Now & Then

Molly O'Neill - June 9, 2014


We’ve been imagining, reporting, and creating the stories for LongHouse Food Revival 2014 since September, when we decided to focus this year’s multimedia Pop-Up Magazine on the American Midwest. The region’s food story is manna for journalists—fascinating, layered, under-reported, counter-intuitive, and surprisingly hip.

The teeny tastes of farm-to-table food served nightly in Brooklyn is, after all, the Midwest, stylized, miniaturized, and romanticized. But considering what this means, and the stories we aim to tell in mini-documentaries, photography, and fine arts—as well as the written and spoken word—is a bigger challenge than I expected. I grew up in the Midwest. I’m grappling with myself as much as I am the material.

In the middle of the country, eating locally is an assumption—not an artful conceit—and when I was growing up there, it wasn’t a point of pride, either. It was just part of an approach to home cooking so adroitly practical and determinedly “local” that no one would have considered excluding the processed food and convenience products that are grown, confected, and packaged in the region.

Iowa field by Ame Gilbert (left), Seedsavers vault by Molly O’Neill (center), snacks with Kurt Michael Friese (Molly O’Neill)

To the potato farmer in Minnesota, McDonald’s fries are local. The same is true of the guy in Iowa who has a thousand acres in several varieties of the rape plant whose seeds produce the canola oil that sizzles the same fries. Each takes a certain pride about contributing to one of America’s best-loved fast foods. Capturing pitch-perfect populist taste is reason for regional pride. It’s no easy trick, and could probably only happen in an area where middle-ness is a philosophy, a social urge, and an emotional imperative—as much as it is a geographic fact.

In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis writes that his fictional, small town is not an intersection unto itself but rather “…the continuation of Main Street everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois…”

If current dining trends in Brooklyn are any indication, this “off-Broadway” sorting-out eventually informs fashion. From there, it’s an easy leap to see Main Street USA as America’s naïve theater. Today, the central drama on that off-Broadway stage is being played out at the intersection of culture and agriculture.

Arriving cultures are big players in that drama. The tension between corporate profits and the well-being of national resources also figure prominently. And there are additional tensions. One is an internal class anxiety. Devastated by the aftershock of the 1980’s farm crisis—as well as fallout from the post-industrial era—the Midwest is reinventing itself. Parts of the new Midwest look a lot like Brooklyn, Portland, Berkeley.

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Piece-by-piece, this is not a difficult bunch of stories to report. It isn’t hard to travel the Midwest and find the right people and places to give voice to the issues. Beneath the surface, however, in the place where the accumulation of the factual and the observed can become something more than a report, the Midwest is my personal 2,000 pound gorilla. I left Ohio about three seconds after college. It seemed to me that my life depended on getting as far away from “Main Street” as possible.

“Main Street” was, as Lewis described, notable for people of “an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment…the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery, self-sought, and self-defended. It is dullness made God.”

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Placemat, Indiana diner (left) and (right) View of the ShortNorth in Columbus, OH, by Allison Johnson, from heavytable.com

Hello, Life, Goodbye, Columbus. I was sure that the Association was singing for me in the late 1970’s. But today, I go back to Ohio more and more frequently, partly because my family is there, partly because either the region, I—or both—have changed. Right now, I’m going with “both,” a quintessentially Midwestern choice.

Part of what happens to a person who is dwarfed by a geography as vast as the Midwest’s, is an acute awareness of others. You never know when that twister is going to whirl your world like God’s own handheld blender and spit you out in Oz. You want—you need—the ballast of community. The familiar Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion who will help you find your way home.

At their best, Midwesterners are open and expansive, a prime case study for the power of landscape to shape human psyche. They tend to look for bridges between people and to establish a “both-ness,” out of what is held in common. They’re loathe to offend, quick to appease. On a good day, if there is a problem between people in the Midwest, it is generally seen as something beyond either party’s control.

