La Vida Locavore - February 25, 2011
Interview with Joan Dye Gussow
Joan Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, has recently published a new book, Growing, Older, and she was kind enough to agree to an interview. I'd love to call Gussow "the first locavore," but of course that is silly. Humans were all locavores until very recently. Maybe we can call her the first modern urban locavore? Back in 1969, when she got started, no doubt there were still rural families who grew their food. But not in New York City, where Gussow worked, and probably not in the New York suburbs where she lived either.
Her idea of eating locally was motivated by ideals and environmental and social concerns, not motivated by necessity. Once she started calling for people to eat local, at the time nobody thought it was possible. So she called their bluff and actually did it by growing all of the fruits and vegetables she and her family ate all year, and doing so on a rather small amount of land.
Her books remind me of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a bit, although This Organic Life was written first so maybe my comparison is backwards. Both of Gussow's books are excellent. The new one, Growing, Older, began by making me cry my eyes out as I read about the death of Gussow's husband, and as the book went on, there were no more tears, but the book was moving, profound, and, in parts, laugh out loud funny. It's wonderful to read such a candid book written by a fellow ethical eater who struggles with some of the same issues that I do and perhaps you do too. Gussow is just so human and it is really easy to see yourself in her words as you read her books.
Jill Richardson :: My Interview with Joan Gussow I'd like to post our interview one question at a time, because her answers are quite long and wonderful. Here's the first.
Q: You spoke about why you first came to the idea of eating local food and one thing I see in some editorials that are critical of people who eat local food is the notion that it's purely food miles and it's purely transportation that would cause someone eat local, and saving on transportation alone does not justify eating locally. Can you recap what brought you to the idea of going local.
Gussow: "I went into nutrition because I was concerned about world hunger, and I was looking at the whole "could we produce enough food." I went to all kinds of things - what was the limiting thing in food production? I finally ended up with solar energy. Everything else could be recaptured, or found, or used, or something, except energy, and therefore the limit was ultimately solar energy.
"At the time we didn't have so much of an energy shortage in general - you know, a fossil fuels shortage - and we weren't aware of it, let's put it that way, in the beginning when I first started. And then I realized how much energy was embedded in the food system in general in the way we grow food and so forth. And it wasn't just transportation at all at that point. I was just interested in the whole way energy flowed and how little attention we paid to that as nutritionists.
"And so I was looking at all these issues like exporting our high tech agriculture overseas where people were, many times, growing [food] sustainably as it was and they had too much labor and here we were exporting a machine-intensive, chemical-intensive agriculture to places that had too much labor. We were contaminating the earth, pushing chemicals on people who didn't know how to use pesticides or herbicides, we were using up precious water supplies, etc etc.
"There were all these issues about how food was being grown around the world and we didn't know anything about it. We didn't know what we were doing because we had no idea where our food was coming from. So whatever was going on where it was being grown, we didn't have a clue about. And so I decided that it was important to bring food growing close to home so that people would at least know what agriculture required, you know, top soil, farmer skills, water, solar energy, all those things it needed.
"And so that was my original motive, was to say you had to have farms around so people knew what agriculture required and could help protect the planet from high intensity agriculture (which was destroying things). And in order to know a farmer, you had to have them close to home, and in order to have them close to home, you had to eat what he would produce (or she) and so forth. So that's how I got to it.
"And I wasn't even, in the beginning - it's so interesting - I look back now - I don't even think I was aware of the problem of farmland loss and farmer loss at the time. I was just aware of the ignorance of the American people and thought this was a way to help remedy it."
Read the original interview - Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.
A Conversation with Joan Dye Gussow
Hounds in the Kitchen - February 18, 2011
On Monday I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Dye Gussow, keynote speaker for this weekend’s Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association annual conference. A matriarch of the local food and organic movements, our discussion largely related to her most recent book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.
Rachel Tayse Baillieul: What does your garden look like now?
Joan Dye Gussow: I’m home and it’s under snow. It’s been under snow, pretty steadily, it feels like forever, but only about two months.
