Saturday, March 21, 2009

How To Make an $8 Loaf of Bread or Alice Waters' March on Washington

I left a comment on Garden Rant yesterday about Alice Waters on 60 minutes. My facetiousness aside, I had a serious point or two. One was about the "Victory Garden" thing.

It is time those in the media stop calling a vegetable garden a "Victory garden." That's it really. Why are they recalling WWII wartime vegetable planting?

The U.S. government (and U.K) asked its citizens to produce some of their own food to make up for shortfalls affecting the agricultural industry supply during the war. Eleanor Roosevelt had one planted at the White House. There were complaints from the Ag industry, but by and large, the effort was popular and successful.

Much of this gardening ceased after the war. I'm sure the Ag business did what it could to promote this change through lobbying and advertising. Not growing some of our own food has been a 20th century invention, at least for most of us. Lifestyle changes, yes, but also the promotion of leisure and solid-state (copyright!) landscapes created a vision of wealth and prosperity that used to have the cornucopia, wheat bundles, dead fish and fowl, and grape vines as its symbol.

It does seem that little motivates people more than the desire to attain or to mirror wealth and prosperity. What the local food movement, Alice Waters, organic movement (still a movement?), etc. has done is create a new conception of wealth and prosperity that is as old as they come. Some people don't like it because it calls into question many of the hard-earned symbols of their prosperity, and requires a different set of skills and knowledge, some long-forgotten cultural memory.

But let's remember that people have always grown vegetables for their sustenance. Poor and rich alike have grown, or had their gardener's grow, their own vegetables. Late day immigrants to big cities grow their own in buckets on concrete. Its economical and provides them with the vegetables they need for their culture's recipes.

So I wonder if our culture is forcing the "V" for victory instead of vegetable because there is a sense of cultural warfare -a largely middle, upper-middle class warfare. What is middle class? What do we aspire to? Are we golf-playing, micro-waving, lawn mowing, backyard pool party lounging with cocktails middle class or are we vegetable growing, every meal cooking, CSA joining, garden party with a glass of local wine middle class?

This is not a battle I am having and I believe this to be true of many of us. Of course, these activities are not exclusive of each other, but I can't quite shake the feeling that this middle-class identity war is what's going on. Thoughts?


  1. I have mixed feelings about the "local" movement as well. On the one hand, I do enjoy getting some really fresh produce when I can, but at the same time, I know that what I'm doing is a luxury.

    It is a luxury nowadays to grow your own food. It means you have enough land AND enough time away from your primary income producing job to do the work.

    My other concern/mixed feelings involve the livelyhood of the people who produce things we can't.

    It would be unrealistic to try to grow the grains and raise all the protein a family needs. Vegetables yes, bulk crops, no.

    And, as your title implies, it ain't cheap!

  2. Hm.



    It is work to grow vegetables, but I don't believe it is a luxury for many Americans. Most New Yorkers excluded! It is a luxury for super-dense-city dwellers, where, if we have space at all, we have small patches of rooftop or sidewalk for growing, or community gardens.

    But there are a lot of suburban backyards out there with absolutely nothing in them. (For that matter cities have expanses of rooftop with nothing ON them, either.) Cut out an hour a day of TV watching and you have time to garden.

    The class warfare impression perhaps comes from the relentless media spin that is immediately attached to almost anything. And to marketability. If it can make money, let's sell it. That is the aspect of bandwagon-ness that puts me off, and that makes it IMpossible for me to call myself a locavore. It is so exclusionist.

    But the fact that Local has become trendy does not mean that the essential idea is flawed. It is simply the fundamentalist aspect of it that is troubling: shunning everything else, the imported tomato, the Californian iceberg, as evil.

    I suppose the Victory Garden label has been popular because it signified a time when peoples' individual efforts helped overcome a mass threat. The vegetable patch versus the War. And perhaps now it taps into the feeling that people have that they have little control over events. Having a "victory" garden means you can assert control over a faceless boogie man or business: recession, agribusiness, lurking carcinogens.

    But I do prefer language that calls a spade a spade.

    It IS a bloody vegetable garden, after all.

    (And making my own jam last year was much more expensive than buying it!)

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Nancy. I think its a very complex issue and trying to determine what is best is difficult.

    In some ways it comes down to land ownership.
    But then resourceful people find ways to grow food even if they don't own land.

    I can grow a little food in boxes in front of my rental apartment. I cannot SUSTAIN myself on what I grow, but I enjoy growing what I want and growing ITSELF.

    Isn't there an enormous amount of income redistribution to poor countries (compared to U.S.) when we buy produce from them? This is an important question as well, but then enter the environmental question. And so on.

    I will not grow wheat.

  4. Marie,

    Yeah, thats it. I just don't like all the hype and fashion. I suppose I should enjoy something I enjoy becoming popularized, but curmudgeonly stating that people have always gardened for veggies, its nothing new! I think the class war is actually a culture war amongst the middle class. Who are we?

    Its like the people who want to dry their clothes outside for environmental sake VS those who have community codes that forsake that activity. Middle class values at odds. Drying our clothes with air and sun is what we've always done, but 20th century visions of prosperity have undone these things and now those rules are being challenged by their neighbors!

