which he was co-sponsor. His rhetoric sounds shockingly contemporary.

President Truman attempted to veto this Act, saying, “Today, we are ‘protecting’ ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic…We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”

In the decades since Truman, our imperial projects have spawned conflicts across the globe. As the conflicts deepen, so does the magnitude of our moral conflict. Headline events such as World Wars I & II, the various wars in Iraq, our fight against the phantoms of Al Qaeda, and the never-ending aggression against Palestinians are not the only venues for our moral dilemma. These have actually distracted us from the direly pressing matters on our doorstep.

Neruda La United Fruit Co
“La United Fruit Co.” – Pablo Neruda from Canto General, 1950

US involvement in Central America’s Northern Triangle began in 1901, with the pseudo-military operations of United Fruit Company. Since then, the relationship has only become more violent and complex. CIA-led and Eisenhower-backed political coups in the 1950s were harbingers of our present-day interference. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s the problems metastasized. The US played a heavy role in arming and financing civil war in El Salvador, which saw the creation of over a million displaced people. Many of them fled to the southern US border seeking asylum. Initially, to our great credit, we responded compassionately. The US Congress, during the final months of the Carter Administration, passed the Refugee Act of 1980.

This act “created The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program to provide for the effective resettlement of refugees and to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.”[7] It incorporated concepts from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our intentions were good, although our actions should be examined.

First, however, let’s determine who is a refugee. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the subsequent Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[8]

"Who is a refugee?" from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law
“Who is a refugee?” from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law

This definition holds no trace of immigrant opportunism. The current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Yemen, Colombia, and other war-torn regions have produced 60 million refugees who fear for their lives.[9] They are identifiable by any number of the above criteria. They are not “just peasants coming to the US for a welfare card and a Cadillac,” as Salvadorans were portrayed by officials during the Reagan Administration.[10] However, if we blur the distinction between economic immigrants and political refugees, then we can dismiss our obligation to them. If we confuse other definitions—such as internal civil war vs. outside aggression or multi-national conflict—we can dismiss their problems as well: “Not my problem.”

This potential dismissal also has been addressed by another document in the canon. The Cartagena Declaration, issued by the Organization of American States in 1984, enlarges the concept of refugee to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” With great sagacity they illuminated our tendency towards slippery ethics.

In the best of cases, a nation will freely open its doors to refugees, like Germany, Sweden, Lebanon, and Turkey are doing for Syrians.[11] But should a nation fail to be a good neighbor, private citizens and institutions defy their governments in deference to their own humanity.[12]

Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.
Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.

Humanitarian action undertaken by individuals and churches was the wellspring of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. US-backed civil war in El Salvador displaced over a million Salvadorans; 30,000 of them actually fled the country seeking asylum. Refugee camps were set up to receive them in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border, but the war’s violence still found them. Therefore, many Salvadorans sought asylum in the US. Our government was not interested, however—in clear violation of the Declarations and Protocols the US had signed and ratified.

The Salvadorans did find sanctuary, though, through the work of private citizens.

“The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980…When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced—on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero—that his church would openly defy INS and become a ‘sanctuary’ for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.”[13]

(This half-hour PBS segment from Peter Krogh is very enlightening if you have the time.)

While in sanctuary, the Salvadoran refugees hoped for freedom from harassment due to ethnicity, faith, and gender. They hoped for—and often needed—access to medical facilities and legal channels. Mostly, they need a safe place to wait out the strife until they could return home. Today’s 60-million refugees need the same.

This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/

When we, the people, lead with our humanity, we are indeed good at providing sanctuary—just as we did in the 1940s when 40 million Europeans were displaced.[14] We have performed admirably upon occasion in spite of our own internal wars: the Underground Railroad carried over 100,000 people to safety in the northern US and Canada, in defiance of federal law.

We, the nation, sometimes lead with our politics, however, and muddle our way into moral failure. We have established concentration camps for Japanese, German, and Italian Americans; refused docking for ships carrying Third Reich refugees; and granted asylum as part of Cold War strategy while withholding it from people whose houses are afire.

The Mariel Boatlift, which brought about 125,00 Cuban refugees into the US in 1980, makes an interesting contrast with the contemporaneous movement to grant sanctuary to Salvadorans. The Cuban refugees—fleeing economic collapse in Cuba, and arguably economic rather than political refugees–were welcomed with cash, social and medical services, programs to help them transition into American life, and educational accommodations.

Salvadoran refugees, however, were met with hostility. Utilizing the rhetoric of fear and hatred, US officials regarded the “brown hordes” as rapists, killers, drug dealers, terrorists, and of course, economic opportunists here to take Americans’ jobs.[15] Some were stopped well before they got to the US, with complicit Mexican officials declaring that “the majority of illegals have a criminal record and only come to commit crimes.”[16]

This prejudice, a variant of the strong anti-Latino bias which the US has held since the mid-1800s,[17] resulted in disproportionate denial of safe haven to Salvadorans, as compared to other nationalities.[18]  The US was willing to save people from Castro’s communism, but not from high-quality American guns.

But with all the accusations levied against asylum-seekers and their sanctuary hosts, “no evidence connecting sanctuary with violent activities ever surfaced. Evidence that did come out pointed to just the opposite: that the US government was intimately connected with Salvadoran death squads.”[19]

The US government was—and still is—involved at very intimate levels in the Northern Triangle. From war to death squads to maintaining kill lists and photo albums,[20] the US was the prime driver for the growth of the refugee population and the reactionary movement to provide sanctuary. By 1983, civil war in El Salvador had killed 30,000 civilians and displaced one million. The US was pumping in a half billion dollars annually in military assistance. Civilians areas were frequently bombed, not only in El Salvador but in Guatemala, where tens of thousands had also been killed. Border camps in Mexico were routinely attacked by US-backed Guatemalan and Salvadoran troops, ostensibly to root out guerillas.[21]

Course 2: Salvadoran Safe House - Yuca Ceviche, Curtido. In honor of the millions of Central American refugees from 1901 until the present day.
Course 2: Salvadoran Safe House – Yuca Ceviche, Curtido. In honor of the millions of Central American refugees from 1901 until the present day.

It’s a startling contrast: Refugees from Cuba were feted, fed, housed, and educated through rapidly formed government programs. Refugees from Central America were hunted, imprisoned, deported, and frequently assassinated. Why the different treatment?

The answer, as given by Robin Lorentzen in her book “Women in the Sanctuary Movement,” is simple: Acknowledging Central Americans as political refugees would expose the US’ role in creating them.[22]

That role is indeed a deep one. “The administration of President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in January 1981, saw these civil wars as theaters in the Cold War. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States intervened on the side of those governments, which were fighting Marxist-led popular movements. In Nicaragua, however, the United States supported the contra rebels against the socialist Sandinista government.”[23]

Congress had previously imposed a ban on foreign assistance to governments that committed gross violations of human rights. Therefore the Reagan Administration publically denied all rights abuses—even though multiple human rights groups had already cataloged the violence. Efforts to silence the asylum-seekers focused on characterizing them as economic refugees, then rejecting their requests for asylum. “As a result, approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles.”[24]

Mira Loma Detention Center, Lancaster, CA
Mira Loma Detention Center, Lancaster, CA

“The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”[25]

It is not surprising, then, that concerned citizens along the border took the matter into their own hands. Quietly ignoring US immigration law and foreign policy, they took in refugees and at times aided their border-crossing, in the spirit of Thoreau: “They are lovers of law and order who uphold the law when the government breaks it.”[26]

Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/
Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/

“At the Sanctuary Movement’s height in the mid 1980s, over 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and across the country. Assistance provided to refugees included bail and legal representation, as well as food, medical care, and employment.”[27]

The early core of religiously-minded workers was soon joined by political activists in Chicago and other urban centers. They brought a political edge to the humanitarian efforts. It was no longer just a campaign to help a few families outlast the violence. It became a political storm within the US.

Course 3: Undeground Dining Car - Journeycake, Foraged Mushrooms and Roots, Succotash, Wild Herb Aioli. In honor of refugees along the Underground Railroad.
Course 3: Undeground Dining Car – Journeycake, Foraged Mushrooms and Roots, Succotash, Wild Herb Aioli. In honor of refugees along the Underground Railroad.

By granting venue to the refugees’ stories, the Sanctuary Movement fundamentally challenged our vision of ourselves—much like the American Civil War, our duplicitous dealings with First Nations, and our repeated failures with voting rights. They brought alignment between the Sanctuary Movement and larger civil rights movements. They challenged “not just one immigration law, but a whole pattern of exploitation.”[28]

Those involved in the movement saw it as a fundamental question of human rights, as stated clearly in the UN’s declaration of 1948, the Convention of 1951, the 1967 Protocol, and other acclaimed elaborations.

“The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by U.S. activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new Underground Railroad. Many U.S. religious leaders involved in the Sanctuary Movement had prior experience in the 1960s civil disobedience campaigns against racial segregation in the American South.”[29]

Their very public platform made the movement appear “dangerous to the government”[30]—a government which didn’t appreciate having its foreign policy questioned or its covert operations exposed. But the activists continued to press the questions: Since the US had ratified the Protocol of 1967, and given the progressive nature of the Refugee Act of 1980, shouldn’t we be providing safe haven for the Salvadorans and Guatemalans? Especially since we are funding and arming the combatants? And that of course should cause us to ask the ultimate question: Why are we at war in Central America?

These questions certainly had their consequences: “The Department of Justice responded by initiating criminal prosecutions against two activists in Texas in 1984, followed by a 71-count criminal conspiracy indictment against 16 U.S. and Mexican religious activists announced in Arizona in January 1985.”[31]

Dragging key Sanctuary Movement participants into federal court was an act of silencing on the part of the US government. In that vein, US District Judge Earl Carroll barred the defense from mentioning the violent conditions in El Salvador. He knew that to allow such testimony would not only validate the refugees’ status according to international law, it would also expose the violent role the US played in creating the refugees in the first place. In spite of Carroll’s restrictions, activists were able to capitalize on the trial’s publicity, using it to indict the Reagan Administration for its wars in Central America and its treatment of the wars’ victims.[32]

Middle-class American activists weren’t the only ones who had issued public indictments. In 1980,  Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero publicly requested that the US cease military aid. A month later, he gave a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. He was murdered shortly thereafter, at the altar, by government-supported assassins.[33]

It’s a practice that continues to this day. Vocal opponents of invasive US policies—such as Berta Cáceres—are silenced through assassination.[34] We continue to engage in war openly and clandestinely while the media ignores our involvement and the victims.[35] We persist in creating refugees in greater numbers than we will ever offer homes. In fact, we produced a 712% increase in refugees during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.[36] We reinforce all this silencing by creating a culture of information suppression: ag-gag legislation, whistleblower laws, censoring of the words “climate change.” We justify all the silencing by labeling activists as terrorists and refugees as rapists.

We are even willing to pay for the silence in advance. We pay Mexico to intercept and incarcerate asylum-seekers so that we never have to hear their stories or see their faces.[37] The ones who actually make it across our border are detained without legal hearing. Then we deport them in record numbers.[38]

Are we in the right when we send them back to their home countries? We have agreed, on paper, to the following: “The most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.”[39]

Refoulement—sending a person back to a country where they face a threat to their life or freedom—is overwhelmingly condemned on a global scale, and has been since 1951.

"The principle of non-refoulement" from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law
“The principle of non-refoulement” from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law

“No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”—from the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1).

“No person referred to in Article 1, paragraph 1, shall be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier or, if he has already entered the territory in which he seeks asylum, expulsion or compulsory return to any State where he may be subjected to persecution.” — from the United Nations Declaration on Territorial Asylum, Article 3(1), unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1967.

“No person may be subjected by a member State to measures such as rejection at the frontier, return or expulsion, which should compel him to return to or remain in a territory where his life, physical integrity or liberty would be threatened for the reasons set out in Article 1, paragraphs 1 and 2.” — from the Organisation of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Article III(3).

“In no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country regardless of whether or not it is his country of origin, if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated because of his race, nationality, religion, social status or political opinions.” — Article 22(8) of the American Human Rights Convention adopted by the Organization of American States in November 1969.

Non-refoulement has become such a widely accepted principle that even non-member states—those not part of the UN, OAS, OAU, or other global organizations—readily honor it. “Because of its wide acceptance at universal level, it is being increasingly considered in jurisprudence and in the work of jurists as a generally recognized principle of international law,” states the UN.[40]

There is only one exception to the principle of non-refoulement. Article 33(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention states: “The benefit of the present provision may not however be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”

It’s a loophole through which can slip the entire caboodle of US foreign policy. Our present behavior is an elaboration of the unspoken policy of the 1980s, when refugees were denied and deported on the basis of fabricated fear. If we are afraid of the refugees on our doorstep, we won’t let them in. If we don’t let them in, we can’t hear their stories. Their stories, of course, incriminate the US and its violent foreign affairs.

True to form, the present US Administration has relentlessly demonstrated its unwillingness to grant asylum. As for refugees that have made it across the border, we criminalize their presence.

Slave Kidnap Poster 1851 BostonIt’s as unconscionable as sending Jews back into Hitler’s Germany. It’s as horrific as sending escaped African slaves back into Dixie. But the US does it behind the curtain of the machine, projecting an illusion of humanity over the top of its aggression. It’s hard to sort one image from the other.

We choose what we see, of course. And while we creatively interpret the image, others face the machine itself. For them, the struggle is not one of vision. It’s one of survival.

Sanctuary activists in the 1980s knew the fate of refugees subjected to refoulement. Those sent back to El Salvador faced even greater violence than that which they fled, as they were now considered traitors by both civil war factions. Former FBI informant Frank Varelli testified that he regularly provided Salvadoran national guardsmen the names of people sent back by the US. He also provided the names of American citizens who were travelling in El Salvador, maintained assassination lists, and even a photo album.[41] Anyone denied sanctuary by the US, and subsequently returned to El Salvador, was forcibly trading potential peace for guaranteed violence.

