Taboo, Sustainable Eating and Who We Are Not

Pha Lo has a wonderful piece at Salon on the ways that his family's history of locavorism was a source of shame and conflict for them, because it fit so badly into the American diet. He echoes a story I hear over and over again, both from immigrants and from Americans from traditional agricultural communities - we were embarassed about our diet, made ashamed or even punished for eating real food, told what we were eating was gross. He writes about his local, organic, sustainable diet:

I remember watching grown-ups lose their identities and self-worth, slip into depression and cycles of poverty, illness and suicide. These were clan leaders who once commanded the respect of entire villages, tough guerrilla soldiers trained by the CIA -- like my father -- and proud providers who had, without writing, committed to memory centuries of the best farming practices. And they were humbled, receiving welfare and food stamps because there was no opportunity then in urban America for their main skill. Still, they farmed in the city for two necessities: food and a wistful connection to the old way of life.

We grew crops in every plot of soil that hinted of fertility -- parking lots, front lawns, even inside discarded paint buckets, which made terrific homes for lemongrass and chili peppers. When I was in elementary school, the families in our apartment building worked a farm just outside of Sacramento. Every person, every age, had a job. Meals were planned around what we gathered: We scraped fresh cucumbers, serving them with sugar over ice on hot summer days; we pounded the signature Hmong mix of hand-picked peppers, cilantro, green onions and lime in a mortar and served it as a dip for meat and sticky rice. I remember loving our imperfectly shaped cucumbers because I got to watch each one grow into its own unique shape and thought they all had more character than the "beautiful" ones wrapped in plastic at the grocery store. And I loved mustard greens, which grew in abundance once a year but could be pickled for year-round consumption.

We bartered with each other. We raised chickens in the backyard, letting them out to roam and feeding them by hand. We didn't have a label for this back then, though now I suppose people call it "free-range," and it costs more. We slaughtered our own hens, sometimes with rituals honoring the sacrifice of the animal's life.

With the costs of vegetables offset by our gardens, all the families pitched in to buy a pig or cow from the closest farmer, dividing the meat. This way, we could also afford to buy rice.

But we had to keep our locavore tendencies secret. America's food rules, which seemed to us to go against nature, left us fearful of punishment. At the time, exactly one person from our clan had attended an American college and became our cultural broker, translating to shamans the world of Western medicine, and to lifelong hunters and fishermen the rules of hunting and fishing. What license was needed for what, how many of what thing could be caught during which season, if you could take fruit from a tree depending on which side of a fence it hung. All of it was too complicated to keep straight, and so it felt safer to keep our food producing regimens to ourselves. I can't remember how many times my father built, tore down and rebuilt the chicken coop, afraid that neighbors who heard crowing would report us.

"Don't tell the Americans," my mother would always say, and, eventually, as I grew into adolescence, I couldn't agree more. I was afraid of being judged.

This is a long and important story in America, and it tends to go this way - first generation immigrants (or those raised in traditional cultures in the US) try and retain some part of the food and agricultural cultures that they were born into. Their children, desperate to fit into America, judged and penalized for their difference are ashamed of their parents' "dirty" or "embarassing" habits of picking wild foods or slaughtering their own meat, and long for an modern American diet. Only later or even in the third generation do the children begin to realize the price of assimilation and attempt to reclaim something of what they've lost.

When I've written about food taboos in the past, I've noted that they can be understood as marking us out as a particular kind of person. We have taboos that say "we are not like those people over there who eat this" - and these taboos are very powerful parts of our identity.

America has food taboos just as powerful as the Levitican prohibitions against pork or boiling a kid in its mother's milk, and for most people, until recently, they are about constituting ourselves as unrelated to our agrarian past. That is, we eat food that is processed, sanitized, modernized and as removed as possible from our history of self-provisioning as possible. Anything that smacks of self-provisioning has been unmodern, and thus "UnAmerican" - it isn't just immigrants who were made ashamed of their food, but the children of American farmers who ate meat they raised themselves, eggs that "came out of a chicken's butt" and vegetables straight off the dirt. Uncounted of them begged for marshmallow fluff and store hamburgers, to remove the stain of being a food producer, and somehow not really of this place.

