When I was in graduate school, I was looking for a scenic, quiet place to live. My university was on Long Island, 50 miles east of New York City, and I decided to explore communities that were farther out on the eastern tip. It wasn’t the fashionable part, with the Hamptons and Montauk Point, but the North Fork, made up of mostly agricultural communities and small towns. By early in the winter I’d found a wonderful old farmhouse tucked away along a bluff. From there, I could make my way through blackberry thickets and down the 70 steps leading to the beach.
The realtor had been hesitant to even show me the property. Though structurally sound, it obviously hadn’t been used in ages. The bathroom still worked, but there was no shower, and during the entire year I was there, the water ran brown from decades of rusting pipes. Exiting the bathtub was like emerging from a tanning salon. It was beyond rustic; I might have called it uninhabitable if it weren’t for my imagination and daily access to the breathtaking, endless beach. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that it had no refrigerator because I figured it would surely be cold enough most of the year to store things on the windowsill. Sure enough, when I aired out the place, I actually found a stick of margarine on the windowsill. At first glance, I thought it might have dropped off the assembly line recently, but after reading the label, I realized, to my amazement, that it dated back to the beginning of World War II—the last time the house had been occupied.
I had more surprises in the spring. My house was sitting on acres of deep purple—purple cauliflower, which I had never seen before. Long Island was rich in food production in those days, and this land was leased to a local farmer. Small farmers thrived by growing a diversity of foods that have since virtually disappeared from our mainstream food system. Purple cauliflower, a centuries-old heirloom from South Africa, flourished in this nutrient-rich soil and bathed in moist sea air. To my delight, this hardy companion was a healthy food. I would cut it fresh and sauté it whenever I prepared a meal—from farm to table before it came into fashion—in perhaps half an hour. It had a delicious, delicate flavor—and it didn’t require margarine.
So, I had the two extremes at my home—the dream of purple cauliflower and the nightmare of 30 year-old, still “perfect” margarine. As someone who loves to cook and entertain, I enjoyed watching friends’ reactions to these two marvels. The margarine inevitably produced shock and dismay, taking away people’s appetites. The cauliflower, on the other hand, had a way of perking up a dish and lifting moods, owing greatly to its vibrant color. The full purple effect started in the fields. Seeing my home tucked in the rolling violet blankets, friends would wonder about its taste and texture as they approached, wanting to know the story behind it, where it came from, how it got here.
Food is an everyday expression of our culture, and every cultural identity is partly tied to a unique way of preparing it. Since our survival requires consumption of food, our culinary traditions have reflected our history, both in terms of the land where our ancestors lived and what that land produced. Human ingenuity and community traditions added these basic materials, still reflecting a local ecosystem and its resources. As food cultures have been passed down through the generations, families and communities inherited their knowledge and rituals, which have had an enduring personal and shared significance.
So how, then, did the modern U.S. food system move toward the bionic margarine? From cultivation and processing to marketing and transportation, modern-day food consumption patterns have been re-shaped by corporate food production. In a relatively short time span, with developments in technology, aided by agricultural policies, industry changed its emphasis from the marketing of whole foods to manufacturing highly processed food products. Initial innovations, like frozen fruits and vegetables or tomato sauce had significant benefits, but the drive for profit has led to much greater and more extensive changes, including reduced standards for what constitutes “food.”