Posts Tagged ‘immigration


Where does breakfast come from?

A great summary of major environmental issues, from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, 1949:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

I found A Sand County Almanac through Patricia Klindienst’s The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans, which has a lot more in it about land use, land distribution, and farm displacement, and migration than I ever imagined when I first checked it out of the library. Things I’m thinking, and writing, about, lately. The connection to A Sand County Almanac was the epigraph Klindienst chose for her book: “To change ideas about what the land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for.”

As you can imagine, these two books, and the seed catalogs recently delivered in the mail, have got me hankering for a little plot to cultivate. Unfortunately, all of the community gardens around here have waiting lists at least two years long–more often five or ten. Salvation may come in the form of John, Sarah, and Brigitte, who are moving to the Mission from Boston tomorrow, into a wonderful house complete with a back courtyard perfect for a container garden. I am going to propose to be their serf.


different ways of working the land

For my grandfather’s family, having a big backyard garden and traveling for seasonal farm work were ways to survive the lean first years of their immigration–and then the Great Depression. My grandfather was very young when they first set out along the central migrant corridor (they went from Houston up to Michigan and back, and elsewhere in central Texas), so his first memories of it are pretty happy: a city kid hanging out on a farm with his younger brother, playing a lot and earning an allowance that just covered a weekly walk to the movies by doing light work with dad in the fields. As he got older, the work got harder and he worried more, until he found himself “with no shoes on, up to the belly button in mud,” picking rice and plotting a way out.

He succeeded, and not surprisingly, my mother was a pure city girl. Or mostly–her parents did have a big front garden and often kept pigs, goats, or chickens at their house in Houston, and this was not unusual for their neighborhood. It took her some adapting when my dad, a mixed-up, rebellious city boy looking to fulfill his image of what a real Texan should be, moved us to the country and (again, not surprisingly) never really made a go of it on ten acres of hard red clay. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in their garden, picking wild berries, and walking through the countryside, trying–in retrospect–to find a way to belong to the situation I found myself in.

I gave it up and moved to the city. I taught dance classes and learned to hate food; after I quit that path, I found community gardening and a way to reconcile myself and food. I also found that I liked the physical work, at least as a respite from desk-bound life. I discovered that my reasons for being there weren’t necessarily everyone else’s reasons. I met activists who taught me about food deserts, Earth Mothers who planted by the moon, and antisocial ex-hippies who would have preferred their gardens without the community.

In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby describes two of her friends who live in Tokyo but have rented a buckwheat field outside the city. They visit it once a month, but it is mostly worked by the pensioner who owns it.

‘Have you ever seen a field of buckwheat in bloom?’ asked Adachi.

I hadn’t.

‘At night, under moonlight, the white flowers glisten like stars. It is a strangely beautiful sight.’

… In industrialized countries like Japan and the United States, … {g}rowing your own buckwheat, grinding it, and making it into noodles can be enjoyable precisely because it is no longer a necessity.

Community gardening took me on a tour of gardens in Havana, where people were working the urban landscape to cope with the collapse of their food distribution systems. Though that was their overarching reason–necessity–they also talked about all the other reasons I’d heard people give for wanting to grow something on a little patch of dirt.

Yesterday J-P and I took a class at TechShop in Menlo Park, which meant a long bike ride from the Caltrain station. It took us through a neighborhood that reminded me a little of where my grandparents lived in Houston. Chilco Street took us along the train tracks behind that neighborhood, and from there you could clearly see some lush backyard cornfields. Exactly the kind of mini-milpa that all of the rural Guatemalans who told me about their plans for el norte said they would grow, because who would they, as hombres de maíz, be without homegrown corn?


