Tag Archives: art

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 #16: Unbound

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

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

The menu will focus on four women in particular:

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

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

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

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

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

Course 2:
Tom Kha ~ Lemongrass-Smoked Tofu

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

Course 4:
Lemon Cheesecake ~ Raspberry Coulis ~ Brownie Crumble

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

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

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

Peace Meal Supper Club: 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 #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

“Kind:” Extraordinary work from poet Gretchen Primack

Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack
Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack

Certain things are ineffable. There are moments when we cannot dig deep enough into our storehouse of words and grasp the proper one. We cannot attach enough inflection. We are unable to swaddle our message in sufficient emotion. Our attempts at expression clatter out of our mouths like Mason jars down a basement stairway.

And then there is Gretchen Primack.

In her present poetry collection, Kind, she tackles not only the things that are difficult for humans to express, but also those things that our fellow beings cannot express: the two-way horror of a killing floor; the nightmare of workers in a slaughter factory; the despair of a mother whose young are repeatedly taken from her: her children’s fate and hers are one and the same: to feed the appetites of another species, systematically, facelessly, in tangible daily scenarios that confound comprehension. Is this cruelty truly reality?

But she sees not only cruelty. As the title suggests, she sees quick visions of kindness. Her husband, working against fate and expected outcomes, tries to save two orphaned fledglings. He is unsuccessful, of course, as we all would be. But he succeeds in portraying the valiant kindness that we all must have, fighting against all expectations and naysayers and critics, pursuing that which we genetically know is right. Isn’t it what every sane, compassionate, kind individual should do?

We should all be thus, not letting anticipated outcomes limit our actions. We should be passionately, obstinately, vehemently kind, in matters simple and complex.

But her kindness doesn’t end with her engaging spin on a common homestead tale. She extends it to her canine companion, who, being a dog, must be a dog. Upon encountering the lifeless body of a fallen fawn, Gretchen allows her friend to follow her nature; Gretchen herself will continue up the trail alone. It is a visceral and beautiful moment when most of us would waver. But her kindness is vast, varied, and wise.

Scribing the continuous chain from holocaust to circus to sable to egg to human privilege, her insistence is also vast. These images, these actions, these feelings, this consciousness—they are all the same. Read her entry entitled “Chain;” then read Rilke’s “The Panther;” then read Neruda’s “Ode to the Black Panther.” How many voices are in this chorus? And why do we still hear disharmonious tones?

Graceful being that she is, Gretchen also shares bits of joy with us: her garden, wild berries, heroic roosters, the fleeting—if tainted—happiness found in a picnic. Weighing the percentages of joy’s presence, we have much work to do. Her deftly demanding poems show us that too much shared and sacred life is left in the balance. With a poet’s grace she takes leave, encouraging us to cipher the equations and calculate our responses.

Crafting Non-attachment

The restaurant business is largely about ego. As a venue or chef builds an identity, egos become inordinately inflated. The maintenance of an ego requires the subjection of other egos. Subjection can be voluntary, or it can be coerced. Voluntary subjection often involves admiration and fawning. Coerced subjection is an uneasy thing, always ripe for rebellion.

Taking the position of Executive Chef requires that one have highly developed skills of coercion, for admiration comes in small numbers. One must be ready to squash any person, or group of persons, who wish to overthrow the regime. There are plenty of other egos on the rise.

I simply don’t have the interest in such matters. The time dedicated to cultivating an ego is better spent marveling at how things work: I mix my doughs. I let them rise as they will. I bake them. I let them go.

The ‘letting go’ part actually happens during the entire process. I bring together the elements. They work together as though I am not present. They develop towards their natural outcome. I am their servant more than their master. I can manipulate fermentation, but I certainly don’t own it.

As they work, I acknowledge that it is not me doing the work. It’s the yeast. The wheat. The water. The salt.

A craftsman will know just when and precisely how to interfere with working elements. And more importantly, a craftsman will know when not to interfere. Music works without a single person playing a guitar. Plants grow when we get out of their way—and they have shown that if we interfere too much, they will cease to nourish us.

Pride of craftsmanship is not equivalent to arrogance. Arrogance must speak loudly, of its own volition, about its own attributes. A craftsman can remain silent and let his work speak. This is how I wish to direct my energy. There is much more grace in it. It is a worthy goal to pursue: the heart of poetry, the core of craft, the essence of artisanship. It is the art of non-attachment.

Edible Craft

My donning of the bread-baker’s apron was not just a clever escape from an increasingly unethical predicament. More than that, it was a return to simplicity, to usefulness, to deeper and more satisfying meaning.

Bulgur Oat Loaves.
Bulgur Oat Loaves.

One of the reasons I changed careers a decade ago–from overpaid hi-tech exec to wage-earning food worker—was because I wanted to have a trade that I could take anywhere and perform at any time. To do something useful, something beneficial and immediate.  To have the option of moving off to some small town somewhere and just making food. The art of cooking is the most useful of arts, the most beneficial of crafts, and is certainly immediate in its application. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s gotta eat.”

Working now as a bread baker, I find myself even more connected to craft. It’s one of the oldest of the culinary arts, with a legacy of sustenance that almost predates history. And yet, with all of its longevity, it hasn’t become obsolete or passé. It is as vital to our enjoyment—if not to our sustenance—as it has always been. Its current renaissance as popular craft, with so many small-batch bakeries popping up and everyone talking about “artisan bread,” illuminates a core characteristic of bread baking: it is still an art form of challenging mastery.

The elements of flour, water, salt, and yeast each possess their own inertia, and will do what they are going to do. As a bread baker, my job is to work in concert with their impulses, to act or react at the proper time for developing the best flavor and texture for the bread. It’s a well-scripted art and an improvisational art simultaneously. I accept that I will always be a neophyte.

A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads
A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads

While I work to achieve a base level of competence, however, the pieces I make are still useful. They don’t pile up like so many unfinished canvasses or studio tapes. I don’t have incomplete projects lying around, or lopsided vases or an archive of poorly-lit negatives. What I have is still useful and sustaining. My test pieces, however unhappy I am with them, are still enjoyable with a spread of jam or tapenade.

Most of all, my hands are busy with honest business. I make my pieces with pride and identity, knowing that they will be enjoyed. The ones I make next week will be enjoyed even more. Upon each is the indelible print of my hands.

Beyond fulfilling the need for nutritional sustenance, bread supplies a greater assemblage of nutrients for an artist: anticipation for the outcome, desire for ongoing exploration, the promise of long-term mastery, and active learning for a lifetime. Everyone needs a good slice of that for dinner.