Tag Archives: activism

Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture

”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”—From Migrancy, Culture, Identity, by Iain Chambers.

A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.
A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.

What if that ghost, that stranger, looks back at us from a photograph? Does their insistence lose its urgency? Are we still drawn towards them, or do we turn away from the interrogation their presence demands?

With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to frame the insistent faces of America’s rural poor. Their photographs have come to encapsulate the Depression for many of us, as well as the accompanying ecological collapse and the subsequent displacement of thousands of families. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.

Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein.
Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein.

Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration—including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein—hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. Their cameras served as tools to “visualize social facts, to show the truth of what was happening,” unobscured by politics or fantasy.[1]

Their photos of tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, families, and children were printed in popular magazines, artistic journals, and news periodicals, as well as displayed in NY galleries. Public response ranged from criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—to technical assessment of the photographers’ skill sets and aperture choices. The actual people, still struggling to cope with devastation, ceased to exist, having become only objects in the public’s eyes. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.[2]

Myrna Loy in a bath of flowers, equally as urgent as the devastation of tenant families during the Great Depression. (Photo from the set of the 1933 film, The Barbarian.)
Myrna Loy in a bath of flowers, equally as urgent as the devastation of tenant families during the Great Depression. (Photo from the set of the 1933 film, The Barbarian.)

Nascent mass culture magazines such as LOOK fostered a “stance of surveillance” on the part of the viewer, sandwiching the displaced sharecropper between a Zulu wedding pictorial and a spread of Myrna Loy in a flower-filled bathtub. “Within LOOK’s editorial vision, however, there is no cognitive dissonance here. The ‘savage,’ the sharecropper, and the sexy starlet all merit equal representation and treatment.”[3]

As Cara A. Finnegan notes in her book, Picturing Poverty, the FSA photographers faced a challenge in presenting the poor to the unpoor. “It is important to note the paradox of documentary: It purports to offer ‘real’ and ‘natural’ views of the world but is able to do so only through the framing and construction of those views.”[4] Even the most carefully constructed view can succumb to objectification.

Far from being the ‘other,’ the ‘stranger,’ or an unfortunate alternate ‘us,’ the poor had to live through the economic and environmental collapse in the most resourceful and resilient way they could manage. Programs created under the FDR administration helped considerably, but not entirely. Those programs, established to manage a temporary situation—such as the somewhat handily defined Great Depression—did not provide a permanent solution to poverty.

The poor remained well after the economic recovery brought by World War II, so President Lyndon Johnson envisioned another war. In his State of the Union Address of January 8, 1964, he pronounced:

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”[5]

“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” he continued. His far-reaching program focused on “a fast-growing, full employment economy; an all-out ‘assault’ on discrimination; investments in education, job training, and health care; and locally organized programs of community action, planned with what would only later be added as a legislative mandate for ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the poor.”[6]

One chart from the Mother Jones article accessible via the link given in the text.
One chart from the Mother Jones article accessible via the link given in the text.

How did Johnson’s program perform? As it neared its 50th anniversary, analysts across the political spectrum weighed in. (This report in Mother Jones is particularly informative.)

Regardless of how the program performed in relieving poverty, it did not at all cure or prevent it. Neither did it cure nor prevent the objectification of the poor themselves. Through the aperture of institutional analysis, the poor have become data objects, their faces exchanged for acronyms and categories, devoid of environmental context.

As University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Alice O’Connor explains in Poverty Knowledge, “the technical jargon of recent decades has taken poverty knowledge to a level of abstraction and exclusivity that it had not known before. It is a language laced with acronyms that themselves speak of particular data sets, policies, and analytic techniques…in which individuals are the units of analysis and markets the principal arbiters of human exchange.”[7]

O’Connor writes about the enduring tension of federal policy, in which some view poverty as a cultural pathology, while others view it as the product of social and political barriers.[8] Welfare reform under President Bill Clinton in 1996 treated the presumed pathology, seeking to change the behavior of the impoverished, rather than addressing systemic problems of low-wage work, rising income inequality, or political disenfranchisement.[9]

O’Connor presents poverty research as “an inescapably political act: It is an exercise of power, in this instance of an educated elite to categorize, stigmatize, but above all to neutralize the poor and disadvantaged through analysis that obscures the political nature of social and economic inequality.”[10]

Whether a voyeuristic act or a political one, viewing poverty holds the poor up for our evaluation. They become the ‘others’ in the FSA photographs, whose hygiene and morals were freely questioned. In reality, however, they are the ‘strangers’ who cannot be effaced.

Dust Storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, by Arthur Rothstein
Dust Storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, by Arthur Rothstein

The photos of the FSA were clearly composed to create drama and remind us of our social responsibility.[11] But something is lost in the careful framing and cropping. We don’t see the full-color gone-with-the-wind landscape. Neither do we see the churning, whirling, overwhelming political economy that created the collapse. It’s ambient and unquestioned, and somewhat impossible to picture.

It’s also the substrate upon which social experimentation, including industrial agriculture and poverty analysis, occurs. It comes with a heavy social cost: dispossession.

“The growth of capitalism necessarily entails the destruction of modes of production based on the personal labor of independent producers.”[12] The effects are far-reaching, disrupting social stability at all levels.

Our political economic system runs on accumulation by dispossession[13], and it plows 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.”[14]

The quote above, from Jack Ralph Kloppenburg’s excellent book, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, deals directly with the commodification of plant material, but it rings true across all landscapes, rural, urban, and suburban. Our economic model is as pervasive and manipulative as Muzak at the mall.

This manipulative relationship does not show in the photos, nor in the poverty data analysis of the LBJ administration. But it does show in the widescreen version, where we see systemic problems that silence any arguments towards pathology of the poor.

Consider the viscerally vanishing landscape of the 1920s. It didn’t descend out of the blue onto flawed families of the plains. It was a devastated outcome just as they were.

Let’s widen our focus for a moment, and take a panoramic shot.

Industrial agriculture hit the plains in about 1873, in the wake of the economic panic that hit the US and Europe. Railroad companies, which had benefited from extensive speculative investments, suddenly ceased expansion projects. Among those companies was Northern Pacific, who found themselves at the end of the line in the Red River Valley, along the border Minnesota shares with North Dakota. There, they waited out the financial crisis by experimenting with large-scale agriculture, primarily in wheat.[15] They hoped their experiment would prove attractive to Germans and Swedes—in whose countries the company had established recruiting offices.

Bat guano was the first 'chemical' fertilizer to hit the farm. What this advertisement doesn't mention is the international warfare surrounding the procurement of guano, and the accompanying indentured Chinese labor. Read more here: http://bit.ly/2eb5wwZ
Bat guano was the first ‘chemical’ fertilizer to hit the farm. What this advertisement doesn’t mention is the international warfare surrounding the procurement of guano, and the accompanying indentured Chinese labor. Read more here: http://bit.ly/2eb5wwZ

Their experiment worked, and the era of corporate farms was born. Great Northern Railroad soon followed suit, as did others.

These farms required seasonal labor as opposed to year-round work. They also required significant irrigation and soil enrichment with minerals collected off the farm. Smaller farms were crowded out, with the effects being felt even in New England.[16] In short, these corporate experiments supplanted the older model of self-sufficient family enterprises (i.e., not much money to be made) with an industrial operation full of dependencies (i.e., lots of money to be made).

Projected into the 20th century, the social effects have been considerable. In 1977, University of California-Berkeley plant physiologist Boysie E. Day addressed the American Society of Agronomy, and accepted the role of industrial agriculture 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]

"The Dark Side of Corporate Research," an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.
“The Dark Side of Corporate Research,” an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

This development was accompanied by a tightening bond between land-grant universities, government agencies, and private corporations, which Kloppenburg relates in great detail in First the Seed. This collusion was largely invisible to the public and remains so, but it drives most of the current agenda at revered agricultural institutions such as Cornell University.

The corporate farming model did not invent soil depletion. It did, however, greatly accelerate it.

Yale professor Steven Stoll, in his book Larding the Lean Earth, recounts the crisis that hit the United States within decades of the Revolution: its soils were completely exhausted by 1820. This depletion of farmlands among the original thirteen colonies was a major impetus for western expansion. Rather than improve the lands they already owned, many farmers hungered for the fertile fields of the Midwest, the west, and beyond. Some farmers and agriculturists fought this trend, pushing instead for responsible rejuvenation of the soil. The expansionist urge of the country favored westward movement.

Those who traveled westward took with them their unsustainable practices, as Stoll recounts. Their arrival in the Midwest and Great Plains coincided with another, and older, environmental shift: In 1725, French planters along the Mississippi River installed the first levee system. Doing so initiated a “complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States,” states Alexis C. Madrigal, a contributing editor for The Atlantic.[18] Thirty-five thousand square miles of wetlands began drying out. By the time the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, the land was dry enough for wheat—and for persistent cycles of droughts and floods.[19]

Lying within that progressively-drying Mississippi rivershed were Kansas and Oklahoma. Decades before the Farm Security Administration photographers documented the 1935 Dust Bowl, the first one—and many more–had already occurred.

Page 30 from McDonald's study of erosion in Oklahoma, 1938.
Page 30 from McDonald’s study of erosion in Oklahoma, 1938.

Clarence Petrowsky, in his frequently cited Ph.D. Dissertation, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900,” details the turbulence of the latter 1800s in the region. A land boom, lasting from 1875 to 1887, brought thousands of settlers into Kansas. They brought with them the same methods they had used in the Eastern US—those methods that had already worn out the soils in the Original 13. Kansas had far less rain, averaging 24” annually versus 32” in Pennsylvania. An unusual wet period, from 1882 to 1886, skewed peoples’ perception of the region, and they planted accordingly.

Drought arrived in 1893, and lasted for five years. It coincided with a world-wide depression (called The Great Depression, interestingly enough, until 1929). Those years saw multiple population upheavals, as farms could no longer support the families who worked them, which left a surplus of abandoned but cultivated land.[20] Over the state, farm production was down, as were farm receipts. Relief was being paid to farmers throughout the state, with counties also buying seed for the farmers. [21] Meanwhile, bad advice flowed like sand in an hourglass: “break up the prairie, plow the soil deep to make a reservoir” advised Kansas’ Agricultural Secretary Martin Mohler, in order to reverse the drought.