My Caltrain reading, Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico, gave me some more reasons people work the land, even though main subject is high school soccer in Woodburn, Oregon. Octavio clung to the turf nursery where his uncle and father worked as a way to feel comfortable in a new country. It was rural, which felt like home, and it had the rhythms of farm life that he was used to. It kept him from the need to interact with the rest of the town, where his inability to communicate was frustrating and where he feared detection and deportation. Cheo’s father worked the land to earn money for his family; he made Cheo do it so that Cheo would aspire to better work.

Some of these reasons are classic; some are surprising. Some are pure necessity; some pure pleasure. Most are a combination of the two, yet there is a remarkable disconnect in the US between people who care about food and the land for reasons of pleasure and those who grow food and work the land for reasons of necessity. Farm labor is an issue that hardly occurs to most people who claim to be interested in food issues; for me, they are inseparable.


attitudes toward diversity in food

Thanks to Joan for pointing out the differences in tone and language between these New York Times articles, one about Bulgarian-British star chef Silvena Rowe, the other about Tomas Lee and the increasing availability of Korean tacos.

Rowe can indulge, without reproach, an “Orientalist vision” in her “sexy,” “hedonistic” “signature dishes.” (Perhaps she gets a pass because she caters to “the pomegranate craze” in a “Britain avid for new cuisines.”) Her food is the product of great thought and creativity: she “reinvents” herself, “finds” herself, “locks herself in her room” until she gets her variation on someone else’s recipe right. She “preserves” recipes through her innovation, and looks to the past (that outdated Orientalist vision again).

Meanwhile, Tomas Lee and the other Korean taco chefs profiled in the second article (note that they are many; Rowe is one) are “making up a cuisine as they go along.” They hardly think about what they’re doing, much less lock themselves away for research. Inevitable product of the interaction between Korean shopowners and their Mexican employees, Korean tacos were “just lunch” for all these “entrepreneurs” (not chefs, note) who are now trying to “mainstream” Korean food in America. Dave, though, pointed out my favorite line: “The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is O.K., that this food is American.” Even so, the article sounds rather concerned that there are so many “trend-conscious restaurateurs with few apparent ties to Korea” who are getting in on the act. (Compare to how Rowe’s tenuous ties, as a Bulgarian-born, Russian-educated British citizen, to the Middle East go unremarked in the previous article.)

Meanwhile, in Arizona, SB 1070 (otherwise known as the Your-Papers-Please Law) with go into effect tomorrow. Andrew Leonard of Salon’s “How the World Works” noted an uptick in Google searches for Pei Wei, the casual pan-Asian spin-off of Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s. Were people searching for information on the Pei Wei franchise in Chandler, Arizona, that fired 12 employees for taking May 29 off (unauthorized) to protest SB 1070? Nope, the buzz was all about the cut-rate entrees the chain is offering to celebrate its tenth anniversary. This leads Leonard to a wonderful rant:

What really gets me riled are the ridiculous contradictions baked into the ersatz globalization symbolized by a chain of faux-Asian eateries in a state like Arizona.

Diversity is fine if it applies to the ability of Arizonans to eat cheaply priced cuisine that imitates Chinese or Malaysian or Thai (albeit with all the sharp edges sanded off.) The fact that producing such cuisine for such low prices requires exploiting cheap labor gets swept under the rug. The fact that actual Asians have almost nothing to do with the production of the food is also considered irrelevant. …

But god forbid society itself should become more diverse, along with the food.

The actually interesting story there, about the workers who were fired for knocking off to go to a protest, also shows a limit to the kind of “community organizing” that has been most effective in the minority- and immigrant-heavy service sectors. Not only are significant classes of these workers (domestic workers, farm laborers) not even covered by basic labor protections, but those who are covered are only protected when they’re involved in straight-up labor organizing. Fighting against “race-baiting laws” that make the whole community insecure (including workers who might otherwise organize)? Not covered.

Thanks to J-P for the Andrew Leonard tip. (He also points out that William Gibson probably feels slighted that his 1991 coinage “kimcheewawas” didn’t make the Korean tacos article.)


