One of the advantages of being a Druid is that you get to open your holiday presents four days early. Sara and I had a very pleasant Solstice yesterday, with a ceremony welcoming the newborn sun, gifts by turns practical and silly, the little traditions every family evolves for its celebrations, and of course a large and tasty Solstice dinner. With that under my belt, I’m feeling ready to tackle one of the most loaded questions any peak oil writer can face.
No, I’m not going to join in the all-but-shooting war over the portrayal of women in James Howard Kunstler’s latest peak oil novel, The Witch of Hebron – not yet, anyway, though I do plan on reviewing the book down the road a bit. I don’t propose to discuss the role of firearms and organized violence in preparing for the arrival of deindustrial society just now, either, and despite the entreaties of several of my regular readers – I’ll leave their motivations an open question – I don’t intend to talk about whether or not hemp is the wonder plant that will save us from peak oil. I plan instead on addressing an American obsession, one that has baffled, annoyed, and amused foreigners and tied the brains of Americans in square knots since colonial times and shows no sign of letting up any time soon.
That is to say, it’s time to talk about food.
That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that I’m going to speak out either for or against any of the current crop of fad diets, or for that matter any of their countless equivalents from the past. Fad diets are a fact of life in America, and there’s an interesting reason for that: changing your diet makes you feel better. It actually doesn’t matter how you change your diet. There’s a guy who made headlines on the bottom-feeder end of the media not long ago by doing a diet consisting entirely of junk food, and who lost fifteen pounds and feels much better since he started that diet; there’s another guy who ate nothing but potatoes for thirty days and had his health improve noticeably. Based on my observations, the effect of taking up a new fad diet lasts for six to eight months on average, and then you end up feeling pretty much the way you did before. Those among us who start a new fad diet every January, and drift out of it sometime later in the year, may actually have the right idea.
Still, that’s not a way of thinking that Americans find congenial, and the reasons for this reach back, I’m convinced, to our nation’s Puritan heritage. Puritanism has been usefully defined as the profound and inescapable fear that somebody, somewhere is having a good time, but it also has a very distinctive relationship to the concept of evil. Evil, to a Puritan, is a concrete reality capable of precise physical location; it lurks around you, ready to jump out at you from the shadows at any moment; but if you can identify it, hate it, and cast it out, then you’re good and you go to Heaven.
This is essentially the way most Americans think about food. Each of the fad diets in circulation these days identifies some particular component of food as Satan incarnate, and insists that if you hate it loudly enough and cast it out of your diet, then you’re good and you go to whatever secular equivalent of heaven contemporary fashion happens to be offering at the moment. (A century ago Americans dieted to gain weight; now they diet to lose weight; doubtless the pendulum will swing back the other way in due time, and people will once again panic over being too thin.) Whether the Satan in your diet of choice is meat, fat, carbohydrate, salt, sugar, too much cholesterol, not enough cholesterol, the wrong kind of cholesterol, or what have you, there’s some street corner preacher ready to urge you to renounce your dietary sins and get right with Good Digestion.
Druidry doesn’t tend to foster street corner preachers, though, and the wars between contending fad diets don’t really have that much to offer the Green Wizard project with which the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report is mostly concerned. No, I want to talk about something a good deal more basic: the awkward fact that the food you can produce in your backyard garden, or acquire in any other way likely in a deindustrializing world, does not magically appear in the forms that most Americans are used to consuming. A nation used to eating factory-breaded chicken tenders and JoJos to go is going to face some interesting traumas when food once again consists of live chickens, raw turnips, and fifty-pound sacks of dry navy beans.
It’s easy as well as entertaining to poke fun at America along these lines, but the difficulties involved are very real. A very large fraction of today’s Americans, provided with a plucked chicken, a market basket of fresh vegetables, and that fifty-pound sack of navy beans, would be completely at a loss if asked to convert them into something tasty and nourishing to eat. The torrent of cheap fossil fuel energy that has so completely transformed the rest of life in the industrial world has worked overtime on America’s food system, and this isn’t just a matter of how many miles a meal has traveled – how many factories has it and its ingredients passed through on the way to your plate?
As the age of cheap energy winds down, it will stop being economically viable to process food in huge centralized facilities and then to ship it hundreds of miles in refrigerated trucks to far-flung stores for just-in-time distribution to commuters shopping for dinner on their drive home from work. As that stops being economically viable, those people who know how to produce good meals by some less energy-intensive method will be a lot better off than those who don’t. Most people who have had any significant contact with the concept of peak oil will admit this, but all too often a curious thing happens next; they sigh, and talk wistfully about how nice it would be if they had the vast amounts of spare time and the demanding technical skills that cooking meals from scratch requires, but they don’t, of course, so it’s chicken tenders for dinner again.