A fascinating photo from April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush began.
A fascinating photo from April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush began.

Not everyone could stay to witness the fantastic filling of those reservoirs. Many fled to Oklahoma, when the “unassigned lands” opened up for Anglo settlement in 1889. They brought their tried-and-true methods with them. Writing in 1938, USDA Assistant Soil Conservationist Angus McDonald tells a familiar story. Some highlights include:

“To the farmers of the Plains, wind erosion has been a serious problem for 50 years.”[22]

“Here also, erosion was experienced as soon as cultivation was introduced. Within 40 years of its settlement, the Territory had become one of the most critically eroded sections in the country. Probably nowhere in the world has so much destruction occurred in so short a period of time.”[23]

“The advice of farsighted individuals that much of the land was unsuited to cultivation was ignored… the inertia of tradition militated against such a revolution.”[24]

“In 1894 the sandstorms began again and recurred during several successive years. Reports for the years 1893, 1894, and 1895 are numerous. The sandstorms usually began in March or April and lasted for several days. Often they continued intermittently during the summer and into the fall. An April dust storm of 1895, accompanied by a 40- to 50-mile wind, evidently covered several counties. Clouds of dust obscured the sun and it was impossible to see halfway across the street.”[25]

“By the beginning of the century it was felt by some farmers that breaking the sod was a mistake.”[26]

Frances Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange.
Frances Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange. Mrs. Thompson was a migrant laborer long before the Dust Bowl.

The trend toward migrant and tenant labor also continued. McDonald reports that, “The whole area, however, is characterized by a progressive increase in tenancy.” The drastic shift in just two counties—Kingfisher and Logan—is alarming. In 1890, almost 100% of farms were cultivated by the owners. In 1900, only 67% and 59% respectively. By 1910, only 61% and 55% of owners were the cultivators of their own farms.[27] This means that 40 to 45 percent of those working the land had no ties and no security.

Blowing in the wind across those distressed farms is our political economy: “The agricultural system of the time in actuality placed a premium on soil destruction and a penalty on soil conservation. A program of soil conservation was not compatible with the greatest profits that could be derived from the land in a short period.  The renter had, in many instances, mortgaged his crop and was forced to plant those cash crops that would pay the mortgage,” writes McDonald.[28]

Edward H. Faulkner's "Plowman's Folly" challenged the established practice of laying the soil open and leaving it bare. His 1943 book is a cornerstone of the modern no-till approach.
Edward H. Faulkner’s “Plowman’s Folly” challenged the established practice of laying the soil open and leaving it bare. His 1943 book is a cornerstone of the modern no-till approach.

The tenants, the migrants, who were created by the capitalistic urges of an industrializing agricultural system—these are the faces that we see in those FSA photos. Creative cropping, artistically, socially, and philosophically, eliminates capitalism from our view. We see only the folly of the plowman and the dirty, torn clothing of his dispossessed workers.

So where is the pathological problem, if indeed it exists?

The Dust Bowl, Depression, and mass displacement of the 1930s were not sudden aberrations. There were plenty of precedents, along with ample warning. Yet the poor—whether they be tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, miners, railroad laborers, or textile workers—continually take the brunt. Could it be that the system in which they live and labor is the pathological one?

As Alice O’Connor states in a recent column, “The problem of poverty cannot be resolved without addressing the deeper inequities of race, class, gender, geography, and power—a lesson overshadowed by the myth of a ‘culture of poverty’ that gripped policy elites in the 1960s and continues to thread through popular and academic discourse to this day.”[29]

This graphic is from the critical new report from Human Rights Watch, "Disastrous Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use." Read it here: http://bit.ly/2e4A7zS
This graphic is from the critical new report from Human Rights Watch, “Disastrous Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use.” Read it here: http://bit.ly/2e4A7zS

Unfortunately, however, “contemporary poverty knowledge does not define itself as an inquiry into the political economy and culture of late twentieth-century capitalism.”[30]  Don’t implicate the system, just analyze the data. Objectification of the poor happens in safe and sterile isolation. To do anything else would be un-American.

However, images continue to fly across our screens at blinding speed, reminding us that we must act. We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Poverty is being criminalized. African American men are being incarcerated at an alarming rate. The people of Flint, MI, have become irreparably ill by drinking water from their home taps. We have sufficient reason to question our economic and political philosophies. It seems as simple as asking, “Should we be plowing up all this dry land?”

Referencing Susan Sontag, Cara A. Finnegan says in her introduction to Picturing Poverty: “The FSA photographs functioned to ‘help people take possession of space in which they are insecure.’ And the images served as a tool for power.”

"We can do it!" by J. Howard Miller, 1943.
“We can do it!” by J. Howard Miller, 1943.

Images of dispossessed workers, urban poor, and displaced refugees help us to fight that tendency spoken of by Alice O’Connor, to push against the stigmatization and neutralization of the poor. They help us to see the true political nature of social and economic inequality.

In looking past the composition and cropping of the images, we might see despair, but we can also see hope. In a recent Democracy Now! interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, educational pioneer and critical theorist Henry Giroux expressed a spirited anticipation:

“We see young people all over the country mobilizing around different issues, in which they’re doing something that I haven’t seen for a long time. And that is, they’re linking these issues together. You can’t talk about police violence without talking about the militarization of society in general. You can’t talk about the assault on public education unless you talk about the way in which capitalism defunds all public goods. You can’t talk about the prison system without talking about widespread racism. You can’t do that. They’re making those connections.

“But they’re doing something more: They’re linking up with other groups. If you’re going to talk about Flint, if you’re going to talk about, it seems to me, Ferguson, you have to talk about Palestine. If you’re going to talk about repression in the United States, you’ve got to figure out how these modes of repression have become global.”[31]

Giroux’s words, prompting us to widen our frame of vision so that we see beyond the cropped image, provide an energetic response to the call of Iain Chambers, which is worthy of repeating.

Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans
Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans

”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”[32]

So we have a lot of work to do.

(This essay accompanies Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture. To read more about this event, please click here. Also, read about the album that inspired this event by clicking here.)


[1]  Cara A. Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Smithsonian Books, 2003), xiv.

[2] I’m summarizing a lot of the information presented in Finnegan’s absorbing work. Consider giving it a read.

[3] Finnegan, 198.

[4] Finnegan, xv.

[5] Lyndon B. Johnson: “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union.,” January 8, 1964. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, accessed October 16, 2016,  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26787.

[6] Alice O’Connor, “The War on Poverty at Fifty,” Institute for Public Accuracy, January 7, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/the-war-on-poverty-at-fifty/

[7] Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton University Press, 2001), 15.

[8] O’Connor, 16.

[9] O’Connor, 4.

[10] O’Connor, 12.

[11] Finnegan, xv.

[12] Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 2nd Edition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 38.

[13] Summarized in modern Cliff Notes form at the friendly neighborhood Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitive_accumulation_of_capital#David_Harvey.27s_theory_of_accumulation_by_dispossession

[14] Kloppenburg, 7.

[15] Cindy Hahamovitch, The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 15.

[16] Hahamovitch, 19.

[17] Kloppenburg, 6.

[18] 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/

[19] 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.

[20] Clarence Leo Petrowsky, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1968), 202.

[21] Petrowsky, 203.

[22] Angus McDonald, Erosion and its Control in Oklahoma Territory (Miscellaneous Publication No.301, U.S. Department Of Agriculture, 1938), 1.

[23] McDonald, 2.

[24] McDonald, 5.

[25] McDonald, 8.

[26] McDonald, 12.

[27] McDonald, 7.

[28] McDonald, 8.

[29] Alice O’Connor, “The War on Poverty at Fifty,” Institute for Public Accuracy, January 7, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/the-war-on-poverty-at-fifty/

[30] O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 4.

[31] http://www.democracynow.org/2016/10/14/is_trumps_rise_a_result_of

[32] Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity (Routledge, 1994), 6.

Album Review: Dream The Electric Sleep – “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky”

Art is urgency: It pierces our awareness in a flash of brilliance, pulling us into an experience bigger than our selves, provoking a response. It is, perhaps, the activist’s most powerful messenger.

Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans
Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans

With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to compose a message. Their photographs of the rural poor encapsulate the Depression, the accompanying ecological collapse, and the mass migration of families from the Great Plains to California. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.

Their images, once urgent, have become cultural icons. Icons lose their vitality, however, and urgency must find another aperture.

Dream the Electric Sleep provide that opening on their latest release, “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky.” Shimmering in on locust wings, the album invites immersion into its mesmerizing and relentless energy.

Dream the Electric Sleep: "Beneath the Dark Wide Sky"
Dream the Electric Sleep: “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky”

Dream the Electric Sleep, an independent rock trio combining the force of Soundgarden with the eclecticism of Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin, take us into the 20th century collapse to shake us into awareness: We have not solved the problem. Working with producer Nick Raskulinecz, Matt Page (guitar, vocals), Chris Tackett (bass), and Joey Waters (drums) passionately connect us with the people who lived through the desolation, urging us to act.

Inspired by the work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers from 1935 to1944, the album amplifies their activist spirit, suggesting that their present is quickly becoming ours.

Dust Storm in the Texas Panhandle, by Arthur Rothstein
Dust Storm in the Texas Panhandle, by Arthur Rothstein

Page, the band’s lyricist, faced a significant challenge: translating photographs into melodic poetry, reaching outside those images to connect with the larger, violently moving picture around them. His scenes are striking and provocative: ghostly faces compel us to purge our self interest; a mortgage is foreclosed without an antidote for the pain; migrants roam the deserts like Jesus, fleeing the black wind that chokes the life out of them. Page writes with fluid minimalism, abstracting photographic fragments into elegant dreams and devastating nightmares. Each song stands strongly on its own, but together they weave a harrowing narrative of human-induced loss.