RTB: Have you seen the river with excess snow melt? Are you concerned about flooding? (Garden floods were a major character in the book Growing, Older.)
JDW: No, not now. Not since I changed. I rebuilt my garden up two feet when it was destroyed last year. I haven’t had any flooding since then. I’m higher than the land around me now so it will make a huge difference. I don’t expect to get flooded anymore.
RTB: What are your personal favorite things to grow?
JDW: People ask me that question and it depends on how things are doing at the moment. Right at the moment, I have a love affair with sweet potatoes because they are so productive and so reliable. They don’t seem to be subject to insects and diseases, at least that now how to get here. And because last year when I grew then I put them in a bed totally devoid of topsoil. It was literally this silt that baked into rocks when you aren’t looking.
I got 26 pounds of sweet potatoes and also the sweet potatoes managed to totally transform the soil. I’d never seen anything like it.
I’ve now been investigating to find out what it was. It turns out the root hairs recruit and collect organisms around them. They’re in a genus that secretes glue substances that hold the little soil particles together.
So here’s this crop that’s utterly reliable, beautiful when it’s growing, you can eat the leaves if you want, and it improves the soil!
RTB: About Growing Older, why did you decide to write this book at this time?
JDW: My husband of forty years died in 1997 and I always thought I had a very happy marriage. And two weeks after he died, I found myself skipping down the street. I was stunned that I didn’t miss him. That was totally unacceptable to people around me. It was very difficult to face and confront. When I began able to say things to people who were close to me, they said I had to write about it. No one says it, and I’m sure other people feel it, but nobody says it.
It took me a long time to sort it out. When I finally realized what it was, in a profound sense, I only had four chapters. I put the rest of it together from other things I had been writing.
One of the things my editor helped me realize that I wasn’t lonely when living alone was because I had so many relationships in the garden. She was definitely right. I had this on-going thing with the livestock that would invade my space and the bees and the butterflies, all of whom I sort of dealt with on a personal level.
The last section is called Growing Older, without a comma, because it’s about getting older. I felt that I really wanted to write about it. I am very healthy which I realize is a gift but I also believe that I am so healthy because I am happy as a person and I also am very active. I worked really really hard last year building the garden.
RTB: In the winter, I, and presumable you, are not doing as much of that outside work. How do you exercise when there is snow on the ground for what feels like forever?
JDW: That’s when I begin to say “I’m going to take up yoga or something else”. I have scolioses and didn’t want to go to an ordinary studio, but I did bring in someone for a few private lessons at home.
The truth is I do lose strength in my arms. I do have a two story house, and because I do forget things, you run up and you run down. I don’t think anything of running up and down stairs. It’s only my upper body that gets a little un-exercised in the winter.
The other secret of survival and age is to fight gravity because gravity really is the enemy. I discovered that last summer when I was working so hard and it was sometimes so hot. I would get up and work for four hours and eat breakfast and then lie flat for an hour. No pillows and I wasn’t sleeping, but like a yoga pose with hands turned up. Then I’d go out for another four hours, then come in and eat, and lie flat on my back again. It was amazing and made a huge difference to keep going.
RTB: You talk in the book about the despair that you and your students feel about environmental destruction and yet there’s some hopefulness too. How does that manifest itself in the face of news?
JDW: For me, at my age, I accepted the reality a long time ago. I write in the book about experiencing the moment that I believed what I was teaching and that was very shattering. I went through it, it was very difficult. And once you do it, there’s almost nothing more.
You can get down that the government releases genetically engineered alfalfa or Obama isn’t turning out to be what you hoped. It’s so careless with the planet that it astonishes me.
This all circles back to my sweet potatoes. I just learned from this farmer in the county that this collection of organisms that improve the soil was discovered in the nineties. You say ‘ oh my’, they’ve been doing this work down there all along, and we only discovered it twenty years ago? We’ve been pouring pesticides and herbicides on the soil and contaminating these things without any idea what we were doing to them? How dare we act as if they don’t matter?!
All you can do, in my view, is your best. What you have to do is live, try to live, as if the way you life makes a difference. Try to promote the ideas that you think, if they were followed, would make it possible for us to survive on earth. That’s the best you can do.