The story is the same today. When the US deports Central Americans refugees, it sends them to their deaths. As one refugee succinctly states, “The evil there is tremendous.” And of course, evil isn’t restricted by borders, no matter how we might pretend.

Still, the question remains: “Why are we at war in Central America? Or in Syria? Or anywhere?”

President Theodore Roosevelt wields his Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America.
President Theodore Roosevelt wields his Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America.

Contrary to optimistic popular opinion, we are not at war for democracy, or out of generosity. Perhaps the wars help to feed our insatiable appetite for drugs. Maybe we just wish to promote US commercial interests. Possibly we are only acting upon the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary. Maybe we need to keep our armed forces busy. Maybe war is good for business. (Pardon the interruption, but detention of refugees is good business, too.)

War Is A Racket Book JacketMaybe, just maybe, War is a Racket, as opined by Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated servicemen in US history. His opening lines are unadorned and inarguable: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

“The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.”[42]

Butler was a leader of American forces in Central America in the early 1900s. He knew firsthand what he was talking about. He also traversed the path that lies before us now, leaving the most likely position—perpetual war and its ignored casualties—to arrive at the most beautiful position—complete cessation of aggression accompanied by greater expressions of our humanity.

Course 4: Animal Farm - Almond Fig Cake, Pistachio Ice Cream, Pomegranate Molasses. In honor of the uncountable animals in need of sanctuary.
Course 4: Animal Farm – Almond Fig Cake, Pistachio Ice Cream, Pomegranate Molasses. In honor of the uncountable animals in need of sanctuary.

The more beautiful option, interestingly enough, is also the most rational: as we cease hostilities—and therefore the production of refugees—we can better assist the diminishing number who require sanctuary. It’s a lighter burden for everyone. Or we can go the most likely route: create more refugees and reject their requests for asylum. The ultimate solution will indeed be complicated, but as we argue our philosophy, casualties pile up. Will we find that our moral consciences have settled to the bottom of the heap?

Truman was hardly a hippie peacenik, but he understood our moral responsibility. Quakers, liberation theologians, radical left Catholics, Nobel laureates, and plenty of us rational atheists have pursued paths of compassionate dissent, transforming civil disobedience into civil initiative.[43]

To many of us, human safety lies in the glorification of peace, not in the sanguine pageantry of war.

Please Read More:

Stories from the Current Wave of the Refugee Crisis, related to the Obama Administration
The US provides aid to Mexico for detaining and torturing refugees
US mainstream media portrays it as an immigration crisis
We view the costs only from our side
We ignore our role in creating more violence in their home countries
Obama’s policies are violently regressive not progressive
Refugees are gamepieces for posturing politicians
Children are denied legal process in spite of international law
Once again, we pay Mexico to intercept and detain those fleeing violence in their home countries
Once again, they are not illegal according to agreed international conventions

Work for the Right to Refuse to Kill: http://www.wri-irg.org/co/rrk-en.htm

Support modern invocations of the Sanctuary Movement:
Every Campus a Refuge
Groundswell Movement
Southside Presbyterian Church (the original home of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement)
New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
Tikkun Olam Chavurah
Not One More Deportation

Learn more about human rights, personal experiences, and the imperatives of survival:
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program
IFRC (Red Cross/Red Crescent) Protect Humanity Program
American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights campaigns
Five Facts about Migration from the Northern Triangle
NY Times: Refugee Crisis is Not an Immigration Crisis
“The Imperatives of Survival” 1974 Nobel Lecture by Sean MacBride

[1] http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-deportation-exclusive-idUSKCN0Y32J1
[3] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/27/us-missteps-refugees-define-year
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cities_of_Refuge#Origin_and_development
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952#cite_note-4
[7] http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/the-refugee-act
[8] http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf (will launch a PDF)
[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
[10] Miriam Davidson, Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, (University of Arizona Press, 1988), 76-77; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[11] http://www.immigration.ca/en/quebecimmigration-topmenu/187-canada-immigration-news-articles/2015/september/1992-countries-for-syrian-refugees.html
[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary_movement
[13] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
[15] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 99.
[16] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 62.
[17] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 149-169.
[18] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 44-45
[19] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 141
[20] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 142
[21] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,76
[22] Robin Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, (Temple University Press, 1991), 12.
[23] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[24] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[25] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[26] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80.
[27] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[28] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24
[29] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[30] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24
[31] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[32] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[33] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 10; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[34] http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled
[35] http://fair.org/home/suyapa-portillo-on-central-american-refugees-michael-ratner-on-alberto-gonzalez/
[36] http://www.wola.org/commentary/3_myths_about_central_american_migration_to_the_us; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/gonzalez-clinton-policy-latin-american-crime-story-article-1.2598456
[37] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/20/we-pay-mexico-catch-refugees-kids-suffer
[38] https://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/ero/pdf/2013-ice-immigration-removals.pdf (will launch a PDF)
[39] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]
[40] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]
[41] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,142
[42] http://fas.org/man/smedley.htm
[43] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80

American Harvest Revisited

Special Contribution by Abbie Rogers

When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.

The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/
The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/

In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!

Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ
Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ

During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.

American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.

We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.

Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.

Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/
Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/

The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again.[1] This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion.[2] And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.

Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.

The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?

We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.”[3] The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.

What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:

  • Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ

Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”[4] The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.

So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.

Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers' rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org
Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers’ rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org

If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions.[5] The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.

You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.

  • Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.[6]
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy.[7]  The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties[8]–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”[9]

Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”[10] We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months. Roasted, mashed, or used in diverse dishes from around the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.

  • Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”[11]
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h

Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.

We can benefit from the wisdom of the milpa even in our own backyard gardens. Companion planting, crop rotation, and saving regionally-adapted seeds are just some of the sustainable gardening techniques that are healthy for us and for the ecosystem.

  • Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop

We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.

We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”[12]

La Via Campesina is an international grassroots movement that represents 200 million small farmers worldwide. Together, they launched food sovereignty into the global eye. Other impactful organizations working in this arena include GRAIN, Food First, the previously mentioned Food Empowerment Project, and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.


[1] Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.

[2] Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.

[3] This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)

[4] Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), 75.

[5] http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/

[6] http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html

[7] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/factsheets.html

[8] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/origins.html

[9] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/lutaladio.html

[10] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/anderson.html

[11] Phil Dahl-Bredine et al. Milpa: From Seed to Salsa (2015), 3. See also http://sustainablemilpa.blogspot.com/.

[12] Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound

Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound celebrates the efforts of women worldwide who are working for the benefit of animals. Scientists, psychologists, educators, demonstrators, organizers–these dedicated individuals are helping erase the distinctions between us-and-them, between human and non-human, between kindness-for-one versus kindness-for-all. It is a big order to fill.

The title “Unbound” is in reference to the Unbound Project, a multimedia and book project by acclaimed photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur (We Animals, The Ghosts in Our Machine) and Dr. Keri Cronin (Department of Visual Arts, Brock University). It is a worthy project for PMSC to support, so this edition of PMSC will be on-the-road, in St. Catherines, ON. As usual, diners will pay as they wish on a sliding scale, and those funds will be used to give the Unbound Project an early lift.

The menu will focus on four women in particular:

Patty Mark is an Australian activist and the founder of Animal Liberation Victoria. She is also credited with being the originator of “open rescues,” a form of direct action in which animals are removed from harmful and exploitative situations by activists who do not conceal either their actions or identities.

Lek Chailert is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants in Thailand. She is also the founder of Save Elephant Foundation, an organization dedicated to ”providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.” There have been numerous documentary films made about Chailert’s work. In 2005, Time magazine named her “Asian Hero of the Year.”

Dr. Aysha Akhtar is a neurologist and public health specialist whose work explores and explains the connections that exist between human health and the wellbeing of animals. Her book, Animals and Public Health, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

Anita Krajnc is the co-founder of Toronto Pig Save. She has recently made international headlines for giving water to thirsty pigs on a slaughter truck during a Toronto Pig Save protest in the summer of 2015. She is facing criminal charges. Her trial date is set for August 2016.

Course 1:
Pikelet ~ Ginger Pumpkin Dumpling ~ Macadamia Cream Sauce

Course 2:
Tom Kha ~ Lemongrass-Smoked Tofu

Course 3:
Cape Cod Croquette ~ Lemon Basmati Rice ~ Winter Ratatouille ~ Sauce Verte

Course 4:
Lemon Cheesecake ~ Raspberry Coulis ~ Brownie Crumble

To learn more about the project, and the four women being featured on this PMSC menu, please visit the Unbound Project. It is only fitting that Jo and Keri speak to you without my being an intermediary.

Update, 1/26/16: Jo and Keri have included Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound in the Field Notes for their project. It’s a lovely review with photos of the food, the people, the fun:

Here are a few photos, most courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur herself.

Peace Meal Supper Club #15: Border Radio

Dr. John R. Brinkley
Dr. John R. Brinkley, quack, politician, radio pioneer, impossible human being.

A rooster crows to mark out his territory and establish dominion. If Dr. John Romulus Brinkley had been a rooster, his flock would have included every North American from the Rio Grand River to the North Pole, and even a few Soviets. Fueled by Depression-era medical quackery and inspired engineering, his XER AM radio signal roared out of Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican town just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Locals said that its signal rattled their bedsprings, turned on car headlights, and bled into telephone conversations. Non-locals, like radio station operators in Atlanta and Montreal, condemned it for interfering with their own signals.[1]

Along with his own questionable cures–such as xenotransplantation of goat testicular cells into the genitals of presumed impotent men–Dr. Brinkley promoted his own political aspirations, fostered QVC-style infomercials, and helped propel the careers of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and other revered pioneers of American roots music. Brinkley’s story defies condensation, touching as it does upon medical charlatanry, male insecurity, cutting edge electronic engineering, innovative advertising, landmark Supreme Court decisions, federal communications legislation, popular culture, international treaties, the birth of mass-media evangelism, and the KGB, who listened in to his signal to brush up on their English.

The Carter Family at XERA
The Carter Family at XERA

His story is far too wow-inducing to leave at that. I encourage you to read this highly-entertaining account here. (Another informative article is here. A film is in the works here.)

XER (and its successor XERA) operated from 1932 to 1939, existing in the shadow zone of the US-Mexico border. Dr. Brinkley, having pioneered AM radio in 1920s Kansas, built XER’s transmitter with the expressed purpose of circumventing US broadcast regulations. Mexico was eager to help him, for they also wished to get around gringo airwave limitations. They had sought a cooperative division of the airwaves across North America, hoping to broadcast to refugees of the Mexican Revolution and other immigrants scattered throughout the US. The US, however, made such a peaceful coexistence difficult. In came Brinkley with a team of distinguished engineers ready to outdo themselves, and together they built the most powerful radio transmitter ever to exist upon the planet. This rooster crowed with half a million watts. Some say a full million.

The massive signal lobbed across the continent not only underground hillbilly and blues recordings but the call of mystics, faith-healers, and purveyors of autographed photos of Jesus Christ. It was full-service garage-sale America, and it made the good doctor a millionaire several times over. On the less surreal plane of terra firma, it was a grand exercise in dominion. There was a lot at stake along the border.

Behind the inventive ego of Dr. Brinkley lies the long and complicated history of Mexican-US relations, still working its way into an infinitely tangled knot. The questionable breakaway of Texas from Mexico in 1936 left an unofficially delineated border and an unsanctioned treaty. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 was followed by US military trespass into Mexico. At the end of the resulting war, Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States, currently known as California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. By 1848, the dream of American Manifest Destiny was realized: the United States had extended its dominion to the Pacific Ocean.

USA Territorial Growth, 1850.
USA Territorial Growth, 1850.

The decades between the cession of Mexican lands and the advent of Dr. Brinkley were not peaceful ones. Mexico and other Latin American countries were in frequent political turmoil, some of it due to internal forces, some to external forces. The US intervened heavily, sometimes under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine or under cover of the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted his Good Neighbor foreign policy in an attempt to improve pan-American relations. His goal wasn’t entirely altruistic: he believed that adopting a more friendly demeanor towards Latin America would result in more economic opportunity, which is, after all, the impetus behind all American activity. After decades of US aggression, it is hard to imagine anyone taking his crow seriously.

Actress, singer, dancer, and pan-American sensation Carmen Miranda was a product of the Roosevelt Good Neighbor policy.
Actress, singer, dancer, and pan-American sensation Carmen Miranda was a product of the Roosevelt Good Neighbor policy.

Superficialities, however, came out of the woodwork. Radio was alive with the sounds of happy neighbors, as hosts played records from Latin American artists, linguists explained Spanish to English-only listeners, and dignitaries presented travel adventures. Concerts, films, and other cultural exchanges illustrated that to be pan-American-minded was to be a good American.[2]

However, Mexicans living in the US were not included in the neighborly programs. In fact, public opinion was further turned against them. Dolores Inés Casillas, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes, “American-sponsored [radio] programming peddled themes of hemispheric unity, despite the prevailing nativist attitudes, separating domestic and international agendas. American listeners developed imaginary friendships with Mexicans over there, whereas Mexican communities living here were depicted as unruly neighbors.”[3] Anti-Mexican sentiment was nothing new, having been fomented as propaganda before the Mexican-American War. Heavily racialized speeches filled Congress and the newspapers, with calls for “white destiny” to be fulfilled.[4]

Braceros with El Cortito, the short hoe which forced them to crouch as they worked. The UFW succeeded in getting 'el cortito' banned.
Braceros with El Cortito, the short hoe which forced them to crouch as they worked. The UFW succeeded in getting ‘el cortito’ banned. (Photo from Bracero History Archive)

Behind the glittery veneer of Rooseveltian neighborliness, the US issued constant requests to Mexico for laborers. Those who came were outfitted with short hoes and short paychecks. The Mexican “immigration problem” received frequent play in the press.[5] We might have changed our lyrics, but our song remained the same.