On my inaugural listen—headphones on, lights dim, notepad in hand—I found myself in a conversation with Page as a poet. I scribbled my own lyrics into the empty spaces, interacting as if in call-and-response. We spoke of heritage, of sustenance, of bounty; the tragedy of collapse; empathy; hubris; wished-for death; the intrusion of darkness; wondrous beauty and its impermanence; the sad carnival ride of fate; and the effervescence of fleeting hope.

Some things are inexpressible with words, and “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky” has two carefully sequenced instrumentals. The gentle admonition of “Flight,”—she gave you flight and sky/and everything that you adore/then you hit the floor—summons the menacing and torrential “We Who Blackout the Sun.” This instrumental track then leads us into two songs rich with death imagery, “Hanging by Time” and the sinister “Culling the Herd.”

The second instrumental, “The Last Psalm to Silence,” appears now, a respite from the storm. Ushered in by the chirping of crickets, it scans the calm landscape, memorializing the human lives that paid for the surreal silence.

The high contrast of the two instrumentals reminds us of those photographs: black and white, stark, disquieting. We are not done with the darkness in spite of the light. It’s a gritty balancing act from here to eternity.

The band, having composed the music collaboratively, takes us on a journey that is both desperate and bucolic. They present a vast range of moods, stretching out into peaceful spaces then bearing down on us with anxiety. And though topic is dark and the trip demanding, they never wring us out completely. Scattering moments of grace throughout the snarling darkness, they perform with exhilarating equilibrium.

Purposeful, urgent art must always court balance, delivering an unattractive message via an appealing messenger. When making the messenger photogenic, we risk losing the message itself.

Frances Owen Thompson, by Dorothea Lange.
Frances Owen Thompson, by Dorothea Lange.

This problem plagued the FSA photographers who inspired Dream the Electric Sleep. Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, they hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. In pursuit of their mandate, the photographers, and the agency itself, faced unique challenges in publicizing their work.

The program had many critics, some who considered it an indefensible waste of federal funds during times of austerity. Others viewed the program as an FDR propaganda machine. These charges, levied against the photographs, don’t erase the violent reality that surrounded them: Thousands lost their farms and homes and migrated westward, drifting among hastily-erected labor camps. Many became migrant farm laborers in California, some hired into factories. Most continued to struggle. Their lives, like those in a famous book by John Steinbeck, shunned the happy ending.

Contemporary public criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—didn’t remove the truth of their displacement. Neither did technical critiques of the photos in artistic journals. The subjects in the photos, through the production of the program, had become only objects. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.

A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.
A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.

Dismissed as propaganda, blunted by critique, deflected by moralistic disdain, nullified by the mass culture industry, art can lose its urgency. The event that produced the artistic impulse is relegated to memory or irrelevance, and people move on, feeling they’ve been inoculated against future occurrences. But the impoverished are still struggling, the plains have never returned to their natural rhythm, and we find ourselves on the brink of collapse once again.

The beauty of art’s urgency is that it walks hand in hand with insurgency. Breaking through mass complacency and institutional denial, it finds another aperture, and accelerates into a torrent of light.

“Does it move you? Does it pull you?” asks the second track, “Let the Light Flood In.”

If so, then do something.

Here are some suggestions:

Work for the Right to Refuse to Kill:

Explore these rights and sovereignty organizations:
Food Empowerment Project
Human Rights Watch
Farmworker Justice
The National Center for Farmworker Health
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
La Via Campesina: International Peasant’s Movement
Equal Exchange
Fair World Project

Learn more about refugees’ 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
“The Imperatives of Survival” 1974 Nobel Lecture by Sean MacBride

Read a great book:
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century – J. R. McNeill
The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs – Sidney Lens
First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology – Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.
Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture – Edited by Andrew Kimbrell
The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945 – Cindy Hahamovitch
Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs – Cara Finnegan

And be a good human being.

Peace Meal Supper Club: The Art of Edible Dissent

Third Course Diners. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur.
Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur.

“Peace Meal Supper Club is a unique evening of fine food and progressive discussion, focused on strengthening ourselves as agents for positive change. I create a 4-course menu focused on a theme, such as Pollination, Fair Trade, Cacao, or even humble-but-life-giving Dirt. I share my research into the topic via in-depth essays on my website, which will hopefully inspire the conversation during the meal. It’s like a concept album which you can eat.”

Art is an expression of dissatisfaction with the state of one’s world. Or stated another way, an artist struggles within their dissatisfaction with the world around them. Like many other art forms, mine is meant to illuminate, challenge, and suggest.

I explore the  dissatisfaction side of the equation through a multi-media inter-disciplinary examination of intersectionality: “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination,” applying it beyond studies of gender and race, to include undocumented agricultural workers, dirt, seeds, and the Mississippi River.

My diners and I have explored social movements, such as Labor, along with the subversive empowerment of Border Radio, and the celebration of freedom and self-improvement embodied in the African-American celebration of Juneteenth. Peace Meal Supper Club has provided a lens to explore post-Columbian-Exchange globalization, the status of Fair Trade cacao, and the humanitarian tragedy of successive and worsening refugee crises.

All of this with food as the primary medium. The taken-for-granted is often the most impactful.

Beauty and Sadness Salad (Last Harvest 2014)
Beauty and Sadness Salad (Last Harvest 2014)

On the other side of the artistic equation is the hoped-for outcome. The goal is to re-imagine our world, to once again envision Utopia, and to offer Gratitude for all who helped us find it.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

We iteratively establish Utopias as stepping stones, mile markers to which we can refer when our course needs correction. With each new stone, we are more resilient and capable, winnowing ourselves into the core of what matters. As the powers-that-be successively nudge us closer to calamity, we revert to the soil and the sun and the simple. In this sense of recursion, Utopia–and Peace Meal Supper Club–is Tao: returning to the simple sustaining forces that cannot be named, neither can they be dormant for long.

Recurring themes, regardless of any supper’s stated topic, have been several:

  • Our significantly artificial food system
  • Diminishing habitat and diversity, among animals, plants, and culture
  • Reduction of keystone species and other signs of systemic collapse
  • The overwhelm of industrial agriculture
  • The overall struggle for fairness, reaching through civil rights, gender equality, and the rising awareness of animal rights
  • Identity, dominion, imperialism, exploitation, extraction, displacement, and the silencing of dissent

The overlay is complex and intricate. Peace Meal Supper Club, with its multi-sensory qualities, offers everyone an access point and therefore hope.

So how does one represent issues or concepts with food?

Sometimes it’s imitative: painting sound with sound, which so vexed Beethoven–or so I read a long time ago and possibly have inaccurately remembered. But it is simple. If you want your fourth movement to sound like a thunderstorm, then bring on the big sound. If you want your first course to resemble a big blossom, bring on the big filo.

Pumpkin Pot de Creme with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, from PMSC #3: Pollination
Pumpkin Pot de Creme with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, from PMSC #3: Pollination

With this plate from the Pollination menu, Pumpkin Pot de Crème with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, I am representing a native American squash blossom.

There is a tight specialized link between plants and their pollinators. This flower is far too big for a honeybee to efficiently pollinate. The squash bee, a much larger species, is perfectly proportioned. But as non-native plants arrived and replaced the native crops, so too did non-native pollinators—such as the European honeybee—replace native pollinators. Over time, the Europeans have come to dominate. The indigenous are losing habitat.

Kasha Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream, from PMSC #3: Pollination
Kasha Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream, from PMSC #3: Pollination

Sometimes the meal’s theme requires a more complex composition. The second course for the Pollination menu–Buckwheat Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream–portrayed the varied and seasonal work of pollinators, as well as the beauty at risk.

Buckwheat is one of the few grains that is pollinated by animals. Crops such as broccoli and carrots utilize pollinators to produce seeds. Squash need them in order to produce fruit. Roses to produce beauty. As people engage with this plate–its aromas, colors, textures, and bright flavors–they remember that they are part of the environment.

This plate is subtle but clear in its message: Pollinators need an annual progression of diverse crops in order to survive. In providing them with this—or not depriving them of it—we will be rewarded with a resilient food supply and a lush ecosystem. This is a vibrantly positive message. Though it seems to be a rational approach to agriculture, it stands in conflict with agribusiness-as-usual.

The false messages of industry are subtle as well. The commercial tomato—which has become so artificial as to no longer need soil, pollinators, or even human hands—convinces us that our abundance is secure, that we can sustain and indulge ourselves through the cleverness of our technology. We are expected to ignore the flavorlessness of the commercial tomato, as well as the social erosion that accompanies it.

The key ingredient in its production is fragmentation. Every component is disconnected from its native character and/or environment—not only the tomato, but the exploited worker, the soil’s nutrients, and the consumer. Considering the associated issues of human trafficking, border politics, and farmworker safety, it’s a perfect picture of intersectionality.

Double Tomato Tart, from PMSC #4: American Harvest
Double Tomato Tart, from PMSC #4: American Harvest

The dissenting view, however, arrives in this vibrant Double Tomato Tart, the second course for Peace Meal Supper Club #4: American Harvest. It brings a stimulating story of connection. The tomatoes on top were picked the day before I made the tart. They are resting on a sauce which I had prepared and preserved a month earlier, when my CSA presented me with a bonanza of heirloom tomatoes. Grown with regenerative practices—careful selection of seeds, stewardship of the soil, honoring of labor, and farmers who are in possession of their land—the tomatoes tell us how good things can be when everything is reconnected.

Disconnection among workers, soils, trade agreements, seeds, waterways—domestic and foreign—introduces instability into our food system. Our sovereignty becomes at risk, leaving us dependent and vulnerable, subject to exploitation.

It seems accepted that developing countries would experience food insecurity. However, this is not something we should ever consider normal. We should also not consider food insecurity to be a far-away problem.

Pomme de Terre Noire, from PMSC #18: Aperture
Pomme de Terre Noire, from PMSC #18: Aperture

With Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture, I explored the environmental collapse of the 1930s, including the degrading decades that led to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. The devastation of the American plains was not unlike the famine that struck Ireland in the mid-1800s, or the environmental tragedy unfolding in modern-day California. Food security is threatened on a global scale, driven by the political economic system utilized by the US and other developed nations. Our goods come through a massively unfair exchange with people and landscapes.

Waterways also need our attention, so with Peace Meal Supper Club #13: Mississippi I focused my lens on our uneasy relationship with the Mississippi River.

