Our Little (Rhode Island) Red hen Verloe
The story of The Little Red Hen tends to be told for its communitarian values: by helping in the growth, harvest, winnowing and milling of the wheat, all could have enjoyed the ensuing bread. As it was, industrious Hen shared it only with her family. If one looks more specifically at the labor involved in that bread’s beginnings, one finds a deeper story, and a lost virtue.
Industrial agriculture, like anything humans do, has good and bad points. One bad point: the average person has been separated from the process of how things grow, and how things are processed into food, and have lost the knowledge of even the most basic of human foodstuffs. Let’s take cereal grains (cereal is from Ceres, the Roman goddess of farming) as an example.
Ethnobotanists and archaeologists pin the start of agriculture to around 9500BCE. (That’s about 3500 years before the world began according to Governor Palin; she also thought dinosaurs lived with humans at this same time. An interesting aside, goshdarnit.) Agriculture, as defined, meant the intentional growing of multiple foodstuffs normally found in the wild, with emmer, chickpeas and peas being three crucial first crops.
Michael Pollan has done a fabulous job in his books of pointing out the very narrow slice of botanical life upon which modern agriculture (and thus our way of life) is based: it’s mostly soy, wheat, rice, and corn, the biggest of which is corn. Indeed, it is especially hard to escape the latter, as it’s everywhere, even where you think it wouldn’t be. Relying only on this handful has made our culinary lives less rich, I would argue. Less rich, and less prone to experiment even in our own kitchens. It’s certainly caused a boatload of other problems, from soil depletion to nitrogen runoff to childhood obesity to Type II diabetes. Oh, and it’s aided in the warming of this earth.
So, back to cereal grains. Industrial ag and, goshdarnit, the loss of small-scale family farming have separated us from the meat of our wheat. “Separating the wheat from the chaff” sounds today like a trite colloquialism, when in actuality it’s hard work! Try it sometime: growth, harvest, threshing, winnowing. The process of removing the inedible chaff (husk) that surrounds any cereal grain (the bran, endosperm, or seed) that is eaten is laborious. I tend to kvetch about having to shell my peas and beans, but it’s got nothing on the preparation required to make our grains edible. Machines, or hand tools, certainly help in this process. I am quite certain the need for better and faster agricultural tools led us to have the big brains we have. Other than spearpoints, they qualify as our first true tools.
What would it mean if we were to become a nation of gardeners, of chicken-ranchers, grain-growers and apple-harvesters? What would it mean if we cut off our addiction to fast food, to microwave meals? What would it mean if any American could supplement their egg and garden bounty with fresh bread from locally-grown grains, or cartons of locally-made butter and cream? I would argue we would become a lot more healthy, a lot more food secure, a lot more culinarily rich.
I wanted to give you something to chew on. Tomorrow I’ll cite my luck making posole/hominy.