We spent so much time in the last 70 years making ourselves unlike our history that we failed to even notice that we were so unlike our agrarian predecessors that no one was in danger of mistaking us for them. Not a single person was in danger of imagining that most of us would ever eat a fresh egg not in a tidy styrofoam container or that we would harvest a wild vegetables. Such things were fringe and strange.

But then we noticed that we no longer had to constitute ourselves as "not farmers" and "not our immigrant parents and grandparents" - because it turned out that the farmers were gone and our grandparents were dead and we'd forgotten to ask where those especially delicious eggs came from and how to make the food that made us feel good - both in memory and body. It turns ot that we spent so much time saying "ewww...we aren't that" that we became something else, and lost a great deal.

Fortunately, we have begun to recognize what we lost, to turn towards those "dirty" foods and recognize they are cleaner than the highly processed foods that the USDA legislates may have a certain percentage of feces and insect parts in them, that the chemicals we used to make things clean aren't good for us. We have begun to reconstitute ourselves as people who do, in fact, grow and eat things that come from the soil. We cannot, however, erase the cost in shame and suffering and loss for everyone who paid for not being the right kind of American - we can only make it better now.

Pha Lo has become proud of what her farmer relatives are accomplishing, as the culture itself begins to recognize what they traded away from modernity "cleanliness" and homogeneity, and values what her family knows, their agricultural past and their agricultural future. I'm glad - perhaps in the future it will be as taboo to eat a twinkie in a styrofoam container as it once was to eat a fresh egg. After all, the problem with both is the same - you do know where it comes from.


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I was struck also by Pha Lo's piece when I saw it a few days ago. You don't mention in your brief comments how advertisers and others opportunistically played on these kinds of class and ethnic anxieties in order to make sure we paid for their products. In that vein I think it's ironic that in any context where the predominance of over-processed crapfood is threatened nowadays by organics or locavores, they instead try to play on anxieties about "elitism."

I'm curious whether there is a regional component to this, because I've never experienced any level of shame for eating stuff from a garden. On the contrary, I've run into more people who will berate people over the opposite. This is probably a regional thing, though. 'Round here, almost everybody has a vegetable garden if they have the space for it, and if they don't, hanging baskets and container gardens are popular. People bring bushels of produce in to the office to share at harvest time, because you never get just a few tomatoes. You get a bazillion. On the other hand, my grandmother went through what you describe, about trying to remove the "stain" of the farm. She did tassle corn for spending money in high school, but she was so disgusted by her grandmother (an immigrant) butchering a chicken on the spot when company came over that she wouldn't eat poultry for years. So mileage varies. Perhaps communities go through cycles of "ew, farm!" and "ew, city!"

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 10 Jan 2011 #permalink

My experience is similar to Calli Arcale's. Growing up, I was proud that my family raised and slaughtered it's own chickens and ate it's own beef. I don't recall being embarrassed about the gardening, either, though I resented all the extra work of preserving that my townie friends didn't have to do. Even now, my mom and her co-workers bring in huge bushels of surplus vegetables to give away at the end of the summer and if you're not careful and leave your purse out, someone may try to sneak some zucchini or an extra head of cabbage into it. But, I grew up in a farming community so that's how life was more most everyone. We all raised at least some part of our own food and it was "normal".

I will confess, however, to being a little put off when my dairy farming friend told me the milk in her fridge was unpasteurized because it came from her family's own cows. But of course, the pitcher was sitting in the fridge next to bottles of, um, well, what they needed to get their cows pregnant. So, well, there's only so much farming reality that a person can handle at one time, especially when you're 11. :)

I live in Taiwan (westerner, not Taiwanese), have lived in South Korea and visited Japan. I can tell you first hand that their view of land usage is much better than is North Americans'. Anywhere that can be planted inside a city is planted, whether that be backyards, abandoned lots, and even ditches next to roads. Myself, I'd worry about auto pollution being in the food, but I can't argue against the attitude that any available land should be used.

What most people seem to be oblivious to is that many cities are built on the best farmland, usually river deltas that are enriched annually by upstream erosion. Most farms today are actually built on poor soil, artificially maintained by human actions and manufactured fertilizers. Cities arose where people settled because it was where they could once grow food and instead societies have chosen to waste the land on "urbanization".

