I have a story to tell about food. A Woman (nearly a Child) from Sierra Leone moves from country to country on her own calloused feet, fleeing war, living in refugee camps, eating white rice and little else, watching others like her die from malnutrition because they lacked protein. (In Africa, in any poor land, meat equals wealth and health.) With her wits, a tiny square of soil and seeds from the United Nations, she ekes out a little better living than her neighbors, trading and selling vegetables to other refugees. After years of this, somehow, (a miracle? a bribe?) she wins the refugee lottery and is transported to the United States -- to Fargo, North Dakota. The landscape change alone overwhelms her. The cold is like the heat of Africa turned upside down -- it burns. Although her American house is roomy and warm, she doesn't know how to use the appliances. There were no refrigerators in her village and no electric stoves. When she was eight and living on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, her auntie built a smoky fire on the beach and began to teach her how to salt, smoke and dry meat -- mostly fish -- so it wouldn't spoil. Because everything preserved was dried and water itself was a precious food, the daily fare was soup. Her mother made as many varieties of soup as there are Midwestern hot dishes.
It's lunchtime. I make a rainbow salad of baby romaine leaves, smoked dulse, a dark red sea vegetable loaded with iodine and minerals, carrots and sweet grape tomatoes, along with a protein smoothie of blueberries and yogurt, and reheat a cup of creamy squash soup in the microwave. All organic, naturally. Is there any food as comforting and perfect as soup? It is ubiquitous -- go anywhere on the planet and you will find soup. It may contain unusual ingredients, but it is immediately recognizable as a familiar food. I am reminded of my first bowl of Tom Ka Guy, a sweet and spicy Thai soup made with coconut milk, lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves, those bright green slivers from the wild lime tree that give Thai food one of its unique flavors. Nothing was familiar but it was clearly soup and therefore comforting and safe.
As I crunch and sip, trying to learn to go slowly and not read while I eat, I find myself thinking: How much did this meal really cost? Who picked these luscious vegetables, harvested the dulse, milked the Holsteins? Though I feel grateful for the gift of food, my thanks tends to be to an unseen force who I imagine manages the big picture of my life the way I managed the lives of my children -- making sure the needs I could perceive were met. The poet Dylan Thomas called it "the force that drives the green fuse through the flower," an image I've always loved. Yet shouldn't my thanks be instead addressed to the farm laborers who did the hot and dirty work of harvesting my lunch? Later, I snack on filberts and realize that I've never wondered where they come from or when they ripen. Are there hazelnut orchards?
Thinking about food can lead to interesting places (in addition to the refrigerator). Food evokes an emotional response, connected to a need, our need for sustenance, comfort, nurturing -- as infants, being fed satisfies basic needs in addition to hunger, especially as it most often involves being held and touched and seen as well as fed. Close your eyes. Can you visualize yourself as an infant -- bathed and swaddled in pastel receiving blankets, gazing up into a face that fills your sky and radiates love as ambrosia flows into your mouth and tummy, held securely, melting with warmth, the twining rhythms of a steady heartbeat in one ear and a gentle voice murmuring lavish compliments in the other. How utterly unsurprising that food and happiness are inextricable for so many -- whether you were given that deep connection with food and love or yearned for it.
As kids we ate dirt -- beans and carrots fresh from the garden, just brushed them off or rinsed with the hose. I couldn't understand my mother's obsession with having every speck of dirt scrubbed off the potatoes or her reluctance to work in the garden along with Dad and us kids. Mother hated dirt. The intensity of her campaign to eradicate dirt made me a good housekeeper, but the lessons were harsh, nothing was ever clean enough, good enough. It's a familiar story. I've wondered how it connects to being the child of Norwegian immigrants -- new to this country in the 1890s leaving behind the mountains and abundant waters of Norway for the dry prairie with its winds full of soil and a house made of sod. No refrigerator there either, no electricity, no plumbing for a long, long time -- until the youngest of their nine children (my mother and her baby brother) were in school. They raised their meat (and gave them names like Bossie and Ruthie), hunted eggs every blessed day, hauled endless pails of water to keep the garden alive, shot skunks and gophers, killed snakes with a garden hoe, hid out from chores in shelterbelts and haymows. The meat -- that precious protein -- was salted and canned, smoked and dried. The grain, not rice, but wheat, oats, and barley, was stored and the battle against rodents was as unremitting as work and weather.
