Do you ever read something and realize that someone’s put into words how you’ve been feeling and thinking for years? Someone has manifested your manifesto? And it all came about because of pickles? I found this post while researching how to pickle turnips. We harvested an abundance of delicious and delicate Tokyo turnips, and we decided to preserve them using the ancient method of fermentation.
A recurring theme for conversation around our house is what is the appropriate scale of production (for us and for other types of food-related operations). This essay is certainly food for thought and renews and invigorates my commitment to CSA and showing up for farmers markets in our community. Placing food in the hand of someone I know gives me a sense of joy and satisfaction that is hard to come by any other way. If you’re reading this, and you come to the farmers market, thank you for making our work worthwhile.
My brother John and I share a hobby of brewing lacto-fermented sodas–root beers and ginger ales–which we share among family and friends and occasionally sell at health food conventions. Often we are asked, “Where can I buy this?” Our answer is “Nowhere.” Unless you are lucky enough to run into us at the Weston A. Price Foundation yearly conference, chances are you will never see lacto-fermented soda for sale anywhere.
Our personal reasons for not “expanding our operation” are deeply relevant to the conflict between craft and commerce in food production. Usually I make soda in 5-gallon batches. The process is fairly time-consuming, but it fits in well with other chores and there is no obligation to brew a certain amount at a certain time. Since I enjoy brewing several times a week, I produce a surplus–far more than our own family can drink. To expand to a commercial level, though, would mean changes in the way I brew, because as it stands I can only net about $20 per hour of labor. To be commercially viable, I would need to exploit efficiencies of scale by buying better equipment: a bottle-washing machine, bottler, larger fermentation vessels, etc. Then it is no longer a kitchen hobby; it is a business that must consider shipping, legal licensing, labeling laws, sanitation regulations, accounting and so forth.
The Compromises of Commerce
So far so good. Some people are naturally inclined towards business. There are more and more small foodcrafting businesses these days, and I am happy to pay a premium for their products. But it is more than a matter of hobby versus business–there are certain compromises one must make to bring production past a certain critical volume. The critical volume for fermented foods is especially low, because the product is alive and working. Lacto-fermented soda keeps fermenting in the bottle, for instance, leading to foaming and spraying when you open it, or even dangerous exploding bottles if you leave them out long enough. There is a good reason that mass-marketed soft drinks are dead. In fact it is a necessity in the context of national brands, centralized production and mass distribution. To change the way food is produced and processed inescapably demands changes in the way it is distributed and sold.
The compromises one would have to make to sell fermented soda on an economically viable scale are constant refrigeration and scary warning labels, or pasteurization, or plastic bottles. None is acceptable to us, for ecological and health reasons.
Similar compromises apply to most of the fermented foods that have survived the last century of food industrialization. Pickles and relish are no longer fermented at all, but preserved in vinegar and sterilized with heat in the canning process. Wine is treated with sodium metabisulfite before fermentation to destroy wild bacteria and yeasts that make the results less predictable. Beer is usually pasteurized or microfiltered to kill or remove living yeast. Yogurt survives, but it just isn’t as good after the first day; the same is true of bread. Sauerkraut is usually pasteurized. To be sure there are niche brands, which are still living foods, available in health food stores, but then freezing or refrigeration is necessary. This is rather ironic, since a major motivation for fermenting foods in the first place was to preserve them, in the days before refrigeration.
To make our soda with pleasure and without compromise limits us to a production level of ten to twenty gallons a week. This is sufficient to supply perhaps five or ten households. From this realization, a new (or rather very old) economic model of food production suggests itself.
When Money Reigns Supreme
Anyone who has tried to incorporate all the principles of traditional foods into their diet will find that it is almost a full-time job. If you want to grind your own flour, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt, your own soaked-and-slow-dried nuts, your own relishes and chutneys, your own bone stock, your own sprouts, your own kombucha and ginger beer. . . this is more than the typical beleaguered house husband can handle. One wonders how they did it in the old days. The answer is, they didn’t! For one thing, before the age of the suburbs and the automobile, extended families lived together in the same house, and as often as not, next door to cousins and uncles. Four people cooking for 16 people is a lot easier than one person cooking for four. Moreover, communities were small and close-knit, and there was probably some degree of specialization and sharing among households.
I don’t want to make ginger beer for hundreds of people, most of them strangers, but I would be delighted to make it for a handful of other families whom I know well. Maybe one of them would make fresh-ground slow-rise sourdough bread for me (I never could get that to work). Maybe another would supply me with chutney and fish sauce. Maybe another makes soy sauce. Another brews beer; another wine from their own grapes. Maybe another neighbor has a 30-gallon cauldron for making beef stock; another, a 30-gallon pickling crock. For most traditional foods, the optimum level of production is more than for the nuclear family, but less than what is considered economically viable in today’s money economy.
Money can facilitate exchange among friends and neighbors, but in essence money is an anonymous form of energy–almost by its definition as a universal medium of exchange. Among friends and neighbors, the usual laws of market economics do not apply. You don’t seek to maximize profit. You don’t raise your prices to the maximum just because you can. You are not doing it for the money; you are doing it for your family and for the neighbors. In an economy of reciprocation and social exchange–that is, in an economy that is not primarily a money economy–“economic efficiency” takes on a different meaning.
