Confessions of a Reluctant (Food?) Writer
Someone asked me recently to name some things that I love. It came after a discussion about what were our pet peeves, and we were pitching positive. My answer? Well, I don’t remember it entirely, but I think it was a little bit lame. I think I was overwhelmed at having such a lovely conversation to begin with. I think I said I love sunlight and my kids, and sharp knives, and bacteria, and pure souls, and Giant Sand radio on Pandora, or something. And then he said: mossy logs and lichen, and I was like YES! That! That too! I love that too. Then, I went on with my days and kept looking on things I love, and thinking back to how my answers didn’t hold enough. Until I discovered that no answer would hold enough. Ever. There is too much.
I have been accused and I have been rewarded for being an extreme person. A passionate person. “When it’s good it’s great, and when it’s bad, it sucks.” That’s me, I guess. I could pull around guilt about it, or not. I could touch a rock in the earth and be like, that rock feels warm. Or I could be like—damn. This rock is a testament to time. And I could spend a few fleeting moments with a warm rock in my hand, thinking on geologic time, and judging from the components of the rock that it is a mere fragment of what came before it, in water, in weight, and in wind. And I could think of sand, its millions of iterations at the edges of all the world, left there in minute pieces because it is the thing that lasts.
I’m writing another food book this winter. I’m excited. I can get my hands on projects and I can make beauty and food. I can wonder about things and worry about things, and write it all down. I’m so lucky. This is a thing I love: how lucky I am. Add it to the mossy logs and to the harsh, useful edges. And I love that because I am lucky it means I have a responsibility to be useful. This is what I tell my children, at least. So that causes this place in me to itch. To ask: What is most useful for me, and of me?
I have been traveling all over the country, talking to people about food. It is fascinating, inspiring, challenging, intimidating, rewarding, exhausting, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have come across a few things about myself, and a few things about the world that I am having an increasingly difficult time expressing, just in metaphors about salt, or anecdotes about pastry-rich patience. I’m currently manifesting a way to address all the things behind, underneath, and attached to my love for food. The real and the raw. The experience. The wholeness.
I came into food as a writing major in college, reading literature of the Restoration and rolling my eyes. I went out on a volunteer job to a local school garden, and felt the hard and unrewarding chink of my shovel against red clay. But after a season of cover cropping and rich organic amending, I ended that semester with a shovel deep in black earth, the same black earth that was all-day lining my nostrils and darkening my knees. And I had a sense of what was real. I said out loud: Anything can be healed.
What I wanted to write about was behind the thing of writing. It was the realness of living and of life. And to me, right then, that was food. The warm rock and the rich soil. The dizzying patterns of tendrils and florets, blights and bugs. The art of creating, and the art of connecting. That food was something everyone needed and couldn’t get. That there was a product upon which we could latch our courage and our uncertainty, our desire for change and our doubt that it was possible. And so for fifteen years I have dug dark soil and all the treasures it has taught me: slowness, loss, quiet, patience, prayer, disappointment, honor, carrots, forgiveness, life, rot, taxes, carbon, worms, kindness, failure, laughter…and so much more, including the fact and the foundation that all of this is a cycle. All of it. All of the good and all of the bad. And I love it all. And as I wrote opinion pieces about justice and land, and poetry about feelings, I couldn’t connect it. But I knew, and I know that it is connected. That it has been about so much more than food the whole time.
I’m starting to work more on that connection, and less on recipes. For example, two weeks ago, I was giving a talk I have been giving for about four months now. I call it The Big Food Talk, for lack of a better name. In this talk, we talk about activism and we talk about food. We talk about headcheese and budgeting and Buddhism and Cliven Bundy. I talk about milk, and I talk about despair. I call happiness a pie. I talk about everything. The goal of the talk, really, is to move mountains in the minds and hearts of people everywhere. From people who know very little about food to people who have spent their lives constantly debiting their bank accounts, back muscles, and their own souls for a better world. The talk is about giving them tools to deal with broken economies and khaki soils, deficits of rain and failing hearts. And two weeks ago, as I discussed methods for dealing with this reality while holding hope for the future, a sweet farmer in the front row just began to cry.