When oil runs out - and along with it, commercial fertilizer - food will start being in short supply and we run the risk of societal breakdown from crime, murder, invasion of private property and farmland because those in the cities are scattering to look for food. The Earth is finite but we live and act under the delusion that infinite growth is possible.

Eventually, the party is going to end, the only question is how. Are we going to stop voluntarily and conserve, or the party going to break into fights over what little remains once people realize the barrels (beer or oil) are empty? Given that the US and Chinese empires of today are no better or wiser than the Soviet, British, German, French, Spanish Dutch, Portuguese or any other empire, I don't hold out much hope for a peaceful end to oil.

And in regard to the fact that few people could even successfully grow something as easy as potatoes, it's going to get ugly - very ugly when food runs out and the supermarket shelves and freezers have been depleted. Survivalists are wrong in thinking nuclear war will bring civilization to an end - that will only happen if there are wars over food and countries start saying, "If I can't have it, you won't have it either!"


I live in Taiwan (westerner, not Taiwanese), have lived in South Korea and visited Japan. I can tell you first hand that their view of land usage is much better than is North Americans'.

I would argue that a major reason for the difference in how land usage is viewed in Asia (and Europe) compared to North America is that here in North America the perception has been that we have plenty of good land, and up to this point that perception has been true in most parts of North America (much of what food is grown in the US and Canada is exported). Thus the emphasis on suburban lawns (here we emulate British gentility in flaunting our wealth by intentionally planting on perfectly good land a crop which is useless and requires much labor to grow and maintain), which when coupled with minimum lot sizes (imposed for a variety of reasons, some good, some bad) leads to vast tracts of land which could be but isn't planted with food crops or other useful plants. Where good land is precious and you are worried about being able to feed everybody, then yes, you will use that space for food crops, or at least something like a Japanese garden which gives more psychological benefit than yet another expanse of lawn.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Jan 2011 #permalink

Occasionally, my father would prepare for supper some road kill that he found on the way home from work. My brother and I would be instructed to not tell our younger sisters of the exact nature of the mystery meat, until after supper was over. The meal was sometimes a success, sometimes not. One sister still feigns shame and horror about these incidents till this day, some 35 years later.

This shame over growing food strikes me as ironic and as nearly the exact opposite of my own experience, although I think that perhaps my daughter could relate. My maternal grandparents grew up on farms worked with horses. Their parents grew their own food, selling any excess for cash. After the Great Depression my grandparents were eager to leave the farms, to work 40 hour per week factory jobs, shop in a supermarket & live the so-called "American Dream" life. They knew from firsthand experience how hard subsistence agriculture is. My parents were even more "mod;" they attended cocktail parties, watched television, wore pretentious clothing, drove late model cars, were status conscious. What to make of me, then, who they could barely force to wear shoes, couldn't find because I was always out in the fields & woods catching critters, wouldn't get a haircut, etc.? My peer group disdained the "Plastic People" and their ways. Status, if we were concerned with status at all, derived from rejecting the accouterments of middle class society, from NOT being like our parents, from being "back-to-the-landers" & hard rockers. My wife & I bought a beat up old F-350 truck, rented a place way out in the country, trashed the TV, grew a large garden, grew weed, made wine, had dairy goats, cooked & heated exclusively with wood, carried water from a hand pumped well, used an outhouse.. Our parents' generation didn't know to make of us but my grandparents LOVED it. My maternal grandparents loved to come out to our place. They pretty much taught us how to garden & care for goats. They thought that we were living a lifestyle they never expected to see again. We reveled in Thoreauvian simplicity & voluntary poverty.

After college we moved out West. I worked in the woods for several years, with people as down-home & backwoods & counter-cultural as can be imagined. Real loggers, real cowboys, real hippies, real bikers, real Indians - not the weekend wannabes you see in the Midwest & East. I strove to be as hardcore in every way as the best of 'em. When we moved to the Navajo Reservation, I fit in as well as any bilagaana is ever going to fit in. Sure, white people were generally hated and we were no exceptions but at least I could butcher a sheep, round up cattle on horseback, operate a chainsaw and deal with the horrendously muddy roads. People appreciated that I wasn't on some kind of self-appointed crusade to "civilize" the Native kids. One things for sure, I fit in better on the Nav Rez than I ever did on Long Island!