  5. That's so funny! I was just thinking this morning about drying clothes outside, as I was putting my pillows in the sun to air on the terrace...they smell so good when they've been out, and my parents in SA dry all their clothes on a line in the garden. In fact they looked down their nose at me when I put things in the dryer!

    I had NO idea there were codes about NOT drying clothes outside...that's nuts!

  6. I have no problem with saying victoy garden. I think that it would be great if more people realized that instead of having only grass in their yard, or empty windows and bare roofs they could grow something. I highly doubt anyone is expecting to fully sustain themselves on their backyard gardens, but putting the idea in someone's head that growing just a few carrots can save you some money is great for everyone and the enviroment.

    The local food thing is great in that it is helping a lot of smaller local farms that cannot afford advertising and a lot of the other things that big farms can. In addition, the people growing frutis and veggies and grains overseas are horribly exploited and not exactly gain all that much from growing things so Americans can buy their food cheaply. As far as the whole class thing, I have noticed that a majority of the sellers at the farmer's market in my neighborhood accept food stamps. Which is great since it broadens the amount of people they can sell to and means that lower income people can buy fresh fruit and vegetables that are generally not available to them in the usual lower income neighborhoods (trust me I have personally experienced this).

  7. Marie,

    Check out this early post:

    I love the smell of outside dried!

  8. Shana,

    Well, if its a Victory over something, lets proclaim it! My point though, is that some of the media attention is due to a tension in two sets of possible middle class values. But they're creating the tension as well, and participating in it as media producers wonder if they should grow some food, or not, then seek "the story."

    I agree with you about the value of farmer's markets. I like mine, most do -thats why the big ones are so crowded. I'm also glad they accept food stamps, which has more to do with government policy I suppose. My family had spent about three years on food stamps when I was a child, I understand there value, and we ate mostly frozen and canned veggies then.

    My neighb is fairly low-income, but we have a couple of "farms" as they call them on the main drag. But I've seen neighborhoods around Brooklyn that had nothing, nothing in terms of groceries -just bodegas (certain areas of Bushwick and BedStuy),

    I've heard good arguments both ways for sustaining international food production. Would I rather get my garlic from California than China, yes. My tomatoes from Jersey than Florida, yes. My green beans from my yard than California, yes.
    But I still like an avocado every now and then, and oranges! But if we can truly make the world a better place, then I'll sacrifice all that. I'm willing.

    Personally,I cannot save any money growing carrots. I had a total loss last year on those. Phooey!

  9. I do not think that there is anything wrong with buying food grown overseas at all. I will be the first to say that I totally buy things like strawberries in December. I was more trying to say that Nancy seemed to be a little naive in feeling that this is somehow going to harm overseas farmers. If anything it hurts the bottom line of companies like Dole and such that do a lot of their growing overseas.

    There was actually a thing on Newshour on PBS talking to high school seniors that were putting off college so that they could stay home and add extra income for their poor families. One girl was giving up medical school at Yale with a full scholarship! It was sad seeing this one family with only oatmeal and frozn burritos in the fridge and the son talking about being hungry but not wanting to take food away from his little brothers. I think that it would be wonderful if families like these were helped out with little things like a tomato garden or whatever. Obviously it is not going to solve the problem, but I am sure the teenager that was avoiding eating so that his two little brothers could eat would have loved having a nice tomato bush in the backyard (it was in California).

    About the whole class warfare thing, I have decided to just ignore a lot of that stuff. If you look on a lot of parentng sites it is hilarious to see how so many people separate themselves between breastfeeders and bottle feeders or hospital birthers and birthing center/homebirthers. If anyone says anything about how breastfeeding is good for children you get a bunch of bottlefeeding parents that feel the need to defend their decision. And the same for hospital birthers that seem to feel that everyone is telling them that they are inadequate. I just cannot help but feel that people see class warfare everywhere where it does not exists.

    Somehow I cannot help but feel that there are self interested companies fanning the flames of the so-called class warfare.

  10. Shana

    Its so complex, isn't it. For instance, we still grow commercially in the U.S. every vegetable that we also get internationally. SO I can get an U.S. (florida, california, Indiana, or even Maine!) tomato, a local tomato, or an international tomato from Israel, Holland, Mexico, and where else. Those from overseas often end up here in our off season.

    I think label laws are important. I buy locally when I can, but am not a fundamentalist (thanks, Marie) locavore. But I do want to know WHERE my food comes from so I can make informed choices.

    But there is a lot of personal preference in all this, isn't there. Red attracts us in the deepest winter, so let's get those strawberries regardless of their distance traveled or taste or pesticides or whatever. The red fruit has such an overwhelming psychological impact on us! I think most of the strawberries I eat come from California.

    I do not understand a long term investment like medical school with full scholarship being tossed aside to help the family. That is helping the family!! In the long run, anyhow.

    Since I did not see the program it is hard to comment, but there are programs for people with limited access to food. Food stamps, pantries. Damn, gardening too. I'll donate my seeds to anyone who needs them. But I think there is more
    to it. I think financial instability affects the groundedness required to sustain vegetable gardening at its fullest. The issues here lie more in a society that offers only low paid wages to a good number of our citizens. This is not just here, but worldwide, really. But yes, a tomato or carrot would make a hungry person happy.

