Recently I traveled back to the Midwest to visit my family and homeland. I flew into Minneapolis and made the four hour drive west to east across Wisconsin to Green Bay. It’s a trip I’ve made many times before. Inevitably, I get back to Minneapolis to board my return flight and feel an incredible urge to eat a salad. Something green and raw. Which is ironic, because the drive across Wisconsin is dominated by farmland and (in the summer months) green. Miles of rural country stretching out across the center of the state. There’s a quaint beauty I’ve come to appreciate - the rolling hills, the old silos and sheds, and even the “barn quilts” - folk art painted in a square, like a quilt, on the exterior of the barns.
Traveling with my sons, we tried to play an old childhood game from road trips of my youth. You count the herds of cows on your side of the road. Winner gets the most, but every time you pass a cemetery you lose your points and have to start over. Despite the number of farms, we quickly found, few of them had any cows. This, in Dairyland, USA. Instead, there were endless fields - fields that have expanded from singular spaces connected by houses and cows and woodland to massive enterprises requiring massive equipment and few houses or people in between. We gave up counting cows and decided to count the number of McDonalds we instead. We lost track somewhere around twenty after less than ninety minutes.
I’d like to say this problem was solved by leaving the Midwest and flying back to Oregon, but the truth is the issue is the same no matter where you are in the USA. Farms don’t grow food. They grow commodities that are processed into food-like substances that we now accept as food. It’s inescapable. Needing to stop for lunch along the drive, I pulled off at an exit in Wausau and had the choice of Starbucks, McDonalds, and you-name-it-other-chain. In years past, I used to try to stop at the “Family Restaurants” along the drive, but the only difference is that those food products are served on washable plates instead of disposable containers. It still mostly comes off the back of a refrigerated Sysco truck.
Wendell Berry said, “The people will eat what the corporations decide for them to eat. They will be detached and remote from the sources of their life, joined to them only by corporate tolerance. They will have become consumers purely - consumptive machines - which is to say, the slaves of producers.” I felt like a slave stopping (yes I did) at McDonalds for a lunch that left a faint aftertaste of fuel in my mouth.
Back home and hungry, I went to my local organic farmer and got my weekly share of what I would confidently call real food: two bags of spinach and another leafy purple green, two bunches of green onions, early leeks, late storage potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and celeriac, a jar of honey, fresh milled flour, and three half gallon jars of fresh cow’s milk. From the meat freezer I got a pack of bacon, one thick ham slice, two packages of ground beef and two of ground pork, and a pack of T-bone steaks. The first night I roasted potatoes and parsnips in the oven and popped in a honey cake for dessert. I tossed a salad with spinach and whatever those purple greens were and made a bacon vinaigrette with breakfast leftovers. The steaks went on the grill and I felt connected, two thousand miles away from my birthplace, to something real.