I was a bit taken aback when my daughter, a few years ago, told me that when she was young she was ashamed of us being "poor." It wasn't that we actually were poor - I always made a good living in one way or another - it's that we seemed poor because we never cared about status. Never dressed up, never cared about what kind of beat up crummy truck we drove, didn't have a TV, never bought furniture, etc. Instead, we spent money lavishly on books, on education, on travel, on camping & mountaineering gear, on wilderness adventures. We also always consumed a rather plain but extremely wholesome diet. But my daughter would spend the night with her Navajo girlfriends and I guess it confused her because they would have a nicer pickup than we had, they had TV, nice furniture perhaps, though they lived in a hogan or trailer in the middle of nowhere. I guess my daughter thought that it was supposed to be the white people who are rich & the Indians who are poor, and what's wrong with us that we're poorer than they are? I wasn't aware that she felt this way at the time. I guess I assumed that she understood that we were alternative lifestyle people. It wasn't until she was an adult that she confided in me about her shame of being, or appearing to be, poor when she was little. The point of all this is that it's all relative and is largely a generational thing. I'm more attuned to my grandparents' generation in many ways, and my kids are more attuned with my parents'. This being the case, I have every expectation that my grandkids are going to be AWESOME.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 10 Jan 2011 #permalink

ÃstündaÄ Ã§ifti ve arkadaÅları Büyükadaâda restorana gitti. Mekândaki iki kiÅi, ÃstündaÄâla fotoÄraf çektirmek istedi. ÃstündaÄ da kırmadı. Ancak iddiaya göre alkollü grup, Oyuncu ile yanındakilere sözle sataÅtı. TartıÅma kavgaya dönüÅtü. Grup, ÃstündaÄâı darp etmek istedi. ÃstündaÄ, restoran sahibinin evine sıÄınırken, 6 kiÅilik grup, evin önünde sopalarla beklemeye baÅladı. ÃstündaÄ, sabah 05.00âte saldırganların gitmesi üzerine adayı terk etti. Habertürkâe konuÅan ÃstündaÄ, âOlay doÄrudur, biz de alkollüydük, karÅı taraf da. Daha sonra barıÅtık ve olay tatlıya baÄlandıâ dedi.

P Smith - I think you're new here, so you may not know that the question of whether groceries might rapidly, permanently and without warning vanish from the shelves has been hashed over again and again. Most of us think that it's extremely unlikely if you DON'T presume a global nuclear war or similar catastrophe. If decline in the availability of affordable agribusiness food is gradual, people will match it, to the extent they can, by expanding local production. What people currently do, what they can do, and what they could do given motivation and a little information are three different things. I have seen no evidence to support your suggestion that most of your fellow human beings could not "even" grow potatoes. Two years ago I had never grown potatoes, but last year's garden proved that that didn't mean I couldn't. Those who fear civil unrest might put their efforts into ensuring that government restrictions on local food production are lifted, and that people of all income levels have access to simple, accurate, locally appropriate information.

I think things may well get Very Ugly; at least in certain areas. I don't count on a gradual decline, or on people stepping up to the task of growing all their food. How the hell is that going to happen in huge cities?

We need half the population to work on food supplies....what have we got now? 1%?

I'm going to plan for the worst,


I met a woman once who had her own chicken flock (for show purposes) but threw away all the eggs they laid because they were "gross" -- and then bought eggs at the store!

Tree - How the hell does it happen today in the many world cities that produce 25-75% of their produce and animal products in the immediate vicinity? Not infrequently on Scienceblogs you encounter people who assume that every single thing done by people in non-Western cultures is inferior to the American way; now here you are, apparently assuming that your fellow Westerners (I presume, based on your English fluency) are such worthless lumps they could never manage to do things that poor Africans and Asians do as a matter of course.

Frankly, much survivalism seems to me to be motivated by distate for and prejudice against humans, especially from "other" social groups. If you're white and rural, you think that uburbanites are so ignorant and lazy that they can't "even" do this or that; the darker urban "hordes" would surely rather loot and pillage than work for a living. Now, I am a pretty dedicated broad-scale misanthrope myself and have some sympathy for this attitude. But I've also spent a fair amount of time in poorer parts of the world and seen a lot of average ignoramuses quietly buckling down to do whatever they can to feed their kids. I'm not going to believe that Americans at large will be the sole exception to that rule without evidence.

