Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movers and Makers

Lately, I've noticed that gas prices and the state of the economy are at the tip of everyone's tongues. In an ad I heard on the radio yesterday, a woman's solemn voice announced, "We are a country of consumers. But that's okay." But in America, it seems as though we are always pulled in different directions when it comes to consumption: we have to consume to keep the economy going, but our consumption habits are not sustainable. We have built the American way of life by embracing excess, and the talk of fuel prices and economical hardships scare the crap out of us - because in order to change our world for the better, it is possible (and even probable) that we'll have to radically rethink the way we spend our money and our time.

I don't like to think that the downturn of the economy and the tension surrounding petroleum is the beginning of the end. But I do think that the only change that will positively impact the environment is on a much larger scale than building a few green homes or driving a Hybrid. Not to say that these things aren't a step in the right direction - but they're not enough. It seems that the first step in creating change in the world is to change perspectives - starting with young people. If we do need to head towards sustainability, it's important to consider where the things that we need in our daily lives actually come from. Emily wrote a post about local foods recently, and to take it in that same direction, I'd like to mention a movement that I heard about recently: the Makers movement.

My grandfather, who died about six years ago, was an engineer. He built model airplanes, fixed his glasses with duct tape, and often modified things to fit his needs using only household supplies. When the California sun through the sliding-glass door made the house unbearably hot during the summer, he rigged a porch screen using tarps and rope to keep the sun out. After he lost the use of two of his fingers from a jackhammer injury during WWII, he modified his flute with some O-rings and wire so that he could still play. He is probably the reason why I am fascinated with the ideology of the Makers movement: he taught me that it is incredibly empowering to create or fix things using your own hands. And it seems like that idea will be incredibly useful to anyone who wants to affect change on an individual level.

Another, perhaps tenuously connected, but important part of that movement for me is the relatively new online fibers and textiles community. Men and women from all over the country, and some from around the world, share the things that they're knitting, crocheting, and sewing, and often branch out into the realm of cooking, gardening, and other craftsmanship. Not only is the aesthetic appealing, but the practicality is there: yes, it is useful to be able to make socks for your children, or a wool sweater for your father. Some skills like this have been cast off as antiquated or anti-feminist because they used to typically be classified as "women's work", but there has been a reclamation of practical crafts, due in part to the recent trendiness of knitting. And it is comforting for me to know that people have been knitting for hundreds of years, well before the advent of electricity and industry - because that means that no matter the changes that the world undergoes in the next few years, there will always be sheep, there will always be yarn, and I can always knit a sweater to wear on the coldest of winter days.

Emily Goes to the Farm

This past weekend, I drove up to western MA to visit my friend at Overlook Farm, where she is working for the summer. The farm is owned and operated by Heifer International, and all the food consumed on the farm is grown and produced right there, by the workers and volunteers.

I don't consider myself as living a particularly urban lifestyle or that I'm totally cut off from all knowledge of where food comes from. After all, I love to go the local farmer's market, and I buy fresh, local produce at our area grocery store whenever I can. I'm an environmental studies major...of course I've studied different kinds of farming and agricultural practices. But I never realized everything that goes in to truly eating locally and producing all your own food. While I was there, I got to help in both the kitchen and the garden. We cooked dinner for a school group that was visiting: pizza made with homemade dough, beef that had been raised on the farm, and fresh broccoli that had been picked the week before and a salad made with various leafy vegetables that had just been harvested and marigolds on top to garnish it (yes, you can eat marigolds, apparently. They're kind of spicy).

The next day, we went out into the garden, picked beans, beets, turnips, and carrots, gathered some eggs from the chickens, went back to the house, and made homemade kimchi--a jar of which is sitting down in my basement fermenting right now. The idea that it is possible for me (or for anyone else) to make a food that normally we only see served to us at Korean restaurants, was just a little mind-blowing. I instantly started thinking of all the other things I could make, and I realized that almost anything that I buy packaged and processed, I could probably make at home. Now I have plans for making homemade veggie burgers, pickled vegetables, butter, granola, and pesto.

Zac is just finishing up his book on where food comes from, and my experience on the farm makes me realize just how little we know about our food. Sure, a lot of people have read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, or buy fresh produce at farmer's markets. But there's a lot of food products that we still take for granted and most of us are still willing to buy processed, frozen foods that have traveled across the country multiple times in their journeys to their present shapes. A lot of this has to do with convenience--I am well aware that slapping a frozen veggie patty on the grill is a lot less labor intensive than making your own (and, for those of you who eat meat, it's much easier and cheaper to buy pre-made, frozen hamburger patties than going out and trying to find local or grass-fed beef.) However, I feel like many people, and I know this was the case for me until a few days ago, appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables, but don't really understand how these are also connected to the canned soups and potato chips that we buy at the grocery stores. Maybe that's something that has to be experienced, and not just read about to really understand. Whatever the case, I hope that Zac's book (which hopefully I will get to read soon...but my role in that whole process is a whole different topic, which I might talk about eventually...) will help us realize how various food items are changed and processed by the time they get to us, as well as maybe how we can get more involved in experiencing our food before the finished product.