Corn tortillas and Bay to Breakers

Chez Cervantes-Ferguson was culinarily busy, and full of runners, this weekend for Bay to Breakers. All of which partly explains how I found myself, at 5:50 yesterday morning, breakfasting on two stale corn tortillas and some cherries because they were the most readily available food in the house.

A little over an hour later, I was standing at the corner of Howard and Spear, corn tortillas whizzing through the air around me. Apparently this is a Bay to Breakers tradition. It took me three tries to get the hang of making one fly like a frisbee.

The tortillas got me to telling Courtney about atol and the changing availability of fresh corn masa in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Houston when I was growing up. When I was very young, there was a woman in the neighborhood who had a wet mill and ground her own nixtamal. She would make extra for any neighbors who wanted to buy it. Usually there wasn’t much demand, except in December, when everybody wanted to make tamales. Maybe someone would buy fresh corn masa if they were making a big batch of enchiladas, but almost everyone preferred flour tortillas and thought of corn tortillas as poverty food.

The holidays were also the only time I experienced champurrado–a sort of hot chocolate thickened with fresh corn masa. I had no idea that champurrado was part of a whole matrix of drinks known as atol: sweetened milk or water thickened with a grain, usually corn masa or old corn tortillas, but sometimes fresh corn, rice, or oats. Like champurrado, horchata and my grandmother’s sweet, milky preparation of Cream of Wheat also belong to the atol matrix, but I didn’t know what to call it until I lived in Guatemala for a while as an adult. When I came back and mentioned it to my grandfather, he said that atol was often all his family had to eat during the Depression, and that he couldn’t stand the stuff, or the memory of it. So it was no wonder neither I nor my mother had ever heard of it.

When a Fiesta supermarket opened up at the end of my grandparents’ block in the early-to-mid-80s, its mill put the neighbor lady out of business. It was able to run at large volume all the time because of a fresh wave of immigration–the newcomers preferred corn over flour tortillas. I’m sure they knew all about atol, too.


link round-up

A Glimmer of Green in Houston
Restaurateurs, urban farmers, and investors are working together to plant gardens to serve local vegetables to Houston diners.

Gulf Fishing News
The South I know and–um, love?–has finally appeared in coverage of the BP oil slick. Only part of Louisiana’s shoreline and Gulf waters are directly affected by the oil, and fishermen west of the line blame media coverage for driving the tourist trade away from their charter boats. Yep, the gol-darned liberal media absolutely caused the BP oil slick.

Meanwhile, though Mexico is unlikely to see oil from BP’s slick wash ashore, the country is considering legal action against BP for damage to wildlife species that spend time there–and attract tourists.

Unrelated to the BP oil slick, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 are ready to strike against Delta Pride Catfish for proposing contract changes that would greatly reduce benefits and job security, eliminate daily overtime pay, and increase the work week–erasing all the benefits the workers won in their three-week strike in 1990.

Restaurant Labor News
Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, which has been closed since January 1, is transferring to new management, who are having trouble agreeing to honor the terms of the employees’ previous contract.

Marc Forgione kicked a New York times blogger out of his restaurant last weekend for asking him not to yell at his staff so that his diners could hear.

Everybody Knows About Arizona, Goddam
What with his state’s new requirement that brown people carry their papers at all times, John McCain feels he has to get tough on immigration. That’s hardly news, but what I really appreciate about this post at the Latin Americanist is Vicente Duque‘s comment listing municipal governments, school districts, and sports teams that are boycotting Arizona by refusing to fund employee, student, or team travel to the state. San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston are among them.

Oh, and by the way–ethnic studies classes are now outlawed in Arizona. “It’s just like the Old South,” says Arizona schools chief Tom Horne. And he’s right–except he means that ethnic studies classes cause Chicanos to resent and oppress white people. No, Mister Horne, it’s not my education that makes me resent you–it’s stunts like this. Which, I’ll note, you have the power to pull. So where’s the oppression again?

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