DD, it is really funny, my two sisters and I grew up in the same house, and one of them, my middle sister, and I are only a year apart in age, so we had pretty much the same set of experiences.

We lived in an old house with only one bathroom - there were five of us (my sisters, mother and stepmother) and my mother ran a daycare in the house and they sometimes had foster kids, so often there were more than five. The rule was that if you were in the shower and someone had to pee, they knocked, came in, peed and didn't flush (so that the water didn't turn cold).

Fast forward to our adulthood - my sister and I are talking once about this, and I'm laughing about it and telling her that I learned from this that I don't need more than one bathroom, that it just isn't that big a deal to share. My sister tells me that from this she swore that she would never, ever have to share a bathroom - that she would rather live in a cave than endure something she saw as terrible and humiliating again.

Two people, same experience, totally different interpretations of events. I find it kind of amazing, actually, but it is a good reminder that my kids will probably vary. And yes, I bet your grandkids will be awesome!


My father remembers wincing as his immigrant mother foraged for greens in city parks, but also recalls with admiration and wistfulness the gardening and preserving and home cooking of his parents. When I was very young, my parents bought a little five-acre farm, on which we lived until I was 14. Despite yearning for forbidden foods like Golden Grahams cereal and twinkies, I was enormously proud of the fact that we grew a garden, raised our own meat, eggs and milk; canned and froze vegetables and jam. I grew up bottle-raising lambs and calves, and have vivid memories of my father talking about how lucky we were to have such superior food; how proud my parents were of supplying the giant thanksgiving turkey for the family gathering, and of believing every word.
So my jaw dropped a year or two back, when my father told me we lived that way because we qualified for food stamps on his meager salary, but his father raised him to believe he needed to do the providing for his family. He apologized for all things they "couldn't give us"(I didn't see a dentist until I was 14). Told him I've spent the last 20-odd years trying to get back to that way of life...gardening in containers on an apartment lawn, until we had a yard I could dig up, planting fruit trees, preserving, storing, and now seeking land, to start a small farm.
At Christmas, my mother was commenting, as she often does, on the amount of cooking and food preserving I do, with some strange mixture of wonder, admiration and derision; I finally reminded her that I learned it from them. She replied, "I just did it. I didn't enjoy it!"
-- can't explain why that strikes me as so funny.

I think all the people thinking industrial food is "cleaner" than home processed food would be shocked at the allowable "light filth" in store bought foods. Rodent hairs, fibers, insect parts, and unknown substances are just counted, and if there are only a few, the food passes, if there are too many the food doesn't.

Many folks I know believe that there are no extra "ingredients" in their sanitized foods. Working in a soil and food testing lab is an eye-opener for sure. I'll take my home grown food anyday.

-- I guess it's something about her apparent attitude that it's fine to do such work, if circumstances require it, but just plain nuts to like doing it.

@ Callie Arcale,

I think there are several factors you might be overlooking.

America has been called the 'melting pot' of the world. It seemed, until recent politically correct decades of revisionism, that every wave of immigrants faced tremendous ostracism, derision of custom and culture, and usually violence. As they learned the language, got involved in the communities around their (protective, comforting) initial enclaves, and as they demonstrably dressed and acted like 'Americans', the stigma was reduced. The more pronounced the obvious appearance of racial differences, the more protracted the assimilation process.

What Sharon relates of Pha Lo's story takes part on a scene of racial divide, as well as cultural. I think the ag part is merely fallout of culture clash, not the principal point of division. Using different tools, different organizations of the planting, thinking of the growing space as a garden, for goodness' sake, all set apart what Pha Lo relates from what westerners mean by a 'garden'. Not to mention, the westener gardener physically looks different in dress, manner, and appearance from Pha Lo and her family.

@ Sharon,

In the early 1910s and 1920s the USDA and tractor manufacturers set American agriculture on the path to automation. Together they worked to strip America of farm horses, in favor of fossil fueled - and heavily marketed - equipment. American farmers were shamed in government contacts, mainstream media, equipment ads and magazines, into discarding the workhorse. In the 1960s some of that discarded history of working at a horse's pace, of using equipment that needed a rest and water break, not refueling, of the bond between farmer and livestock, saw a resurgence, a scramble to recapture as much of that discarded heritage as possible.

