I was inspired to write this book by two years of traveling around the United States and Australia talking to people about fermentation, following the publication of my previous book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green, 2003). Mostly, we discussed the incredible array of wonderful foods and drinks that result from the miraculous actions of microorganisms, but inevitably the conversation would stray into other realms of fermentation, specifically social ferment. The word ferment, along with the words fervor and fervent, comes from the Latin verb fervere, to boil. Just as fermenting liquids exhibit a bubbling action similar to boiling, so do excited people, filled with passion and unrestrained. Revolutionary ideas, as they spread and mutate, ferment the culture. Agitation of fermenting liquids stimulates the process and quickens fermentation, as evidenced by increased bubbling action. Agitation similarly stimulates social ferment.
The kinds of places I have visited to talk with groups and teach workshops have often been food co-ops, farmers’ markets, community spaces, and farms. I’ve met people who are reclaiming their connection to food in many exciting and hopeful ways: folks dedicated to growing food using methods that build soil fertility and raising animals with compassion; gardeners and farmers reviving nearly abandoned seedsaving practices as a critical link in food independence; urban community gardeners creating green oases and bringing the cityscape back to earth; people organizing around themes of food justice, food security, and food sovereignty; scavengers who glean from orchards, fields, and dumpsters; caring folks who redistribute discarded food to hungry people; healers who use food as medicine; passionate advocates of whole, traditional, slow, and raw foods; people fueling cars with used deep-frying oil—the list goes on. The diverse activists I meet everywhere make me feel part of a broad movement to build alternatives to the dominant food system and transform the world one bite at a time.
Here is a small glimpse of the revolution I see happening: It’s not a militant confrontation at all but rather a quiet culinary mutiny. It’s what’s known as “the bread club” in a Western town of about eight thousand people, which I cannot identify without jeopardizing the club’s continued existence. The club started in 2002 as the pickup site for bread baked by B., a fellow fermentation enthusiast I met in my travels, in the wood-fired brick oven he built himself.
From the start there was an underground aspect to the bread distribution. “I would gladly bake the way I do legally if I could,” says B. “The fact is it is impossible on my scale. For me to build a certified kitchen with attached oven, I would have to go greatly into debt and then bake my ass off just to pay off that debt, probably seven days a week, and then I’d grow to hate baking and hire other people to bake, and then I would just be a business owner. And so I bake underground, every other week, because I love to, and after two and a half years I still love it, and I actually make a little bit of money doing it. I just imagine all the underemployed people I know being able to do something like this, and be proud of it, and make a little money, and not be a minimum-wage slave, but it’s not legal. And that’s wrong.”
In the current regulatory environment, the rules make small-scale traditional food production and distribution almost impossible. Selling home-baked bread, or any food prepared in a home kitchen, is prohibited by most, if not all, health codes in the United States. Livestock for sale (with the exception of poultry, in most places) may not be slaughtered by the farmers who raise them; instead they must be trucked to anonymous factory-like commercial slaughterhouses. Milk and other dairy products may not be sold without pasteurization, which diminishes nutritional quality, digestibility, and flavor. Cider, too, is nearly always required to be pasteurized or irradiated. In other words, real food, increasingly illegal, is being replaced by processed food products. Laws dictating food standards are driven by the model of mass production, where sterility and uniformity are everything, rendering much of the trade in local food technically illegal. Eating well has become an act of civil disobedience. The bread club is political resistance.
“The first few weeks it was just a pickup spot for my sixty loaves of bread,” B. continues, “but as the weeks went on, people would pick up their bread and stick around for a while, visiting, especially after T. and M. started bringing their homemade goat cheeses to sell.” In addition, the bread club now features raw milk, free-range eggs, and seasonal produce from several gardeners. Occasionally, locally caught salmon, locally gathered seaweed, wild-harvested mushrooms, and honey are available, as well as glasses of homemade wines for an optional donation. People also bring prepared dishes such as quiche, muffins, cheesecake, cinnamon rolls, and pie.
“It evolved on its own without any real agenda by any of us,” reflects B. “It wasn’t long before it became a two-hour social and market gathering that has continued ever since. There is no advertising, just word of mouth, and it seems every week there are at least a couple of new faces. It seems there are always at least fifteen to twenty people there, and throughout the two hours, I would say that at least sixty people come through. Everyone who comes knows someone, although now there are people who know someone who knows someone. Most are from our town, but some come from a bigger town thirty minutes away.” Food always brings people together, and the production and marketing of local food offers great opportunities for community organizing.
