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How our Food Culture Disappeared

There is no doubt that our current American culture lacks a true food culture, as so aptly pointed out by Eddie. We are a country of immigrants. We do come from many backgrounds. We are a melting pot.

But I don’t think those are the reasons we lack a food culture. My theory is a bit different.

I believe we are a nation swallowed up by industrialism. That self-titled revolution created a lot of change in this country, and food was no exception.

You see, we live in a large nation – a nation which you could drive across for years and always be coming across a unique climate and geography. Our country is made up of regions and those regions each have their own microclimate.

And every microclimate produces its own type of food.

Before I lose you here, pay close attention to this: Before food was shipped via railway how do you think people ate?

They ate almost entirely locally because they had to, because it was how life was lived, and because it was (and still is) the only thing that really makes sense in terms of nourishing families while stewarding our land.

This period of time, before the railway, was also long before our nation of farmers became a nation of urban and suburban-dwellers.

  • In 1760 farmers made up 90% of the workforce.
  • In 1840 farmers made up 69% of the workforce.
  • In 1900 farmers made up 38% of the workforce.
  • In 1950 farmers made up 12.2% of the workforce.
  • In 1990 farmers made up 2.6% of the population.

So now a group of 60,000 grow enough food to feed three million people. Does that make sense to you?

Prior to this huge shift in the way food was produced, procured, and processed; people in different areas of our country did have a food culture and all were unique to their own region.

Their food culture was based on two things: where they came from and where they lived.

If they were immigrants from Ireland potatoes were familiar and a mainstay crop, so long as they were in an area of the country that could grow potatoes. If they were immigrants from Germany then their ancestor’s traditional recipes for things like sauerkraut were tucked away in their pocket, or even their memory.

But if you were in a dry area of the country you would have to grow crops that were drought tolerant. If you were in a wet climate, like the northeast, you might rely more heavily on water-loving crops. And in that northeast you would have plentiful seafood whereas in the arid south you might eat plenty of free-range beef.

Many homesteads grew calorie crops such as potatoes – white (or sweet in the south), beans, small-scale grains like corn or wheat. But even these foods were different from region to region, the seed acclimating to the specific microclimate of the area over the course of years of seed-saving and then seed-planting.

The industrializing of the food system and the mass exodus of subsistence farmers in this country blew those regional food cultures to the four winds. Suddenly all types of food were available from all areas, and the land-based food and life culture scattered just as the farmers did.

I do believe it is possible to reclaim those food cultures that once made each region distinct and wonderful. In the next post I will share some ideas for how to do that.

  Leave a Reply

  • This is a great post! Can’t wait to read the next one! The statistics of farmers laid out as you did is very sobering indeed! Makes me excited to be growing my own food on my own land. :)

    April January 31, 2013 AT 10:36 pm
  • My grandfather (born 1900) was a farmer from the day he could stand until the day he died when he fell over tending his beef cattle in the barn in 1992. He lived in central Illinois and farmed land that once belonged to Thomas Lincoln. I would love to return to this lifestyle. My age and health deter me. Also, I have a grandson that I watch while my daughter works. They are VERY stuck in an urban mindset/lifestyle so I live nearby in a suburban area. Trying my best to raise some organic foods in raised beds. I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog and look forward to every post.

    Carol January 31, 2013 AT 12:50 pm
  • Amen. A symptom of this dysfunctional food culture that I have experienced is an expectation to learn many different food groups. I have felt the need to learn how to cook Mexican food and Italian food and Thai food. It is exhausting trying to learn (and have ingredients for) all these kinds of foods. And why? Why should I learn how to make pasta and bread and tortillas and dumplings, when I can just make bread? In my food journey, I have come to embrace simplicity in our food and that means culturally as well. I don’t buy exotic ingredients or experiment with the newest kind of sweetener. I am creating a food culture within my family that I can do well, feed us healthy food with a minimal amount of stress, so we can focus on more important things.

    Joy January 30, 2013 AT 5:33 pm
  • Wholeheartedly agree with the above essay. I would say that people in our nation are addicted to wheat which makes them asleep to the lack of REAL FOOD. Tomatoes are grown in the sands of Florida, and migrant workers there are forced to spray deadly pesticides as part of their job. These are the people whose babies are born without limbs and have cleft palates. This is happening in our country!!! Do any of you dream of restoring our farmlands in our local regions? Here in Wisconsin the overwhelming growth of sub-divisions taking over farm lands has halted, due to the economy. But when the economy picks up wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people returned to farming? I have a couple of acres here in rural Wisconsin and I have sheep and chickens. I have access to graze my flocks on 29 acres of grass. This year if all goes well I would like to add a Jersey cow.

    The above website is under construction but wish me well as I will be starting my own blog. I will be opening my Farm School in September 2013. As a transitioning Waldorf School Teacher (auto-immune disorder took me out a year ago) I am returning to work as a Farm-Based Educator. Send me children!!!! Let the learning, the love and returning to real food begin!

    Julie Drigot January 30, 2013 AT 9:07 am
  • I completely agree! Can’t wait for the next post!

    Janelle January 30, 2013 AT 6:48 am
  • I really enjoyed reading this post. It’s something I never considered before, but the idea of a local food culture makes sense. I’m really trying to buy my produce locally now and teaching my kids that we really don’t need to eat grapes in January. I just can’t give up those bananas, though.

    Treasure January 30, 2013 AT 1:25 am
  • Great post! Looking forward to the next one… :)

    Katie January 29, 2013 AT 7:10 pm
  • Very much looking forward to reading the next installment!! Thank you.

    Beth January 29, 2013 AT 4:27 pm

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