Phone interview condensed and edited.
Read the original interview.
All Sides with Ann Fisher - WOSU Public Radio
February 17, 2011
11:40: A conversation with author, gardener, and Columbia University Nutrition Professor Emerita Joan Dye Gussow about why the U.S. should move toward a local, organic, whole food system.
As the nutritionist Jane Gussow noted, “it is bewildering to all to consider the origins of our foods found in today’s grocery stores. There are Fruit Loops with no fruit and chocolate cream pies with neither chocolate nor cream. This progression has resulted in a lack of knowledge about what we eat.
Listen to the interview.
Joan Dye Gussow talks about why the local-food movement matters
Cleveland.com - February 15, 2011
Joan Dye Gussow says she has found the secret to getting a 12-hour day of vegetable gardening out of her 82-year-old body. She has breakfast, works for four hours, comes in for lunch and lies down to get her spine straightened out. Then she gets up and does it two more times before the day ends.
Gussow, a nutritionist by trade, applies this dogged behavior to her 35-year campaign to get the public to think more about what happens to food before they eat it.
Since 1970, she has brought lessons of local and organic food to the nutritional ecology course she teaches at Columbia University. She made it the core of her 1996 book, "This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader," and part of her newest work, "Growing, Older," (Chelsea Green, $17.95).
Michael Pollan, best-selling author and the reigning guru of local food, has said that a lot of what he preaches, Gussow said first.
She remembers appearing at the Ohio Ecological Farm & Food Association conference 10 years ago. This weekend, she's back with the group in Granville near Columbus for another keynote speech.
Gussow talked by phone from her home in Piermont, N.Y., where her garden stretches to the Hudson River -- a river that rose and flooded her out in 2009, an act she attributes to global warming.
Read the original interview.
In Conversation with Joan Gussow
Civil Eats - January 12th, 2011 By Paula Crossfield
Few would argue that Joan Dye Gussow is the mother of the sustainable food movement. For more than 30 years, she’s been writing, teaching (she is emeritus chair of the Teachers College nutrition program at Columbia University), and speaking about our unsustainable food system and how to fix it. (This excellent article by journalist Brian Halweil showcases her work in detail.) Now more than ever, her ideas have wings. Michael Pollan, for example, has said, “Once in a while, when I have an original thought, I look around and realize Joan said it first.”
Gussow lives what she teaches, growing most of her own food year-round in her backyard. The New York Times profiled her last spring as she was rebuilding her garden after it was destroyed by a flood. When I asked her about her newly rebuilt garden, she said, “It’s given me 10 additional years of life, at least!”
I spoke to her recently about how far we’ve come, the future of the food system, and her new book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.
Read the entire interview.
A Chat with Joan Gussow About her New Book "Growing, Older"
LoHud - November 22, 2010
By Bill Cary
Some 10 years after writing her first memoir, “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader,” Joan Dye Gussow has written another, a very personal story about aging, grief and life in her riverfront vegetable garden in Piermont. “Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables” has just been published by Chelsea Green. Like the first book, this new memoir is funny, wise, passionate and deeply political.
Since the 1970s, Gussow has been a national leader in the organic- and local-food movement. She grows all her own food, freezing lots for winter but mostly eating what’s fresh and in season. For meat and dairy, she turns to local farmers.
Very active in her Piermont community, Gussow was elected to a fourth term on the village Board of Trustees earlier this month.
Here, she sits down to talk about her new book — and what’s growing in her garden. And speaking of gardens, it’s good to learn that she talks to her plants on a regular basis — we do, too. Here’s a link to an earlier post, about a summertime visit to her great garden.
Q: What did you learn about grief when your husband, Alan, died in 1997, and what did you learn all these years later as you wrote “Growing, Older”?
A: As you know from reading the book, I was completely stunned to discover myself experiencing little grief after Alan died. I assumed for a while I was in denial — nothing else seemed to explain it. But in fact, I turned out not to be in denial; I was just happy, which seemed totally unacceptable. It took me a very long time to understand how I could have assumed I had a happy 40-year marriage and not be devastated when it ended. What I finally realized was that I had had a happy life, but that it had had much less to do with Alan than I had imagined, and so it continued after his death.