“We’ve always wondered if/when the health department might pay us a visit, but none of us are overly worried about it. If it happens, it happens. I secretly envision everyone nicely but forcefully throwing the poor person out on the street, telling him that this is none of his business. We think about different ways to describe it, like a ‘private food buying club,’ but we haven’t really needed to defend it yet. I wonder whether such a visit might be inevitable as the club gets more well known. I also wonder to what extent they can prosecute us. What if we just refuse to stop gathering? Would they try to fine us, or would they have to come in and arrest all of us and cart us away? Hopefully we can just remain under the radar, but in other ways, if they do crack down, I almost hope for confrontation, because I think this is a rebellion that might explode in their faces if they try. You just don’t mess with people’s food. We will see. I think that although we are breaking the letter of the law, we are actually honoring the spirit of the law, and that gives us a certain righteous power.”
The bread club is not an isolated phenomenon. Many different people—in many different places and motivated by many different concerns—are building resistance movements that reject dead, industrialized, homogenized, globalized food commodities in favor of real, wholesome, local, unadulterated food. In these pages, you will meet a few of them.
Of course, political ideology is hardly the first thing that motivates most individuals’ food decisions. Around the world, including here in the United States, many people are not lucky enough to have choices concerning the type, quality, variety, or sources of the food they eat. Access to food and available resources are major factors in most people’s daily decision making. So are their concepts of good nutrition, and the insidious sway of marketing.
For me, food is above all a sensual experience. I love the smells, flavors, textures, and colors of food, and how satisfied it can make me feel. I salivate just thinking of harvesting fresh fruit in the summertime. In technicolor odorama, I can vividly recall the tastes of the sweet succession of fruits as the season progresses: juicy sweet mulberries that inspire me to climb trees in their pursuit, black raspberries, wineberries, plums, peaches, blackberries, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, pears, apples, figs, passionfruit, persimmons, pawpaws. . . . Being in a plentiful patch of ripe fruit always forces me to surrender to my greedy desire. I literally stuff my mouth with berries, then crush them and luxuriate in the juicy rush of sensations. Yummm!
The food-related political activism that I feel most passionate about is an extension of this sensual pursuit in that it seeks to revive local food production and exchange and to redevelop community food sovereignty. There is no sacrifice required for this agenda because, generally speaking, the food closest at hand is the freshest, most delicious, and most nutritious. This revolution will not be genetically engineered, pumped up with hormones, covered in pesticides, individually wrapped, or microwaved. This is a revolution of the everyday, and it’s already happening. It’s a practice more of us can build into our mundane daily realities and into a grassroots groundswell. This revolution is wholesome, nurturing, and sensual. This revolution reinvigorates local economies. This revolution rescues traditional foods that are in danger of extinction and revives skills that will enable people to survive the inevitable collapse of the unsustainable, globalized, industrial food system.
The production and exchange of local food is not the only way people are protesting the corporate, chemical, and genetically modified (GM) food agenda. Other important food-related activist work is being undertaken in the arenas of policy and regulation: there are campaigns that oppose GM foods and demand that they be labeled as such; that support meaningful organic standards, pesticide limits, fair trade, and farm worker rights; and that challenge the fast-food industry.
People are also confronting the forces of globalization directly, wherever the transnational entities such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the World Economic Forum hold their international meetings. These global corporate alliances promote “free trade” as the ultimate good, imposing it upon people around the globe. “WTO has become a global constitution based on the logic and primacy of trade and commerce,” writes Vandana Shiva. “The right to trade without limits, without barriers has been elevated to the supreme right. The right to protect living resources, livelihoods, and lifestyles has been reduced to a ‘barrier to free trade.’”1 Protests and civil-disobedience actions have been a continual presence at the meetings of these globalizing entities, along with escalating repression and aggression by authorities. Many more people are engaged in activism around the larger universe of related issues, such as control of indigenous lands, economic justice, war, environmental destruction, cultural survival and cultural appropriation, access to health care, and so on.
With so much to be done, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, or even just busy, constant convenience consumerism is at your service. Most people in our culture are overworked and stressed. Convenience is our consolation, but the everincreasing expectation of it also drives very destructive societal choices. Convenience is insidious, inviting us always to fall back into fast food and all the other alluring empty promises of globalized corporate food.