The Irish that settled into America, the Hungarians, the Mexicans today and in the past - the native tribes, too. All had their cultures routinely stripped and denigrated. All had to sacrifice all but a few snippets of their heritage culture. While many in America can trace their ancestral beginnings to this nation or that, few can claim knowledge of those ancestral crafts, cultures, and lore.

Loss of knowledge of growing things, of providing in scarce circumstances, is just part of what America's ancestors weren't allowed to bring with them.

WOW, dewey,
You sure made a lot of assumptions for where I am coming from and my reasonings!
I'll just leave this alone, though, and you can keep your presumptions as they are.


Tree, I'm not assuming that you are of the rural white racist ilk of survivalist - if there was a question, let me make it clear I don't. But I can safely assume that you have a pretty low opinion of your fellow (? another assumption) Americans as a whole, if you believe that they will sit and do nothing about declining circumstances until they are actually starving, then suddenly run amuck. This is not what most people, worldwide or historically, do in hard times.

Incidentally, nowhere on the planet has there ever been a city whose residents grew ALL their food, so this (as I have mentioned before) is a standard that I don't feel a little tiny bit bad about knowing I won't meet.

As they learned the language, got involved in the communities around their (protective, comforting) initial enclaves, and as they demonstrably dressed and acted like 'Americans', the stigma was reduced.


America as an English-speaking country is a very recent phenomenon.…

Of course there WAS loss of cultural heritage, but that had precisely nothing to do with learning THE language. what you did is learn to communicate with your community; for the big minorities, that meant their own language; for the small minorities it was often learning the languages of the larger minorities and/or English.

Hell, the Midwest still sounds as if half the people came off a boat from Scandinavia, and most people can't tell the difference between "borrow" and "lend" for that reason


Most of us think that it's (rapid socio-economic/ ecological/ population collapse) extremely unlikely if you DON'T presume a global nuclear war or similar catastrophe.

I don't recall posters having been polled regarding this. I haven't presumed global nuclear war since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990 - '91. I nonetheless expect stressors to multiply, increase in severity, and interact synergistically, until feedbacks that stabilize the ecosystems society depends upon for resources & services become overwhelmed and collapse abruptly. Societies and human population will collapse shortly thereafter. I expect regional nuclear exchanges to be among such stressors but I don't expect all-out nuclear war on a global scale.


How the hell does it happen today in the many world cities that produce 25-75% of their produce and animal products in the immediate vicinity?

These cities typically don't have nearly as much asphalt & concrete covering the ground as US cities do. They also have a tradition of growing some of their own food and don't have to relearn the basics when necessity forces domestic food production on them. Necessity has always forced domestic food production on them. They don't have restrictive zoning laws or a tradition of social status being dependent on provisioning one's family off the fruits of the labor of others, either.


We lived in an old house with only one bathroom - there were five of us .. and .. often there were more than five.

As irony would have it, I'm currently living alone in a three bedroom, two bathroom house. Well, "alone" besides a cat, a Beagle puppy, a geriatric budgarigar, two tortoises, an alligator snapping turtle, and various fishes, with a dwindling flock of hens guarding the perimeter. I'd like to rent a room to a college student or perhaps have a family move in who were willing to exchange garden & wood cutting labor for rent. Preferably an immigrant family with subsistence skills. I'm afraid I'd get people who would rob me or otherwise be more trouble than they're worth putting up with, however. Not sure about how to go about finding housemates or assessing them beforehand for reliability or compatibility.


..nowhere on the planet has there ever been a city whose residents grew ALL their food..

So because they can grow SOME of their food, it will take urbanites six rather then two months to starve? I'm with Tree on all this, dewey.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Jan 2011 #permalink

I know you are, but that's why I said "most." You know my view too: I don't have to grow all my own food because within a day's walk of my house, tens of millions of bushels of staple crops are grown. If the farmers who grow those crops should lose all access to international markets, they would do whatever it takes to get them to local urban markets, since average farmers don't make anything else they need and are no more self-sufficient than urbanites. They could have their yields drastically reduced and still grow enough to feed this city. Yes, if all fossil fuels instantly vanished, they could never transition to low-tech methods fast enough to avoid famine. But I just don't believe that that could happen overnight, unless we decide to bomb ourselves back to the stone age. And if it does happen, folks in the countryside are going to be "dying off" just as fast.

