Food Politik

Posted on September 28, 2011 by

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by Karas Lamb

This city extends from the requisite concrete and steel into an altered universe where grass and foliage jut from fields that buttress aging enclaves and apartment blocks, interrupting all indicators of humanity, as if to suggest they were here first. Not a point to be argued, but more a circumstance to be celebrated that somehow seldom ever sees the ticker tape or the doting green thumb—an ambassador of expectant stomachs. Teeming with vacant lots and overgrown fields, it is hard to remind people of the fragrant possibilities lurking beneath the ground we traverse when stomachs are rumbling and fertile soil sprouts bodegas faster than vegetable matter. Morning arrives daily, even as some of us do not. The summer allowing it heat and mist, enough to start immature crops stirring in their places as light emerges. They concern themselves with photosynthesis and the threat of drought as we contest our phone bills and the increasingly uncomfortable circumstance of humidity. We curse the rain we could not live without, using it to float trash toward the gutters—drink boxes as makeshift sailboats that will surely never see the high seas. Failing to realize the irony in poisoning our system as we poison our systems; the inhabitants of our waterways endangered by the trickle down of collective ignorance and environmental carelessness.

Succumbing to food-related illness and its numerous side effects is the pastime that replaces terrible eating habits in the hood after a certain age. The same ghettos and working class hamlets where kids sit on stoops making fun of joggers and cracking jokes about “white people food” at the sight of any green vegetable that isn’t cooked to the point of graying or covered in gravy. Where riding bikes automatically refers to the motorized kind and rarely involves a helmet. To take a look around at the advertising bordering the interior of the cross-town bus as your eyes reluctantly accept adjusting to fluorescent lighting—your spirit to the idea that you are indeed headed back to the “please hold” ass drudgery that funds your survival, you would think that hard liquor and fried foods were all that ever sustained us. That our grandmothers, their mothers, and men never tended gardens or took time to praise the animals they sacrificed to fill tables; the roast and the writhing gut equals as sustainers. Migrating north surely could not have been enough to force black people to forget. Or maybe it was the abandonment of agrarian circumstance for the promise of industrial prosperity that made forgetting okay. Even so, the trip from Philadelphia to the depths of Virginia is only a few hours by car and the parameters of soul food never meant the gospel according to the drive-thru until now. Human beings instinctively crave that which reminds them of home, even if one never intends to return to the dirt roads and clapboard houses where they once sought shelter. For that reason, I can freely admit that I am clueless as to why things changed.

While my fortune seems to have been a fleeting, if not altogether alien circumstance for many of my peers, I still maintain that my grandmother could not have been the only one growing her own fruits and vegetables. The aging southern transplants on my block could not have been the only folks who knew how to pick and prepare produce, or greet the fish and watermelon men on a first name basis. Purveyors were family and like churches and funeral homes, every family had their favorite. Fresh and local was not a novelty, but a necessity. And here I am with the taste of my grandmother’s cooking etched into my brain and her dog-eared recipes fading into the paper, wondering how to reconcile it all—especially as I contend with my own lapses in physical fitness and the threat of genetic predisposition. The constant reminders that we should eat seasonally and sustainably have made me into something of a psycho, wrestling with my own patch of earth for a bit of its bounty. My success as probable as my failure, considering I have very little clue of what I’m doing in comparison to a career farmer and I have already prematurely cut into two deceptively beautiful melons to the tune of unripened fruit.

I must be a sight—reusable grocery bags latched to every available appendage like bat wings. Scuttling around the city to the places where I know that what I cannot grow won’t clean out my savings. That what I crave is going to be fresh, and the people I compensate are going to be like me—a populace of independent thinkers, growers, and artisans who believe in the fruits of their labor enough to chance their livelihoods toiling in the shadows of corporate giants who will undercut them on price and cheat the blissfully ignorant public by offering twice the quantity for a small batch of competitors’ lovingly prepared quality. So we all struggle to make it, and for each of us that means something different. Some people do drugs. Some people buy J’s and polo shirts to keep up appearances. Some people clip coupons or ride bicycles and pack a lunch. Some do just enough to keep their stoops clean and the mortgage paid. My childlessness affords me the luxury of catering to the whims of my own palate and reserving a few of the bills in my pocket to allow my tongue the frivolity of occasional fine dining on the off-chance my student loan or phone bill isn’t due. I began learning to cook at the age of five, so the slight peculiarity of my ability to create an impressive dish from little more than canned goods, grains, and vegetables languishing in the crisper is not lost on me. My penchant for a great dinner in a pinch is someone else’s pork-flavored ramen or pepperoni Hot Pocket—things I balk at pretty regularly, but in this economy there effectively is no shame in that game. It is a little difficult to concern oneself with the kinds of fruits and vegetables you’d prefer, when the prices of provisions are the primary concern and you have no clue that the glut of farmers’ markets accept public assistance or that life is affordable outside of the five block radius in which you exist.

That bounty of baked goods, hand-cured meats, and produce is not just for the gentry and their shiny chrome refrigerators in those newly renovated row homes that have led many to feel like outsiders in their own lagging tax brackets and less-coveted properties. Properties that remind me of my own place in the lexicon of poverty as a starving artist searching classifieds and alleys for a stab at the moderate fortune that could afford me the ability to do something as simple as sign a deed. Instead, I’m planning to drag myself across the threshold of borrowed property, shower, and make a plate of pancakes from scratch. Slowly reclaiming sobriety as my brain rids itself of inebriation a little more with each dry measure. Every almost-but-not-quite inch closer to a hot plate serves to make the hunger more agonizing and profound; the bus idling at a green light is not helping my morale. Only halfway through my trip home, we’ve reached 40th Street and I’ve tired quite easily of the shoving, standing, starting, stopping, and traffic after the kind of raucous night out that is never bolstered in my store of fond memories by a bus ride like this. That could be why I limit my social drinking to special occasions—over a year since my last round of drinks and a happy hour deal too good to pass up was apparently more than special enough. So when the driver stops for the billionth time and a young mother lumbers toward my empty seat with her entire life, sits down next to me, plops the kid on her lap, pops the top of a blue drink, and pops it into her child’s mouth, I can only be so mad.

Despite every shred of anger coursing through my body, those nutritional decisions are hers to make and they have no bearing on what I decide to eat. She pulls a bag of chips from the pocket between the googly plastic eyes on her kid’s cartoon backpack—the caustic smell of barbecue corn chips sends my eyes darting for empty seats and available exits. I have yet to eat and I cannot abide the thought of allowing that smell to turn my empty stomach away from the gustatory goals I have set. For her, that smell is the scent of a job well done. Her child won’t go without breakfast in a city where so many children do. The foods she’s apt to choose at any meal are way more affordable than fresh berries or dark leafy greens and you don’t always have to cook them yourself. If you do, they reconstitute or fry to a golden brown in mere minutes. They are way more addictive than the slightly healthier takeout choices, like rotisserie chickens and steamed Chinese food. They are always on the shelf next to the cheap nylon rack, right between the chicharron and sugared cereals. Across from the refrigerator teeming with bread, cheese, milk, and eggs—the only perishables in the joint other than people. At this stage of development, her child is likely conditioned to consume chicken nuggets much more willingly than kale anyway. Besides, who am I to complain aloud? I’m hungover and she could take me with or without a baby on her hip. Let’s face it. I live in a city where people have been shot for less, and the reality is that I spent a good portion of last night drinking. While I’m sad that they couldn’t stop over for a proper breakfast, I’m happy to know that that kid isn’t going to go to bed hungry. I just hope he grows hungry for more.

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