What Does It Mean to Witness a Meal?

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As a graduate student in UW-Madison’s Civil Society and Community Research program, I took the class Community Power and Collective Action which aimed to “collectively raise our political awareness and consciousness as it relates to how the ‘World’ functions and how it is maintained.  This require[d] us to take a deep and critical look at the ideas, ways of thinking/knowing, politics, systems, structures, cultures, institutions, that make-up the ‘World.’”  As part of this class, we were asked to “create a written, a visual, or otherwise creative piece in conversation with content from the course and other relevant current/local events.”  This essay grew out of this assignment in which I brought together my interests in food systems, collective power, and alternative economies.

In what follows, I offer a personal example of the critical reflection of and reckoning with the banal and extreme forms of violence that constitute the globalized food system. By witnessing the stories and gaps of stories that contribute to a single meal that I cook and consume—and by holding myself accountable in these stories—I hope to offer a different way of relating to the beings that contribute to and die for a meal. This essay imagines one notion of what transformative justice in the food system could be. In order to do this, I organize this essay around three central questions:

1. What does it mean to recognize the banal and extreme forms of violence that occur in the globalized food system that brings food to our table?

In Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,[1] she interrogates the banality of the evil that Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated Nazi logistics, perpetuated during World War II. The evils he committed fell into the realm of “everyday work,” but they upheld the atrocities of the Holocaust. In 2016, Elizabeth Minnich, a student of Arendt’s, wrote The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking,”[2] in which she describes the systematic evil perpetuated not through horrific violence, but through the simplest acts that everyday people commit that are embedded in evil systems. Minnich calls upon us to return to thinking and intentionality to see the banal evil that we uphold through our daily actions. The food system reflects the structures of our world, including oppression and obliviousness.

2.What does it mean to consider the stories we know that contribute to a single meal, and to acknowledge the gaps in stories that we never will know?

In Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she interrogates how the loss of stories about African narratives of captivity and enslavement “sharpens our hunger for them,” and yet we must practice narrative restraint and refuse to fill in gaps and provide closure when there is none.[3] These gaps in our knowledge and missing stories are a form of violence and anti-Blackness and must be reckoned with through our witnessing and accountability processes. 

3.What does it mean to be authentically accountable to the historic and present-day violence of the food system, and to move from witnessing to healing, transformative food justice?

In “Healing Justice Is How We Can Sustain Black Lives,” Prentis Hemphill describes healing justice as the “how of our movements . . . towards transforming ourselves, building relationships and our institutions to support and sustain Black aliveness.” They recognize that “care and accountability are at the root of healing justice practice.”[4] In the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s video series Building Accountable Communities, accountability is discussed as a daily practice of personal and communal reflection that seeks to understand the harm we have caused/endured and to move toward transforming our relationship to harm.[5] Accountability is a place for generative growth.


Roast Pig Heart

Ingredients:

  • Pig (heart): Pigs are native to the Eurasian and African continents. European settlers and explorers introduced pigs to the Americas in the 1500s as a source of food. The ancestor of the domestic pig is the wild boar.[6]

Witnessing:

I have witnessed the life of a pig taken, but have never held that knife, that gun, in that moment. A pig heart, which pumps blood throughout the body via the circulatory system, delivers critical nutrients and oxygen to the tissues of the body and removes carbon dioxide and other wastes. An essential organ, discarded, ignored, detested. The life-force of an animal removed.

What does it mean to know that pig? I know the land where this pig was raised, the people who cared for it, the butcher shop where its life ended? I try to give honor to this animal. To respect this animal.

To thank this animal for its life-giving. And to eat its critical organ, one that the farmer has an oversupply of because the market shoppers pay no attention to it. I am a friend of this farmer and received this critical organ as a gift for a summer of caring for this animal’s family.


Mixed Greens, Onion, and Radish Salad with Maple Mustard Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