..within a day's walk of my house, tens of millions of bushels of staple crops are grown.

When you have to walk all day to procure a load of soybeans & yellow dent corn, which is just about all that's grown in your region, then spend the next day carrying it home on your back, then stay up all night grinding the corn by hand to make tortillas or mush or cornbread.. I don't think you're going to get the calories back from it that you spent on getting it. If you have anything to trade for it that's worth as much as it is, and if you're not killed and have it stolen along the way, that is. And when you have to walk all day to get it I don't think the farmers are going to be growing it in the first place.

..folks in the countryside are going to be "dying off" just as fast.

This I agree with.

A note on "bomb(ing) ourselves back to the stone age": I've always hated this phrase & thought it was stupid. Can bombing a people impart in them a highly sophisticated lithic technology that our species has all but lost? If your bomb doesn't kill me will I suddenly possess the skill to knap exquisite chert or flint projectile points? Not a single person on this continent possesses these skills anymore. Only a handful, in South America & south Asia, still possess "stone age" technological skills and these few will be extinct &/or assimilated into abject "civilized" poverty in this very generation, regardless of what happens. You strike me as being quite intelligent, dewey, but you need to think things through.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Jan 2011 #permalink

Then how did cities ever come to exist before there were railroads or trucks, even in the New World where (unlike today) goods really did have to be carried on the backs of human porters because there were no suitable draft animals? We will see.

You're entirely correct that "stone age" technology was far more sophisticated than we give it credit for. There are actually a few skilled practitioners in North America. I once encountered an anthropologist who was a very competent flint (and obsidian) knapper.

Then how did cities ever come to exist ..

Populations were dispersed amongst the fields ('felds,' felled or cleared lands). Density grew gradually. Early population centers were nothing like today's cities, which are artifacts of the deforestation of their surroundings and later, of fossil fuels. You can read about how NYC grew as Long Island & the local mainland had the oak cut to fuel the city's growth. Same is true of Saint Louis. It's below the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier: mesic oak/ hickory forest with extensive cottonwood/ sycamore riparian forest along the Mississip. Cahokian Mound Builders took out much of it before even the Vikings arrived. Think about your natural & cultural history.

There are actually a few skilled practitioners in North America.

There's quite a community of hobbyists & anthropologists who have practiced countless hours and have become fairly competent knappers, it's true. There are even atlatl & homemade bow competitions on styrofoam targets. (Stalking skills not required.) Perhaps I wasn't explicit but I wasn't talking about just being able to knap a decent point. I was talking about the entire repertory of skills it took to survive under paleo- or neolithic conditions. There's nobody who knows how to live like that in North America anymore. Not even in the Alaskan or Canadian Arctic, or rain forests of Central America.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Jan 2011 #permalink

"These cities typically don't have nearly as much asphalt & concrete covering the ground as US cities do. "

Not to mention high levels of lead and other contaminants in the soil.

I wonder if the fear that food from your back yard will be contaminated has not been exaggerated by interests that would rather we all just buy agribusiness food. How do we know that the soils on which those are grown are exhaustively tested and pristine? Admittedly, soil contaminants can be a real concern in some spots, so that if one has the means, one might want to test for them and adjust one's growing plans as needed. However, unless you live right downwind from a lead smelter, they're never likely to be so deadly that you might as well starve to death as eat the plants. Perhaps they will increase the eater's risk of chronic disease? Well, the same is true of the Western processed-food diet, yet we eat that, and in fact enjoy a pretty good life expectancy.

Thanks for this post. It brings together some of what's going on in our family. I am the granddaughter of Iowan farmers. My dad had a veggie garden in the back yard, which I loved to work in. Our food stayed in the family, and only one neighbor knew about it. I thought it was pretty cool.

My husband, on the other hand, is the son of German immigrants. Although he enjoys some of the food traditions of Germany (pickled herring, anyone?) his parent's attempts at growing produce, or (gasp) picking edible plants out of the neighbor's yard drove him nuts. He's now advanced to the point where he helps dig up my veggie garden in the spring, but livestock, even poultry, is right out. His mom will come when I'm away to "water the garden," and take as much away with her as she thinks she can get by with. Her gardening efforts have for years been restricted to flowers.