You may be thinking something similar, dear reader. You may be thinking that it’s all very well to praise home-cooked meals produced from raw materials, but cooking that way is a very time-consuming process, not to mention one that involves a vast amount of hard work. You’ve seen the gyrations that actors in chef hats go through in cooking programs on TV, you’ve glanced over the forbidding pages full of exotic ingredients and bizarre processes that make today’s gourmet cookbooks read like so many tomes of dire enchantment out of bad fantasy fiction, you’ve seen racks of women’s magazines that treat elaborate timewasting exercises disguised as cooking instructions as a goal every family ought to emulate, and you’ve unconsciously absorbed the legacy of most of a century of saturation advertising meant to convince you that cooking things for yourself from scratch is an exercise in the worst sort of protracted drudgery, and probably gives you radioactive halitosis and ring around the collar to boot, so you really ought to give it up and go buy whatever nice product the nice man from the nice company is trying to sell you.
If all this has convinced you that you don’t have time to cook, dear reader, you have been had.
Maybe it’s that my grandfather retired after twenty years in the Aberdeen, WA fire department with a reputation as the best firehouse cook in Grays Harbor County; maybe it’s because my stepmother, who taught me how to cook, grew up eating the Tokyo working class equivalent of down home cooking in the years during and after the Second World War; or maybe it’s because when I left home and settled into my first tiny apartment, two rooms, shared bath, the two cookbooks I had to get me started were the original edition of Tassajara Cooking and The New Cookbook for Poor Poets – whatever the reason, the programming somehow failed to rub off on me. I’ve always believed in cooking from raw materials; I’ve always believed that making a good meal should take no more of my time – that is, no more time in which I actually have to do something, as distinct from any amount of time the food spends cooking off by itself – than the fifteen minutes or so it takes me to eat the result; and I’ve never encountered the least difficulty reconciling those two beliefs.
In other words, by the time you’ve gotten off the freeway on the way home from work, fought your way through congested surface streets to the grocery store, found a parking place, done the breast stroke through the crowds between you and the deli counter, caught the attention of a clerk, waited for your order of chicken tenders and Jo-Jos to be heaped into a couple of plastic containers, stood in line again to check out, escaped from the parking lot, fought your way back through those same congested surface streets, and staggered home, I’ve cooked a homemade meal from scratch and am setting it out on the table. Now of course the plum glaze on the pork chops was put up in an orgy of canning two years ago, the vegetable bean soup took ten minutes of knife work and eight hours in a fireless cooker over the weekend and is being parcelled out of the fridge a couple of bowls at a time, and it took me a couple of minutes this morning to pick the makings of the salad out of the cold frame, but if we count an appropriate fraction of those activities in my time, then we probably also need to count the half hour or so you had to work to pay for the difference between the cost of your dinner and the cost of mine.
All this is meant to suggest that there’s an entire world of cooking that has nothing to do with elaborate gourmet dishes, on the one hand, or takeout food and plastic packages on the other. A great deal of today’s cultural dialogue about food has done its level best to obscure that fact. I have a soft spot for the current “Slow Food” movement, but the very choice of that movement’s name points out that it’s unlikely ever to be anything more than an affectation of the leisured well-to-do. People who work all day, whether at a job or at home, don’t generally have time for slow food, and it doesn’t do them any good at all to reinforce a set of assumptions that insist that the only alternative to slow food is the prefabricated industrial product that passes these days for fast food.
What’s needed, really, is the revival of the sort of cooking that working class people used to do for themselves back in the days before cheap energy made the current food system possible: good food cooked in a way that doesn’t place unreasonable demands on the time or energy of people who have many other things to do. The phrase “down home cooking” can be translated into pretty much every language on Earth, and refers to different raw materials and recipes in almost every one of them, so I don’t propose to get into specifics here; you, dear reader, probably have a fair idea of the kinds of food you like to eat, and that rather than random suggestions from archdruids should be your guide. De gustibus non disputandum est; which is to say that in food choices, above all else, dissensus rules.
In place of a specific resource list, then, I’d like to recommend those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to take a look at the resources for down home recipes they have available to them, perhaps in their families, perhaps in their communities, perhaps through other channels. The recipes to look for aren’t the fancy ones you’ll find in glossy recent cookbooks that are meant to gaze scornfully down from the bookshelf and overawe the guests; the recipes you want, rather, are the ones that Grandma Mildred used to make when it was just her and Grandpa George sitting down to dinner on a Monday night when the rest of the work week was still ahead, the ones that old Uncle Benny remembers from his days in the fire department or the merchant marine, or the ones that an elderly lady in the church your great-grandmother attended wrote out longhand in blue ink to give to your great-grandmother as a wedding gift. You might find them in old mimeographed Grange cookbooks with spiral bindings, or stuffed in the back of the recipe box you got from somebody in the family and never really sorted through, or – well, you get the idea. See what you can find.
One way or another, the sort of cooking I’ve discussed here will stage a comeback in the age after petroleum. The huge industrial infrastructure that undergirds today’s food system is not going to survive the end of the energy surpluses that created it, and when it unravels – perhaps slowly, perhaps in one vast JoJodammerung, a Twilight of the Chicken Tenders on a Wagnerian scale – people are still going to need to eat. The more people there are who have taken the time to learn the not unduly difficult skills of producing good food quickly, cheaply, and easily, the more time and energy will be available to tackle the many other challenges that we’re going to face as the age of cheap energy stumbles toward its end.