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Archive for October 28th, 2009

As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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