Friday, April 1, 2011

Holy Food

Gene Logsdon

I’ve grown fond of a blog, “The Contrary Farmer,” written by an Ohio “cottage farmer” named Gene Logsdon. He farms in the Upper Sandusky region south of Toledo. He’s 79 years old and advocates

  • small farms, though economically as a half time venture, with another job to supplement income;
  • organic methods, yet he will use herbicide in limited quantities in difficult areas;
  • and a host of compelling, alternative ways of raising crops and animals.

His attitudes are a complex cluster: idealistic, visionary, practical, critical, and appreciative.

Recently he’s become a voice for manure, including human waste, rather than chemical fertilizer. The title of his book about this, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, reflects his persona as a down to earth, a little irreverent, and avuncular soul, who respects the old ways but looks to a sustainable future.

He was raised on a family farm not far from his current farm. He attended seminary for 10 years but chose a career that blended farming and writing, first as an editor of the magazine, Farm Journal based in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years ago, he returned to his Ohio roots and bought 32 acres with a house, 14 acres of which he now farms. (His parents’ farm had fallen to bankruptcy in the 1970s.)

A prolific writer, he has written scores of essays and a host of books, including 3 novels in addition to monographs on varying aspects of farming and the rural life—what’s left of it. What he has to say about farming and a good life touches virtue and grace, relative to ecological responsibility and personal happiness.

I rediscovered him several months ago. For more than 30 years I carried with me a poem he wrote and which I found in an anthology of the Farm Journal. (As it is often with a real book, I vividly remember the circumstances when I bought it: on a crisp and sunny winter’s afternoon on a remainder table outside an old- fashioned bookstore on Middlebury, VT’s main street.)

The poem made an impression on me then, and I went searching for it and its author at the end of December, when I thought my 93 year old mother was about to die. I was doing a little pre-grieving. My mother was raised on a New Jersey truck farm and so many of her ways were shaped by that long ago experience. The poem evokes her for me.

Here’s the poem, "Roots":

"You plant them early in July,” she told me,
The son who didn't know the pleasures of the old days."

Come February, the frost will take out all the bitterness.
Fixed right, they make the first good eating of the year. "

So I planted parsnips and planned, come February,
To take them to her to fix right, for who else could?
We 'd eat them together, relishing old-fashioned 'ways
That meant nothing except to our kind.

But February did not come for her, just November
With a cruel coldness that was not the weather only,
That was the weather least of all.
The greentops of the parsnips fell and died-their time.

A pile of leaves now 'rests within my garden,
Beneath which parsnips roots lie snug against the cold.
I stand and stare today, too long, at that low mound.
It looks like Mamma 's grave.

A last and tenuous link between her soul and mine,
Between old days dying and new ones yet to live,
Between an old woman saying good-bye
And a young man, taking root.

But who will cook those parnips, come February,
Who will eat them, relishing rich old ways?
And will the frost, by then,
Take out the bitterness?

Church of Almighty Good Food

An Internet search for the poem and author took me to Gene Logsdon’s blog, "The Contrary Farmer." I’ve read every posting since. He’s just published a third novel that joins the two chords of religion and food through a story that obviously conveys the author’s self-proclaimed contrary attitudes.

I enjoyed my reading of the novel, particularly for the way Logsdon insinuates his well-seasoned opinions and general outlook. Its obvious what he favors and what he eschews.

The book, Pope Mary & The Church of Almighty Good Food, tells a tongue in cheek tale of a quixotic priest serving two small parishes in the farmland south of Toledo, a cosmopolitan woman who returns to her home farm roots to recover after a failed romance in Chicago, and a host of minor characters rich in the ways and idiosyncrasies of the region.

The characters are thinly drawn; but the plot is thickly marbled with Logsdon’s views about farming and community, economics and ecclesiology. The plot turns on the closing of one of the little churches ensconced in the cornfields and how the community saves it by turning it into The Church of Almighty Good Food. The redeemed building, by novel’s end, has become a center for a community farmer’s market, surrounded by lush public garden plots and a public orchard. On festival days, when visitors come from as far away as Pittsburgh, a meal centered on roasted fresh corn is served in the old sanctuary, now converted into a dining hall. When people taste the corn for the first time, it was as though they had never tasted real corn before.