One song captures the moment well: “South of the border/Down Mexico way/That’s where I fell in love/When stars above/Came out to play,” begins a popular song from 1939, sung first by XERA veteran Gene Autry. The song’s superficial story is a romantic one: an American cowboy ventures into Mexico and has a one-night stand with a Mexican woman: “it was Fiesta, and love had its day,” he explains somewhat cavalierly. She asks about meeting again mañana, and he agrees. But alas, he has lied, knowing that he will return to the States instead. Some time later, he drifts south to find her praying at an altar, mission bells resounding overhead. There is sufficient ambiguity to wonder if she is in a convent or at her own wedding. Either way, he leaves again without saying “buenos dias.” The tale is one-sided, of course. She isn’t given a voice.

U.S. troops occupy Veracruz, Mexico in April 1914. (Flickr Commons Project, 2010/Courtesy Library of Congress)
The song was also a backward spin on the 1914 US invasion of Veracruz.

Though long-canonized as an American Standard, it isn’t really a romantic ballad at all. It is a glamorized account of American conquest in Mexico. It is the sound of the filibuster: in the 1800s, several American adventurers obligated themselves to overthrowing Latin American governments and establishing themselves as dictators. The term has since been used to describe a parliamentary procedure wherein a speaker will not yield the floor to a dissenting opinion. The song South of the Border, like the Congressional filibuster, is the sound of Anglo-American dominance.

Sound-as-dominion is an obsession of the online publication Sounding Out!, a highly academic and dynamic venue for scholars, artists, and readers “interested in the cultural politics of sound and listening.” In a currently ongoing series, they are reviewing a project from the 1960s and 70s, wherein a team of recordists set out to capture what Canada sounded like.

Writer Mitchell Akiyama explains that “a ‘soundmark’ is roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place.” He quotes a member of the original project’s team: “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”

Tampering happens at all levels of our society, from government chambers to the most common workplaces–such as restaurant kitchens. Routinely staffed by Mexican immigrants, they are filled with the sound of Spanish. It is the soundmark of a kitchen.

Restaurant worker in Glenwood Springs, CO, attentively listening to Spanish-language radio.
Restaurant worker in Glenwood Springs, CO, attentively listening to Spanish-language radio. Photo by Andrew Cullen. Please see the full article: http://bit.ly/1LMV1r4

When I was employed at a prominent raw food cafe and school in Ft. Bragg, CA, management sent down the decree: no more Spanish was to be spoken in the kitchen. My Mexican colleagues and I noted that the decree did not prohibit singing in Spanish. A request for the peeler or the blender or even a toothpick instantly became a song. We soon tired of our own mischief, but the point was made: the soundmark will remain, regardless of biased mandates.

Sounds of Belonging, by Dolores Inés Casillas
Sounds of Belonging, by Dolores Inés Casillas

Subversive behavior aside, a soundmark has a purpose. It is the sound of “home,” and is invaluable to a culture that has become scattered across the continent. Casillas states, “Spanish-language broadcasts along the West Coast have long provided nationalist sustenance for a Mexican-dominant listenership that is yearning for an audible, familiar semblance of ‘home.'” Experiencing physical and emotional displacement is common among immigrants. To hear one’s language is to find a stabilizing touchstone. Home is not just a fixed, physical place, but “a mobile symbolic habitat, a performative way of life and of doing things in which one makes one’s home while in movement.”[6]

In every kitchen I’ve entered, I have listened for the sounds of Spanish-language radio. Its existence is an indicator of the health of the kitchen. It speaks of community, strength, family, solidarity, and progress. It also speaks volumes about management.

But not all see it as a positive. To some, all that Spanish-speaking provokes suspicion and fear, and fuels a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence.

Writes Jennifer Stoever, Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!, regarding Arizona’s anti-immigration SB-1070: “Because unspoken, racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through American culture via the listening ear, members of dominant groups may use sound with impunity to forge ‘reasonable suspicion’ about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them (and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them). Certainly the sound of Spanish is at the top of this list.”[7]

Because "American" is a language.
Because “American” is a language.

In other words, “You don’t sound American. You got any papers?”

Silencing non-English language has been an American pastime over the past 100 years or so. German-language materials were forbidden during the World War I; bilingual education has been banned in various states; Native American children have been enrolled in English-only boarding schools to remove them from their language; and the radio waves have been routinely and bureaucratically cleared of all polyglot tendencies.[8]

Los Lobos: A good idea of what America sound like. Seriously.
Los Lobos: A good idea of what America sounds like. Seriously.

But what does America actually sound like? White residents of Arizona? Polyrhythmic multilingual Manhattan? Kentucky bluegrass played on an African instrument? The United States is the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world.[9] Whatever America actually sounds like, it is not monolingual by any means.

Our fixation on English-only society is sometimes passive and selective, rather than violent or legislative. Once again Mitchell Akiyama, regarding the recording of the “what Canada sounds like” project: “It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another.”[10]

Lydia Mendoza was a star on both sides of he border, among all language speakers. This photo is from a 1936 recording session in San Antonio.
Lydia Mendoza was a star on both sides of he border, among all language speakers. This photo is from a 1936 recording session in San Antonio.

There is a response to all this suppression: the suppressed step over the line and build the most powerful radio in the world. Dr. John R. Brinkley was on the outs with US authorities when he built the first border blaster. By agreement with the Mexican government, one quarter of his programming was in Spanish. Mexico found a way to reach its dispersed people.

Today, Spanish-language radio continues its public mission in spite of the changes in dominant listening methods. Writes Casillas in a Sounding Out! essay: “The very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from ‘white collar’ modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.

“For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun.”

“Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” she continues, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”[11]

Pedro J. Gonzalez, Spanish-language radio pioneer.
Pedro J. Gonzalez, Spanish-language radio pioneer.

Spanish-language programming did exist in the US prior to XERA’s reign of power. In the 1920s, English-language stations sold their most undesirable timeslots to Spanish producers such as Pedro J. Gonzalez, whose early-morning shows greeted campesinos as they prepared to go to the fields. When local and national regulations threatened to silence them, they partook of Dr. Brinkley’s miracle cure for FCC interference and moved across the border.[12] As Brinkley and Roosevelt were furthering their empires, Mexicans–here and in Mexico–were trying to learn how to live in them.

But they were not seeking economic or political advantage, as were the good doctor and the president’s foreign policy mavens. The operators of Spanish-language radio were doing then what they are still doing now: broadcasting “home” to their wandering compadres, working to unify, educate, and inform them. Helping them learn to live as immigrants in a country that is far too hostile towards its neighbors, yet mysteriously filled with sonorous Spanish place-names: California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado; San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, San Antonio.

The 1848 Mexican Cession (red line) shown along with the 2010 US Latino population.
The 1848 Mexican Cession (red line) shown along with the 2010 US Latino population.

Just as Spanish-language border radio shot over US resistance, community radio lay below the mainstream. The first bilingual non-commercial radio station in the US, KBBF-FM (Santa Rose, CA), went on the air in 1973. Its mission was clear: “To create a strong multilingual voice that empowers and engages the community to achieve social justice through education, celebration of culture and local and international news coverage.” Born amidst the Chicano Movement, its purpose is relevant to all, regardless of origin, language, or heritage. It is a very American mission.

As Casillas relates, KBBF and its fellow bilingual stations have resumed the practice of those 1920s Spanish-language radio pioneers, providing much needed information and influence, promoting literacy, sobriety, and good citizenship. And as commercial Spanish-language radio has grown–by 1995, it dominated Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, and New York–it too has continued the tradition. National call-in shows help listeners navigate the complicated US citizenship process, give advice regarding medical and legal rights, offer ESL assistance, help with H-2A compliance, and provide drivers’ education. The focus is on improvement and the preservation of cultural identity–far more beneficial than the consumption-driven message of Dr. Brinkley.[13]

Brinkley Medical License Trial
The mighty do fall, now and then.

Immigrants are indeed navigating a tsunami of US consumer-based identity. They are not alone in this, for our northern neighbor struggles with the pervasive US personality. “The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry.”[14]

The American culture industry is not, however, in danger of being subsumed under anyone. Its only risk is self-induced: it might one day be eliminated by its own noise, much like Londoners. De nobis fabula narrabitur.

Speaking of noise, I need to clarify my statements about roosters. It is true that they mark their domain by crowing. But they also crow to communicate with other roosters, to check in and see that all is well. Roosters are perfectly capable of sharing space, as they do at VINE Sanctuary in Vermont. Even those trained to fight to the death can learn to live in peace.

Our Menu

The cuisine of the US-Mexico borderlands is a bold, multi-lingual synthesis of methods, foods, and attitudes from native North America, old Spain, and the westward push of the US. The border is not its boundary; rather, the border is its central, invisible highway. This menu reflects shared heritage, coexistence, and the beauty of intercultural understanding: a peaceful contrast to all the aggressive crowing. The dessert highlights our northern border: the longest undefended border in the world.

Course 1: Tortilla Soup
Course 2: Mini Chile Rellenos ~ Bed of Caesar
Course 3: Enchiladas ~ Red Sauce ~ Rajas con Crema ~ Frijoles Refritos
Course 4: Canadian Butter Tart

What We Can Do:

Get your news from a non-commercial source:

Support community radio, or consider starting a station: http://prometheusradio.org/stationprofiles

Listen to XERF, the offspring of Dr. Brinkley’s original border station. It continues its high-wattage broadcasts of Mexican immigrant identity.

And the gratuitous yet thoroughly justified inclusion:


[1] Pope Brock, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam (Crown, 2008), 35.

[2] Dolores Inés Casillas, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy (New York University Press, 2014), 14.

[3] Casillas, 23.

[4] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 149-169.

[5] Casillas,22.

[6] Casillas, 5.

[7] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?,” Sounding Out!, August 19, 2010, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2010/08/19/the-noise-of-sb-1070/.

[8] Phillip M. Carter, “Why this bilingual education ban should have repealed long ago,” CNN, March 4, 2014, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/04/opinion/carter-bilingual-education/; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-only_movement

[9] Stephen Burgen, “US now has more Spanish speakers than Spain – only Mexico has more,” The Guardian, June 29, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country?CMP=share_btn_tw

[10] Mitchell Akiyama, “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition,” Sounding Out!, August 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/08/20/unsettling-the-world-soundscape-project-soundscapes-of-canada-and-the-politics-of-self-recognition/.

[11] Dolores Inés Casillas, “Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-Language Radio,” Sounding Out!, July 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/07/20/listening-loudly-to-spanish-language-radio/.

[12] Casillas, 40.

[13] Casillas, 23, 76, 86.

[14] Akiyama, “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition,”

Peace Meal Supper Club #14: Labor

Peace Meal Supper Club #14 is offered as a woefully small but deeply respectful expression of gratitude to the unconquerable Worker.

IWW Work Hours CampaignWe speak often of the American Labor Movement as that which brought us the weekend and the eight-hour workday. This attribution is correct, although these benefits were not granted all in one sweep of corporate largesse. These present-day taken-for-granteds in no way represent the magnitude of what Workers have gifted us. Nor do they indicate the fierceness of the fight.

Reading about Labor’s struggle from the late 1800s and up to 1937 is like reading propaganda–even the non-biased accounts read as sensational. Charges of conspiracy and insurrection were leveled against Workers as they sought fair wages and safe conditions. Federal militia and citizen’s armies were sent in to quell alleged anarchist rebellions, atheists were thrown out of court, and our nation was on the brink of destruction due to socialist machinations, it would seem.

Colorado in AmericaIronically, it has been The Establishment–that amorphous mix of corporation, judiciary, law enforcement, press, and legislators–that has invoked the voice of propaganda. From the earliest struggles, Workers have been classified as insurrectionists, anarchists, socialists, communists, atheists, and terrorists. While some indeed have been–just as among any group of the citizenry we can find a spectrum of “-ists”–these labels have been used to justify violent suppression of even the most basic demands.

Hysteria aside, Labor has been a powerful progressive force, a cornerstone of social justice, the factory floor whereupon the betterment of society was wrought. Labor has never been one to move backwards. It has been pushing society forward since the 1600s.

The first known legal case in the United States (Commonwealth v. Pullis) involving a strike to raise wages occurred in Philadelphia in1806. The court’s decision was that striking workers were conspiring illegally, a conclusion significantly colored by English common law. A few decades later, in the 1842 case Commonwealth v. Hunt, the Massachusetts Supreme Court determined that labor combinations–unions–were not inherently illegal, provided their activities were legal. The significant ‘gray area’ in this decision led to inconsistent application through the following decades, and provided ample reason for employers to press the state of intervention in employee disputes. “Interfering with private enterprise” became synonymous with “threatening to overthrow the government of the United States.” Workers were not seeking livable wages; they were anarchists determined to destroy the established order. It doesn’t take much effort, then, to bring in the military. Which is what happened repeatedly during the 60-year period from 1870 to 1940.

John Siney, who attempted to organize coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, was arrested under charges of conspiracy. During his trial, he challenged the court: “We have been called agitators, we have been called demagogues, because we have counseled our members to try and secure better wages and harmonious settlements. Is it wrong to teach men to seek a higher moral standard? Is it wrong to advance our financial interests? If so, let those who operate our mines and mills abandon the various enterprises to with they are engaged in the pursuit of wealth.”[1]

One version of the world, courtesy of the IWW.
One version of the world, courtesy of the IWW.

Those who operated the mines, mills, railroads, and factories were formidable foes: Carnegie, Gould, Pullman, Vanderbilt, Ford, Morgan. Driven by a fierce creed of capitalism, they amassed unprecedented fortunes as they built massive industrial empires. They were not ones to make humanitarian concessions to the workforce. In fact, they were quite contrary to the idea. They frequently made unannounced, drastic cuts in wages without regard to the livability of those wages. In some of the industries, mining for example, risk of injury or death was present daily. Worker safety was not among employers’ considerations across most industries, as is vividly portrayed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, 1911.

