Getting Real About Food

Getting Real About Food

Something very strange has happened to food in the richest country in the world: It’s fast, but it ain’t good. And it travels way too far a distance from the field to your fork.


Minister and activist Donna Schaper offers a meditation on the blessings of slow food. And artist/animator Molly Schwartz traces just how far food travels from field to fork.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of essays from Donna Schaper’s Grassroots Gardening: Rituals for Sustaining Activism, published by Nation Books.

It was early evening, I was really hungry and the only relief in sight was the Ramapo Thruway so-called service station. I put gas in the car and went in to see what gas they had for me. I grew up before the Thruway went in and listened to nothing but my extended family’s extended conversations about how the road would destroy upstate. Later in my life, as the contracts were let for which agribusiness would manage the food on the Thruway, I wrote an article about local food. At the time I didn’t know what the local food movement was, just that local restaurants, instead of franchises up and down the automotive spine of the state, might be a way to limit the damage. I proposed to the Thruway Commission that local owners put up locally owned restaurants at each exit. That would make driving more interesting and keep fast food from threatening the feast of life. I imagine pork and sauerkraut at Exit 19, arugula salad at Exit 20, etc. I got confirmation that this was a good idea last Wednesday night as I sought nourishment in Ramapo.

Anyway, searching for my meat in due season, I realized there are only two franchises at Ramapo. One is McDonald’s and the other is Uno’s, a pizza place. I settled on the pizza place, only to observe that the warming tray was dead empty. I practically wept as I asked the young woman behind the counter if there was any hope for one such as I to get a pizza. “Sure,” she said, “I’ll make it fresh for you.” “You will! How long will that take?”

My thoughts went utopian and my stomach gurgled. I was both thrilled at the idea of slow food on the Thruway and distraught at waiting for a freshly made pizza. She took care of my gurgle and left my utopia alone. “One and a half minutes,” she said. So it was that I entered my own country of ambivalence about food. I want it slow and I want it fast. I want it local and I want it cheap. Mostly, when it comes to food, I want it now. When we have it now, it tends to taste like that “fresh” pizza in Ramapo. Its virtue was that it was warm. Its sin was that it was made of something that long ago was grain, the white flour and something long ago, the tomato, that was fruit. The cheese was no longer cheese and if the pepperoni ever was food, I’ll be surprised. As I wolfed down my warm glob of chemicals, I thought about the sources of my food. In Florida the tomato pickers get a pittance a bushel. Nobody could possibly pay the migrant workers any more than that because otherwise I’d never get that round, warm, 800-calorie, nutritionally worthless globule for just $6.99. You have to add the truck and its gas, the middleman’s middleman’s middleman, the lawyers they hire to fight the migrants so they don’t get more for picking the tomatoes.

Then there are advertising costs to make me want the pizza. The unionbusting lawyers who make sure the woman who made it fresh for me doesn’t make too much money. Then there is the package, which is at least 11 percent of the product. They don’t charge me for eating this stuff in the car while driving down the Thruway. That pleasure is free. The culture of fast food is amazingly conformist, boring, tasteless and unhealthy–and people think that the slow food movement is a “weird” idea. You figure.

I remember my church in Miami with more fondness than is probably legitimate. That doesn’t mean I like everything about it. Because some New England Yankees founded the congregation in 1925, every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, there used to be a pilgrim festival. The whole congregation had pilgrim outfits and pilgrim hats. The women would sit on one side of the congregation and the men on the other, just like in the days of yore, 1,200 miles north. The minister would read long-winded proclamations. Tableaux of live pilgrims would be the backdrop on the altar. Someone carried a big musket he had brought down from Boston. He led the procession with his wife, who carried an old Bible in with the gun.

Someone, not me, suggested the second year I was there that we might do a different Thanksgiving celebration. I foolishly and wisely agreed. We might have people from every nation that had migrated to Miami stand and wear some form of native dress and read some work from their own culture. The first year we had eleven nationalities in tableaux–one Pilgrim, one Peruvian, a Cuban, a Mayan, a Russian, a Dominican, a Parisian, a Haitian, a Nicaraguan and a Mexican. It was incredibly beautiful and moving–and made its point about who we were as a congregation. One of the sweetest older ladies in the congregation came up to me afterward: “Please, please, please, don’t tell me we have to eat their food too. It just won’t be right.” What we eat is full of cultural prohibitions and permissions. What we eat is either a Eucharistic feast or a human folly. What we eat is emotional. What we eat is who we are. When we eat bad food in cars on Thruways, that is who we are.

In the long series of conversations that followed this retabling of the tableaux, the word “right” was used way too often. “Right” is just another way of saying “purity code.” Who is to say who eats right? When we say, “I hope we don’t have to eat their food too,” what we are saying is that we hope feast never comes. We hope Eucharist never comes. We hope against justice at the table and for the right ways of doing things.

What is feast eating? It is the following out of Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the human into the garden and told them to till it and keep it.” One garden, one humanity, one table coming from one garden. Back to the garden is feast eating. Real eating is supposed to be feast eating with everyone at the table of origin. We are to retable the tableaux.

But something very strange has happened to food in the richest country of the world. We can get a bad tomato just about any time of day in any season. We eat out of paper bags and drink the magnificent beverage of coffee out of Styrofoam cups. While we are drinking the coffee, we worry about the possibility of nuclear war over oil. We eat alone. We eat while driving. We eat but there is nothing sacred or beautiful or slow about it. My own people come to meetings and leave half a foreign country’s worth of paper and Styrofoam behind. We have our coffee hour with paper cups. Kids eat chicken fingers over and over again–and slow food has to organize as an (increasingly popular and fast-growing) international movement. Imagine having to organize politically for the right to eat slowly and well. The fast food economy has created a world in which we have to protect ourselves from it.

Fast is the enemy of feast. In this supposedly wonderful world, many of us no longer know how to eat, or sleep with the peace of a shepherd. Imagine giving up eating and sleeping in order to follow orders about how to eat and sleep. Remember, she falsely said, “I can make that for you fresh.”

When we get real about food, we look like utopians to others. They make fun of us as silly and wide-eyed. One look at her pizza and one made fresh ought to take that argument straight to the landfill. Every interaction in good food is slow, whole, just; every interaction in fast food is fast, distorted, tasteless and unjust. Who is the utopian? And who the fool?

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