Tempeh a la Memphis, Grilled Romaine, Charred Apple, Hickory BBQ Sauce, from PMSC #13: Mississippi
Tempeh a la Memphis, Grilled Romaine, Charred Apple, Hickory BBQ Sauce, from PMSC #13: Mississippi

Though it once comprised one of the world’s largest wetlands, over the past three centuries the Mississippi watershed has been systematically dried, resulting in a prodigiously unstable river system and a rapidly eroding coastline. The first levees were installed in 1725, driven by French economic goals—a trend which we continue to the present day. Today, the system of levees and dams rivals in length the Great Wall of China. In forcing the river to flow according to our wishes, we invite each hurricane to be the worst yet.

As with the production of the commercial tomato, there are numerous political and social overlays: environmental degradation, racial marginalization, dispossession, and invasive economy.

While political economy fashions our dysfunctional relationship with the Big Muddy, our relationship to its dirt can be influenced by our own actions.

With the Dirt menu, each plate proclaimed the power of the soil and how we can contribute to its regeneration. Rather than consume foods produced in an extractive model—such as industrial wheat, sugar, soy, and corn—we can support farmers who are working in concert with their soil, choosing plants and methods which keep the underground thriving.

Beet Salad, Cover Crop Cocktail, Sesame Miso Dressing, from PMSC #7: Dirt
Beet Salad, Cover Crop Cocktail, Sesame Miso Dressing, from PMSC #7: Dirt

For example, in the second course for Dirt, I served a Roasted Beet Salad with Cover Crop Cocktail and Sesame Miso Dressing. The beets represented the goodness that the soil gives us, and also pointed to the underground nutrient exchange between microbes and plants. The cover crop cocktail–sprouted lentils, clover, and alfalfa–was comprised of plants that help pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. The dressing, with its fermented miso base, conjured the deep and mysterious alchemy of the underground. My message to the diner was simple: We can make regenerative agriculture profitable for farmers by supporting their growing of these crops. Doing so also bolsters our own food security and promotes greater social equality.

Dirt is linked to Seed is linked to Globalization is linked to Mississippi is linked to the Farmworker is linked to Social Justice. We do not live in a disconnected world, even though we see the symptoms in isolation.

The unspoken but very pronounced theme of Peace Meal Supper Club is this: We must not operate in single-issue mode. We cannot let ourselves be disconnected and dispossessed.

Professor Chien-hui Li, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, provides the wisdom borne of a broader view: “While there may be every need for the animal movement to focus on sharply-defined targets in order to achieve short-term goals, there is an equally urgent need to engage with wider literary, religious, scientific, political and other traditions, and to cultivate the state of mind of belonging to much broader social forces striving in the same directions of charity, equality, and justice. This could not only strengthen activists’ faith in something of a deeper nature and broaden their outlook, but also affect the spirit in which their work is undertaken and make it all the more powerful and appealing to others.”

This unified view of rights, fairness, compassion, and progress moves us one step closer to Utopia.

Green Tea Poached Pear, Ginger Peach Pastry Cream, from PMSC #6: Utopia
Green Tea Poached Pear, Ginger Peach Pastry Cream, from PMSC #6: Utopia

Peace Meal Supper Club, like many artistic projects, posits an alternative worldview. It attempts to reset our mindfulness, in a comprehensive scope, towards our eating and therefore our existence. It asserts that Food Is Everything.

My hope is that my creative use of food will stimulate creative discussion regarding our rendezvous with progress. It is our responsibility and privilege–I should say it is the responsibility of our privilege–to make great changes in the way the world operates.

Reciprocity is never-ending. What we give to others, we receive for ourselves.

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.

Peace Meal Supper Club #9: Chavez

Progress often requires significant sacrifice–and sometimes the offering is the idol itself. Peace Meal Supper Club #9: Chavez is an unexpected exercise in iconoclasm, wherein sentimentality must yield to reality. A strong respect for tradition benefits us so long as it is not errant nostalgia.

Saint Cesar Chavez, From the Dancing Saints Icon mural at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA.
Saint Cesar Chavez, From the Dancing Saints Icon mural at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA.

“Hero,” “suffering savior,” and “celebrity” are uneasy concepts, requiring liberal parsing of reality. Much like a golden idol standing upon clay feet,[i] their vulnerability is built in at the ground level. One only needs to cast a properly-aimed stone. Our personal choice dictates whether we cast the stone or continue to honor the idol. Which choice will foster progress?

Since idols don’t come out of nowhere, we need a preamble, a view into the world of farmworkers in the early to mid 1900s.

American farm labor in the 20th century was a roiling cauldron of complexity. The challenges inherent in vegetable farming–such as the seasonal need for work force versus year-round need for workers–were already difficult for growers to manage. How can one afford to keep a workforce in place when they are only needed for a few months at a time?[ii] Further complications came with the great economic depression and drought of the 1930s, which stimulated mass displacement of the population. The military’s need for soldiers to fight in two world wars only exacerbated the problems.

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)

To supply a steady and affordable workforce for the nation’s farmers, the US entered into an agreement with Mexico, wherein Mexico would supply seasonal workers to US farmers.[iii] The US government would guarantee basic needs were met, such as pay and suitable housing. This guest worker program–known as Bracero, ‘one who works with his arms’–has a very rich and controversial history, extending far beyond its 1942 to 1964 lifespan. Emotions ran high through the program’s official years, and we have yet to resolve our relationship with Mexico and its people. First we’ll have to come to terms with our own duplicity in the relationship.[iv]

Concurrent with the guest worker program was the general neglect of farm workers’ rights. They were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938; this exclusion continued until 1966.[v] The migrant nature of the work, which required workers to move from region to region throughout the year, made it impossible for them to develop permanent ties with society. They largely lived in temporary housing provided by their host farms. The housing was substandard, often without proper water or sanitation facilities. Their migrancy also reduced their ability to use their voice through voting. They were rootless and unrepresented, and therefore invisible. It was the perfect recipe for exploitation, even for a legal citizen.

The plight of migrant farm workers was the subject of a provocative 1960 documentary by American journalist Edward R. Murrow. His introduction contained the shocking admission from a farmer: “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”[vi]

Workers attempted to organize before Cesar Chavez’ campaigns of the 1960s. Growers had fought off every attempt, but by 1959 the move to unionize was gaining mass and momentum. Religious ministries, social workers, the AFL-CIO, and other groups had raised enough noise that it seemed destined to be.[vii] Into this fomenting brew strode Cesar Chavez, son of farmworkers and a veteran of the fields himself.

"Boycott Non-Union Lettuce" button courtesy of Valerie Hunken
“Boycott Non-Union Lettuce” button courtesy of Valerie Hunken

He was also a veteran organizer, through his work in the 1950s with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grass-roots group aimed at helping Mexican-Americans claim their civil rights.[viii] Chavez earned praise from his teacher, civil rights activist and CSO co-founder Fred Ross. Ross established the house-meeting technique that is a hallmark of many movements since. Chavez tirelessly held house-meetings, in different towns each night. He developed a reputation as an inexhaustible activist who would survive for years on four hours of sleep per night.

Chavez’ years with the CSO ended in frustration, and he set out on his own to form a union among the most powerless workers in the nation, those excluded from protection under virtually every relevant health and labor law.[ix] It was a long-shot, going up against the most powerful industry in California, attempting to organize workers who were reluctant to upset their already fragile existence. To complicate matters, the Teamsters had begun courting growers, offering deals well in the growers’ favor.

Larry Itliong, whose Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee began the Delano grape strike on September 8, 1965.
Larry Itliong, whose Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee began the Delano grape strike on September 8, 1965.

Chavez’ ability to pull people together for a cause is legendary. He invoked the Virgin of Guadalupe, Gandhi, JFK, King–also Hitler and Mao–in his efforts, and amassed enough support that he was able to co-opt a grape boycott that had been initiated by Filipino American agricultural workers.[x] The strike and subsequent boycott–directed with more brilliance from Chavez–lasted five years. Through managing the strike and engaging the public, Chavez acquired a national presence. No longer just a civil agitator and troublesome farmworker in California, he had become a rising star on the civil rights stage. He excited the public with his historic 300-mile march from the fields around Delano, CA, to the state capital in Sacramento. A subsequent 25-day fast cast him in the same light as Gandhi, attracting the attention of not only the populace, but its leaders: Robert Kennedy traveled to Delano to be with Chavez when he broke his fast.[xi]

The efforts paid off in diverse ways. Chavez became a larger-than-life figure, a suffering savior whose life was being sacrificed for the benefit of farmworkers everywhere. For the farmworkers themselves, they won the right to organize, growers agreed to better conditions and higher wages. Chavez’ fledgling union, the United Farm Workers, had won the right to represent the workers. It was a major leap forward. Robert Kennedy also benefited: Chavez motivated voters in Los Angeles, helping Kennedy win California in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries. Chavez was invited onstage by Kennedy to celebrate victory at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Chavez, however, had already gone to bed.[xii]

From here the UFW’s story should be one of continual progress, of sequential victories and further betterment for those who feed us. The great leap forward, however, ended in a cul-de-sac of counter-culture cult building. As his persona grew, Chavez retreated from organizing, failed to meet the needs of his union’s members, and refused to administer contracts he had won with growers. It is a tragedy of errors and hubris.[xiii]

Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Cesar Chavez’ Tehachapi retreat, Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Over the following years, though his union conducted more major strikes and claimed more victories, Chavez lost himself in his own aura. He began building a dream community in the Tehachapi Mountains, miles from the clamor of the fields. He sought managerial advice from cult leader Chuck Dederich,[xiv] adapting his confrontational group therapy technique–the “Game”–for UFW board meetings. Meanwhile, growers could check off the box “Honor union contracts” with the confidence that no contracts would be forthcoming. Workers continued to pay their mandatory dues and got little in return. Moses had led them out into the wilderness and gone up to the mountain. Yet he never came down to finish what he started.

Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel
Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel

In her book The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, journalist Miriam Pawel chronicles the rise and fall of the iconic leader. Working through volumes of correspondence and meeting notes, 1500 hours of tape recordings, and personal interviews with Chavez’ closest confidantes, she paints a picture of a man quickly divorced from his cause just as he began to win: In 1975 California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the most progressive labor law in the country at that time.[xv] Chavez worked hand-in-hand with Governor Jerry Brown to craft the historic legislation. Chavez lamented its passing: “The whole fight’s going to change. Because once you’re recognized, that’s essentially what the law does, then the essential fight of recognition, which is the one that appeals to the human mind and the heart, more than anything else, is no longer there. Then from that point on, you’re talking about wages, you’re talking about money, you’re talking about benefits, you’re talking about…something more diffuse and not as crucial and critical.”[xvi]

He continued to dream, but about intentional communities and a national Poor People’s Union.[xvii] He spoke about building unions in Europe, the Philippines, and Latin America. But his own union, the identity of which he had deliberately and carefully crafted to be synonymous with his own name, decayed from his vigorous neglect.

But his abdication was not the only cause for concern. He purposefully and forcefully opposed the formation of agricultural unions in Arizona and Texas, although he had once attempted to organize there.[xviii] These upstart unions were not of the UFW fold, and in Chavez’ world, he would be the pope or there would be no pope.[xix]

Unless you've run into Cesar's cousin Manuel, who ran terrorist operations along the border with UFW funds.
Unless you’ve run into Cesar’s cousin Manuel, who ran terrorist operations along the border with UFW funds.

From the beginning, he adopted the principle of non-violence, in keeping with his adoration of Gandhi and King. He worked hard to present the UFW as being a peaceful organization. Along the US-Mexico border, however, his cousin Manuel Chavez engaged in terrorist activities along the “Wet Line.”[xx] Mexican nationals attempting to enter the US were routinely beaten, robbed, and left naked to make their way back into Mexico. These efforts were funded by the donations that poured into the UFW.

His uneasy relationship with illegal immigration extended beyond the bloody involvement of his cousin. He also became an INS informer, passing information to the powerful agency to aid in locating undocumented workers.[xlix] Chavez understood that undocumented workers were a powerful strike-breaking tool for California growers. In the earliest days of the UFW, the Bracero program was still active; he did not consider them “true workers.”[xxi] Later he relented, realizing that they could help his cause, papers or no papers. At best, his relationship with them was opportunistic. At worst, it was deadly.

"Chavez Si! Teamsters No!" button courtesy of Valerie Hunken
“Chavez Si! Teamsters No!” button courtesy of Valerie Hunken

As he continued to build his ideal community in the mountains, where residents were required to wear UFW buttons each day, he became more paranoid of outsiders.[xxii] He had always created enemies out of thin air: first the growers, then the Teamsters, all immigrants, communists, other upstart unions, and his favorite villains, “those assholes,”[xxiii] and “whores in the camp.”[xxiv] He played his board members against one another to identify the most loyal. He ousted Filipinos, Mexican nationals, most Latinos. He recast Governor Brown as an enemy.[xxv] He even turned his poisoned darts upon his innermost circle. Marshall Ganz and Jerry Cohen had been with him from the beginning, and Chavez prided himself on having the support of the Jewish community. By 1981, however, they were also exiled. Chavez felt the Jews were trying to take over the union.[xxvi]

So while he can be credited for much early good, his final decades–say from 1975 to 1993–were occupied with the destruction of his own achievements. This would be forgivable if not for the fact that others paid the cost.

United Farm Workers flag
United Farm Workers flag

Icons are to some degree self-generating, something of which Chavez was very aware. He began retelling his own story as soon as he had a wider audience.[xxvii] His use of the Virgin of Guadalupe[xxviii] and other religious motifs were deliberate choices.[xxix] He crafted the UFW flag–a red field, a central white circle containing a black Aztec eagle–holding in mind the impact of the Nazi flag.[xxx] He knew that assuming the mantle of the “suffering savior” would win the support of the Mexican-American farmworkers. He walked in constant and visible pain during the march on Sacramento; his feet were re-bandaged nightly by his followers.[xxxi] Fasting for the greater good had long been sanctioned as a holy act. He even claimed the ability to heal through his hands.[xxxii] But holy acts and faith healing do not make a man holy, regardless of how persuasive the image.

The crowning of a hero usually indicates a battle won. A monument is erected as an acknowledgment of human progress. Unfortunately, the progress we perceive is not always actual. We must be willing to tear down the monument in order to see what is hiding underneath it.

"Pulling Down the Statue of King George III," Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, New York, ca. 1859
“Pulling Down the Statue of King George III,” Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, New York, ca. 1859

Our breaking of this icon is of critical importance, for it gravely impairs our view of the shocking reality. The farmworkers movement he purported to lead never found a universal resolution. The conditions exposed in Mr. Murrow’s 1960 documentary still exist across the country in 2015.[xxxiii] Agricultural workers are still among the most disenfranchised and abused laborers in the US. And that 1960s statement about renting slaves? Well, many growers are back to owning them. The battle has not been won. It was abandoned by its general, its workers betrayed.

It is childishly naive to accept stories without verification, whether it be the founding myths of the USA, the transparency of the Obama Administration,[xxxiv] or the accomplishments of a populist champion of the downtrodden such as Cesar Chavez. When I chose Chavez as the central theme for Peace Meal Supper Club #9, I was an accepting and ill-informed believer. I leave in cynical amazement. And with a stone in my hand which I long ago overcame the fear of using.[xxxv]

Long before Peace Meal Supper Club was conceived, I paid a visit to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. In a blog on my former website I called the museum to task for presenting international civil rights as ‘done.’

“It is a commonly known fact that women struggle for basic rights in Arab nations. Lesser known is that migrant farm workers in the US—citizens and ‘illegals’ alike, adults and children alike–are excluded from very basic labor and protection laws. Somehow, the trafficking of women has not yet been outlawed the world over. Somehow, ‘honor killing’ is still legal, pardoned, or ignored in various countries, East, West, Moslem, Hindu, and Christian. Shall we mention Guantanamo? Or perhaps LGBT struggles in Indonesia? Is the museum brave enough to discuss the plight of Leonard Peltier? Would they like to remind us that our dependence upon cheap foreign labor is a global expansion of our historic race issues?”[xxxvi]

United Farmworkers, DON'T BUY GRAPES OR LETTUCE (1975). Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
United Farmworkers, DON’T BUY GRAPES OR LETTUCE (1975). Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

The UFW still exists, but it primarily seems to serve as its own museum, marking its great accomplishments of the past. Its website provides tacit mention of present victories, but they are small in comparison to the union’s acclaim. In keeping with Chavez’ exclusion of other unions, they make no mention of similar, more active groups such as Farmworker Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

As Miriam Pawel reported in a series of stories in the LA Times, the union’s chief aim is to enshrine in perpetuity its founder.[xxxvii] Donations roll in, but “the money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs. Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.”

We could be gracious and say that the man is not responsible for what his heirs do. But Chavez himself had extensive holdings, albeit in the name of the UFW. In 1988, there were eighteen nonprofit and commercial entities associated with his movement.[xxxviii] Literally millions were rolling in–some of it in the form of federal grants, which the union misspent.[xxxix] Interestingly, with union membership declining steadily, there were fewer workers to collect pension checks.[xl] Just as his heirs have done, he used non-union labor to develop his real estate holdings.[xli] Just as they have done, he diverted donations into funds that answered only to him.[xlii] The present UFW leadership is faithfully carrying on the family brand.

Meanwhile, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act has become a rarely-visited relic. On the national level, the National Labor Relations Act still excludes agricultural workers, just like it did when it was signed by President Roosevelt in 1935.[xliii]

Growers still employ non-citizens in order to evade labor laws. Human trafficking is the norm in some regions of the southern US. The harvest of shame continues–and was revisited by CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts in 2010.[xliv] He found conditions among workers much the same as Murrow did.

But he also found hope: for in the tomato fields of Immokalee, change is happening. An additional penny-per-pound has been negotiated by a worker-led union, and this penny will add up to as much as $7000 in additional annual pay. The extra penny is collected at the retail level, passed through the store–such as Whole Foods or Taco Bell–to the grower, who pays it to the workers.[xlv] The program is flourishing and conditions are improving. Other unions are making headway, and thankfully they have foregone the Oz-like lionization of their founders.

Fair Food Program logo. See www.fairfoodprogram.org
Fair Food Program logo. See ww.fairfoodprogram.org

“No hay mal que por bien no venga” was a favorite saying of Chavez’.[xlvi] “There is no bad from which some good does not come.” In the larger story here, this maxim proves true. For the present-day unions have learned from the UFW’s mistakes. They’ve also learned from the tactics: the CIW has mastered the art of the house-meeting. I have been fortunate to attend a few and meet the activist-workers. They have also learned the power of economic pressure to bring about progress. The CIW’s boycott campaigns against Taco Bell, Publix Supermarkets, and Wendy’s invigorate and embody the principle.[xlvii]

Negotiations between workers, growers, and retailers, however, do not add up to increased civil rights. Those have to be negotiated politically and signed into law at a federal level. There is still much to do. As agribusiness deepens its ties with the US government, our grass-roots efforts are even more critical.

One more thing must be acknowledged before we cast our stone at the idol’s clay feet. Cesar Chavez, with great conscience and foresight, assigned all UFW correspondence, meeting notes, speeches, and tape recordings to the Water P. Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.[xlviii] In spite of all his careful image-building and contrariness, he provided us a means of pulling back the curtain to see the man operating the machine. Such warts-and-all honesty is to be admired. So let him who is without sin cast the first stone.


The menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #9: Chavez was developed under a charming cloud of naivete. Its brilliance, if you don’t mind my saying, lies in the fact that its composition has only grown stronger with knowledge. The original descriptions can be found on the announcement page; only slight modifications appear in the text below.

Course 1
El Festín de las Hormigas ~ Rosewater Vinaigrette ~ Lavash

A vibrant salad with mixed lettuces, grapes, berries, and sprouted wheat berries, portraying multiple farmworker campaigns which brought fairness closer to the fields. Lavash represents the flatbreads with which Chavez broke fasts.