  • Red and green sweet crisp lettuce: Lettuce was originally farmed in the Mediterranean region, and spread from the Greeks to the Romans, and by the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries many varieties had developed in Europe.[7] The Spanish first brought lettuce to the Americas from Europe in the late fifteenth century.[8]
  • Onion: While the onion’s place of origin is unknown, it is probably native to Asia. The Romans introduced the onion family to Europe in the eighth century. By the fifteenth century, Europeans introduced the onion to the Americas, and the Pilgrims brought it with them on the Mayflower. There, they learned that wild onion strains already existed throughout North America and that Native American used them in a variety of ways.[9]
  • Radish: The radish was domesticated in Asia prior to Roman times. It is documented as early as the thirteenth century in Germany and reached England in 1548. The radish arrived in the Americas shortly afterward.[10]
  • Maple syrup: The Indigenous people in northeastern North America are the first known to have collected tree sap and make maple syrup from it.[11]
  • Mustard: Archaeological excavations in the Indus valley show that mustard seed originated there. The Romans are the first to experiment with the seed in the form of a condiment and exported the seed and mustardmaking knowledge to France.[12]
  • Walnut oil: Walnuts have been a critical source of food throughout the world for millennia. The Indigenous peoples of North America use their own native varieties for food, medicine, and dye.[13]
  • Apple cider vinegar: Hippocrates, “the father of modern medicine,” used apple cider, vinegar, and honey as a medicine for a variety of ills in ancient Greece in 400 B.C. In Africa and China, apple cider vinegar has a history of being used as an alternative medicine. Colonists brought apples to North America in the seventeenth century.[14]
  • Salt: The power of this mineral cannot be understated. Salt created global trade routes, was currency for the purchase of slaves (Greeks and Romans), and has solidified or destroyed governments (France).[15] From the eighth to the sixteenth centuries, trans-Saharan caravans were the central means of trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean, trading African gold for Mediterranean salt.[16]
  • Black pepper: Unlike salt, which is found around the world, black pepper is native to the Keralaprovince of India. It was considered a luxury item in Medieval Europe and was shipped along the Silk Road. Eventually, Europe got tired of paying high prices for imports, which were monopolized by the Venetians, and this served as an impetus for the initial “voyages of discovery” that led to European colonization.[17]

Witnessing:

I have witnessed the life of a radish, green and red sweet crisp lettuce, and onions. I have planted their seeds, watched them germinate, transplanted them into the soil, weeded around them until they were mature, harvested them, and ate them to nourish my body. I have no connection to their seeds, though. They were bought. Some were heirlooms, while others were hybrid varieties. I do not know the story of their origin or their caretakers. I do not know what centuries of plant breeding occurred to create the unimaginably complicated being that I hold and nurture for my consumption.

I bought all the ingredients for the maple mustard vinaigrette at my local cooperative grocery store. Where were these ingredients sourced from? Who harvested the raw ingredients? Who processed and packaged the ingredients into the form I now see? Who transported them to my store? Who profited off the sale of these products? The maple syrup comes from Maple Valley Cooperative in Cashton, Wisconsin. The walnut oil is from La Tourangelle and was “handcrafted in California with 150 years of French tradition.” The apple cider vinegar is distributed by Bragg Live Foods out of Santa Barbara, California. The mustard is distributed by Sky Foods out of Danville, Virginia. The salt and pepper were bought in bulk from Frontier Coop out of Norway, Iowa. What lies beyond these labels? I witness the gaps.


Wild Rice Cakes

Ingredients:

Manoomin: “Manoominike Giizis (The Rising Moon) is a time of age-old traditions filled with memories of family and friends, and the memories of those before us who have harvested Manoomin, or wild rice, in the same way for thousands of years in our Anishinaabe Akiing—the land of our people. As we watch the Manoomin sways from side to side as we enter the canoes,

it’s as if they dance to the excitement shared by generations. Manoomin is grown naturally in the lakes and rivers of Northern Minnesota and is hand-harvested and wood parched by tribal members using traditional methods.”[18] (Excerpt from the White Earth Land Recovery Project)

Witnessing:

I have never witnessed the life cycle and harvest of manoomin. Before moving to Wisconsin, I did not know what manoomin was, and I was woefully ignorant about the history of American Indians in the Midwest. I bought this bag of manoomin at a regional conference on agriculture from Native Harvest Ojibwe products, a subdivision of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, whose mission is “to facilitate recovery of the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation, while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, community development, and strengthening our spiritual and cultural heritage.”[19] What does it mean that a land recovery project is necessary for the Ojibwe people to maintain their sovereignty, cultural practices, and traditional foodways? How are the legacies of settler-colonialism continuing to show up in the everyday realities of the Ojibwe people?  How are settler-descendants connecting with their own culpability in this history, and holding themselves and their people accountable to past and present harms?


