Well, perhaps not soul freeing (although driving up the mountainous Taconic can have that feel for an elevation-deprived Islander). But mind-expansion is in the cards. The organizers have asked me and other panelists to consider the shifting role of food writing, including how we communicate at a time when food has become a prime vehicle for rebuilding community, improving our health and restoring the landscape. It’s worth noting that LongHouse is in Rensselaerville, 35 miles southwest of Albany, on rocky, well-packed soil that sits above the Marcellus Shale, that threatened entity that holds Gotham’s water supply. At LongHouse Revivals, occasional happenings modeled on the 19th century “Chautauqua Movement ”gatherings of writers and thinkers, the medium is the message. The event will feature a prize-addled recipe contest and a food bloggers brunch (on Sunday at the local Palmer House Cafe with Shauna Ahern of Gluten Free Girl and Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan of Apartment Therapy’s TheKitchn.com), while the forum’s creator, Molly O’Neill interviewed the boilermaker who is contributing to the Saturday pig roast (of a 240-pound Tamworth, Oaxacan style over open fire) by converting a turn-of-the-century washing machine into a vertical spit. (The Revival is sold out, but tickets are still available for the 3-Pig-Roast, prepared by baker and pit-master Neftali Duran of El Jardin Bakery in South Deerfield, Mass. Evan Hanzcor, formerly the chef of Egg and now of Parish Hall (both owned by George Weld) will be preparing the Friday night Barn Dinner.)
The dangers of separating our culture from agriculture were well-enumerated in Wendell Berry’s 1977 book “The Unsettling of America,” or Berry’s essay “What are people for,” excerpted in Edible magazines. First, even if agriculture is a relatively small industry–in terms of global economic output–it still holds a certain economic priority over production of sneakers, smartphones or pretty much anything else: it’s arguable the only industry we cannot survive without. Second, agriculture commands a massive global footprint–occupying a full 40 percent of the Earth’s landmass, using 75 percent of its freshwater, and generating 30 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions–so we ignore the way we farm and eat at the risk of planetary stability. Third, after decades of moving off the land and losing cooking skills, more and more Americans are going back. All of this is to say that we must raise the bar for food writers everywhere, since we are guiding not just cooks, but shoppers and global citizens.
More and more, food is part of some much bigger solutions. And ultimately, seeing agriculture as solution might be the main thing that saves us. Because it means that thinking about food will be front and center when our communities, our nation and the planet think about any big decisions, whether in health care, or management of the environment, or how we educate our children. Food’s relevance to so many of the challenges we confront might, in fact, point to a a variation on the “theory of everything” in theoretical physics (which links together all known physical phenomena): consider a “theory of everything through food,” which ties food to reducing public health costs, making cities more livable, creating jobs in a stagnant economy, and even reducing climate change.
Ok. Perhaps we’re getting too heady. I’ll let you know how the conversation goes when we get back from our journey.