Course 2
Chorizo Taquitos with Piñon Crema

Tacos are a classic workers food, and were a frequent celebration food for the United Farm Workers and their companion organizations. This adaptation matches Chavez’ own shift into veganism.

Course 3
Seitan Adobo ~ Pinakbet ~ Pancit Noodles

In recognition of the Filipino workers who began the grape strike on September 8, 1965. Their work provided a foundation for Chavez’ fledgling UFW. The strike’s success is a testament to multi-cultural coalition building.

Course 4
Capirotada a la Mode

This traditional bread pudding from the borderlands is popular in Mexico during the Easter season. It represents a culture from whom we continue to draw so much of our own sustenance. Easter brings a message of renewal, which should resonate through all our efforts towards fairness.

A little more about the menu:

Hormigas are ants–represented on this salad by sprouted wheat berries, invoked to symbolize the highly sophisticated, near-mystical social network that enables progress.

Adobo is a preserving preparation common among Native American, Latino, and Filipino cultures. Pinakbet is a Filipino vegetable braise akin to ratatouille. Pancit noodles are customarily served to honor one’s birthday. Chavez was born March 31.


Further Reading:

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel. Bloomsbury Press, 2014

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahammovitch. University of North Carolina Press, 1997

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe. Random House, 2008

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook. Andrews McNeel, 2012

These articles provide compact histories of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez:

Miriam Pawel, “Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots,” LA Times, January 8, 2006, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ufw8jan08-story.html#page=1

Miriam Pawel, “Decisions of Long Ago Shape Union of Today,” LA Times, January 10, 2006, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-history10jan10-story.html#page=1

Nelson Lichtenstein, “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers,” Dissent Magazine, April 8, 2012, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/story/154859/the_rise_and_fall_of_cesar_chavez_and_the_united_farm_workers

Mark R. Day, “Review: Chavez Remembered, Warts and All,” Labor Notes, April 14, 2014, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/04/review-cesar-chavez-remembered-warts-and-all

Other relevant websites:

Bracero History Archive, http://braceroarchive.org/about
Farmworker Justice, http://www.farmworkerjustice.org
Coalition of Immokalee Workers, http://www.ciw-online.org


[i] Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, Book of Daniel 2: 24-31; https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel%202

[ii] The challenges of migrant labor are brilliantly related by Cindy Hahammovich in The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, University of North Carolina Press, 1997

[iii] http://braceroarchive.org/about; http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/bittersweet-harvest-bracero-program-1942-1964

[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Repatriation; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Wetback

[v] http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/advocacy-and-programs/us-labor-law-farmworkers

[vi] The entire documentary is available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E

[vii] Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 54-55.

[viii] Pawel, 26.

[ix] Pawel, 72-77.

[x] Marshall Ganz, “Not the Cesar Chavez I Knew,” The Nation, April 1, 2014, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/179121/not-cesar-chavez-i-knew#

[xi] Pawel, 167.

[xii] Pawel, 171.

[xiii] Nelson Lichtenstein, “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers,” Dissent Magazine, April 8, 2012, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/story/154859/the_rise_and_fall_of_cesar_chavez_and_the_united_farm_workers

[xiv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synanon

[xv] Philip Martin, “Labor Relations in California Agriculture: 1975-2000,” Changing Face, UC Davis, September 20, 2000, accessed March 23, 2015, https://migration.ucdavis.edu/cf/more.php?id=44

[xvi] Pawel, 308

[xvii] Pawel, 308, 325, 370

[xviii] Pawel, 419

[xix] Pawel, 415

[xx] Pawel, 288

[xxi] Pawel, 81

[xxii] Pawel, 347

[xxiii] Pawel, 377

[xxiv] Pawel, 268

[xxv] Pawel, 319

[xxvi] Pawel, 428

[xxvii] Pawel, 90, 130

[xxviii] Pawel, 127

[xxix] http Marshall Ganz, “Not the Cesar Chavez I Knew,” The Nation, April 1, 2014, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/179121/not-cesar-chavez-i-knew#

[xxx] Pawel, 89

[xxxi] Pawel, 127

[xxxii] Pawel, 387

[xxxiii] See Estabrook, Tomatoland, and Bowe, Nobodies

[xxxiv] http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/3/27/barack_obama_the_least_transparent_president; http://www.democracynow.org/2015/3/19/headlines#31911

[xxxv] http://redfalcon.com/blog1/?page_id=21

[xxxvi] http://redfalcon.com/blog1/?p=180

[xxxvii] Miriam Pawel, “Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots,” LA Times, January 8, 2006, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ufw8jan08-story.html#page=1

[xxxviii] Pawel, 452

[xxxix] Pawel, 433

[xl] Pawel, 453

[xli] Pawel, 450

[xlii] Pawel, 454

[xliii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Labor_Relations_Act

[xliv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkV3oVn209s ; http://www.thenation.com/article/180875/americas-new-harvest-shame#

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

[xlvi] Pawel, 63

[xlvii] http://ciw-online.org/campaign-for-fair-food/

[xlviii] Pawel, 180

[xlix] Pawel, 293, 313; http://www.latintimes.com/cesar-chavez-legacy-wet-lines-illegals-campaign-dark-side-latino-icons-opposition-undocumented

Peace Meal Supper Club #8: Cacao

Peace Meal Supper Club #8: Cacao is about taking chances and trying to reconcile the expansive outcomes. It’s an engaging culinary challenge: take an ingredient which has been pigeonholed as ‘confection’ and use it as a major ingredient for three savory courses, appealing to a diner’s sense of adventure. Add the further challenge of following those three courses with a dessert that will still register as ‘chocolate!’ I was continually drawn deeper into rediscovery as I explored this wondrously complex food.

Our modern ideas of cacao are firmly cemented even though we have greatly repurposed it. For its initial 28 centuries of use it was the ritual drink of a privileged few: priests and kings among the Olmecs, then the Mayans, then the Aztecs.[1] After a vigorous vogue among European elites, it finally became as commonplace as vanilla, abundantly adulterated and sadly situated in plastic wrappers and paper cups. Distressingly, its journey to those wrappers required–and still utilizes–a multitude of forced, unpaid laborers.

Hernan Cortes meets Moctezuma II. It wasn't all pageantry and politeness.
Hernan Cortes meets Moctezuma II. It wasn’t all pageantry and politeness.

There is an epoch-spanning story here, one which involves global conquest by 15th-century imperialistic powers, government-sponsored and church-sanctioned slave trade, and the destruction of indigenous culture. We are making progress regarding labor and fair sourcing, but the story is largely the same as it has been. Global economic forces have only gotten stronger and more insinuated since Columbus’ voyages.

In this case, the menu also offers tales of culinary experimentation, from the curious ancients who first ‘discovered’ chocolate to the novel trends of current-day molecular gastronomy.

To start with, the Olmecs would have never cooked with cacao. Neither would have the Mayans nor the Aztecs. To do so would have been analogous to a Spanish priest cooking with transubstantiated wine.[2] It took centuries for someone to use cacao in a cooked dish, and though we applaud their ingenuity, we have to cringe at fried liver dredged in chocolate and lasagna filled with chocolate and anchovies.[3]

All of these experiments aside, chocolate wasn’t generally eaten in solid form until 1847, following a major accomplishment by Fry & Sons in Britain. Their experiments in blending specific proportions of cocoa powder, sugar, and cacao butter allowed for bars to be cast, thereby providing the world with its first eating chocolate.[4] Our meal, however, will begin with a longer stride back in time.

Amuse Bouche: Aztec Prelude

An unassuming but intense 3 ounce chocolate beverage at Kakawa, Santa Fe.
An unassuming but intense 3 ounce chocolate beverage at Kakawa, Santa Fe.

I vividly recall the galvanizing buzz that filled me as I sipped my first ‘ancient’ cacao beverage at Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe. The impact was immediate, both physically and intellectually. I had ordered the ‘Aztec Warrior,’ three ounces of liquid intensity modeled after the drink enjoyed by Moctezuma, last of the Aztec emperors. He shared this beverage with Hernan Cortes in 1519, a deeply significant and darkly sinister communion with earth-shattering consequences. We can rightly vilify Cortes for his role in genocide and cultural destruction, but Moctezuma himself was far from innocent. His possession of cacao was a result of his own imperialistic urges. Cacao trees did not grow in Tenochtitlan, site of present-day Mexico City. He received his cacao as tribute from the peoples he suppressed in the Yucatan.[5]

The Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and cacao shared this region of Mesoamerica.
The Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and cacao shared this region of Mesoamerica.

Preceding the Aztecs in this cult of cacao were the Mayans (2000BCE to 900CE) and the Olmecs (1500BCE to 400BCE), the foremost pioneers in the story of cacao. It was they who discovered, through means unknown to us, the complicated process through which cacao seeds become chocolate.

Cacao pods on the tree, awaiting harvest.
Cacao pods on the tree, awaiting harvest.

First, the large fruit pods must be properly harvested. They are split open and the pulp and seeds are scraped out. They are left massed together and allowed to ferment. The seeds are then extracted and dried. After roasting, the seeds’ paper husks are winnowed away. The seeds are then ready for grinding into cacao paste.[6]

Cacao pod split open, allowing for fermentation of the pulp.
Cacao pod split open, allowing for fermentation of the pulp.

This process requires a very specific fermentation period, as well as particular roasting temperatures and duration. These two steps build flavor in the seeds, which upon harvesting are tasteless and odorless. This process was deciphered 4000 years ago–and it hasn’t changed since.

We have no clue as to what prompted this experimentation. Much like the domestication of corn, it is an unparalleled achievement in the food sciences. We have done nothing as substantial since.

Due to the labor-intensive process–not to mention the utterly delicious result–the seeds became a form of currency, and therefore too expensive for the common classes to drink away. As currency fosters trade, trade builds empires. Olmecs give way to Mayans, Mayans succumb to Aztecs. Enter the Spanish.

During that communion between Moctezuma and Cortes an observer noted the drink-making process. To date, it is the best ‘recipe’ we have of the ancient chocolate beverage. Though the observer is specifically describing an Aztec preparation, it is believed that the Olmecs and Mayans made their drink similarly.