When I read the passages in the novel describing one of the festivals of The Church of the Almighty Good Food, I imagined a Breughel-like painting, teeming with ordinary folk enjoying one another and sumptuous foods in the midst of a sea of cornstalks. I even imagined a whisper from gently undulating tassels, “Serve it, and they will come.”

It’s clear that Logsdon doesn’t have much truck with the Catholic Church, which he apparently left behind years ago. Yet to my reading, he has abiding respect and gentle awe for natural spirituality. In an interview, he once said he wasn’t atheistic or agnostic; he was more an animist, if he had to describe his beliefs. He declared that he experienced spirituality in nature. Organized religion had pretty much gone off track, in his opinion.

In his blog, introducing his new novel, he wrote: “I was half way through the writing before I realized what my characters were telling me. In all religions (well, all Christian and Muslim sects anyway) the consumption of food is at the center of the worship ceremonies. The Eucharist or Communion service in Christian sects and Ramadan in Islam are really centered on spiritual and physical celebrations of eating communal meals, the Last Supper over and over again. Food really does, in an ecological sense anyway, transubstantiate or consubstantiate into body and blood, no big mystery about it. Food is supposed to be sacred, not fast. Maybe I should have titled the novel 'Holy Food,' to go with my other book,'Holy Shit.'"

There’s a theological term for communal meals and their affect, particularly the fellowship of the table that results: commensality. "The Fellowship of the Table" celebrates nature and human nature--bounty and community. (The root of commensality, commensal, means to live together without doing harm to one another.)

As I said in earlier remarks, I’m not a foodie, but I agree with Gene Logsdon that food holds the possibility of a spiritual connection, particularly when it connects us to Nature and to one another, and yes, to something transcendent, as the following selection from the novel suggests. Early in the novel the priest (Lone Ranger) and the title’s Pope Mary have a conversation:

"You talk about this kind of stuff in the pulpit?" Mary sounded incredulous.

"If you'd come to church you'd know that," he said, pointedly, but without accusation. He was glad she didn't come to church. She'd be a problem for sure. "I am trying to show the congregation how Christianity, especially in a rural parish like this one, should be concerned about not letting big business take our food independence away from us. Seems to me food has a spiritual value, sort of; that it is at the heart of a healthy, virtuous life."

"You know something, Lone Ranger. You have a great idea there. Why don't you start a new religion based on sustainable farming instead of praying to some God that doesn't exist? Change St. Philo's name to Our Lady of Good Food. Or maybe The Church of the Divine Wine. Or how about Good Spirits Chapel." She still tried not to smile. "You know how people are. Once they got converted to the religion of good food, they'd load up the collection plate. Not for reward in the hereafter, but for right now. Something delicious to eat, And drink. What a great idea you have there, Lone Ranger."

Fr. Ray stared at her, aware that she was making fun of him. But just maybe she was on to something that he had not dared put into words even to himself. To her surprise, he nodded.

"And then we could make sense out of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ at Mass. If a person could understand that the food chain is the creative force we call God, then bread and wine would indeed become body and blood, literally."

It was one of his pet ideas, but one which, being utterly heretical, he had never talked about out loud before. Why had he now?...

Mary, on her part, was trying to build on her teasing, wondering if she could draw him out even farther. Maybe he wasn't a stuffy clergy type at all. Why she wanted to find out she was not sure. But something else had suddenly inserted itself into her mind. That food chain analogy he had suggested was the first time the Eucharist theology she had been raised on had ever made any sense to her. In a sudden flash, she realized that the whole idea of a church of good food might be more than just a joke.

“Tell you what, Lone Ranger. I know, and you know, that you don't really go along with the bishop on this church closing. I have a hunch you don't really go along with all that religious stuff you pretend to believe either. It's time to give serious thought to what you've really been up to. Turn that parish of yours into the Church of Good Spirits. Tell the Pope to go fly a kite.