Ok, there's my thoughts on local farming and where food comes from. Now back to the real work. I'm in the processing of laying out and producing a catalog for another publishing company that features all the books they've produced. But, like my role in the "Big Picture" series for AlphaHouse, that will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why Writing About Food is Harder than I Expected

It's 2am, and the only thing illuminating my face is the glow of my basement computer's monitor. To the left of my keyboard is a stack of books so high it teeters dangerous over the glass of water and empty coffee mug to the right of my keyboard. The tabs on my mozilla browser are now completely out of control: we passed "being thorough" and entered "obsessive" about seven or eight tabs ago. And what am I doing? Why is this mess of information spilled all around me?

The answer is food, my friends.

Does anyone really realize how much we love to talk, think, and (dare I say it) blog about food? I know I didn't until I began my most recent effort for AlphaHouse's upcoming book series, "The Big Picture." In short, what we've been asked to do is a series about where things come from; my task being to answer that question specifically for food.

I'm fortunate to be given that focus, for if I or anyone else were to embark upon a book synthesizing all the thought (past and present) surrounding food, it would be a gargantuan project, to say the least. But because my focus is specifically on where food comes from, I've actually been able to cut through the noise and rattling and find a few voices that I've come to deeply appreciate in the past few weeks.

To appreciate such voices, first consider the noisemakers. Food is money. It is no longer a way of life but largely an industry. Of course, food has been a commodity for many thousands of years-- this is nothing unique to the 21rst century. But in the past 100 years we've seen the food industry's engine kick into overdrive. Especially in an increasingly globalized world, where farmers no longer compete against their neighbors, or even their countrymen, but factory farms across the globe. With so much money to be made (everyone has to eat, after all) the result has been much like what you would expect: we behave more like economic consumers towards food than living organisms who require sustenance.

And, contrary to what many might think or say, this can be a very stressful predicament. Proof of this is my latest venture into food writing. I've sorted through countless health fad advertisements, websites devoted to worshiping one food or to damning another. I've even found (to my great dismay) that my local library was stuffed full of health books and weight-loss literature. If anything, it seems like the more science knows about food, the less certain we are of what we should eat. Most of us know only too well what it's like to come into work, open a granola bar and take a satisfied bite, only for a concerned co-worker to remark, "Oh. Oh I wouldn't do that. I read this morning that preservatives found in that granola bar may increase the risk of cancer."

May increase the risk of cancer. When all you wanted was granola. The phrase itself is evidence of our micro-aware world. All of our food can be broken down into its chemical constituents and then divided into its pro's and con's. On and on. Until every food is really an abstraction-- If I eat at burger king for lunch, I lose 10 points towards living a long life/not getting cancer/taking my grandkids to DisneyLand, BUT, if I have a salad for dinner I regain those 10 points and just barely end the day at a happy, healthful neutral. Except I'm not happy. I'm still hungry because that salad was puny, and I'm dealing with residual shame from the BK I ate for lunch.

This is the world of food we live in. At least, most of us. Enter Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. (Cue Bon Jovi, "Wanted, Dead or Alive") These two food warriors have saved my hopes for ever eating well again. And they've done so largely without ever discussing carbohydrates, protein, daily fat intake, or high blood pressure.

Pollan's 2005 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is a brilliant work and has rightly garnered awards and praise from various literary communities. Pollan's books examines America's food crisis from the bottom up, starting in an Iowa corn field, moving to a small farm in Virginia, and even following a cow around for a few months. His interest throughout the book is where our food comes from, and what the costs actually are to our communities and our environment.

Wendell Berry has spent the past 40 years farming his family's land in Henry County, Kentucky. The land that feeds him today is the same land that has fed his family for five generations. So, to the say the least, the man knows something about farming. Outside of his excellent poetry and fiction, he's written many essays on agrarian life, conservation, and food politics. What's interesting to me is that as he grows older (he's 74 today, and still farming) he seems to grow only more vocal towards issues of agriculture and food. I think he's aware, more than ever, the crisis we face today in America (and elsewhere) if we don't reevaluate our approach to eating.

All this to say, I'm beginning to realize that the book I'm writing cannot be about how to "eat right". And yet, ultimately, it should achieve exactly that, but with far different parameters for what that means. Perhaps instead of counting calories, we should be counting farmers, or counting the miles it takes for that New Zealand apple to reach you in New York, in February.

Please comment-- I'd love to hear what you think.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Drumroll, Please

Well hello and hello. Emily and Zac here. Well, Zac is really here here. As in I'm writing. So from here on out, when the pronoun "I" is used, that's me, Zachary B Chastain. Ok, glad we got that cleared up.