Sidney Lens, The Labor WarsLabor historian Sidney Lens writes in The Labor Wars, “‘Under the natural order of things,’ said Herbert Spencer, ‘society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members’ in order to leave room for the competent ones entitled to reward. Gould and Vanderbilt…operated on the simple thesis that the capitalists, by their proven superiority, were entitled to rule; the workers, by their proven ineptness, obligated to accept their judgments.”[2]

US eugenics advocacy poster, circa 1926.
US eugenics advocacy poster, circa 1926.

Such strong class-based bias, projecting an unflinching assumption of Worker subservience, supposes that the Worker is less worthy due to inherent personal, possibly genetic, qualities. This thoroughly reprehensible idea has been the impetus behind uncountable institutional crimes, from American slavery to British and American eugenics and rampant worldwide genocide in this century. America has focused such prejudice upon wave after wave of immigrants, from Jews to Irish to Italians to Mexicans, not to mention women of all origin, all of whom have successively comprised major portions of our workforce. It seems that once we concede constitutional rights to Workers, we chip away at them via other biases.

The rights we’re according Workers are the rights to which any human is worthy. Freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to peaceably demonstrate, the right to fair wages and equal treatment in the eyes of the law, the abolishment of child labor–these form the very core of the Labor Movement’s values, and therefore place it in the domain of basic social justice. Workers have shed blood for more than just pay and weekends.

IWW ButtonFor example, one of the most colorfully radical unions, the Industrial Workers of the World, waged a highly successful series of free speech campaigns between 1909 and 1917. The Spokane campaign in 1909–which you can read about here–exemplifies peaceful civil disobedience, the ability of a dedicated few to secure rights for all, and the tendency of the establishment to suppress speech deemed anti-religious or unpatriotic. As one demonstrator was arrested and pulled off the soapbox, another one would take his or her place–and they did this relentlessly. The jails were filled many times over, hundreds of speakers were beaten by police, fines were levied, unconstitutional and biased ordinances were passed, and still the Wobblies–as IWW members were called–continued their campaign. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an indefatigable feminist and future co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, even chained herself to a lamppost

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

so she could prolong her speech. One demonstrator, when accosted by police, stated that he was merely “reading the Declaration of Independence.” The two-year campaign was successful, with the city restoring civil liberties and investigating the employers that were the subjects of the Wobblies’ speeches.

The violation of speech rights was joined by the curtailing of the right to assemble, notably during the steel strikes in Pennsylvania that began in 1919. Permits to assemble were required, the requests for which were subsequently ignored for months. Meetings that were held in spite of permits were disrupted by the use of police force. Private meetings were also invaded by the authorities, with new laws requiring that meetings be conducted only in English.[3] In another strike, one among textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Workers avoided arrest by choreographing their movements on the sidewalks and in retail shops, making their presence known but not being indictable for assembling ‘unlawfully.’ The IWW, ever creative in its circumvention of unconstitutional mandates, devised a “thousand mile picket line” by boarding trains and moving among the railcars to prevent transport of strikebreakers.[4]

Peaceful assembly at the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.
Peaceful assembly at the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.

The right to picket is considered a natural part of the right of assembly, yet picketers have long been subject to violent attack and shutdown by the authorities, extending to today’s demonstrations on behalf of other causes. One of the most horrific cases of violence against picketers was the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which Chicago policemen fired into a line of picketers as they made their way to the gates of Republic Steel. A Paramount News photographer caught the incident on film. Paramount refused to show the film publicly, for fear of inciting a riot.[5] Watching it today, the scene seems all too familiar: peaceful citizens hoping to have their voices heard are brutalized by an over-eager paramilitary police force, which in this case was armed by the corporation.

Through over 200 years of labor strife in the US, the Establishment has routinely engaged in surveillance, infiltration, provocation, collusion, unconstitutional legislation, jaundiced judiciary, and racial fear-mongering. Federal troops and National Guardsmen have been utilized to ‘resolve’ problems between Workers and employers. Industrialists have been allowed to establish their own private militias. States have willingly performed executions. Rather than mediate settlements, state and federal governments have chosen to defend corporate interests. Corporate personhood was born in 1819, and came of age in 1888. Its position of primacy in our culture today is almost unassailable.

Pinkerton Detectives were routinely hired by corporations to serve as private police-cum-militia forces.
Pinkerton Detectives were routinely hired by corporations to serve as private police-cum-militia forces.

Workers, meanwhile, though far from faultless, have fought on behalf of constitutional rights for the less privileged. Among Labor’s champions we find leaders of other socially progressive efforts, ranging from women’s suffrage to racial equality. Workers have pooled their funds to provide for other Workers on strike; paid bail and legal funds; and financed burial and memorials for the casualties. During the particularly intense 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, the IWW arranged foster homes for the children of strikers. This was considered an outlandish, media-grabbing gesture, but the children had been undernourished from birth, with a 50% mortality rate common among in the town. By providing better temporary conditions for the children, the union enabled the striking families to focus on the strike at hand and provided much needed medical care for the children. The Workers won a resounding victory in the form of increased wages, shorter hours, overtime pay, and other benefits.

Men of the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937.
Men of the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937.

The ability of Workers to conduct themselves peacefully during strikes–admittedly a long time coming–was exemplified during the Lawrence Textile demonstrations. Peaceful striking scaled another peak during the Sitdown Strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1936. The strikers did not leave the plant to picket outside. Instead, they remained peacefully inside for forty-four days. This kept the plant occupied and unable to take on strikebreakers. It also shielded the strikers from aggression. They established their own civil structure, had stringent regulations against substances and violent behavior, took care not to damage GM property or equipment, and kept the plant clean and sanitary. Food was allowed in by the authorities, and the heat was kept on. One attempt to take the plant by force was rebuffed, and ultimately the strikers were rewarded for their efforts. The strike has since served as a model of non-destructive civil disobedience and was a forerunner of ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupy’ techniques used decades later. It also presents an unusual restraint of force: Michigan Governor Frank Murphy had National Guardsmen at his disposal. He chose to use them to protect the strikers.

Murphy understood the very core of the Labor Movement, expressed very well by Washington Post editorialist E. J. Dionne: “The union movement has always been attached to a set of values — solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room.”

The relationship between government and Workers reached a more peaceful stasis when the National Labor Relations Act was signed in to law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. It marked a major victory for Labor, as it legitimized unions, Workers’ rights to bargain collectively for better conditions, and to strike when necessary. While far from complete–it excepted agricultural laborers, for example–it was a major milestone in moderating the relationship between employee and employer.

Not surprisingly it was hotly contested as unconstitutional, and numerous bills were introduced to limit its reach during the first 10 years of its existence. The now-standard cries of “socialism” and “threat to freedom” were levied against it, but it has stood. It was a sign of progressive change.

Robert La Follette, one of the great progressive leaders of the early 1900s, introduced Issue #1 of his periodical The Progressive thusly:

“In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable. Our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government, and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them. The battle is just on. It is young yet. It will be the longest and hardest ever fought for Democracy. In other lands, the people have lost. Here we shall win. It is a glorious privilege to live in this time, and have a free hand in this fight for government by the people.”

That was in 1909, and by 1938 and the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, democracy had indeed made progress. So where are we today? Have we truly garnered the victory he sought?

Among the larger industries, unionization has resolved the primary issues. Unions have perhaps become a bit complacent, charges which were leveled at the AFL in the early 1900s. Other unions have fallen due to factionalism or have simply become obsolete. Some, like the United Farm Workers, survive only to celebrate their own history.

Screen_Shot_2014-12-04_at_1.45.41_PM_850_524So it is no surprise that more work is to be done. Recent exposés regarding Amazon’s corporate work culture indicate that the Gilded Age industrialist model is still alive and well. A review of the Fair Labor Standards Act shows that agricultural workers are exempted, and further research indicates that child labor is still allowed in farm fields. Minimum wage campaigns among food-workers serve to highlight the plight of others in service industries, and indeed all along the food supply chain. The H-2A guest worker program is rife with abuses.

Beyond our borders, we see more that needs our attention. In 2012, Bangladeshi garment workers suffered a brutal re-enactment of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which American business–that is, Walmart–played a significant role. Cacao is over-run by child labor, though American corporations have vowed to fight this practice.

Coca-Cola, one of the most recognizable American brands, has been implicated in using paramilitary force in the deaths of union organizers in Colombia. Though a Miami district court dismissed the original case, ongoing inquiry reveals corporate actions similar to those among 19th Century American industrialists.

Along our border with Mexico, factories known as maquiladoras provide cheap labor for American goods. Working conditions are poor, living conditions substandard, and wages extremely low.

Poster - Frank Hoffstot
“We buy labor in the cheapest market,” stated Frank Hoffstot in 1909. American business still follows his lead.

The American capitalist model has been exported worldwide. Wherever it goes, it takes with it a very old mindset. A major stockholder of American Woolen, around the time of the 1912 strike mentioned above, told prominent liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing the stockholders. If he can secure men for $6 and pays more, he is stealing from the company.”[6]

Over at the Pressed Steel Car Plant in 1909, company president Frank Hoffstot’s opinion was that “when all’s said and done” wages are fixed by “supply and demand. The same as everything else. We buy labor in the cheapest market.”[7]

And when things get tense, and workers rebel against low wages and substandard conditions, there is one sure-fire remedy. US Attorney General Richard Olney‘s prescription for curing the Pullman Strike in 1894 was to apply “force which is overwhelming and prevents any attempt at resistance.” It should be no surprise that Olney was a major railroad stockholder.[8] Have a Coke and a smile.

Pullman strikers being confronted by National Guardsmen.
Pullman strikers being confronted by National Guardsmen.

It is hard to study the Labor Movement and not view Capitalism as the fortress of cowards, who call upon the government to save them from the clutches of their underlings. Capitalism has continuously fought to curtail the constitutional rights of citizens, has infiltrated and provoked violence rather than deal fairly with those upon whose labor their empires rest, and has shown not one degree of conscience.

There is a ray of hope, however. In the words of Ayn Rand: “The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’ It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.” So this will all be cleaned up in short order.


I am guilty of criminal neglect for not mentioning Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and other stalwarts of Labor. The history I have given is unforgivably brief, and does not do justice to the innumerable deaths and injuries brought upon Workers by the forces of industry and government.

Please consider reading about the following events, or watching the brief videos.

The Haymarket Affair, 1886

The Homestead Strike, 1892

The General Motors Sit-Down Strike, 1936 [9-minute video with historic footage]

The Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel, 1937 [article]

The Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel, 1937 [16-minute documentary; original newsreel footage; in 2 parts]

The Pullman Railroad Car Strike, 1894

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

Railroad Strike of 1877

Sidney Lens. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008.

[1] Sidney Lens, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 26.

[2] Lens, 5.

[3] Lens, 202-210.

[4] Lens, 167.

[5] Lens, 320.

[6] Lens, 170.

[7] Lens, 160.

[8] Lens, 98.

Peace Meal Supper Club #13: Mississippi

It’s a well-documented fact that is rarely discussed: Hubris and Irony can’t keep their hands off each other.

In 1899, drought hit the lower Mississippi valley keenly, affecting cotton, sugar cane, and potato crops. Drinking water was scarce. Rice farmers were desperately pumping water over the levees in order to save their rice crops. It was the third drought in the decade, being preceded by those in 1896 and 1893. Less than 200 years prior, the area had been a wetlands, free of levees, pumps, and desperate farmers.[1]

The 1893 drought had been preceded by floods. Historian Christopher Morris considers this a sure sign that the region had become unstable, the result of systematic yet chaotic attempts at environmental transformation through the use of physical barriers. Instability has been a Mississippi River trademark for almost 300 years now.

“From almost the moment in the early 18th century when the French started to build New Orleans, settlers built levees, and in so doing, entered into a complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States,” states Alexis C. Madrigal, a contributing editor for The Atlantic.[2]

"Big Muddy" by Christopher Morris
“Big Muddy” by Christopher Morris

The first levees were put into place by the French planters, in a model perfected by Joseph Villars Dubreuil in 1725 and constructed by his massive slave labor force.[3] It proved so effective that his neighbors took him to court. By modifying the river’s flow around his plantation, he flooded others. In some cases, he had inadvertently reversed the flow of water through his neighbors’ mills, rendering them inoperable. The Louisiana Superior Court ruled that a larger levee be built, with no openings for mills. As Morris succinctly states in The Big Muddy, “The solution to flooding caused by leveeing and draining was more leveeing and draining.” Hubris whistles. Irony whistles back.[4]

Illuminati Controlling Nature & Everything Else
Illuminati Controlling Nature & Everything Else

Behind the levees lay the philosophy that man can control nature, no matter the scale. The Europeans that came to the Americas did not intend to live on the land as it would have them. They intended to have the land as they wanted it. Continues Morris: “Levees reconfigured the human relationship with the environment, by separating land and water so as to enhance human control over both. Water touched land when people permitted it to do so, for example, when it flowed through man-made ditches and sluices, sawmills and irrigating fields…[Levees] transformed the river from a ‘destructive’ power into a force for ‘improving’ the land…human power triumphing over nature’s power.”[5]

Mississippi River Watershed
Mississippi River Watershed

When Hernando de Soto first visited the Mississippi River Valley in 1541, he observed one of the planet’s largest natural wetlands, extending over 35,000 square miles, with a watershed stretching from modern-day Montana to western New York. The French, following 130 years after de Soto, considered it unlivable in spite of the natives that were living there. They set about creating dry places to live and farm, inspired by the efforts of Dubreuil.

America has transformed the French experiments at containment into a grand-scale display of power over the environment. The 3500-mile system of levees within the Mississippi River basin rival the Great Wall of China in accumulative length, reaching across 40% of the continental United States.[6] In addition, 27 dams are situated between the river’s origin in north central Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri. Other containment systems occur along the remainder of the river’s journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mississippi River Levee Map, US Army Corps of Engineers, 1986
Mississippi River Levee Map, US Army Corps of Engineers, 1986

Though championed for the benefits they provide humans, levees and other water containment systems are not benign fixtures on the landscape. They bring very serious side effects. As authors Friese, Kraft, and Nabhan write in Chasing Chiles, “A long, convoluted chain of events is causing the rising waters in the Mississippi delta. Human activities have interrupted the cyclical rejuvenation of the delta lands, from the construction of dikes and dams on the Mississippi River itself to the creation of other canals, channels, and diversions, which are the main drivers causing the subsidence of the delta and its islands in the bayous. As these lands disappear, there is a subsequent loss of coastal wetlands, and open water replaces marshy vegetation.”[7]

Naturalists, agroecologists, foodies, and culture freaks often decry the uncountable losses in such a scenario. But for the powers that be, these impacts are often measured in terms of economic gains. That’s because economy has always been the yardstick.