The Meal

Recipes: 

  • The recipe used for the pig heart roast comes from Die schönsten Gerichte aus Thüringen (The Best Meals from Thuringen) cookbook section on “Schwein, Rind und Schöps (“Beef, Pork, and Lamb”).[20] This cookbook was passed down to my husband from his parents, whose German ancestry and relatives have led them to spend many years travelling and living in Germany. Meat roasts are traditionally eaten on Sundays. Historically, butchering accompanied great celebration, occurring toward the end of the year in correlation with the holy days of Consecration, Christmas, Karneval, and Easter. The animal to be butchered was normally a pig, and the whole family and neighbors took part. I connect with my German ancestry through the roast pig heart.
  • The salad dressing recipe comes from the cookbook Mino Wiisinidaa! (Let’s Eat Good): Traditional Foods for Healthy Living project. It was produced by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWIC) “to aid tribal communities combating diabetes, obesity and other chronic illnesses by incorporating traditional Anishinaabe foods into their everyday lifestyle.”[21] This cookbook was a gift to me. This recipe is one of my favorites and has become a regular salad dressing used in my family. I examine the contradictions in this dish, with ingredients native and foreign to this land, prepared by a settler descendant living on Ho-Chunk ancestral land with little to no connection with the people who prepared the ingredients purchased at the store.
  • The recipe for wild rice cakes comes from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley.[22] This cookbook “dispels outdated notions of Native American fare—no fry bread or Indian tacos here—and uses no European staples such as wheat flour, dairy products, sugar, and domestic pork and beef.” Sherman writes, “In an epiphany I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure.”[23] The original indigenous diet “connects us all to nature and to each other in the most profound ways.”[24] I struggle with consuming the manoomin, knowing some of the history of the Ojibwe people and their spiritual connection to “the food that grows on water.” I realize that in my market-based interaction, I did not properly ask for consent to consume this sacred food.

Witnessing

I have gaps in my family story. When asked, my family says, “We are European mutts.” In looking at my last name(s), I try to understand these gaps. I hear stories about my father’s family name, “Crook.” We were shepherds and are named after the crook of the shepherd crane. We were robbers and thieves. It depends on who you ask. The Crook surname appeared in St. George, South Carolina, in the 1700s. We have English and German ancestry. My mother’s family name is “Whitman” and my ancestors on her side are English, French, and German. The extended family lives in Virginia. I know nothing else. Why did my ancestors come to North America? When? Where does their story fit within the history of settler-colonialism, and why do we remember so little? What violence did they witness? What violence did they perpetuate? 


Experiencing the Meal

I take a moment to re-center myself, to remember that as important as my reflection is, a meal is also an embodied experience. The smell of the pig heart roast, gamey and savory, in combination with the wild rice cakes, sweet and fried, wafts through the air, filling my tiny apartment with warmth. I look over to my husband and hold his hand. We look down at our plates and give thanks to each part of this meal: the pig, the manoomin, the radish, the onion, the lettuce, the salt, the pepper, the walnut oil, the apple cider vinegar, the maple syrup, the mustard, our farmer friends, the Ojibwe people of the White Earth Land Recovery project, the unknown people who harvested, processed, packaged, stocked, and sold us the products we bought at our store, the people that shared recipes and stories with GLIFWIC, Sean Sherman, my German ancestors, and the Ho Chunk people whose ancestral homeland we occupy.

I take my knife and fork and cut off a piece of the pig heart roast. It is unlike anything I have ever eaten, and my tastebuds are unsure how to proceed. I can only compare the flavor to pig liver, and the texture is tender and melty. The heart is an unmistakably strong muscle. I like it, I think. Then I move on to the wild rice cakes. They are crispy on the outside from frying in walnut oil, and soft on the inside. They have a faint swampy smell, transporting me of the beautiful waterways in which manoomin grows. I bite in and experience immediate pleasure. The sweetness of the maple syrup and earthiness of the rice perfectly complement one another, and I feel satisfied and comforted at once. This is immediately contrasted with the zesty tartness and crunch of the mixed greens, radish, and onion salad with maple mustard vinaigrette. I relish the faint zing I feel in the back of my jaw. I could eat this dressing with a spoon. I grab my fork and make another bite, this time with heart, rice cake, and salad on it. The flavors work so well together, I get caught up in them. I grab my fork again.

Wait, pause. Don’t scarf it down too quick. We just spent the last three hours making this meal. I look over at my husband and realize he is equally speeding through his meal. Mouths full, we start to chuckle at one another, realizing we need to slow down.

We start again, this time slower, more deliberately. We finish the meal with this rhythm, letting ourselves experience the beauty within the different flavors and textures.


Addressing the Gaps

I grapple with what I can and cannot witness through my meal.

