Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Towards a Pioneer Food Ethic

Yesterday I made a vegetable soup for dinner, which started with me heading out to the garden to dig some carrots. We left most of the carrots in the ground through the winter, and every time the ground thawed a little I went out and dug a few. They've lasted all the way through till now, with pretty good flavor too.

We also did well with our onions last year. Our basement stays cool, so the onions kept just fine in a cardboard box. We haven't bought carrots or onions in more than six months. We haven't bought jam or jelly in more than a year.

As I was making dinner I got to thinking about how I might define a modern pioneer food ethic. It might be similar to a Slow Food ethic, but it would find greater context from our pioneer ancestors. I imagine that any two people might implement it differently, but there would be common fundamental values. Here's a trial stab at one description of what it means to follow a pioneer food ethic.

Agriculture: Our pioneer ancestors lived in an agricultural economy. Their daily meals came from their relationship with agriculture. A pioneer food ethic would have a personal agricultural connection. For some this would mean growing a garden or keeping chickens. For others this would mean a first-hand relationship with the farmers who grow their food. A personal agricultural effort allows us to access a diverse range of food beyond the grocery store.

Seasonality: Direct relationships with agriculture imply seasonal patterns. Summer meals emphasize fresh produce; winter meals utilize root vegetables and preserved foods. Pioneer food systems cycled with the seasons; we follow this pattern.

Preserves: Pioneers preserved foods for winter to optimize the harvest and nutrtitional value. We might put up preserves for similar reasons. Additionally, we preserve foods to access a diversity of possibilities that aren't available at the grocery store, and to emphasize a providential attitude.

Home Cooking: It goes without saying that pioneer foods are home-prepared, not eaten out.

Social Meaning: Food served as a social vehicle for pioneers, and continues to do so for us today. We seek to amplify the social connections facilitated by pioneer foodways. We value food exchanges, whether garden seeds and produce; one jar of preserves for another; meals shared with friends; or a warm dish given to an under-the-weather friend. We value the exchange of ideas and information that comes with the exchange of food, as we share garden tips and cooking tips when we share those foods.

Do you have any suggestions for things I haven't considered?


Curtis said...

How about convenience? Certainly the pioneer cooks valued convenience. What about tradition?

And, how does it go without saying that pioneer foods are home-prepared? Pioneers never ate out?

Brock said...

The notion of "convenience" didn't come into domestic food until the late 19th century, with the advent of labor saving devices for the kitchen. The mid-19th century domestic food scene was one of intricate interlocking systems of production and preservation. "Convenience" was a well stocked pantry and a full root cellar.

While there were eating establishments in Salt Lake City such as the notable "Globe Saloon," I would have to say that 98% of all meals eaten were prepared and eaten at home. Because the population boomed so quickly, (70,000 in 20 years arriving to farm land which had never been cleared before) many of the Mormon pioneers in Utah were new arrivals, and didn't have established savings (and therefore room for leisure spending) for such luxuries as eating out. I'm not saying no one ever ate out. I'm saying it was an anomale and not the basis of a system of values the way it is for us today.

MissC said...

I think too, that keeping animals for food plays into the fresh and local sensibility.

For those of us who rely on food storage because we don't have the land to grow crops in bulk, gardening on a small scale still gives us that connection to the land and way of eating and living.

Brock said...

I hope to have some meat chickens, lamb, etc. eventually. Until then I think that buying fresh and local is a great option.

Small scale gardening is a good connection too, I think. While Mormon pioneers farmed and garden on larger scale, they were providing a cash crop in addition to their home consumption. Our small garden (about 1000 sq. ft.) provides more than our family can eat and storage for all year long. I think seasonal food and winter storage is a major component of the pioneer food ethic.