We cannot overestimate the economic force behind the locks, dams, levees, and canals that escort the river to its delta. In that delta lie three major shipping ports, which are absolutely critical for the US economy. The Port of New Orleans is the fifth largest port in the United States based on cargo volume. The Port of South Louisiana, also located in the New Orleans area, is the world’s busiest in terms of bulk tonnage. Taken in combination, the two ports comprise the world’s fourth largest port system in terms of volume handled. And of course, there is oil.

Map Based on La Salle Expeditions, 1683
Map Based on La Salle Expeditions, 1683

The ports were a long time in the making, but economy was always their impetus. LaSalle’s claiming of the Mississippi River on behalf of France in 1682 allowed for a massive trade network to be developed, reaching from the Gulf Coast to Montreal. The fledgling French settlements in Louisiana were an extension of economic desperation back home, as the French government fought its way through the monumental debts accumulated by the recently-deceased Louis XIV. Under the direction of Scottish financier and compulsive gambler John Law, the French hoped to reconcile debt through the sale of shares in the French Mississippi Company, the products of which originated in the American colonies. The Mississippi mania that infected Paris in 1719 is legendary, as commoners and nobles alike literally fought in the streets to obtain shares of the French Mississippi Company. It all came crashing down in 1720, threatening complete ruin to the French state.[8]

John Law, by Casimir Balthazar
John Law, by Casimir Balthazar

As the Duke of Orleans cleaned up matters at home, inertia had its way with Louisiana. To support the demand for product and profit–in the form of rice, indigo, sugar, or eventually cotton–French settlers exiled more of the great river, cleared and dried more land, deforested greater acreage, and applied a larger number of forced laborers. Between 1719 and 1731, the company established by John Law brought an estimated 6000 slaves from Africa.[9] The company attempted to relocate French debtors to Louisiana.[10] It succeeded in bringing in German debtors.[11] Their settlements along the Mississippi became known as The German Coast, home to the largest slave rebellion in United States history.

The French Mississippi Company scheme, though short-lived, had very long-term effects. For one, it reoriented the trade axis of French America. Illinois shifted its subordination away from Montreal and towards the port town New Orleans. Established in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville on behalf of the French Mississippi Company, New Orleans was intended to be the economic capital of France’s American empire. The Mississippi River became the highway of imperialism. Like the river, all goods began flowing towards the Gulf.

Plan of New Orleans, 1728
Plan of New Orleans, 1728

The flow was profound. Cypress forests were felled to build the new city, and to make barrels for shipping the territory’s bounty. Along with timber, rice, beef, indigo, tobacco, sugar, and cotton traveled down the river. All of this necessitated more clearing of forests, more draining of swamps. The landscape was transformed from New Orleans to Illinois and beyond.[12]

The Louisiana Territory changed hands a few times between the mid-1700s and 1803, finally settling in US hands after negotiations between Jefferson and Napoleon. With US ownership came a boom in cotton production and slave labor. By 1860, the slave population in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi was approaching 1 million.[13]

Meanwhile, levees continued to grow in number and height. Referring to the Duke of Orleans’ role in the French Mississippi Company’s stock scheme, journalist Charles Mackay stated that “the regent…thought that a system which had produced such good effects could never be carried to excess.”[14] Professor Pangloss could not have said it better, even if he had seen all those levees.

Among those good effects immune to excess were massive fish kills due to toxic indigo runoff as early as 1800; comprehensive deforestation in some areas by 1900; domination of invasive plant species on land by 1800; infestation of invasive water species by 1880. In addition, all before 1900, there was increased flooding due to deforestation in the watershed regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio; coastal erosion at advanced rates; the need for protection of endangered animal species; and a collapse in natural prey-predator relationships at all levels of wild life.[15]

By the early 1800s, the soil was depleted “past all redemption,” according to noted agriculturist Solon Robinson. By 1920, chemical fertilizers were necessary throughout the delta. Since 1920, the large Sparta Aquifer, at the joining of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, has dropped over 360 feet. Spectacular fish kills happened throughout the early 1960s, with 5 million dead between 1964 and 1965.[16]

First the Seed, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.
First the Seed, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.

This historical perspective is necessary for us to understand that the problems we face today are not new. That is to say, they are not a fad, nor a trend that will pass. They are endemic to the economic and political system we espouse. As I presented in past Peace Meal Supper Clubs, most notably “Seed,” our system requires the constant production and sale of goods, on a scale that is excessive and destructive. This in turn requires complex industrial systems that do not serve the people, but instead funnel all resources to a nation’s bottom line. As for the people themselves, they are also considered resources to be managed for the good of the Gross Domestic Product.

To be clear, life was certainly not without its troubles prior to settlement by Europeans. But what de Soto found was a mix of peoples whose lives were fashioned around the activities of the river. When the river flooded, native people moved to higher ground until it receded. They consumed its proceeds and supported its replenishment. They subsisted on agricultural crops, fishing, and hunting, as we would expect. The caprice of the river provided inconvenience but not disaster.

The dynamic life of the Mississippi river system, pre-conquest, ensured constant replenishing of the soil with sediment drawn from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes regions, and the western slope of the Appalachians. Cataclysmic flooding was infrequent. The vast Mississippi Alluvial Plain held some of the world’s richest agricultural soil.

Deltaic CyclesThe river’s delta is the result of 7000 years of coastal sediment deposition. Through a series of shifts in the river’s course–known as deltaic cycles–these

deposits built up the complex coastline of Louisiana. They worked in concert and in contest with the forces of oceanic erosion. However, three hundred years of levee-building upriver have increasingly deprived the delta of the sediment portion of this equation. The decrease is drastic: before 1900, the river carried an estimated 400 million metric tons of sediment per year to the delta. By the year 2000, it was carrying only 145 million metric tons per year. That’s a reduction of 64%. As a consequence, the Louisiana coast is eroding at the rate of one football field every 30 minutes. Erosion of the delta was a major contributor to the catastrophe known as Katrina.

Coastal changes over 6000 years.
Coastal changes over 6000 years.






But erosion is not the only problem we’ve unfairly blamed on the river itself. Flooding has become chronic, with major floods occurring in 1825, 1844, 1849, 1858, 1927, 1937, 1973, 1983, 1993, 2011, and 2014. Systemic breakdowns have occurred in the greatest of the floods, those in 1927, 1937, 1973, and 1993. Not surprisingly, these floods rival one another for their destruction, death toll, and costliness. Each flood has summoned greater technical solutions and increased the involvement of the Federal government. Since the Flood Control Act of 1928, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been given the prime responsibility for flood control along the Mississippi River. The Corps’ official motto is “Let Us Try.” Each time they try, they succeed in increasing the risk of greater disaster.

Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO)
Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO)

During the August 2005 arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the Corps’s flood protection system failed catastrophically, with levee breaches in over 50 locations. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, another Corps undertaking, provided an expressway for the hurricane, funneling it directly into the city. It was one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history, largely due to one of the worst civil engineering failures in US history.

The US Army Corps of Engineers have received a torrent of criticism for their approach for managing the Mississippi River and its outlet. An enlightening and somewhat startling indictment appears in the August 2007 issue of Time Magazine. Michael Grunwald’s indignation in his article “The Threatening Storm” should be our own.

Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, aka The Great Wall of Louisiana
Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, aka The Great Wall of Louisiana

In response to Katrina’s destruction, the Corps has responded as we might anticipate. The solution is not to gradually undo our repression of the river and gently wend our way, as much as is possible, to a naturally functioning system. The solution-in-progress is to build more containment, in a project that has been dubbed The Great Wall of Louisiana. Irony sizes up all those hunky points of failure and licks her lips.

But counter to irony there are other all-too-unsurprising stories running alongside the damned Mississippi River. Being such a major thoroughfare throughout the life of America, it has served as a mirror of our nation’s progress. As industrial agriculture has spread across the US Midwest, it has also delivered a payload of toxic runoff into the Mississippi River system. This in turn has created a massive and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, 2010
Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, 2010

Flowing concurrently with environmental degradation is the continued deterioration of racial justice. The lower Mississippi valley has seen institutionalized enslavement of Africans transform into the Black Codes of the post-Civil War South. Land granted to Freedmen under Congressional mandate was returned to Southern whites through President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty programs. Black Americans were routinely forced into labor on levee projects throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.[17] Institutionalized disenfranchisement has led to widespread urban marginalization, which factored into the racially-charged aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The past is often a harbinger of the future. One thousand years prior to Hernando de Soto’s Mississippi River forays, a highly advanced society flourished at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. The Cahokia peoples established a trade network that reached from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, employed sophisticated agricultural techniques, built lasting monuments, and controlled the manufacture and distribution of technologically-advanced tools. Central to their settlement was an imposing mound, rising to 100 feet and covering 15 acres of ground. From its summit, their kings would arrange for the weather to favor their agricultural fields.[18]

The Cahokians also had a strong urge towards deforestation and exploitation of resources. The collapse of their society in the 14th century has been credited to unsustainable agricultural practices,[19] over-hunting of the surrounding regions, and floods resulting from the landscape that they had rendered bare–and over which their kings had claimed control.[20]

“Given Cahokia’s engineering expertise,” writes Charles C. Mann in 1491, “solutions were within reach: terracing hillsides, diking rivers, even moving Cahokia. Like all too many dictators, Cahokia’s rulers focused on maintaining their hold over the people, paying little attention to external reality.”[21]

The beauty of hubris is its built-in irony: it will eventually deprive itself of the stage upon which to strut its stuff.

Mississippi River Meander Belt, 1944
Mississippi River Meander Belt, 1944

Our tightly integrated political and economic system resembles the Old River Control Structure, a floodgate system built in 1963 near the border of Mississippi state and Louisiana. Its purpose is to keep the Mississippi River in its current course, even though it wishes to jump over into the Atchafalaya Basin. The river has changed course many times; this is part of a river’s natural behavior. However, for the sake of economy the Mississippi is being held into place by order of the US Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers enforce these orders. However, there are weaknesses in the Old River Control Structure which almost brought it to a collapse during the 1973 flood. Our monolithic establishment also has weak points, and by working in those gaps, perhaps we can influence change or undermine repressive structures.

First, any effort we can make to eliminate our personal consumerist impulses will help. We have been bred, as Americans, to want more, get more, constantly work for more. Our desires require resources, and by decreasing our desires we can reduce industrial encroachment into our few remaining natural areas.

Soil to Sky Infographic from the Christensen Fund, via Nourishing the Planet
Soil to Sky Infographic from the Christensen Fund, via Nourishing the Planet

We can support, at the grassroots level, more natural forms of agriculture. We can withhold our support for industrial agriculture. Please visit the Organic Consumers Association online at www.organicconsumers.org.

We can work to establish food equality throughout our land of plenty. Please visit the Food Empowerment Project at www.foodispower.org.

We must create alternate economies which operate independently of industrialized institutions. Please visit YES! Magazine’s website to learn more, or read this article from Mother Earth News.

We can work to correct the long-standing social injustice which is a chief characteristic of our nation. Concurrent with the history of the Mississippi River is the development of southern slave culture, marginalization of freedmen during Reconstruction, the use of forced African American labor on late 19th-century levee projects, further disenfranchisement due to natural disasters such as flooding, and the deadly insult of Hurricane Katrina. This happens within us each as individuals, and is demonstrated in our every action, private or public. Quite simply, we must fight oppression. And continue to fight oppression. Then we should fight some more.

Our energy is needed on each issue, for they are woven together in a massive watershed. Our good actions lead to a healthy functioning social system, and support greater fertility for other good actions.

Further Reading, Heavily Recommended:

John McPhee, “Atchafalaya,” New Yorker, February 23, 1987

Michael Grunwald, “The Threatening Storm,” Time, August 2, 2007

The Rise and Disappearance of Southeast Louisiana, an interactive graphic by Dan Swenson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 4, 2007

Alexis C. Madrigal, “What We’ve Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2011


[1] Christopher Morris, Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina (Oxford University Press, 2012), 169-170.

[2] Alexis C. Madrigal, “What We’ve Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2011, accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/

[3] Morris, 57.

[4] Morris, 61.

[5] Morris, 95.

[6] “Levee Systems,” US Army Corps of Engineers, accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/About/MississippiRiverCommission%28MRC%29/MississippiRiverTributariesProject%28MRT%29/LeveeSystems.aspx

[7] Kurt Michael Friese, Kraig Kraft, Gary Paul Nabhan, Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green, 2011), 101-102.

[8] Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), 1-45.

[9] Morris, 53.

[10] Mackay, 32.

[11] Morris, 54. See also the St. Charles Museum and Historical Association: http://www.historyofstcharlesparish.org/index.php/18th-century/the-french-colonial-period-1698-1762/john-laws-charter

[12] Morris, 75.

[13] Morris, 117.

[14] Mackay, 28.

[15] Morris, 65, 119, 92, 176, 145, 175, 136.

[16] Morris, 102, 122, 185, 189.

[17] Morris, 148-149.

[18] Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage, 2011), 29.

[19] Morris, 21.

[20] Mann, 29.

[21] Man, 304.

Peace Meal Supper Club #12: Juneteenth

Peace Meal Supper Club #12: Juneteenth is a celebration of common ground and progressive hopes. The menu highlights foods that are loved across all classes in the South, and have been for generations. They are not unique to any one group, but represent a vast common foundational heritage, upon which we should be building a unified society.