I recognize the absence of African American narratives in this meal. These gaps are essential to how the American food system operates. This food system is deeply inequitable, unjust, and unsustainable for our communities and the planet. This system has its roots in the settler-colonial history of the United States and is predicated on the dispossession and genocide of American Indians and the enslavement of Africans to work on the emerging agricultural plantations.[25] The modern food system is a descendent of these plantations and perpetuates these historical injustices by emphasizing mechanized, monocrop, monopoly agriculture.[26] Seed and chemical companies dominate the market, promoting chemicals that dangerously affect human and ecosystem health. Racist and sexist policies that favor white males have led to drastic diminishment of farms owned and operated by people of color and women.[27] At the same time, women and people of color fill most of the low paying, non-managerial, and risky food sector jobs across the supply chain, such as food processing, preparation, and gastronomy.[28]

Undocumented immigrant workers carry out many of these jobs. Across the supply chain, farm and food workers are the most unprotected and lowest paid workers in the nation.[29] Additionally, there are deep inequities in access and affordability of culturally appropriate and nutritious foods in this country. While the United States produces more food than any other country, one in seven people go hungry. Capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy have disrupted and (almost) destroyed the relationships between living beings: plant, animal, human. How do we recreate these relationships?

I cannot ask for consent in a manner that is appropriate to Indigenous protocols through the current market system. Am I further perpetuating settler-colonial violence by purchasing manoomin and consuming it in a way that is not connected to the age-old oral traditions that accompany its harvest? Does purchasing Native cookbooks and preparing dishes within them contribute to the essentialization/fetishization of Indigenous peoples? The question of consent must be extended to the other communities and beings that my meal engages with. We do not ask the consent of those who have labored in the fields of the modern plantation; they are violently coerced and exploited. We have actively erased the history of our current food system and its deeply embedded connection to anti-Blackness. What does addressing these gaps in the food system look like?

I attempt to address the gaps in my meal by honoring the origin of the ingredients I use, the historical and present complexities of our globalized food system, the known and unknown stories that accompany it, and my relationship to these components—trying to build a relationship based on accountability, respect, and consent with all the complex beings involved in my meal.


Witnessing and Beyond

Consent and accountability are lacking in our food system, and this must be reckoned with. What does it mean to be authentically accountable to the historic and present-day violence of the food system and to move from witnessing to healing, transformative food justice?

By witnessing my meal of roasted pig heart, mixed greens, onion, and radish salad with maple mustard vinaigrette, and wild rice cakes, I took a first step towards naming the violence of the current U.S. food system. Witnessing the gaps in my knowledge about the food that I eat is one tiny step into witnessing the hidden, imminent forms of structural violence, oppression, and anti-Blackness. I can start here but know that I need to go much further to move from witnessing to healing and transformation. To move beyond witnessing, towards healing, transformative, food justice, consent and accountability must guide our relationships. The structures that produced the harm of our food system cannot be the ones doing the justice work, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[30] This means that dismantling the food system must be led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The justice work must be rooted in place and respond to particular conditions. It must be about relationships between beings of existence, beyond human/non-human categories. For settler descendants, this means holding oneself accountable to the historical and present-day harm committed, interrogating the ways one is complicit, and showing up. It means building consensual communities where justice is as much a process as it is a goal. It means consistently asking the question Andrea Smith offers: “Is our model of liberation the model of oppression for others?”[31]

This practice would center on “creating a new relationship which is mutually negotiated and premised on a core respect for autonomy and freedom.”[32] adrienne maree brown uses the metaphor of “flocking” to describe this form of collaboration, where we are “aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, separate enough not to crowd each other, cohesive enough to always move toward each other.”[33] Flocking together holds us accountable to each other through a generative process.

Similar to flocking, the process of making a meal, of cooking, combines single ingredients and transforms them into another form. Without careful consideration, the individual elements can get lost or be overpowered by others. When thoughtfully paired, individual components can be enhanced by others to create complementary, complex flavors. A meal can be a lifeaffirming and livegiving process if we allow it to be.


References:

1. H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963).

2. E.K. Minnich, The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

3. S. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14, muse.jhu.edu/article/241115.

4. P. Hemphill, “Healing Justice Is How We Can Sustain Black Lives,” Huffpost, February 7, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/healing-justice_b_5899e8ade4b0c1284f282ffe.

5. Barnard Center for Research on Women and Project NIA, Building Accountable Communities, 2018–2020, https://bcrw.barnard.edu/building-accountable-communities/.

6. “History of Feral Swine in the Americas,” Animal and Plant Inspection Agency, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/operational-activities/feral-swine/sa-fs-history, last modified June 2, 2020.

7. On the origins: pg. 1801 in PART VIII. A Historical Dictionary of the World’s Plant Foods, edited by Kriemhild ConeeĚ Ornelas, fl. 2008 and Kenneth F. Kiple, 1939-2016; in The Cambridge World History of FoodThe Cambridge World History of Food (Volume Two) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015, originally published 2000).

