28 April 2013

Below is the text of a letter I wrote to the author of this article:

“I just finished reading the excerpt of your book published on Salon.com yesterday. This was my first exposure to your writing, and I am happy to see that someone is taking a critical approach to understanding the food movement. I like that you wrote sympathetically of the very real and legitimate concerns of the foodies, but that you did not shy away from pointing out the historical inaccuracies that much of the foodie mythos is based upon. As the food movement grows and matures, critical voices like yours are vital to ensure that the food movement remains a relevant force for good and progress, and not a breeding ground for upper middle class nostalgia fueled by liberal guilt.

As a non-professional scholar working in American intellectual and cultural history, I am interested in the intellectual heritage of the contemporary food movement. It is easy and I don’t think overly simplistic to draw a line backwards from Pollan to Wendell Berry to the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s. Their I’ll Take My Stand: The South and The Agrarian Tradition is a reactionary and racist response to the modernization of the South after the Civil War that pines for a the pre-war agrarian idyll. Berry was an unequivocal supporter of the Agrarians, and even wrote an essay defending them from claims of racism. With such an intellectual heritage, it is perfectly logical that the food movement should be so susceptible to nostalgia.

My work focuses on the intellectual tradition of the Midwestern land grand universities, and their contribution to the modernization of agriculture. Though much of the intellectual effort that supported the industrialization of agriculture bemoaned by the foodies took place at Midwestern land grand universities, a study of the ideas behind their efforts does not support the evil corporations trying to control our lives thesis that the food movement posits. It is, rather, a complex story of farmer’s often conflicting desires to participate in the consumer economy while maintaining their independence.

While the foodie narrative relies upon considering the past based on contemporary problems, I am attempting to consider the impact of the land grant university by considering the perspective of the historical actors. This is a rather banal and completely un-novel perspective used by any historian worthy of the title, but it seems to be used precious little by the food movement. While the industrialization of agriculture has had undeniably negative environmental and social consequences, we cannot reject the intellectual tradition that spurred industrialization unless we are willing to reject the truly progressive ideas behind it. The land grant university idea is to use the power and wealth of a democratically elected government to foster scientific research that will improve the lives of common farmers and citizens.

Again, I am happy to see your voice included in the conversation about the way we eat, and I look forward to reading your book and anything else you write.”


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