It is a challenging topic this year: as racial violence foments to a fever, we must face the incomplete and duplicitous work of our predecessors. Proclaiming freedom for all, as did Jefferson, while utilizing captive labor is hypocrisy. Proclaiming those captives free in a limited fashion, as did Lincoln, is also hypocrisy. Freeing those captives then doling out small tokens of fairness only when things begin to look a bit grim is likewise hypocrisy. Like other efforts that have sought equality–women’s suffrage and the ‘right’ to manage their own reproductive systems, for example–the movement towards full enfranchisement of non-male, non-heterosexual, non-white humans has been beaten back continually. Grudgingly, turf is yielded by the aggressors. Surrendered ground is reclaimed through acts of terror, such as the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston last week. The terrorist has been apprehended, but sacred space has been violated once again.

Confederate Flag at Full Mast, June 19, 2015 Reuters/Jason Miczek
Confederate Flag at Full Mast, June 19, 2015
Reuters/Jason Miczek

As the Confederate flag flies full mast over South Carolina’s Capitol grounds–the US and SC flags are at half mast–Governor Nikki Haley declares that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Actually, Governor, racism is the motivation. President Obama laments the fact that a young man had possession of a handgun. (Check your Constitution, Mr. President.) But race-based crimes require no handgun. Hate will use any object it finds handy: a torch, a rope, or a pickup truck.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 successfully led to the dismantlement of the Ku Klux Klan, but there was enough racist energy left to resurrect the hate group and its affiliates multiple times in the 1900s. Multiple Civil Rights Acts have been passed at the Federal level only to be challenged by various states, the President, or the US Supreme Court. Although all black males have been guaranteed the right to vote since 1870, the 21st century still sees virulent efforts to exclude black voters. These are not incidents in isolation, for bias runs as deep as bedrock, even at the Federal level. In 1999, a class action lawsuit was successfully executed against the USDA for its decades-long denial of loans to black farmers. And though slavery was outlawed in the United States by the 13th Amendment in 1865, we still possess an impetus towards involuntary servitude, particularly in agriculture.


I am a child of post-white-flight suburbia. I grew up in a Confederate state, institutionally shielded from even the mention of Civil Rights. I didn’t know Jim Crow from John Brown. It has stuck in my craw for a long time: the biggest social movement of the 1900s occurred during my lifetime, yet I discovered it in fragmentary fashion. Mythic rebel pride filtered every bit of learning. Cultural inertia inclined toward Confederate sympathy. Disturbingly, that momentum still exists, even in surprising places: a few blocks from my home in Watkins Glen, NY, there is a Confederate flag posted above a neighbor’s doorway.

What We Gained from Slave Labor: Just the Facts, YES! Magazine Summer 2015
What We Gained from Slave Labor: Just the Facts, YES! Magazine Summer 2015

I do not view my culture of origin with disdain. My family is profoundly less racist now than it was two or three generations ago. The company I keep these days is generally progressive. But the fact remains that we–speaking of white do-gooders–benefit from what our forebears gained through forced labor. And all Americans, whether we are descendants of slaves or of freedmen, are still reeling from the trauma of our shared violent past. We live under the inertia of previous generations, and though it is residual, it is still powerful and leaves a possibly indelible imprint. It expresses itself in fits of violence, righteous reactions, subversive terrorism, random eruptions, and institutional passive aggression. Institutionally–I am speaking of the government and its agencies and our capitalistic system–we have been socialized to act as though whites are important, non-whites are clearly secondary. When we excuse Jefferson’s holding of slaves, or Lincoln’s limitations on the Emancipation Proclamation, we are reinforcing the institutionally racist culture we inhabit today.

So to have a meal to celebrate the emancipation of American slaves is indeed a delicate matter. Apart from the risk of misappropriation of a holy day, there is the chance that it can come off as self-congratulatory towards all of us social progressives who truly believe we are changing the world. Those of us who have never been oppressed walk a tightrope of social tension whenever we speak of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

I really, truly, sincerely want the world to work in united fashion along progressive lines. But I have inherited the ability to want whatever I choose, and to get the majority of it. I am light years away from the reality of 40 million Americans.


During the Civil War, my birth state of Texas was relatively battle free. This, along with its position on the far western end of the Confederacy, prompted many Southern slaveholders to emigrate there.

“The idea was [that] Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all,” says Jackie Jones, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.” Being on the fringes of the both the Union and the Confederacy gave Texans an excuse to ignore the Emancipation Proclamation and the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

General Order #3
General Order #3

The slave population in the state had risen to about 250,000 by the time Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston with an important announcement. On June 19, 1865, he stood on the balcony of the erstwhile Confederate Headquarters and read aloud General Order #3:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The Executive he mentioned was already dead and buried. The proclamation was already two and half years old. And oh, yeah: the South had surrendered a couple of months earlier.

Freedom Celebration Washington DC 1866
Freedom Celebration Washington DC 1866

The newly freed people rejoiced in the streets, exhilarating in the unimaginable. The following year, many of them reconvened on June 19th to commemorate the day they learned of their freedom. It naturally became a regular annual celebration.

Finding themselves prohibited from using public parks for Juneteenth celebrations, many of the former slaves pooled their funds and bought parks for themselves, such as the Emancipation Park in Austin, another Emancipation Park in Houston, and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, Texas.

Emancipation Day Parade, St. Augustine, FL 1920
Emancipation Day Parade, St. Augustine, FL 1920

The multiple waves of the African American Great Migration
brought the observance into other regions, and celebrations flourished in Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other major cities. Juneteenth suffered during the early 1900s, with the birth of Jim Crow and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, then became a rallying date again during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Today it is officially recognized in 42 states, including Texas. To its credit, Texas was the first to make it a state holiday. This happened in 1979, six years after Confederate Heroes Day was recognized as an official state holiday.

In this, the 150th year of Juneteenth, there is renewed interest in making it a Federal holiday. It will come with a bit of compromise: already Juneteenth has been poured into the standard American festival template of multiple stages, corporate sponsorship, lots of beer, and scores of food vendors. But commodification is not what the holiday is about.

Juneteenth Musicians, Austin 1900
Juneteenth Musicians, Austin 1900

Traditional Juneteenth celebrations emphasize education and achievement. The first observance in 1866 was used as an opportunity to educate the former slaves on how to vote. Honoring achievements at the community or national level serves as a gauge to measure the progress of the people. There is reflection upon the shared experiences of enslavement, displacement, abduction, and other trauma, but there is even more emphasis given to rejoicing in the victory of freedom. Self-improvement is encouraged, as is planning for the future of the family and the community. All of these components build resilience and vibrancy.

Juneteenth, Ft. Worth 1977
Juneteenth, Ft. Worth 1977

And of course, there is the food. The typical menu for Juneteenth is dazzling: barbecue and Creole dishes, cornbread, sweet potatoes, collards and other greens, black eyed peas, fragrantly seasoned rice, fruit cobblers, and red sodas. Of course chicken, seafood, pork, and beef often figure into the festivities, but in deference to the emancipation of all beings, none of these will be served at Peace Meal Supper Club. We have significant common ground without resorting to bloodshed.

Here’s an interesting thing about the foods associated with Juneteenth and the African American experience: I was raised on them, too, in my white suburban home. These foods are shared among multiple ethnic groups, along a lower economic strata. I was raised distinctly working class, with a solid cracker heritage. I am only a generation removed from subsistence farming.

For me, as head cook and bottle washer of Peace Meal Supper Club, this is a chance to illuminate common ground, to speak of shared heritage and overlapping experiences which can draw in both sides. Food is a powerful binder: “There is salt between us,” says an old Arab proverb. Once you share that salt–that meal–you cannot be enemies. Common foods come from common grounds, wherein we can sow seeds of peace.

The Menu

Course 1 comprises Maple-Braised Sweet Potatoes, a Cornbread Waffle, and a bit of Slaw.

Sweet potatoes will grow anywhere and produce prolifically, even in depleted soils. They are highly nutritious and keep well–perfect traits for food among the poor. They are reminiscent of African yams, and were quickly adopted by the displaced slaves.

Corn was a shared food between displaced Africans and the Native Americans, and directs us to the Seminole culture of pre-US Florida, where escaped slaves found safe haven. Once the US had negotiated the transfer of Florida from Spain, this culture was all but exterminated. Seemingly worlds away, my family also had deep ties to corn: my father’s uncle grew vast acres of corn as an East Texas tenant farmer. I remember us harvesting it by the pickup load, with my Mom working nonstop through the weekend to preserve it.

Course 2 offers Red Rice, Black-Eyed Peas, and Chow Chow.

Red Rice, Black Eye Peas, Mom's Chow Chow
Red Rice, Black Eye Peas, Mom’s Chow Chow. Mom’s China

Red is a significant color in Juneteenth celebrations. Some credit this to the hibiscus tea that was popular among the slaves, which we will also be having with our meal. Others say red is symbolic of the blood shed during the African American experience. In this traditional rice dish, tomatoes are slowly simmered in rich soul seasoning until they break down, brilliantly dyeing the rice as it cooks.

Black-eyed peas, originating in West Africa, are an ironic gift to white Southerners who consume them for luck on New Years Day. I swear by them, knowing that their power lies deep in multi-cultural mystery. Like many Africans brought to the Southern US, I was raised on them.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

Both they and I accompanied the peas with a dollop of chow chow, a spicy sweet condiment made from green tomatoes, cabbage, and lots of vinegar. The chow chow I’ve made for Peace Meal Supper Club #12 was derived from my Mom’s recipe. It compares favorably to the recipe her grandmother used, which in turn is very much like that published by former Carolina slave Abby Fisher in 1881. Her book, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” was celebrated among the elite society of her adopted hometown, San Francisco.

Course 3 brings Tempeh Creole, Collard Greens, and Late Spring Turnips.

Creole means many things, and in this it reveals its chief characteristic: a mix of cultures. Creole cuisine descended from the fine skills of French chefs in colonial Louisiana. Based on a mirepoix derivative, utilizing New World ingredients, it forms the basis of New Orleans haute cuisine. As Americans moved into Louisiana and a territorial purchase was secured, Africans working in the kitchens further mixed the pot. Their influence on the fine cuisine of the South is incalculable. I am using one of their secret ingredients, which they borrowed from the Natives that they encountered. Sassafras, otherwise known as filé, provides both thickening for the sauce and an unmistakable Deep South flavor.

Collards are another poor man’s food, rich in nutrients, shared across every culture of the South–and many worldwide. Hearty, abundant, sustaining, and full of vitamin C, they are a powerhouse for the working class.

Course 4 is a burst of sweet tartness in the form of Blackberry Cobbler, served a la mode with Raspberry Sorbet.

During slavery and the early days of Emancipation, African Americans hadn’t much in the luxury foods department. But what they could forage, they could convert into a party. Wild berries provided a foundation for many of their pies.

Cobbler–a biscuit crust cooked over stewed fruit–was developed by the British American colonists, who found themselves without the proper ingredients or equipment for making steamed puddings. As the technique is simple, the ingredients common, and the equipment basic, cobbler was quickly adopted by those held as slaves. Cobblers have become strongly identified with Southern culture across all boundaries.

Juneteenth is a celebration of heritage and progress. In that spirit, I am proud to be serving this menu on my Mom’s china. She purchased it one piece at a time through a locally-based supermarket during the 1970s. Arrangements like this were common–such as towels being included in boxes of laundry detergent–and enabled the lower classes to acquire the trappings of the upper classes.

Juneteenth Austin 1900
Juneteenth, Austin 1900

It is a wonderful inversion of class, which is also an important if unspoken element of Juneteenth. As related on juneteenth.com: “During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters’.”

“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” history professor Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.”


Peace Meal Supper Club has always been both celebratory and sobering. The menus have undoubtedly been about enjoyment and indulgence. The themes have always been about knowing more and vowing to do more. Being gently demanding and straightforward, PMSC always reinforces a generally gritty message: we have a lot of work to do. We must constantly work to reconcile the impact that our privileged lives have on the world around us. Our privilege came with a price which we did not pay.

The truth of the matter is that change is occurring. As African Americans have progressed, so has American culture. Change has come through careful negotiations, violent upheavals, broken promises, public demonstrations and silent vigils. While we are frustrated and angered with the backward steps–and plunges into white supremacy darkness–we stand in a much more unified and progressive world than that of June 19, 1865.

With Peace Meal Supper Club #12: Juneteenth, I do not intend to imitate or co-opt. I have learned so much from the complexity of our contradictory American heritage, as painful as it has been for many to endure. I gain from learning of the indomitable spirit that is central to Juneteenth. Therein lies perseverance and determination that I will never know. I am thankful for the spirit of Juneteenth, and celebrate our common human ground.

“Strengthening the ties that bind us should always be our objective.  Unity and peace are our goals,” states a press release from a leading Juneteenth organizer. May that spirit be ours, eternally.

Peace Meal Supper Club #11: Fair

I’ve written enough essays for Peace Meal Supper Club that I know when to turn the mic over to the experts. This month’s theme of Fair–as in Fair Trade–quickly became a maze of acronyms, political initiatives and their undermining, international trade agreements and their undoing, wonky treaties, and government actions against humans. Dissension among the ranks of Fair Traders further complicate matters. It simply is too much to encapsulate, even by my wordy standards.

The best I can do is to direct the reader’s attention to the work of others.

Fair Trade Timeline from Fair World Project
Fair Trade Timeline from Fair World Project

Fair Trade, as a movement, has its origins in a couple of places: post-World War II Europe and late 20th century Latin America. In the former, impoverished war refugees banded together in cooperative efforts to sell their crafts. Eventually, religious organizations such as the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren helped establish fair trade supply chains into the developed nations. Ten Thousand Villages is the offspring of the Mennonite efforts. The Brethren, through their SERRV organization, became co-founders of the World Fair Trade Organization.

As for Latin America, after 19th century colonial land grants had marginalized the peasantry, multiple agrarian movements rose and fell, finally coalescing through the help of European alternative trading organizations in the 1970s. US organizations such as Equal Exchange joined the fight in the 1980s.