[This essay, from my Ecclesiastes series, preceded the sermon]

Eating Seasonally

Our culture is food obsessed. I credit television with launching the trend, beginning with public broadcasting that has long offered half hour cooking shows, featuring certain cuisines and genial personalities cooking them. A recent movie “Julie and Julia,” in which a contemporary blogger cooks her way through the late twentieth century classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the first mega food personality Julia Childs, “The French Chef,” summarizes the evolution of the contemporary food obsession.

Cable television has ratcheted up the trend in recent years, with shows driven by over the top personalities and cooking competitions. There’s even a Food Network, all food, all day, all week.

Then the subtle and not so subtle effects of globalism have introduced Americans to world cuisines. All sorts of world cuisines abound. You never know what unexpected restaurants you find across the continent. For example, did you know that Washington D.C. abounds with Ethiopian restaurants?

In another dimension America has earned the apt moniker of Fast Food Nation, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity, particularly among children. Fast food references both the ubiquitous drive-in chains as well as over processed convenience foods purchased in grocery stores. (I live only a couple of miles from the so-called Hamburger University of the McDonald Corporation and have often eaten at the campus lodge.) Insightful articles have connected the dots between inexpensive foods and federal agricultural policy, for instance, the results of a glut of cheap corn product sweeteners—“super size it!”

We can’t neglect the ethical dimension of mass produced foods whether it’s the result of Monsanto’s virtual monopoly of seed grain through genetically engineered and patented seeds or the inhumane treatment of factory farm animals.

The term “Foodies” embraces a wide spectrum from those who espouse only organic food, or those who advocate eating locally, or those who travel the blue highways in search of regional idiosyncrasies, such as deep-fried bacon with white gravy, or those who count the stars in a Michelin Guide before having a meal.

As a result of all of this and more, I’ve become mostly indifferent to food. I hear a Taoist-like adage in my head, “Too many tastes spoil the palate.”

It really takes something special to incite my taste buds and stir my culinary imagination, as it happened yesterday. I cut into a home-grown tomato, plucked from the vine and still warm from the summer sun. It was baseball size, gnarled, and tinted with green—not at all the commercially sold, perfectly red specimens of the fruit sold in the supermarket year round. But the flesh, when cut, had that perfect blend of firmness and juice, a distinctive, fresh aroma, and a taste, sweet and savory as TV chefs intone, that made my senses tingle. I realized I hadn’t really savored a tomato for more than a year, or should I say I hadn’t eaten a “real’ tomato over that time?

The sensations of the tomato took me back to my northern Delaware childhood, the large garden that my parents cultivated each year and which sustained our little family—truly my salad days when salad was an early spring offering and the greens had to be thoroughly washed to remove the soil in which they grew.

In my memory, I’ve just strolled through a growing season from the first tender spears of asparagus to parsnips left in the ground to winter and sweeten. As a child I quickly learned the succession and anticipated the progressing harvest. Indeed, “for everything a season.”

I further indulged my memory by recounting the seasonal foods of the various places we’ve lived over forty-five years: the exquisite sweetness of treacly maple syrup poured on snow outside a Vermont sugar shack in the thin sunlight of early spring; pea soup with chunks of carrots and coarse brown bread washed down with alcoholic cider during Quebec winters; salt potatoes of the early spring of Syracuse and the crisp, juicy apples from orchards on rolling hillsides cut by US 20 through Upstate New York; and the baskets of red peppers in the village farmer markets of the Chicago suburbs where I live—red peppers from the truck farms of Michigan that I roast to eat, as is, on slabs of fresh bread.

There’s no comparison between the experience of eating an ear of corn in mid-August only hours after being picked and eating a frozen ear with its ends docked, microwaved, and served in winter.

I could continue with more examples; however such indulgence might tip me toward the Foodie sensibility that I eschew. I’m not so much speaking to food as I am to its season and the successions. Ecclesiastes (“for everything there is a season”) has continued to alert me through the years to the idea of appropriate seasons of life as well as of the self. There’s something to be said about eating seasonally, not only for taste, but also for the anticipation that embeds one’s self into the rhythms and cycles of nature, heightening appreciation.

I continue to develop an aesthetic about food. Naturally, practically food fits into an overarching spiritual scheme of wholeness and health. My subsequent remarks will explore spiritual aspects of food.


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