8. For Spanish bringing to Americas: pg. 1305 in PART V.D. The History and Culture of Food and Drink in the Americas, written by Linda J. Reed, fl. 2000, James Comer, fl. 2000, Elizabeth J. Reitz, fl. 2000, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, fl. 2000, William F. Keegan, fl. 2000, Daniel W. Gade, 1936-2015, Luis Alberto Vargas, fl. 2001 and John C. Super, fl. 2000; in The Cambridge World History of FoodThe Cambridge World History of Food (Volume Two) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015, originally published 2000).

9. A.B. Hanley & G.R. Fenwick (1985) Cultivated Alliums, Journal of Plant Foods, 6:4, 211-238, DOI: 10.1080/0142968X.1985.11904312.

10. “Radish,” fact sheet, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and United States Department of Agriculture, https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/school-nutrition/pdf/fact-sheet-radish.pdf, accessed October 15, 2021.

11. K. Wills, “Celebrating the History of Maple Syrup,” Michigan State University Extension, March 20, 2017, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/celebrating_the_history_of_maple_syrup.

12. Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Mustard,” Britannica.com, ed. A. Augustyn, https://www.britannica.com/plant/mustard, accessed October 15, 2021.

13. http://ctn_7-1713. H. Murphy, “Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere: Black Walnut,” American Indian Health and Diet Project, https://aihd.ku.edu/foods/black_walnut.html, accessed October 15, 2021.

14. A. Hoover, “Apple Cider Vinegar Myths and Facts,” West Virginia University Extension Services, https://extension.wvu.edu/food-health/cooking/apple-cider-vinegar-myths-facts#:~:text=In%20ancient%20Greece%20around%20400,China%20as%20an%20alternative%20medicine, accessed October 15, 2021.

15. Laszlo, Pierre. 2001. Salt : Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press. Accessed October 20, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

16. D. Rouge, “Saharan Salt Caravans Ply Ancient Route,” Reuters.com, February 20, 2007, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mauritania-caravan/saharan-salt-caravans-ply-ancient-route-idUSL162118220070221.

17. Nair K.P. (2020) Introduction. In: The Geography of Black Pepper (Piper nigrum). Springer, Cham. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/10.1007/978-3-030-52865-2_1.

18. https://nativeharvest.com/pages/about-us.

19. “Our Mission,” White Earth Land Recovery Project, https://www.welrp.org/, accessed October 15, 2021.

20. Gudrun Dietze, Die Schönsten Gerichteaus Thüringen (The Best Meals from Thuringen), (Leipzig, Germany: Buchverlag für die Frau, 1994). 

 21. Great Lakes Indian and Wildlife Commission(GLIFWIC), Mino Wiisinidaa! (Let’sEatGood!): Traditional Foods for Healthy Living (Odanah, WI: 2014).

22. S. Sherman and B. Dooley, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

 23. Ibid., p. 3.

 24. Ibid., p. 5.

25. E. Holt-Gimenez, Land Justice:Reimagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States (Oakland, CA:Food First Books, 2017).

26. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “History of Agriculture,” in Food System Primer, http://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/history-of-agriculture/, accessed October 16, 2021.

27. N. Rosenberg and B.Stuucki, The Butz Stops Here: Why the Food Movement Needs to Rethink Agricultural History,” Journal of Food and Law Policy 13 (2017):12-25.

28. E. Holt-Gimenez, Z. Brent,and A. Shattuck,Food Workers Food Justice: Linking Food, Labor, and Immigrant Rights,” Food First Backgrounder 16, no. 2 (2010):1-4.

29. Rodman, S., Barry, C., Clayton, M., Frattaroli, S., Neff, R., & Rutkow, L.(2016). Agricultural exceptionalism at the state level: Characterization of wage and hour laws for U.S. farmworkers. Journal of Agriculture, FoodSystems, and Community Development, 6(2),89-110.

30. A. Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in C. Moraga and G. Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), pp. 94-101.

31. A. Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing,” in INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, July 2016). https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373445 

32. H. Walia,Decolonizing Together: Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity Toward a Practice of Decolonization,”Briarpatch Magazine, January1, 2012.

33. a.m. brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) p. 13.

  • Allison Crook Hellenbrand

    Allison Crook Hellenbrand is a farmer, community organizer, and recent Master’s graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the School of Human Ecology. Her interests are around the intersections between agriculture, justice, relational organizing, and alternative economic models. Specifically, she explores ways to advance rural livelihoods, food justice and sovereignty, and community-based food systems.
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