    The class warfare is internal amongst the middle class. So its not really class warfare as we have used it. Its a battle over values within a group of individuals, a group that academics say is shrinking. Maybe a group trying to re-invent itself given the challenges that lie ahead. Whatever the case, the poor have one set of issues and the rich another, and the middle class is fighting for its identity in a culture of street and glitz.

  11. 60 Minutes should interview Joan Gussow - she was an inspiration to Alice, after all.

    Honesty, it costs a lot to eat organic. I dropped my CSA because it was so expensive. Then spent $500 putting in a new veggie garden. I do think it will be cheaper in the long run.

    Our local paper was doing a feature on Victory Gardens in response to the recession. They did not want to interview me because part of the reason I'm growing my own is to have more control and avoid pesticides. In other words, I'm not doing it JUST to save money. So I guess that makes me elite?

    Hopefully the Obamas will start a national conciousness raising about this stuff. Kinda like Oprah's book group is credited with getting people back into reading.

  12. I grow for the same reasons, rarely saving any money for it!

    That's just it too, for the news media, they're feeding the frenzy beast. They need how to save money stories, victory over lost income. The reality is that its not at that place for so many people who feel the economic pinch, the story is for people who haven't lost everything, but who maybe have lost 35 % of they're 401Ks and stuff like this. Truly hungry people cannot say,"hey lets start a veggie garden and we'll save money" Its a middle class anxiety story. You betcha!

  13. I first saw Victory Garden used in a current-day context in autumn of 2007; a small group of environmentally-conscious, self-sufficientish bloggers whom I followed and interacted with online were outlining the cultural ignorance over where our food comes from. Reflecting on pre-war America, their conversation drew comparisons between our current state (where entire neighborhoods are barren of fresh food sources) and a time when many Americans knew how to grow *something* edible, knew how to map the path food took to their tables. They hatched plans to encourage individual action, and dialogued about how that behavior was like the original call for Victory Gardens - the question being how can the work of one person alone make a difference?

    Two of those bloggers, Pattie of and Melinda of
    1greengeneration organized challenges that I joined in order to learn more: Pattie's companion planting team, where she nurtured 5 first time gardeners to grow food for
    themselves, and Melinda's Growing Challenge, documenting individual efforts to grow plants from seed.

    Over the last year, I've seen the mainstream media (and some members of the yuppie middle class) appropriate the tagline in order to be "cool". But that doesn't negate the efforts of those who genuinely needed the history lesson -
    provided by well-known and respected advocates like Michael Pollan as well as individuals with personal soapboxes - to step up and do something
    positive and important and worthwhile.

    I suppose i'm one of the yuppies, in that regard, but ... in the 2008 growing season, I learned to grow 2/3 of the produce I needed for myself on a tiny strip of what had been matted grass near the concrete path into my apartment. I had the time and the education to avail myself of expertise and resources. At the same time, I'm just comfortably middle class; I understand the health-importance of organic produce and supporting/using the earth without resorting to toxins and poisons, but I simply can't afford to join a CSA or shop 100% organic -- I'm only going to be able to live a responsible, socially conscious life if I learn to supply some needs for myself.

    So. As some of the above commenters have said, the media is looking for an angle to sell stories, so they're jumping on the hype of what's important to middle class, middle income people. But at the same time, that doesn't invalidate the honest work being done.

  14. For me, the introduction to the "Victory" garden was through the PBS tv gardening show called "The Victory Garden" in the 80's. I haven't seen it in 20 years, but it was alive and well then and think it still is, but with a less Public Access feel to it.

    If we must tie gardening to "Victory" please proclaim what the battle is. Is it a battle against sloth, agribusiness, globalization, what?
    What we have is a much grayer enemy than that of Hitler's Germany. The enemy may be us. I wonder if it is possible to popularize, not politicize?
    Gardening doesn't belong to the left or the right.

    I'm all for nurturing people to grow food or anything, really. So more power to fellow bloggers Pattie and Melinda. Part of my aim here is to give some basic resources to people interested in beginning their gardening. But of course, there are many resources out there.

    Growing your own food to some extent requires a certain stability. Emotional, psychological, financial possibly. There is something foundational about growing a garden, and it requires attention, patience as you know.

    I don't want to call this one a yuppie and that one a what? I think gardeners are born and gardeners are made. Class has little to do with the foundational quality of the act of gardening.
    Gardeners will do so no matter what their situation, class, lifestyle. They will find a way. So congratulations on your garden!

    I was a long time reader of Organic Gardening and a supporter of the work of the Rodale Institute. I don't read it much today because it has become repetitive after many years.

    For many of us long time gardeners, I suppose the popularization has irritating aspects, particularly that this is something new. It is new to some, maybe many, but there is an incredible wealth of gardening knowledge out there. I'm glad so many are thinking of gardening again, and so many people new to it are doing it. Its our human heritage.

    If it falls out of fashion or cool, we'll still be doing it. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, hope you do so again.


If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...