I looked down from the stage and there she was, fully open and fully feeling her pain for her sheep, for her family, her community, her world. Her partner was sitting there, also tearing up. Simultaneously, as that was happening, I thought of the people of Charlotte, North Carolina near my home, who were some of them out in the streets with their anger and their hope, throwing back concussion grenades. And I didn’t know how to connect it, though I knew, and I know that it is connected. And so, I just sort of stopped, dumbfounded, because it was so difficult for me to simultaneously honor this pain she felt, and also be like “See? Do y’all see this, this is to be seen and softened, but this is also to be exalted.” We did all that the best we could, concluding that this is not, will not be, an efficient revolution. And we asked-- what has happened to care for self? How do you keep your hope whole so you can do your important work? What is most useful for us, and of us? What bearing does the anxiety of the waterlogged leaf have on my own anxiety? How does outward injustice to the many cause the persistent, hidden aching of the few? The answers are everywhere, and there aren’t any recipes calling for their combination. But now is the time to do it.
Earlier this week, we tried to watch the debates, but we ended up turning them off. Aside from the very nothingness of what was actually being said, I was having a hard time with the fact that these people are real people, and that the show was a real show, at the same time as it was all an illusion. A mockery to distract us from what is actually real. A sideshow to make you put down the warm rock. I can’t put down the rock, folks. I can’t do it, and I can’t just write about food.
Some people who know me know that I have recently emerged from a swallowing sadness in my personal life that could have led to collapse, if not for…what? I don’t know. Some memory of black earth, I think. Some smell of baking bread, some moment of love or hope or something led to a choice that the only option was thriving. The option is to be useful. And so I am a product of change, myself. If anything can be healed, dammit, I can be too. I can sit in the muck of a horrible truth and know that it is tick on the cycle. That there is a mirror, or quartz to come from this. Mary Oliver said, “I know several lives worth living.” And so what do I love? Too much. I have spent all this healing time asking for love and for hope again, and I look out now and see that the world has given me so much to love. So many places where that love and purpose are needed. I can only commit to loving it all without fear. I can only commit to hope and to usefulness. I would be a fool to do anything else at this point, considering what I know.
My most recent activism is the crafting of a whole woman, who takes no shield and no sword into the world, just this commitment to thrive. A warm rock in my pocket. And what is next? What is next is an acknowledgement that the whole self is just the beginning of the game. The bones under it all. That one must always ask—what is the internal problem and what is the external problem? And, similarly, you cannot patch the skin if the bones aren’t under it. It is all connected. Culture, land, heart, mind. How does the pain of hate crimes in Orlando, the presidential farce, the whitening and disappearing soil, the dearth of water, inform my own despair? What is joy? What is healing? How do I choose what is real? How do I help others choose what is real? If I can show you the revolution of cutting your own meat or curing your own sausage, can I show you the value of your own breakdown and repair? If I can show you the activism of fermenting leaves or valuing farmers, can I show you the preservation and value of yourself?
Sometimes, mostly at night or in early morning, I sing out to the land and the land sings back to me, and I think I could quit everything and sit under a tree and let soft hooves rain all around me. That would be so real. But I’m not sure that is the most useful thing left in me. What’s there in me is to bring my whole self to making a more just world. It won’t happen in my lifetime. That is not even possible. But that is what I want to write about, and think about, and talk about. Wendell Berry said, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the next best thing, the best thing we can do anyway. The thing that creates an economy of joy and sorrow. The living you do when no one is watching, in spite of all the odds. The nuts and bolts of how we can create the greatest amount of beauty and life in the greatest way. And if it is good barbeque, then give it to me bone in, skin on. Where bones are the soul of the matter, and the skin is the world outside, and the meat is all the hell and holy you tried to make of it.