Q: In the book, you write about “being alone without being lonely.” Any advice for others?
A: I think the secret of being alone without being lonely is to have your mind filled with things that interest you and to feel a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. You also need to work at friendship — to welcome people into your life, to always offer your spare room if someone can stay over, and to listen to what they are concerned about. And, as I say in my new book, I realized at some point that part of the reason I didn’t feel really lonely after my husband died — when there was no one living in the house with whom to share my thoughts — was because I had such a deep relationship with the living things in the garden, plants, animals, insects. As you know if you have read the book, I do assume that plants can express pleasure — or sulk, and I do talk to them.
Q: What are your favorite foods right now? What are you growing that the rest of us should have in our gardens?
A: My favorite food right this instant is raspberries — Heritage raspberries — of which I had an entire bowlful tonight. It is so amazing to be eating raspberries when it’s November, and they’ll bear until frost. I’m still eating ripe tomatoes, too — I had an amazingly sweet one two days ago. Right now I have chard everywhere and I love chard. For serious winter eating, I have two beds of Brussels sprouts which are even now filling out with sprouts along their stems. I have picked Brussels sprouts in March! There’s lots of parsley to make pizzaiola pasta and the peppers are still bearing. Oh, and I just dug 26 pounds of sweet potatoes.
Q: What’s your current take on the whole local food movement? Are we doing any better?
A: Of course we’re doing better than we were 10 years ago. And compared to 30 years ago when I began promoting local eating, the positive changes have been astonishing — farmers markets everywhere, CSAs, (community supported agriculture), farmers trying all kinds of season extension.
But the concentration of power in the food system is very sobering. It is very doubtful that the movement to restore power over food to the people who produce and eat it is strengthened when Wal-Mart begins promoting local food.
The year after a farmer sells her whole crop to Wal-Mart, they come back and say “lower your price,” she won’t have other markets left. So we have to keep insisting that the answer is not cheap food, but reasonable incomes and healthy, local food priced at a cost that allows the farmer to make a living too.
Q: After years of battling Hudson River floods in your riverfront garden, this spring you undertook a major overhaul to raise the whole thing up a couple of feet. Was it worth it?
A: Absolutely. It’s marvellous! I consider it amazingly generous of Mother Nature to have clobbered me during the only time in 100 years or more that I actually had access to my yard to bring in dirt. I had always known I should do something like that because the yard was a bathtub and both heavy rains and high tides filled it all too regularly. But I was closed in on both sides. Then the house next door was bought and torn down in January and the owner didn’t intend to start building until April, so we opened the fence and his lot was used as a staging area where my trees and shrubs were set down while the trucks came in and dumped dirt.
It was a huge amount of work — I was putting in 12 hour days for a while, but now that it’s done, it’s as if I’ve lanced a boil on my foot that I had been walking on for years! I don’t flood!
Q: Is there anything you’ve tried and tried to grow, without success?
A: Until a couple of years ago, asparagus. It didn’t like having wet feet. Now it’s happy. I’m also not very good at radishes!
Q: You’re 81 now. What’s next?
A: Oh, more of the same I think. I’ve joked that my next book will be called “Starting Over at 81” (I’m actually 82 now — I just had a birthday) and will be the story of the resurrection of my garden. Obviously there will be political and social morals to my stories — as there always are.
But at the heart of my ongoing optimism, I’m sure, is my garden. I am very touched by the epigraph I use in the fourth section of my book. It is from Frances Hodgson Burnett who wrote “The Secret Garden. She wrote “As long as one has a garden, one has a future. As long as one has a future, one is alive.”
Read the original interview on LoHud's website.
Local-food Guru Joan Dye Gussow Offers Nutrition Advice for the Ages
By Susan Clotfelter
The Denver Post - November 13, 2010
Heritage Radio Network's The Main Course
October 24, 2010
Joan Gussow and Marion Nestle
Listen to the interview in its entirety here.