Anti-Slavery Fair Poster from 1849.
Anti-Slavery Fair Poster from 1849.

Of course the concept is much older. The Free Produce Movement, begun by American Quakers in the 1790s, focused on boycotting food and other goods produced by slaves, and encouraged the purchase of items made only by appropriately-compensated labor. Adam Smith, the cornerstone of modern economics, understood this, too: “Every business transaction,” he stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “is a challenge to see that both parties come out fairly.”

The exact identity of the “parties” involved is subject to many interpretations. We’ll confine ourselves to two chief options.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership -- graphic courtesy of https://campaigns.350.org/petitions/say-no-to-corporate-power-grabs-reject-the-trans-pacific-partnership
The Trans-Pacific Partnership — graphic courtesy of https://campaigns.350.org/petitions/say-no-to-corporate-power-grabs-reject-the-trans-pacific-partnership

Option 1: The negotiating parties are national governments, who may sign tariff treaties or formulate multinational organizations in order to produce favorable results for national economies. The North American Free Trade Agreement was an artifact of these efforts. The pending Trans Pacific Partnership is another. GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was an international treaty active from 1948 until 1995, when it morphed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). In general, these parties are in pursuit of Free Trade across political boundaries.

Books and websites abound to dissect and analyze the pros and cons of these various government-led initiatives. But the overwhelming effect is that small producers are left in the cold. The benefits accrue at a national levels and frequently at corporate levels, but do not translate into better livelihoods for the people involved at the ground level.

The World Trade Organization, A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press
The World Trade Organization, A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press

The WTO presents an interesting picture. It is a rules-based organization wherein the rules are not well-defined. Documents that exceed 30,000 pages, agreements made in Green Rooms comprised of privately invited guests, a problem-solving model that rests upon Negative Consensus, a Grand Bargain that hobbles developing nations–these do not make for fairly negotiated terms. Throw in some obfuscating taxonomy–Single Undertaking, Most Favored Nation, General Agreement, Aggregate Measures of Support–and you have created a barely navigable maze. The WTO functions in spite of itself, and to the advantage of developed economies.

But benefits accrued by economies do not translate proportionately into benefits for people in those economies.

Option 2: The parties are the people actually producing the goods, who act upon their own agency in matters of exchange. They live in culturally-rich regions, just like our own neighborhoods, and they want to preserve their ways of life and educate their children and have access to health care. (Psst…it’s what we’d want for ourselves…) Acting upon their own accord, they can secure these things for themselves. This is at the core of Fair Trade. It enables people to provide for their own needs, rather than proscribing them to foreign political agendas. It is a shift from extractive trade relationships to a fully supportive ones.

In the words of Fair Trade cooperative Equal Exchange:

From "The History of Fair Trade," from Equal Exchange. See the link below for the full publication.
From “The History of Fair Trade,” from Equal Exchange. See the link below for the full publication.

“We believe the most promising hope for the future of small farmers, rural communities, sustainable eco-systems, and a healthy food system is to support small farmer organizations, educated and engaged consumers, and democratic social movements. By bringing producers and consumers closer together through greater mutual understanding and appreciation, and concretizing that through action, we can build and strengthen co-operative supply chains and a food system that serve the needs of ‘people not profit.’”

Serving the needs of the people across all industries and cultures is not a simple task, but is certainly approachable. Key principles, shared among multiple Fair Trade organizations, help solidify the numerous efforts. These principles generally include:

  • Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships
  • Payment of Fair Prices and Wages
  • No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labor
  • Workplace Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
  • Democratic & Transparent Organizations
  • Safe Working Conditions & Reasonable Work Hours
  • Investment in Community Development Projects, Pensions, Scholarships
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Traceability and Transparency
Comparison of Fair Trade vs. Free Trade, courtesy of Fair World Project, Spring 2011
Comparison of Fair Trade vs. Free Trade, courtesy of Fair World Project, Spring 2011

Fair Trade is about structural change, from a philosophy of selfishness to one of equal reward. It’s about knowledge sharing, not sequestering, so that all fields may flourish. It’s about recognizing that the welfare of others is as important as our own–and indeed may eventually be our own. It even leads to changes in leadership, as cooperatives are able to establish themselves in the marketplace and then in political arenas. It is the headwaters of a sea change.

But of course, there are struggles–some in the form of corporate co-optation of the Fair Trade label, and with governmental favor still being granted to industrial-scale concerns. But the convergence of so many efforts–Fair Trade, organic, “locavore,” small producers, cooperatives, and human rights–provides a favorable climate of change.

To help you become more in-the-know, I recommend the following:

Many more resources are available through these websites:

Peace Meal Supper Club #10: Seed

These snow pea seeds which I saved in 2013 are now growing in my garden. Anarchy begins underground.
These snow pea seeds which I saved in 2013 are now growing in my garden. Anarchy begins underground.

The humble seed is the very antithesis of capitalist production: It will produce goods without the application of labor. It is abundantly self-regenerating. It is available to and reproducible by everyone, and it is freely-giving without regard to the market. It is the embodiment of diversity and social progress. It mirrors our own best behaviors.

It is a powerful force against rampant consumerism: it will prevent people from buying other products. And for this very reason, our economic system has been warring against the seed for almost 200 years. This should grate against our own best instincts.

Janisse Ray muses elegantly and personally about the seed in her recent book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Her book serves as a reminder of our existence outside the pulsations of commerce, of the strength we possess in our ability to carry culture, preserve life, and celebrate unconstrained forces. She understands that even during their dormant seasons, seeds are still powerful.

“Furthermore, between growing seasons, the seeds had to be traded, because traditional societies understood that, as in human reproduction, plants do better by outbreeding. To swap seeds is to keep a variety strong and valuable–a genetic currency, the exchange of priceless genetic material. How interesting that the agrarian within us understands that to survive, to keep our food crops viable, we have to be openhanded. Seeds have a built-in requirement for generosity. Otherwise, they suffer inbreeding.”[1]

Yet this generosity has been heavily compromised by a system that we, the people, no longer control. Capital, as a force, lies in the hands of the few. We, the many, are subject to its relentless pursuit of commodity-forms–which it will own and will gladly sell back to us. The modern story of seed is a study in political economics.

First the Seed, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.
First the Seed, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.

Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., explores this avenue in First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. A book of daunting scope, it illuminates the impulses that have provided us with seeds that work against us.

The urge of capital towards universal commoditizing once stopped at the farm gate. Farms were once islands of self-sufficiency in an ocean of increasing consumerism. Farmers grew their own seeds. They plowed with animals which could reproduce themselves; fertilized their lands with the manures from these animals; fed the animals with hay produced on the farm. It was a strong and self-sustaining model, not without its challenges and certainly not fail-proof. But the model was robust and well-developed, having provided the basis of agrarian society for millennia. Until the 1900s, farms remained the impenetrable anomaly in capitalistic America.[2]

The primary obstacle was the seed: it regenerated itself, multiplying with vigor the seed that preceded it. There was no need to purchase its replacement. In order for capital to conquer the seed, they had to disable its internal and external means of production. They had to alter the seed and those who used it.

“The growth of capitalism necessarily entails the destruction of modes of production based on the personal labor of independent producers.”[3] The effects are far-reaching.

Which is more of a threat to capitalism, Karl Marx or a seed?
Which is more of a threat to capitalism, Karl Marx or a seed?

As Marx observed, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from earlier ones.”[4]

This state of constant change is why we are endlessly presented with new cars, phones, blenders, computers, staplers, mops, toilet brushes, and innumerable other products. It really makes no sense: We have an economic model which requires that we constantly have to make products. When we exhaust all possibilities, we still have to make products. And when we’re saturated with products, we find other markets to sell our products. If we see something that is available for free–water, for example, or a seed–we must find a way to productize it, because our economic model will not allow for free stuff. That is the genetic urge of capitalism.

Seed has always been a critical resource for the United States. The region we inhabit is the native home of only five crops of economic importance: sunflowers, blueberries, cranberries, pecans, and the Jerusalem artichoke. The greater American crops–corn, squashes, beans, tomatoes, and dozens more–have origins south of our borders. Centers of origin are important, for they provide genetic diversity upon which civilizations flourish.[5] Though many crops had made their way northward before the coming of the Europeans, they passed through multiple bottlenecks along the way.

The 12 centers of genetic plant diversity, as determined by Dr. Nikolai Vavilov.
The 12 centers of genetic plant diversity, as determined by Dr. Nikolai Vavilov.


In the early 1800s, the United States began a program of global seed collection. They scoured the planet, under the direction of the US Patent Office and the Navy. The collection of diverse crops, to augment what the settlers brought with them, was considered a matter of national importance. Our survival as a nation largely depended upon our ability to supply ourselves with a diverse and resilient larder.[6]

Global collection of germplasm–a term used to describe the genetic packet within the seed–has never stopped. We are still engaged in large-scale collection of plant genetic matter. At times it is under the banner of national security, as in the programs of the early 1800s; other times it is under the flag of imperialism. Sadly, it is frequently operating under the aegis of humanitarian aid.

Stamp commemorating Perry's imperialistic mission to Japan, 1853.
Stamp commemorating Perry’s imperialistic mission to Japan, 1853.

Under the early Patent Office program, Naval Commodore Matthew C. Perry made a series of “diplomatic missions” to Japan in 1853 and 1854. Best known for opening Japan to American trade, these missions brought the U.S. a tremendous variety of seeds. Perry’s foray is interesting for several reasons: it was overtly imperialistic, aimed at opening Japan for the U.S.’s own commercial benefit. Perry’s boats were armed with the most advanced guns available and he refused to leave their waters. He threatened to destroy towns along the harbor if he was not received. Japan had little choice but to cooperate. Such military-led acquisition of raw materials and the opening of new global markets should ring unpleasantly familiar to us today.

Regardless of their provenance, seeds from around the globe provided American agriculture with a solid foundation, “the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades.”[7]

“The global distribution and transfer of PGRs (plant genetic resources) have been and still remain crucial elements of the political economy of plant biotechnology,” says Kloppenburg.[8]

With so much plant matter at their disposal, American plant breeders began in earnest the adapting of crops to North American conditions. By the early 1900s, plant breeders’ rights had become an very volatile issue.

Connecticut plant breeders Edward M. East and Donald F. Jones lamented in 1919 that “the man who originates devices to open our boxes of shoe polish is able to patent his product and gain the full reward for his inventiveness. The man who originates a new plant gets nothing.”[9]

Luther Burbank was a brilliant plant breeder. He was awarded multiple plant patents posthumously.
Luther Burbank was a brilliant plant breeder. He was awarded multiple plant patents posthumously.

We can argue that an improved plum–as in Plant Patent 13, awarded posthumously to Luther Burbank–is not a new plant, only an altered version of an old plant, but we will ultimately lose that argument. For the Plant Patent Act was signed into law in 1930.

“The Plant Patent Act of 1930,” elaborates Kloppenburg, “had granted patent protection to breeders of novel varieties of asexually reproducing plants, and the seed industry had long lobbied for provision of similar legislation for plants that reproduce sexually. In 1970, this ambition was partially realized with the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act, and capital has continuously sought to extend the reach of private property in germplasm.”[10]

Another favorable development for plant breeders and seed companies came in 1980, with a patent case involving an oil-eating bacteria. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the bacteria’s ‘creator,’ Ananda Chakrabarty. The ruling left sufficient opening for seeds to be tossed in.

The decision also opened up the possibility for plant breeders to utilize utility patents for their products. This powerful avenue allows for proprietary protection of not whole plants, but discrete attributes of a plant: DNA sequences, genes, cells, tissues, and seeds. These traits are then licensed for use. The licenses carry very rigid constraints and intimidating enforcement trends.[11]

Yet, with all this protectionism run rampant, the fact is that 75% of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s, as farmers move towards genetically uniform, high-yielding crops.

“A variety lost to seed saving is a variety lost to civilization,” observes Ray. She continues:

“Three things result from varietal decline. First is the loss to our plates and palates…Second is the loss of sovereignty over seeds and the ability to control our food supply. Third, there’s another scary reality to this. All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens biodiversity. We know this–the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for its collapse. In shriveling the gene pool through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk.”[12]

The "Corn Soy Wheat" aisle.
The “Corn Soy Wheat” aisle.

We often don’t think of this, deluged as we are by abundant product choices in our supermarkets. But we must look behind the glamour of consumer product packaging and see the dwindling supply of natural food resources. Modern agriculture has brought us 150 crops. Traditional agriculture brought us about 7000.

Apart from the growers of uniform, high-yield crops, “Growers with farms of less than seven acres preserve diversity through networks of seed and knowledge exchanges,” Karl Zimmerer, a Penn State University geography professor told a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.[13]

The protection of seed diversity remains resident among farmers who are people, not corporations. Just as it always has. As long as capital will let it.

In the background of all this varietal development and seed diversity loss are two much-embattled institutions, the USDA and the network of land-grant universities (LGUs), which first served primarily as agricultural schools. Both institutions have complicated histories, far too serpentine to include here. Kloppenburg provides an engrossing look at their establishment, their neutralizing by seed producers, and eventual subjugation to industry in First the Seed. His application of social divisions of labor and exploration of the domain of research are eye-opening. Equally informative is his examination of the threat posed to capital by LGUs and especially the USDA. What capital sees it occupies, however.

By 1909, the conquest of LGUs and their associated experiment stations was nearing completion. Speaking before a convention in Washington, DC, Kansas researcher H. J. Waters stated, “It has been a fundamental mistake to assume that the duty of the experiment station is solely or even principally to benefit the farmer directly. A larger responsibility rests upon it–that of making an exact science of agriculture.”[14]

He is appealing to business here, not the farmer. The science of which he is speaking is applied science, that concerned with making products.

Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, 1971-1976.
USDA chief Earl Butz said a lot of whacky things during his tenure.

