Learning from “Midwestern Cooking”


As an exhibitionist ex-academic, I was delighted to participate on a Public Humanities panel on Food and Sustainability at Portland State University last week. The panelists were asked to keep their presentations short (6-8 minutes) so that there would be ample time to for the audience to participate in conversation.

Contrary to all ethnic stereotypes, I actually obeyed the short presentation format better than the other panelists. Here’s an even briefer recap of my brief comments . . . and an invitation to extend the conversation here.

Year ago, I had a running joke with a friend from Ohio about midwestern cooking, doubtless inspired by cheese in a can, whipped topping in a plastic tub, and who knows what other unholy pseudo-dairy concoctions. My New York teasing culminated in the Ohio friend presenting me with A Midwest Gardener’s Cookbook, which radically changed my diet.

And happily, not to include Durkee Onions.

What was so revolutionary about the Midwest Gardener’s Cookbook is that the content was organized according to production rather than consumption. Every other cookbook I own follows the same basic order: Appetizers, Soups and Salads, Entrees, Desserts. But the MGC follows a different order entirely: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Sure, I could bring home hothouse tomatoes in February, look them up in the index, and flip to the specific page, but I was reminded as I did so that I was as out of sync with the seasons as if I were having watermelon for Hannukah.

It was an easy way to guilt myself into remembering to shop based on what was seasonally fresh (a novel approach for someone who, despite mocking midwestern cooking, was raised mostly on vegetables of the frozen persuasion).

I put this example to the audience to demonstrate 1) the way we share/access information can shape how we behave — it wasn’t the RECIPES that changed my eating; it was the ORDERING of the recipes; and 2) shifting our emphasis from consumption to production is crucial to building sustainable food practice.

As the editors of Mother Jones point out in this month’s issue, 2% of us are farmers. But 100% of us are eaters. So agricultural policy doesn’t just affect 2% of us who are producers. It affects all of us who are consumers. And we need to immerse ourselves in that policy in order to reform it.

Thus far, the easiest — sometimes the only — way to effect change has been as consumers. But sustainability needs to be a foundational, systemic approach at the level of society, not household. So, for example, it isn’t enough to buy organic produce off that media darling “Dirty Dozen” list in an effort to protect your household from pesticide exposure, when in fact the greater dangers of pesticides are to farmworkers and their families.

During the panel, I noted that The Jew and the Carrot, like the Midwest Gardener’s Cookbook, provides an especially good format for sharing/accessing information, a virtual community garden growing critical thinking about food. As a contributor and reader, I’m teaching and learning with over 50 other regular bloggers, from professional chefs to rabbis to activists to academics (not that those are mutually exclusive categories), all in conversation with over 13,000 readers. And the process here is not just delivering information but fostering inquiry and sparking debate—as those of us who’ve ever gotten slammed to the (place) mat in the comments on our posts can attest.

At this point in the panel, I gestured at why the debate on jcarrot.org is so rich by making the old 2 Jews, 3 opinions observation. The Oregon audience looked deeply pained, the same way people on the street here do whenever I wear that Loud Pushy Jew, Deal With It t-shirt that people in cities like LA or NY love. I didn’t even bother positing my “jcarrot.org is the Talmudic debate of food sustainability” analogy . . .

But I did pose these two questions, which I hope we can debate here, too:

1. What other examples like MGC are there, of ways people can learn/share about food sustainability that are inherently more likely to change their behavior?

2. What can and should (and dare I say “will”) we be doing to shift the focus from consumption to production, to ensure we’re on target for true sustainability?

[remember, 2 Jews, 3 opinions x 13,000 readers - even if they're not all Jewish - should give us plenty of comments!]

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One Response to “Learning from “Midwestern Cooking””

  1. Mia Rut Says:

    Dear Lois,

    I loved this article! First, since I’m from the Midwest and pretty familiar with what you described. I’d guess that the strange mid-western dish pictured above is some sort of ham in milk-gravy over biscuits?

    And no, I don’t know of any other seasonal cookbooks (and would love to!) although I have used Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook often for seasonal (not just holiday) recipes.

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