In this 16th century drawing, a woman develops foam by pouring the beverage between two containers.
In this 16th century drawing, a woman develops foam by pouring the beverage between two containers.

“These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point, and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit.”[7]

I have patterned our amuse bouche after this historic preparation.

First Course: The alchemy of the unexpected.
Roasted Cauliflower Soup ~ Cacao Caramelized Onions ~ Cherry Chocolate Sourdough

I have called the First Course “The alchemy of the unexpected.” It embodies the gruesome impact of the conquest, certainly, but also the culinary explorations that followed. Cacao has had an interesting post-conquest history, although most of it falls well within the political arena. On the culinary side, it has been a story of risk-taking.

Revered French chef Pierre Gagnaire has commented that “combining five ingredients to make a dish is taking five risks.”[8] Granted, the risks are artistic and not at all life-endangering. But they do challenge expectations and ask that diners be open to change.

Perhaps for that reason, most modern chefs will experiment lightly. Googling ‘savory cacao recipes’ reveals some very high-level chefs doing some very underwhelming things. Adding cacao as garnish to an arugula and speck salad, for example, is not really ground-breaking.[9] We must go farther. After all, cacao has one of the richest and most complex flavors of any food, according to food scientist Harold McGee. Within its 600 different kinds of volatile flavor molecules, a discerning palate can identify bitterness, fruits, wine, sherry, vinegar, almond, floral notes, nuttiness, earthiness, and spicy undertones.[10] Cacao really can do much more than decorate a salad.

It is no wonder then that cacao has been a favorite of food chemists like Hervé This, whose work is foundational to the modern trend of molecular gastronomy. Often misunderstood and quickly bastardized by the masses, this approach is described by McGee as simply the “scientific study of deliciousness,”[11] or in other words, an exploration of compatible flavors based upon an examination of molecular structures. For example, caramelized cauliflower shares key volatile molecules with cacao.[12] Might they be compatible in a dish? Sounds risky, doesn’t it? It also sounds intriguing.

Chemist and food enthusiast Martin Lersch leads an online community of flavor geeks who explore such scientific pairings. He posed this pairing in his regular “They Go Really Well Together” challenge. Community members posted their own findings, including recipes they had worked out. But a slab of roasted cauliflower accompanied by a block of gelled chocolate seems a bit austere for Peace Meal Supper Club. We need something that feels more like home as it stretches our boundaries.

Now a creamy caramelized cauliflower soup sounds pretty homey. Garnish it with some onions that have been cooked slowly in a generous measure of cocoa powder. Then provide the real star attraction: take a generous measure of unsweetened cacao, couch it in the funk of an ale-based sourdough starter, and increase the drama with Bing cherries. The result is a bread with a smoky aroma and mellowed bitterness, with overtones of tobacco. It’s worthy of wine-speak. The soup and the bread fit into each other seamlessly, and on my palate I can sense a subtle shift from one to the next. It really is amazing. Soup and bread: looks like home, feels like home, and wow, it actually tastes like home, too. An accepting, progressive, world-changing home.

As we’ll see in the next course, our world does need progressive change. As modern as we are, we still procure our comfort through a very Old World method.

Second Course: Complex relationships and enduring flavors.
Tofu with Pomegranate-Cacao Rub ~ Shaved Fennel ~ Chocolate Stout Reduction

In the post-Columbian miasma, trade flourished and became truly global. Modern history can be viewed as the story of trade, as nations rise and fall based upon their ability to engage in worldwide economics. This is frankly how things operate today, as third world countries are evaluated–by industrialist and imperialist nations–based upon their financial potential.[13] They are encouraged to enter the global markets if the leading nations deem them valuable. These complex relationships have far-reaching impacts, not the least of which extend to third world citizens.

Since 1994, “the world’s poorer countries have been forced to open up their markets to foreign imports, while the rich countries [notably those in Europe and the USA] keep their markets more protected. Many have also been encouraged to maximize their foreign earnings by increasing their exports in order to pay off international debts. Land that was used to grow food for local consumption has been turned over to ‘cash crops’ such as coffee tea, cocoa, and horticultural products. This has led to countries becoming dependent on just a few crops for their foreign income. …Individual farmers…are extremely vulnerable to a drop in commodity prices on the world markets. They do not have any reserves to tide them over a bad patch, are often forced to sell their crop at less than cost price, and lose their livelihoods as a result.”[14]

In 1980, cacao was selling on the international market at 118.6 cents per pound. By 2000, it was selling at 40.23 cents per pound. Today it trades at 73 cents per pound.[15]

It is a simple fact: buyers benefit from a low price, but sellers do not. Another simple fact: the buyers–in this case developed economies–have a disproportionate influence over the selling price. Third world farmers and citizens lose.

This 16th century drawing from Bernardino de Sahagun's history of New Spain depicts Aztec pochteca traders en route. This is the manner in which cacao travelled the trade routes.
This 16th century drawing from Bernardino de Sahagun’s history of New Spain depicts Aztec pochteca traders en route. This is the manner in which cacao traveled the trade routes.

Cacao was traded ‘internationally’ well before Columbus and Cortes. Some findings in New Mexico indicate that cacao was brought in from Mesoamerica in return for turquoise.[16] Large-scale trade also figured into the prevalence of cacao among the Aztecs; it certainly didn’t grow within their natural domain.

While trade will always happen anytime one group wants the product of another group, we are speaking of vastly different scales. Apart from the global aspects, we are also talking about the scale of cacao’s consumption: whereas cacao was used as an elite beverage in pre-Columbian Americas, it is now consumed daily in multiple forms by the average world citizen. In Britain, Germany, and Switzerland, the average person will consume about 24 pounds of chocolate each year. The industry itself is valued at $83 billion per year.[17]

Taking a crop into hyperactivity, as we have done with cacao, coffee, sugar, and other international commodities creates severe imbalances in economies. But while ‘economy’ can be considered an intangible chimera, third world poverty and human rights abuses are extremely real.

We must redefine our relationship with cacao, both as a consumable and as an actor in the lives of others.

Conveying the concept of change in a dish is a challenge in itself, as Hervé This and Pierre Gagnaire explore in their wonderful book, Cooking: The Quintessential Art. My style has always been simple, so playing this hand subtly suits me well. The use of cacao as a savory seasoning is different in its own right. There’s no need to be gauche about it.

Simply stated, I’ve paired cacao with pomegranate in a marinade for tofu. Tofu and cacao don’t meet regularly: the Chinese, originators of tofu, are not big chocolate fans. India and Iran, native homes for pomegranate, are also low consumers of chocolate. Perhaps we can follow their lead, and adopt a more sparing use. It is a powerful flavoring, and a little goes a long way, especially on a neutral substance such as tofu.

After marination, the tofu is baked in a paste composed of cacao, pomegranate, and tamarind. In addition, I’m preparing a reduction sauce using Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout. It is the very embodiment of bitterness, but it will be offset by a splash of pomegranate juice reduction. Served on a bed of shaved fennel, this dish, with its black-on-white color scheme and sweet-and-sour flavors, is the very embodiment of contrasts. Thus is the world of cacao, but the contrasts are not always this palatable.

Third Course: Hands across the waters, indigenous and ancient.
Roasted Winter Squash in Cassava Empanada ~ Jollof Rice ~ Mole Oaxaqueño

This course is about harmony, which is in a way a subset of contrast. While the Swiss are consuming record amounts of chocolate each year, in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and dozens of other tropical countries cacao’s harvesters are subsisting on la comida de los pobres, the food of the poor.

For at the shorter end of that $83B economic stick live the people working in the cacao forests. In a 2012 story, CNN introduces us to one of those workers, whom they call Abdul: “He squats with a gang of a dozen harvesters on an Ivory Coast farm. [He] holds the yellow cocoa pod lengthwise and gives it two quick cracks, snapping it open to reveal milky white cocoa beans. He dumps the beans on a growing pile…Abdul is 10 years old, a three-year veteran of the job. He has never tasted chocolate.”[18]

And he is not alone. As the CNN investigation progressed, they found what many NGOs already knew: that “child labor, trafficking, and slavery are rife in an industry that produces some of the world’s best-known brands.”

It’s a long-standing tradition, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the Americas. Finding the indigenous people to be unwilling slaves, they imported West Africans to work their cacao plantations.[19] Later, cacao trees themselves also crossed the Atlantic, first to islands off the coast of Guinea, then into the African continent itself. European imperialists were then able to utilize forced African labor without the bother of transporting slaves across the Atlantic.[20]

Though we would like to consider ourselves past the practice of forced labor, this is sadly not the case. “UNICEF estimates that nearly a half-million children work on farms across Ivory Coast, which produces nearly 40% of the world’s supply of cocoa. The agency says hundreds of thousands of children, many of them trafficked across borders, are engaged in the worst forms of child labor.”[21]

This photo from Nestle presents how they want you to see their African cacao operations.
How Nestle wants you to see cacao production.

Since 2001, the chocolate industry has garnered over a trillion dollars in profits. Only about .0075% has been invested to improve working conditions for children in West Africa. We shouldn’t even be talking about the working conditions of children, anywhere. We should be past this.

This is reality, however. Please visit the photo essay from which I have taken this picture: http://endslaverynow.org/learn/photos/bitter-chocolate
What standard cacao production really looks like. Please visit the photo essay from which I have taken this picture: http://endslaverynow.org/learn/photos/bitter-chocolate

However, the problem of child slavery is so common in West Africa that Hershey, Nestle, and the US Congress once vowed to combat it. In 2001, eight major chocolate companies, three US Congressmen, several international ambassadors, and others signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol,[22] a non-binding voluntary agreement aimed at ending the “worst forms of child labor.”[23] Thirteen years later, the problems persist. “The issues are systemic,” concludes one researcher.[24]

Unsurprisingly, Fair Trade has become a hot topic for the chocolate industry. While it is far from perfect[25], Fair Trade Certification is a major step forward. It gives us consumers a great deal of influence. I’ve carefully selected the cacao products I’m using for this meal, and I deeply appreciate that they have been carefully produced as well.

There is a long way to go and a lot of meals to prepare. I’m thankful that my carefully directed dollars can help provide those meals. Perhaps they will look something like our Third Course: Roasted Winter Squash in Cassava Empanada, with Jollof Rice and Mole Oaxaqueño.