Taking care of ourselves, producing good-quality food, and supporting local producers and markets have to be recognized as activist work. To me, activism is an attitude: emboldened and empowered. I like the quote attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s important to hold social institutions accountable because they exert so much power, but ultimately no institution can bestow upon us the worlds we dream. Nothing is more revolutionary than actively seeking to embody and manifest the ideals we hold.
The vision of transformation that informs my activist impulse is an ideal, a dream that sustains me and gives me some small sense of hope and belief in the future. It is an abstraction that guides me. But my passion for food is not at all abstract. Food is the stuff of our most basic material reality. Food nurtures us, comforts us, and structures our lives. Our daily habits and routines revolve around it. It is fully sensual, composed of smells, flavors, textures, and aftertastes. Eating is a full-body experience, involving the nose, the mouth, the hands, the teeth, the tongue, the throat, the vast array of internal sensations relating to digestion, and the renewing pleasure of defecation.
Although food is such a fundamental need, most of us are dangerously disconnected from its source. In the United States in 2002, fewer than 2 percent of people were involved in direct agricultural production.2 Supposedly we have been freed from such drudgery to pursue higher callings. But what some disparage as drudgery is in truth the rhythm of basic sustenance and survival. This rhythm, defined by the seasons and the specificity of place, gives shape to different cultures and provides the context for building community.
Throughout time, most people have been directly involved in obtaining food through wild-food gathering, hunting, and subsistence agriculture. How to feed oneself is among the most vital skills that each generation imparts to its offspring. The essence of empowerment is an integral aspect of any organism’s integration into its environment. The mass disconnection of human beings from the harvesting and cultivation of our own food reflects a broader disconnection from the natural world, our physical environment, the land, wild plants and animals, the cycles of life and death, our very bodies. This disconnect is a source of spiritual longing, leaving us searching for reconnection and yearning for meaning.
Our food system desperately demands subversion. We face unprecedented environmental and nutritional crises. Chemical monocrop agriculture is not only depleting the soil of nutrients and producing nutritionally impaired crops but also eroding the topsoil, breeding resistant pests, and poisoning our food and water supplies. GM crops and the “life industry” of patented genetic material raise the stakes, increasing chemical use, farmer dependence on large corporations, the loss of biodiversity, and the potential for huge-scale health and environmental disasters.
Our system of transporting even the most basic of foods across vast distances requires petroleum, control of which has been at the center of global political conflict in recent times, and sources of which are finite and likely to become scarcer in the near future. This petroleum-based global transport system is also, of course, a driving force behind global warming. Livestock produced by the twisted logic of economies of scale is not only treated cruelly but pumped up with synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals that pose numerous health risks, not only to meat eaters and milk drinkers but to everyone who drinks water. Fish too are toxic, containing in their flesh alarming levels of mercury and other heavy metals absorbed from our polluted waters. And as a result of all this ingestion of toxic chemicals, human cancer rates are soaring. Diseases directly related to diet, such as diabetes and obesity, have also reached epidemic proportions, especially among children.
All these crises of our postagrarian, postindustrial, postmodern time converge in the food we eat. Food is among our most basic daily needs. We can get it—cheaply and in great variety and abundance—at any of dozens of huge retail chain stores. We can choose from literally tens of thousands of products that have been shipped across the globe and packaged in wasteful, polluting marketing wraps: meat raised in truly gruesome conditions; produce grown with toxic chemicals; and exotic tropical specialties from places where the legacy of colonialism leaves people growing luxury export crops instead of food they can eat. Food in the supermarket is anonymous, detached from its origins, lacking history, nutrient density, and life force. It is food as pure commodity, and we need better food than that.
Activists all around the world are devoting themselves to the creation of better food choices. The chapters of this book explore ten different themes of food-related issues and activist projects. Far from comprehensive, this book aims to inspire you to become a food activist yourself, and in that process to become more connected to the sources of your food and water. The food system on whose fringes we all are doing our work may seem monolithic and indomitable, but we are nourishing ourselves and one another by our actions, and creating exciting alternatives. To continue with the fermentation metaphor: we are seed cultures, agents of continuity and change, working now and in the future to thrive and proliferate as conditions allow, liberating ourselves and one another and all who will join us from the perils of dependence on dead, anonymous, industrialized, genetically engineered, and chemicalized corporate food.
1. Vandana Shiva, Tomorrow’s Biodiversity (New York: Thames and Hudson,
2. Farm and Farm-Related Employment Data Set,
www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FarmandRelatedEmployment/ (U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Economic Research Service, for the year 2002; accessed May 1,