It's a beautiful day in NY. Emily and I drove to the Cyber Cafe on Main Street to decide the fate of this blog. (Note from Emily: What if they stalk us? My response: Get over yourself.)

Our mission? To create an AlphaHouse-worthy blog. Who are we? Where do we come from? What are our favorite flavors of ice cream? Could God make a rock so heavy even he couldn't lift it? These are the questions we've assembled to answer. Our first task-- to define who we are. Well, we know a few things, at least: 1) We are the AlphaHouse Publishing authors hard at work on a variety of books. 2) We're not satisfied leaving these issues to books published for middle-school readers and want to say and hear more. 3) We want to connect our words and thoughts to YOUR words and thoughts-- you, out there, Oh Ambiguous Internet Blogger/Reader.

So join us.


Oh Zac, you and your vague, ambitious obscurities about what we're doing here. That didn't really answer anything...

Emily here, in case you haven't figured out that Zac isn't talking anymore. Let's try this again. Who are we? The four of us were hired at the beginning of the summer to write books for AlphaHouse, specifically for three series: All About AIDS, Nutrition: A Global View, and Health and the Environment. These are fairly typical books for AlphaHouse, books aimed at a middle-school to early high school readership, mostly for the purpose of education. (If you really want to know anything more, you should go and visit the website.)

I guess that leads to another question: What is AlphaHouse? Officially, we're a small publishing company in upstate NY that tries to make socially-conscious books about a variety of topics for a variety of audiences. But who are we really? We're writers, editors, graphic designers, publicists, and generally hardworking folks. The office in which most of us work was once home to our boss, Ellyn, and her family. This, and the fact that we're all pretty friendly people, has meant that we're more than co-workers, we're friends as well. The four of us may have all met each other this summer, but it didn't take long for us to expand our relationship beyond work; soon we were going hiking, on day trips to Ithaca, and to movies together.

(The four of us in Ithaca, NY...Nat, Zac, Emily, and Cory)


So we hope this blog will serve as a place to extend that sense that work and life can and should be integrated in some way. We'd like to take issues that get raised inside the office and bring them outside the office-- not just into our conversations over coffee, but into our cyber existence as well. (Zac again, by the way.)

More to come. There's been far too much talking and not enough picture taking. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Growing Up In The 00's

A few days ago, I was informed that I have my first cavity.

I've gone through twenty years of flossing irregularly, brushing religiously, and going to the dentist twice a year without getting a cavity. And now that I have one, it's a little sad to me, like the end of an era. Apparently, around my gumline, growing up does not mean finishing college or graduating to twentysomething-hood or owning my own car. It means that finally, the lack of fluoride in Ohio, coupled with the recent ceasing of my dental insurance's coverage of sealants and some sneaky bacteria that create enamel-eroding byproducts, has done in one of my poor molars. I mourn the passing of the age when responsibility meant brushing your teeth without being reminded.

I've been alone a lot lately. It bothered me for a while, but now it's become a zen-like state in which I talk to myself while washing dishes or driving, daydream about swing dancing, and knit miles of lace while watching back episodes of Project Runway and yelling at the screen occasionally. At times, I feel completely psychotic for intricately planning how in ten years, I will be well-traveled and articulate, with a dog and a mortgage and no more yarn stash because I'm too mature for that sort of thing, thankyouverymuch.

Then again, I thought at age five that I would have the world figured out by the time I was twelve. And then, at twelve, I figured I'd better up it to sixteen. And at sixteen, I was just waiting to be eighteen and then all of a sudden I thought, wait, what? Life continues after eighteen? Like, I'll still be a human being and people will have expectations of me? Well, crap, if I don't have it figured out by then, I should just crawl into a nest of bees and die.

It occurred to me, some months after I turned eighteen, that very few people have everything in their lives figured out - and even if they do, there's still the world to work on. It was the best little gem of adulthood a girl could ask for: not only do I not know where I'm going, we're all in the same boat, and the band is sliding down the deck while playing Nearer My God To Thee. Awesome.

I'm really not a pessimistic person. Honestly. I just feel like the rising gas prices (which will inevitably lead to the discussion of Peak Oil, which will lead to the Doom And Destruction And No More Starbucks model of the next century), the jellyfish blooms off the coast of Japan that kill millions of fish, and the fact that Chernobyl will be inhabitable again approximately never... all of these things are such a huge burden for our generation to bear. In many ways, it's easier to look towards my own difficulties with growing up rather than examining the world that makes me wish that I didn't have to. Then again, ignorance may be bliss, but it certainly isn't very interesting.

The question that I always end on is this: how do I balance my own personal growth - in traveling, education, and leisure - with the knowledge that the resources I consume to pursue those things are becoming more and more endangered? How do I participate in the global community without destroying the globe on which that community rests?

Often, I think about the importance of educating myself, in the hopes that my personal growth will lead to a change in the world, whether through chemistry, medicine, or the arts. I like to think that this is the case. But sometimes ....

.... the answer is just too overwhelming.