Cassava, also known as manioc root, is a dominant food among third world nations.
Cassava, also known as manioc root, is a dominant food among third world nations. We know it by yet another name, tapioca.

Cassava is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people.[26] It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. It is the third largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics–the region in which cacao grows. It also makes a wonderfully malleable dough, which in this course softly encloses roasted butternut squash. Termed ’empanada’ in Spanish, the form is almost universal.

Jollof rice is closely associated with the Wolof tribes of Senegal, but has spread throughout other West African countries. It is very similar to the pilaf of Asia Minor and some Spanish-influenced dishes of the Americas, with seasoned rice being sauteed briefly before it is simmered in stock. For seasoning, I’m using a traditional West African blend called tsire: roasted ground peanuts, ground chile, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. These warm spices are perfect complements for the bitterness of cacao; in fact, most of them have been mixed into cacao beverages for centuries.

Chile and cacao have a long history in the sauce we’re highlighting, Mole Oaxaqueño. It is not as ancient as the Aztecs, for they never considered using cacao in a sauce or other cooked form. Rumors abound as to the origin of sauces using chocolate, but the most likely story centers upon 17th-century Catholic nuns in Puebla, Mexico, who anxiously improvised the sauce to serve to their visiting bishop.[27] This makes for a wonderfully cinematic scene, a more peaceful blending of the New World with the Old, in a dish that distills a moment in time. My Mole Oaxaqueño is inspired by two very different Oaxacan chefs, Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo and Nora Andrea Valencia of Casa de mis Recuerdos.

Admittedly the risks in this course are minimal. That is by design, as I was focused on cross-cultural yet universal sustenance of the people on the ground level. The food is always much better among the poor, and I say this respectfully without any irony. Their food is their consolation, so it is imbued with richness and passion as counter-balance to the troubles that reappear once dinner is done.

I have subtitled this course “Hands across the waters, indigenous and ancient.” The words are ambiguous: the hands could be those of oppression or of liberation. Which hands are ours?

A good time to answer that question is when you are buying chocolate or another cacao product. Are you picking up items with a Fair Trade label? Did your fingers do a little googling before you went shopping? Please see the websites listed below for help in choosing your chocolates.

Final Course: Brooklyn tryst with a twist.
Chocolate Egg Cream ~ Flourless Chocolate Torte

The risks return in the closing course, as I have to upstage every use of cacao in the preceding courses. Dessert is chocolate’s home turf, so subtlety is no longer on the program. Intensity takes its place.

You scream, I steam, we all want Egg Cream.
You scream, I steam, we all want Egg Cream.

First, the easy part: Brooklyn’s unofficial national beverage, the Chocolate Egg Cream. It contains no egg, and no cream. And not just because Peace Meal Supper Club is an all-vegan venue. These two ingredients have been a part of the drink only in name, and the definitive explanation for the misnomer is debatable.[28]

It seems fitting to include a modern chocolate beverage to bookend with the most ancient one. They are worlds apart. The older one was made from ground cacao, vanilla, and chiles, vigorously mixed with water. The modern one comprises, in the words of Lou Reed, “Some U-Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk. Stir it up into a heady fro’–tasted just like silk.” The former beverage was ceremoniously poured from vessel to vessel to produce foam; the latter is simply stirred by a seltzer-wielding jerk.[29] We have just traversed the path from sacred to profane, it seems.

In such a journey, we find the distillation of not only pop culture, but our culture in general. While the mainstreaming of chocolate has its egalitarian victories, it has come at a tremendous price, where even human life is not deemed worthy of our consideration. Pondering the state of third world labor runs counter to convenience. There is a message in there somewhere if we will take the time to read it.

Our chocolate egg cream–which in deference to Mr. Reed is made with my own chocolate syrup and milk of a non-dairy source–is accompanied by a flourless chocolate torte, containing some degree of risk: black beans form its foundation. Their rich texture and mild flavor provide the perfect canvas for a mighty brushstroke of cacao. The result is a luxuriously smooth dessert that one could live on quite happily.

It wouldn’t be complete without a glossy covering, which I’m providing in the form of dark chocolate ganache. To make the dessert scream “chocolate!” a little louder, I’ve topped the ganache with buttercream flourishes composed of cacao butter. It’s another white-on-black contrast, reminding us that change is overdue.

It is true: chocolate is still the prerogative of the privileged classes. Those who labor in its production exist outside that privilege–and have for millennia. The world has changed for us, but not for them.

My hope is that my creative use of cacao will stimulate creative discussion regarding our rendezvous with progress. It should not be a surprise that our every action, every day, occurs at a crossroad of change. We either embrace it through enlightened choices, or we reject it by acting according to a legacy of status quo. It is our responsibility and privilege–I should say it is the responsibility of our privilege–to make great changes in the way the world operates.

Several organizations exist for the sole purpose of helping us make these changes.

The Food Empowerment Project “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. We encourage choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, the unavailability of healthy foods in communities of color and low-income areas, and the importance of not purchasing chocolate that comes from the worst forms of child labor.” http://www.foodispower.org/

Fair World Project: “an independent campaign of the Organic Consumers Association which seeks to protect the use of the term “fair trade” in the marketplace, expand markets for authentic fair trade, educate consumers about key issues in trade and agriculture, advocate for policies leading to a just economy, and facilitate collaborative relationships to create true system change.” http://fairworldproject.org/about/introduction/

CNN Freedom Project: “CNN is joining the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery, amplifying the voices of the victims, highlighting success stories and helping unravel the complicated tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life.” http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/

End Slavery Now “launched in 2009 with four features: an action database,  an organization directory, learning resources and a store. The project’s founder, Lauren Taylor, envisioned a digital space that could empower every person willing to help end modern slavery and human trafficking.  Along with providing tools, information and opportunities to everyday abolitionists, Taylor also wanted to help antislavery organizations increase their efficiency.” http://endslaverynow.org/

Something We All Can Do Today:
The Food Empowerment Project maintains a list of fair, slavery-free, environmentally-conscious chocolate manufacturers. Our purchases can easily be in line with those fighting for positive worldwide change. Their list is even available as a phone app. http://www.foodispower.org/chocolate-list/

Further Reading and Viewing:

Advocacy and Information:
End Slavery Now: http://endslaverynow.org/learn/photos/bitter-chocolate

The CNN Freedom Project: http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/

Slavery, a Global Investigation (documentary): http://truevisiontv.com/films/details/90/slavery-a-global-investigation

Immaculata High School, Somerville, NJ:  “The students and faculty of Immaculata High School are very concerned about the problem of child slave labor. Each year, the senior U.S. History II Honors class, taught by Miss Joann Fantina, publishes numerous newsletters throughout the year covering many aspects of child slave labor. A new group of students takes over the project each year as the previous class graduates. It is a common interest among the students and is continued enthusiastically year after year.” http://ihscslnews.org/

Industry Voices, for the sake of contrast:

Culture and History:
An Act of Resistance,” an episode of The Perennial Plate online documentary series

Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe, NM

The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, 2013


[1] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition (Thames & Hudson, 2013), 232.

[2] Sophie D. Coe, “Mole,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Second Edition, ed. Alan Davidson (University of Oxford Press, 2006), 513.

[3] Coe and Coe, 215.

[4] I am being a bit brief here. Fry & Sons based their experiments on the earlier advancements of Coenraad Johannes Van Houten. Following Fry & Sons were the Cadburys, Nestles, and Hersheys. See Coe and Coe, 234-253.

[5] As did the Maya before him and Cortes after him. Coe and Coe, 57, 176.

[6] Coe and Coe, 22.

[7] Coe and Coe, 84.

[8] “Rhythm and Risk in Cuisine: Chef Pierre Gagnaire.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.starchefs.com/cook/features/chef-pierre-gagnaire.

[9] “How to use chocolate in savory dishes.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.bonappetit.com/people/chefs/article/how-to-use-chocolate-in-savory-dishes.

[10] Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 2004), 702.

[11] “About Khymos.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://blog.khymos.org/about/

[12] “Flavor Pairing.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://blog.khymos.org/molecular-gastronomy/flavor-pairing/

[13] A rather unsettling portrait of this is the ProSAVANA Project in Mozambique. It is discussed in the following article from The Guardian, accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jan/01/mozambique-small-farmers-fear-brazilian-style-agriculture.

See also http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4703-leaked-prosavana-master-plan-confirms-worst-fears. The project’s website is http://www.prosavana.com/index.php.

[14] Andy Jones, “Developing Trade,” in The Penguin Atlas of Food, ed. Erik Millstone, et al. (Penguin Books, 2003), 72

[15] http://www.icco.org/statistics/cocoa-prices/daily-prices.html, accessed February 23, 2015.

[16] “Prehistoric Americans Traded Chocolate for Turquoise?” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110329-chocolate-turquoise-trade-prehistoric-peoples-archaeology/. Also, Coe and Coe, 55.

[17] “Who Consumes the Most Chocolate?” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/17/who-consumes-the-most-chocolate/

[18] “Child Slavery and Chocolate: All Too Easy to Find.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/

[19] Coe and Coe, 192.

[20] Coe and Coe, 196.

[21] “Child Slavery and Chocolate: All Too Easy to Find.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/

[22] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harkin%E2%80%93Engel_Protocol#Protocol_and_2001_Joint_Statement

[23] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worst_Forms_of_Child_Labour_Convention#Predefined_worst_forms_of_child_labour

[24] “The human cost of chocolate.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/16/chocolate-explainer/

[25] ” Fair Trade USA Undermines Fair Trade Principles and Producers to Accommodate Products Such as Hershey’s “Greenwashed” Chocolate.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://fairworldproject.org/press-releases/ftusa-undermines-ft/

[26] “Cassava.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassava#cite_note-5

[27] Coe and Coe, 212-214.

[28] Jennifer Schiff Berg, “Egg Cream,” in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. Andrew F. Smith (University of Oxford Press, 2007), 204-205.

[29] I am not being rude here. For those who do not know, people who operated soda fountains were often called ‘soda jerks.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soda_jerk