As an adult I am again eating dirt -- only this dirt comes in a jar, sealed for my protection. It is Bentonite, marketed as "living clay," it is said to provide those hard to find trace minerals, to absorb heavy metals and generally detoxify the highly-stressed modern digestive system. Besides the clay, I take a whole regimen of nutraceuticals aimed at changing my cell function from that of a 1959 Edsel to a 2007 Prius. At least the side effects feel natural. The conventional alternative was surgery and taking pharmaceuticals with nasty side effects for the rest of my life. In spite of my rather jaded view of Western medicine it is reassuring to know if better health through healthy living fails me, the man with the scalpel will still be there.
I am a volunteer for Hospice, which means I sit with people who are actively transitioning (dying), mostly at nursing homes. It's July. I am sitting with a woman who will die in the next day or two. There is an extension service calendar from North Dakota State University pinned to one side of yellow wallpaper that is otherwise covered with photos and drawings of a beautiful young woman and her handsome, iron-faced soldier. It is this woman, once a war bride and a "Rosie the Riveter." A 40s pinup girl with luxurious curly hair and slightly hooked nose. Is she Spanish? Indian? Romanian? Italian? She remains lovely in her illness and old age, finely featured and her skin is smooth.
The NDSU calendar is small, 10x8, with white plastic binding and in the lower left corner is the July Food Safety Tip: "Throw away picnic leftovers unless they're kept at safe temperatures. Food left out for more than two hours may contain harmful bacteria that could cause food-borne illness." A "Stretch Your Food $$$" reminder to "choose meats carefully and to pick lean cuts for health and economy" spins me back to food, to immigrants, to thinking about our cultural relationships with food. It reminds me of Ritual Argument, a communications theory that explains how saying the same things over and over again helps a group figure out and confirm what it believes.
What do we believe we know about food -- which we think is our unique knowledge -- and what are our coping skills when that knowledge is challenged? For example, Europeans think the U.S. obsession with health (read food) is cracked -- especially our mandatory six to eight glasses of water per day. Paying outrageous prices for refiltered tap water because we think it is somehow more pure (read healthier). Pure foods are healthier. This assumption is fueling a booming organic food industry and what was once the "lunatic fringe" is rapidly becoming mainstream. What do we know about our food? Kids in cities (even, dare I say, Fargo or Bismarck) do not connect the pristinely wrapped meat on the groceries' shelves with the muddy haunch of a living cow. They don't connect a silver-wrapped granola bar with their uncle's soybean crop or chocolate with the diminishing rain forest.
In places where clean water is a precious commodity, rather than an assumed convenience, water doesn't come through a stainless steel tap via a chemical treatment plant. Before coming to the United States, the woman who started my story ended up in Ghana in a refugee camp, where water came directly from a stream and the nearby swamp. Because boiling takes precious fuel, the water is only purified when it is used to make soup. Can you see the brilliance of this adaptation? Soup not only purifies the water, it reconstitutes dehydrated food; put it on a fire and walk away -- no need to squat beside a hot fire in equatorial temperatures.
While in the last camp, our heroine is reunited with the children she lost during the war. They are not dead. They come with her to Fargo. They like it here. Now, she buys bread at Kmart and freezes it; makes four kinds of soup on Saturday and freezes it; picks up enough goat meat at the African market to last three weeks and her rice, dried fish and palm oil at the Asian Food Market. Western grocery stores are for milk, juice and eggs but she avoids the big box stores as much as possible because she feels envy at their superabundance and longs for things she cannot afford. She prefers to be content with what she now has, in contrast to life in the camps. Indoor plumbing is a constant joy.
My mother made a counted cross-stitch sampler of an outhouse for her tiny peach bathroom: "On a cold dark night, in a sleepy haze, be glad these ain't the good old days." She grew up with outhouses -- a hole in the ground, recycled paper and my Norwegian grandmother's constant admonitions to wash her hands. My mother's outhouse is only 65 years in her past. She can still recall the grain of the wood, her fear of skunks and the dark, the summer smell. Smell is a critical test for hygiene, for safe food, for safe air and water. I wonder if living with perfume, odor eaters, exhaust, and refrigeration dulls that sense in we city dwellers. My house is next to a small grove of trees -- those almighty oxygen makers -- I often step outside in the morning to enjoy the living air. Yet, when I was at a friend's country home, closely surrounded by corn fields and shelterbelts at the peak of summer ripeness, the green smell was intoxicating, with a hundred times the aliveness of my back yard. It was air you could eat. It was oxygen soup.