The more anonymous the customer, the more money stands as the sole motivating force. In today’s multi-level, automated and standardized food production & distribution system, the consumer is almost totally anonymous to the farmer, the commodity buyer, the processing factory and even the grocer. There is no reason to care about the wholesomeness of the product, except to the extent necessary to conform to whatever regulations are enforced, and whatever the public might find out about. No reason? Oh pardon me, I forgot about altruism. Yes, of course, a company might make products better than they need to be out of an abstract altruism, but when the very real pressures of market competition come to bear, such altruism quickly degenerates into sloganeering and PR. Some version of “caring about the health of the consumer” surely appears in the mission statements of all the major food corporations, including the most egregious violators of the public trust. In other words, it is hard to genuinely care about someone you don’t even know. Compassion in the abstract is almost always a self-deception. Much more reliable is the goodwill and mutual sense of responsibility that exists among neighbors who are bound together into a community, their good intentions enforced by social pressure and the intimacy of long association.
In many areas of life, social mechanisms of enforcing responsible behavior have atrophied as communities have disintegrated. These have been replaced by legal mechanisms. The old mechanisms of social pressure, reputation, etc., have lost their power. No matter how much your neighbors dislike you, your money is still good at Wal-Mart. In today’s anonymous society, we are little dependent on our communities, which have become mere collections of buildings. More and more, we are connected to our neighbors by proximity only. The increasing legalism and litigiousness of America is a symptom of unraveling communities, weakening connections. On a most basic level, we no longer make food for each other. All phases of food production, from the farm to the kitchen, are increasingly the province of strangers who are paid to do it.
You cannot pay someone to care. You can pay someone to act as though they care; you can pay them to follow meticulous guidelines; but you can’t make them really care.
Wholesomeness of food is more than a matter of which methods and processes are used to bring it from soil to table. When caring is codified, the code loses much of its meaning, especially under the influence of powerful corporations. The letter persists while the spirit departs. Many of the best, most conscientious farmers I know eschew the organic certification, because they know that food produced according to the letter of the organic code need not be consonant with the spirit that gave birth to organic farming in the first place.
An alternative path exists: food should not be primarily a commodity. Food is a gift of God’s Good Earth, for which all religious traditions teach gratitude. To subject it to the economic regime of the lowest bidder is to desecrate the gift and insult the Giver. For most of human history, the sharing of food was a significant social act, cementing ties between friends and kin, showing welcome to strangers. Today it has become an anonymous act of commerce.
Other people in other times would no doubt have thought it exceedingly strange, if not downright obscene, for total strangers to grow, process, and even cook nearly all one’s food.
The Proper Role of Money
That is not to say that food should never be bought. Money has its rightful role, even among friends, as an aid to fairness and a means of support. What I am saying, rather, is that the sharing of food should be part of a personal relationship. Money may be involved, but the profit motive should be secondary. In my economic relationships with the local farmers I know, I am happy to pay them a fair price, in hopes that they will be prosperous. My sentiment is partly selfish, because I know that if they are prosperous, they will continue to provide me with good food. But also I simply don’t feel good about eating food that comes through the devaluing of another human being’s labor, especially when I know that human being personally. When a personal relationship exists between food supplier and food consumer, then bargaining becomes a process of each party coming to understand the other’s circumstances to find a mutually fair price, rather than a heartless and shameless exercise of getting the best possible price, which in economics is called “maximizing utility” and in commonsense language is called greed.
In working with my bacterial soda culture, I sometimes get the feeling that the bacteria themselves don’t want to be sold. Similarly, I feel that sauerkraut wants to live in a barrel in the basement. Before you dismiss this as a flight of fancy, consider the uncanny resistance of truly wholesome food to mass production and mass distribution. Most fresh foods, for example, have a limited shelf life, which can only be extended by killing the food through processing, or putting it in suspended animation by refrigeration or freezing. The former response diminishes its healthfulness; the latter has environmental costs. (Also I never have believed that freezing fully preserves the healthfulness of food. It tastes less vibrant, even if all the enzymes are supposedly intact.) Other preservation methods, namely dehydration and fermentation, might arguably work for mass production and distribution, but even here there are problems with storage and shelf life–the food companies’ use of preservatives and pasteurization is not entirely gratuitous. Besides, such foods cannot account for the bulk of one’s year-round diet.
Foods of the Future
When people ask whether they can buy our soda in the future, we usually say, “No, but we’ll teach you how to make it.” We envision a society where every household has a speciality, be it soda or sauerkraut, soap or stock, bread or soy sauce, that they make in quantities sufficient for five or ten households–precisely the quantity that maximizes efficiency without compromising quality. (It is not much more work to make ten gallons of soda than it is to make one, but to make fifty gallons is an enterprise of an entirely different order.)
We envision a society also where farmers are personally acquainted with the people who eat their produce, or perhaps, for certain products, linked through one degree of separation. This is workable, because almost as if by design, the ideal size for a sustainably operated mixed family farm is sufficient to meet the food needs of 20 or 30 families. Of course, farms might specialize to some degree, so each family might patronize three or four farms; even so, this calculates out to a manageable number of people per farm, few enough that the farmer can know each personally. Personally I believe that true sustainability requires even smaller farms, and more farmers. Maybe almost everyone not living in a city should be a part-time farmer, at least to the extent of tending a vegetable garden or keeping a few chickens.
In such a society, money alone would not guarantee good food. Moving into a new community, you would need to get to know people, build connections, find your niche. Moving to a new community would be a big deal, as indeed it was in yesterday’s small towns and neighborhoods, more demanding than simply finding where the supermarkets and superstores are located. There would be more sharing in life. We would be more dependent on our neighbors, less dependent on strangers living thousands of miles away, and less dependent on corporations governed by the profit motive. Food would recapture its ancient role of social bonding. This would, I believe, be a much happier society than our current one, with its alienation, loneliness and rootlessness.