As for the USDA, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz handed down its shiny new attitude for 1955: “Adapt or die, resist and perish…Agriculture is now big business. Too many people are trying to stay in agriculture that would do better some place else.”[15]

Those people being booted by Butz were farmers. Small farmers who held agricultural tradition in their hands. They were a lot like the farmers who now hold 75% of global seed diversity in their hands.

Apart from all the talk of patents and big business, the conversion of seeds to proprietary status has major social impacts. Some are local, some are global.

The people most directly affected are the farmers themselves–those that are left. They find that their entire business model has been converted from self-sufficiency to industrial dependency, as purchased inputs account for the bulk of their materials. Due to the required use of fertilizers, they are linked tightly to the petroleum industry, and suffer from the diminishing oil and gas resources. Debt is the norm, and it mounts in complex forms. And of course the seeds are now of the single-use variety, and come with licensing agreements.

For the farmers’ customers, things have changed, too. Food prices reflect petroleum prices. The many layers of labor involved add to the price increases. Quality is down. Choice is becoming more limited.

Food prices vs oil prices. Source: US Energy Information Administration and FAO.
Food prices vs oil prices. Source: US Energy Information Administration and FAO.

Larger social impacts ripple like a tsunami into all sectors of life: “These include the exacerbation of regional inequalities, generation of income inequalities at the farm level, increased scales of operation, specialization of production, displacement of labor, accelerating mechanization, depressed product prices, changing tenure patterns, rising land prices, expanding markets for commercial inputs, agrichemical dependence, genetic erosion, pest-vulnerable monocultures, and environmental deterioration.”[16]

In 1977, University of California-Berkeley plant physiologist Boysie E. Day addressed the American Society of Agronomy, and accepted the role of plant scientists in the social re-designing of America: “The agronomist has brought about the conversion of a rural agricultural society to an urban one. Each advance has sent a wave of displaced farm workers to seek a new life in the city and a flood of change throughout society.”[17]

It is chilling to consider that in its pursuit of commodity-forms and markets, capital has wrought wholesale changes in the social structure of the U.S. It is not unlike the very deliberate relocation of rural peoples to newly constructed cities currently underway in China, for the specific purpose of making them into consumers.[18]

The environmental effects are enormous, too, and are documented prolifically. One profound example regards the use of herbicides. While sellers of genetically-engineered seeds claim that less herbicide is required for these seeds, this claim seems to contradict the intended purpose of their developments. Roundup-Ready crops are specifically designed to endure the heavy application of Roundup. In fact, between 1996 and 2003, there was a 383 million pound increase in the use of herbicides in the U.S. This causes severe collateral damage to soils and waterways, hardly insignificant.[19]

Beyond our own societal transformation and agrochemical saturation, the effects continue to mount–specifically in the Third World, often with U.S. intention.

Thanks for your help in the war. Now let us have your seeds.
Thanks for your help in the war. Now let us have your seeds.

In 1941, U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace–previously he was Secretary of Agriculture–met with Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond Fosdick to discuss the benefits of targeted campaigns into Mexico. One scientist assigned to the project reported enthusiastically: “When the war is over, there will be millions to feed, large communities of people to be resettled, and farms to be supplied with seed, fertilizer, machinery, and livestock…the leaders of some of our large philanthropic foundations have become convinced that the best way to improve the health and well-being of people is first to improve their agriculture.”[20] In Germany, Great Britain, other war-torn parts of Europe perhaps. But Mexico?

Dr. Carl Sauer, geographer, author, professor, and champion of cultural diversity, warned against the program in 1941:

“A good aggressive bunch of American agronomists and plant breeders could ruin the native resources for good and all by pushing their American stocks. And Mexican agriculture cannot be pointed toward standardization on a few commercial types without upsetting native culture and economy hopelessly…Unless the Americans understand that, they’d better keep out of this country entirely.”[21]

The research centers that were established as part of the Rockefeller-funded program served dual purposes: they provided a mechanism for encouraging capitalist development in Third World countries, and they provided a conduit for greater transference of genetic materials from the Third World countries to developed nations.[22]

Kloppenburg highlights one critical aspect of this arrangement: “It is highly ironic that the Third World resource that the developed nations have, arguably, extracted for the longest time, derived the greatest benefits from, and still depend upon the most is one for which no compensation is paid.”[23]

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 800 miles from the North Pole, provides a safety net against "accidental loss" of diversity in traditional genebanks.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 800 miles from the North Pole, provides a safety net against “accidental loss” of diversity in traditional genebanks.

All this genetic material finds its way into seed banks which are situated principally in the industrialized North. Global germplasm collection and free exchange have been considered within the principle of “common heritage.” It is the property of all mankind, across all barriers. This principle has been considered inviolate. However, the U.S. has indicated its willingness to violate this honored principle–claiming some germplasm as property of the U.S. Government–and has refused requests from Afghanistan, Albania, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union at various times.[24]

“If the U.S. now has a food weapon,” states Kloppenburg, “it is because nations such as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Iran, and China have supplied the germplasm for its arsenal.”[25]

On this note, Janisse Ray’s indignation should be our own. Speaking of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “by 2004, the U.S. put into place a new foundation of governance for the conquered Iraq: one hundred orders enacted by Paul Bremer, chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority. One of them was particularly strange. Under the heading ‘Amendment to Patents, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits, and Plant Variety Law,’ Order 81 authorized the introduction of GM crops and instituted intellectual property rights for seed developers. The order made seed saving of GM varieties illegal and forced farmers who used GM varieties to purchase seed each year.

21st Century Farmer
21st Century Farmer

“Order 81 was not a law adopted by a sovereign country. This law was not enacted out of distress over the nourishment of Iraq’s people. The law’s lone purpose was to open a new potentially lucrative seed market for the multinationals that already controlled seed trade in other parts of the world.”[26]

There were millions of acres of wheat under cultivation when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Almost all of it was produced from seeds saved by Iraqi farmers or their regional suppliers. The strains of wheat being grown had adapted over time to the region’s climate.

Please visit the interactive map of Seed Laws Around the World. It is enlightening. http://www.grain.org/article/entries/5153-map-seed-laws-around-the-world
Please visit the interactive map of Seed Laws Around the World. It is enlightening. http://www.grain.org/article/entries/5153-map-seed-laws-around-the-world

The order stipulated that farmers were prohibited from reusing seeds of protected varieties, which would seem to indicate only the GM seeds being introduced. That is, until genetic drift occurs and all seeds carry a GM fingerprint. Wheat, despite any lab manipulation, is still an openly pollinating plant. Cross-contamination of traditional crops with GM crops is an old and common problem. Add to this the fact that Iraqi farmers had already been subjected to GM crops, prior to the war, going back as far as 1991.[27]

To help facilitate Order 81, the U.S. Army commissioned soldiers to hand out free wheat and barley seed, fertilizer, and even T-shirts, under the program known as Operation Amber Waves. It’s Japan 1853 again, only more insidious.

Iraq has an enormously rich agricultural history, reaching back to the beginning of agriculture itself. Farmers have been saving seeds for eons, and in modern times they were collected in a seed bank in Abu Ghraib. During the Iraqi war, the seed bank was destroyed. However, prescient curators of the seed bank had earlier sent a fabled ‘black box’ of seeds for safe keeping in Aleppo, Syria–hardly a stronghold of peace.[28]

With the co-optation of seeds as items of commerce, and by extension tools of imperialism, what are we, the people, the foodies, the gardeners, the peaceful, to do?

As contrary as it might sound, we must maintain hope. Kloppenburg’s analysis indicates that agricultural biotechnology is not yet paying off in the way that it was originally hoped. Life is far more complicated than they had anticipated. Yet their need to satisfy their investors hasn’t waned. The GM seed giants, in contrast to their swagger, seem to be running scared.[29]

“We do not have the luxury of doing this the right way. We are going to do this the way that gets it done the quickest, because our entire future depends on the success of this program,” stated Monsanto executives.[30]

They are running from a number of things. Testing of their products, for example, which they have routinely resisted.[31] The growing cry of environmentalists is mounting, and this adds to their fears. The highly publicized suicides of GM-adopting farmers in India has shined a very dark light on the GM industry in general. Historians, culturists, and other humanitarians are providing resistance. The social clamor will, I hope, bring down the seed giants eventually.

Please visit www.grain.org to learn about their work on behalf of small farmers worldwide.
Please visit www.grain.org to learn about their work on behalf of small farmers worldwide.

We can’t count on that, however. So we must be active on behalf of the underground. We must garden. We must save seeds or support those who do. We must re-establish our relationships with food-growers. We must take ourselves out of the commodity cul-de-sac and focus on progressive forms of commerce and sustenance. We must lose our inherited short-sightedness and develop long-term vision which will not allow life to become completely commoditized. We must be un-American.

We must advocate for peace and food sovereignty. We must be humble yet powerful, just like the seed.

Our goal is to preserve life so that it will flourish after the collapse. I realize that that sounds marginally kooky. But it is the truth, and we know it. We are collecting the artifacts out of which we will build the next world.

We see it happening all around us, with the rise of urban farming, hipster homesteading, rooftop gardens, an explosion of food writers. Social momentum is building, and change will come as a result. We will subversively dig our gardens, and in doing so, undermine the corporate hold.

The Seed Underground, Janisse Ray
The Seed Underground, Janisse Ray

“I want to tell you about the most hopeful thing in the world,” says Janisse Ray. “It is a seed. In the era of dying, it is all life. Every piece of information necessary to that plant for its natural time on earth is encoded, even though the world is changing and new information will be needed. But we don’t know what is in a seed; its knowledge is invisible, encased, secret. A seed can contain any number of surprises. A seed can contain a whole tree in its sealed vault. Even with climate change there will be seeds that have all the wisdom they and we need.”[32]

We must trust in all those secrets. They got us this far, after all.

As I write for this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club #10: Seed, I am looking at my seed flats, erupting with varieties of tomato, legume, chile, squash and other cultivars saved by my friends, seed saver networks, and my partner and me. I envision their placement in the raised beds I have built behind the house, on the bluff overlooking Seneca Lake. My daydream is pierced by the lunch bell: every day at noon, the Cargill plant in town sounds its air horn, signaling the start of lunch for the crew. It noisily insinuates itself into village life four times a day, and Cargill’s products have silently invaded Americans’ every meal. But my garden and I lie close to the earth and do our work, under the corporate clarion call. We perpetuate life, even though trouble is temporarily in the air.

A peaceful gathering of unlimited potential.
A peaceful gathering of unlimited potential.


The Menu

The menu highlights foods which are at risk in our present system, including apples, sunflowers, corn, peppers, various legumes and pulses, grains, fruits, nuts, and even maple syrup. It’s a delicious menu worth fighting for.

Course 1:
Apple & Fennel Salad ~ Sunflower Seed Cheese ~ Pomegranate Vinaigrette

Course 2:
Iroquois White Corn Timbales ~ Black-Eye Relish ~ Tabasco Aioli

Course 3:
Heirloom Paella en Croute

Course 4:
Mission Fig Crumble ~ Hickory & Pecan Clusters ~ Maple Cream


Further Reading:

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Janisse Ray (Chelsea Green, 2012)

First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 2nd Edition, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Seed Savers Exchange
Organic Seed Alliance
Via Campesina International Peasant Movement
GRAIN – International non-profit focused on food sovereignty
Organic Consumers Association

A host of articles regarding our agricultural invasion of Iraq:


[1] Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food (Chelsea Green, 2012), 8.

[2] Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 2nd Edition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 10, 29.

[3] Kloppenburg, 38.

[4] Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1. Accessed online April 27, 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

[5] Kloppenburg, 46. The centers of origin are also known as Vavilov Centers of Diversity, having been originally identified by Russian geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_of_origin

[6] Kloppenburg, 55.

[7] Kloppenburg, 56.

[8] Kloppenburg, 49.

[9] Edward M. East and Donald F. Jones, Inbreeding and Outbreeding: Their Genetic and Sociological Significance (Lippincott Co., 1919), 224.

[10] Kloppenburg, 11.

[11] Kloppenburg, 263; also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_Variety_Protection_Act_of_1970#Contrasting_plant_variety_certificates.2C_plant_patents.2C_and_utility_patents

[12] Ray, 8.

[13] Chris Arsenault, “Small farmers hold the key to seed diversity: researchers,” Reuters, February 16, 2015, accessed April 27, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/16/us-food-aid-climate-idUSKBN0LK1PO20150216.

[14] Kloppenburg, 76.

[15] Kloppenburg, 136.

[16] Kloppenburg, 6.

[17] Kloppenburg, 7.

[18] Ian Johnson, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities,” New York Times, June 15, 2013, accessed April 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/world/asia/chinas-great-uprooting-moving-250-million-into-cities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[19] Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years,” The Organic Center, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015, http://bit.ly/1IhtK20.

[20] Kloppenburg, 158.

[21] Kloppenburg, 162.

[22] Kloppenburg, 161.

[23] Kloppenburg, 153.

[24] Kloppenburg, 172.

[25] Kloppenburg, 49.

[26] Ray, 33-34.

[27] F. William Engdahl, “Iraq and Washington’s Seeds of Democracy,” Current Concerns, March 7, 2005, accessed April 28, 2015, http://www.currentconcerns.ch/archive/2005/05/20050507.php.

[28] “Seeds in threatened soil,” Nature, June 2, 2005, accessed April 28, 2015, doi:10.1038/435537b

[29] Kloppenburg, 299.

[30] Kloppenburg, 300.

[31] Kloppenburg reports about their pressure to get the FDA to drop required nutritional testing, page 127. Also, the patent procedure typically requires some type of quality test of the product for which a patent is sought. This has not been required of seeds, whether GM, hybrid, or other derivation. Kloppenburg, 139. To make matters more unbelievable, university research conducted with or on GM seeds has been withheld from the public due to the information being deemed proprietary. Kloppenburg, 232. And finally, many licensing agreements specifically forbid testing for quality characteristics. See also http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-seed-companies-control-gm-crop-research/

[32] Ray, xiv.