Norwegians have a cultural reputation for caring about cleanliness. This may explain why I took so many home economics courses (that and the fact that girls in the 1960s couldn't take woodshop, at least not in my school). We cannot leave our roots, they travel with us wherever we are blown. Julie Garden-Robinson is Norwegian, locally grown in Minnesota and educated right here, at NDSU, where she works as an associate professor and food and nutrition specialist with the extension service. Her passion for food and cleanliness led her to instigate a project that will help new Americans learn Western food safety practices. With nearly $600,000 from the USDA, a three-year time frame, and a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team, the idea is to be a model for food safety education, including creating materials in formats that are interactive, multi-lingual, and Web-based, potentially making the information available world wide. The project is building on all of Garden-Robinson's past experiences teaching food safety and if it is not yet the culmination of a career, it certainly gleans the best practices. One of the beauties of the extension service is the simplicity that it brings to communicating about food safety. Four words to disseminate decades of research science among an entire population: Clean, separate, cook, chill.
While refugees and other New Americans have food skills within the context of their own cultures, those skills don't always translate to Western practices. How do you connect with these New Americans, many of whom end up working in commercial kitchens and other food-handling environments in their first days of employment?
Garden-Robinson's partner in this unique project is Kathleen Slobin, a sociologist with lots of experience in Africa. She interviews New Americans -- drawing from them the stories of their exile, the precious memories of home; determines what information the researchers can use in developing their educational strategies. It is rare to be asked for these memories -- what did you eat, how was it obtained and prepared, did your family members have individual roles to play? Among the New Americans participating in the study there is eagerness to tell these stories to a willing listener; eagerness to shed light where there is a tendency to assume that the Western way is the best way -- that those lacking in the luxuries of material civilization somehow also lack the skills to protect themselves. At some level, everyone knows that food can easily become poison to our fragile human bodies -- if it is old, unclean, contaminated it becomes the pathway to disease and death rather than to health and life. We saw it on the news when the system that should have supported the victims of Hurricane Katrina broke down and thousands were crowded into space that lacked the food, water, and sanitation that we take for granted every single day.
In North Dakota, in winter, we worry sometimes about our dependence on electricity and envy people with fireplaces and wood stoves. We stock up when big storms are forecast and wish we'd bought that generator when it was on close-out. (Though it always seems so expensive once spring arrives and we've survived another cold season.) We don't like to remember that we, too, are fragile and vulnerable in the face of nature or war.
Slobin has lived among many cultures, observing, engaging, and contemplating what she experiences. She pays attention to tiny details about daily life, carefully mapping them, because through the details she can discover common themes and threads that reveal a larger pattern. She's working from theories laid down by other social scientists and her own knowledge and experience. From her analysis of the interviews she unfolds the picture of what refugees and New Americans know and need to know about food. Her work is like a cloth weaver. In weaving the pattern is called a cartoon. The loom is strung with strong threads to make the warp -- the underlying structure on which the picture can be woven. This is a good metaphor for social science, as it seeks to make whole cloth out of many complex threads of information. Slobin finds her warp threads, the underlying structure of her analysis, in the writings of Mary Douglas, an anthropologist who said our ideas about dirt (by which she meant any uncleanliness, pollution, or contamination) make up a symbol system that helps all humans organize their environment. One of the valuable things about the Douglas theory is that it doesn't hinge on religion or moral values, which can get in the way when trying to draw findings from a diverse group. Douglas says dirt is a problem of order and we are all subject to its rules. Slobin applies Douglas' ideas in analyzing the interviews in part because people apply deeply held ideas about dirt not only to hygiene and food but also to how we uphold social rules, such as the taboos against public drunkenness or the regulations governing an entire battalion of agencies that oversee food handling in the United States.
Douglas said that our busy efforts to scrub and clean are a way to focus and control experience and not mainly to avoid disease. Instead, she said, "We are separating, placing boundaries, making visible statements about the home that we are intending to create out of the material house." Somehow this all rolls together in me: order and the loss of order, my Mom now aging and losing her battle with dirt and disorder; a refugee, now an American, and her appreciation for a refrigerator; my own practice of gratitude and simultaneous awareness of how far I am removed from my own food. Packaging gives us the illusion (and some assurance) of purity. It says "this food can be safely consumed." Mass production creates a need for monitoring and a system of recourse for damaged or dangerous food. We are grateful for these protections. But now so many nutritionists and diets tell us to eat what is locally grown -- soonest from garden to table is richest and most healthful. These are the themes of all Garden-Robinson's food safety materials: Clean, separate, cook, chill. What is alive in you? Why the very foods you eat.
Nature is harsh. We are here on sufferance. We have the bounty of this garden but only if we tend it. We have our ways -- Nigerian and Kurd, Vietnamese and Norwegian. We have our unique foods and the rituals of our cultures. What we have in common are feelings and needs -- fear and anger at war and displacement, starvation and wanton death; confidence and contentment at shelves stocked for the coming winter; needs for safety, for order, for connection. These needs are pan-human. They transcend greed and politics. They are soup.