When he was 19 and broke up with his first love, I asked my brother Pat what went wrong. “It wasn’t her, it wasn’t me,” he said, “it was in-between.”

Midwesterners fear and respect the in-between—things like weather, and economic shifts, and human hearts that can’t be controlled. We seem to believe that the in-between can be offset, or contained, by a robust both-ness.

When subjected to stress—financial insecurity, extreme isolation, the numbness of rote labor, political disenfranchisement, the fear of an ill-timed frost, a summer too-dry, a flood, a terrorist attack—”both-ness” tends to get confused with “same-ness.” As it did in the post-Depression and post-Dust Bowl eras, when Lewis was writing.

His both-ness shrank to a conformity that was as thin and brittle as a single amber blade of grain. His Main Street was a land of the living dead. Dead hope. Dead dreams. Dead food. Dead delight. A terror of any variation. Every day, every person, every meal, every fate had to be the same.

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The Joy of (frozen) food; vintage ad, author’s collection (this is a job for Superman)

(Except that it never was, not really. There was always Clark Kent, the invention of two men from Cleveland, an upright, everyday guy who chose to conceal his superpowers in order to fit in and get the girl).

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Superman

In gentler times, however, Midwestern both-ness is expansive. People are more intrigued than afraid when dinner at the neighbors is different from dinner at home. During those better times, both-ness is hope for the dream of democracy, for individual divergence replenishing the whole just as soy replenishes corn-weary soil, for nurturing the creative and entrepreneurial spirit, for that very American quest of perfecting one’s person, one’s town, one’s world, for living the dream.

Gentle eras (as well as times of complete desperation) also grease the hinges of the trap door in the surface of facts and observable phenomenon, the door that leads to seeing stories in deeper context and allows a writer to infuse urgency and life in the telling.

My trap door is not unlike Clark Kent’s phone booth. Sometimes I breeze through and simply connect what I am seeing with what I’ve seen before. Other times, I tumble from the observable to the perceived world and surface with the cadence, the images—or just a single word—that can give a beating heart to a collage of impressions and information.

I’ve been steering clear of the trap door lately. Considering the Midwest, the piece of me that arches toward both-ness battles the Big City part of me—that part whose initial response to any given situation is identifying what distinguishes me from the other and figuring out a way to feel at least a teeny bit superior. My inner Middle West seeks commonality, my Inner City seeks distinction.

I know that the possibility of writing something meaningful lives inside that tug-of-war. But it’s difficult to reconcile the countervailing currents, and like most humans, I look for ways to avoid discomfort. Humor works. Rich prose, an arresting image, an abrupt change of tempo. If all else fails, ironic detachment can take the place of reckoning. It’s stylish. Its slick. It’s…whatever.

More and more, ironic pose seems like a cop out to me. A refusal to define and declare who you are and what you stand for. Although it infers moral and intellectual superiority, ironic detachment is just a curtain. If you call Toto in to pull back the curtain, you see a little guy trying as hard as he can to distract attention from his small, hidden self.

I used to be married to a New Yorker who called my family in Ohio “irony deficient.” It made me feel like a hayseed, but several weeks ago, as I sat at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, listening to a panel discuss the Midwest at the Food Book Fair, the phrase dirged like a drum roll in my mind.

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MGM archives

I’d gone to hear two of the visionaries who will perform in the LongHouse Barn —author and Food TV diva, Amy Thielen, and Jeni Britton Bauer, the author and empress of Jeni’s Splendid Ice cream. Two other Midwesterners, Amy Elsen, the co-founder of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, and David Tamarkin, the founder and editor of Middle West Magazine were on the panel as well.

The moderator, Betsy Andrews, is a New Yorker and is the executive editor of Saveur. The four Midwestern panelists were dressed for Brooklyn; they wore skinny and black. Andrews, the editor in New York City, was dressed for Montana, jeans and cowboy boots, loose. Everybody, in other words, was imitating everybody else. And they were so nice.

My heart sank. They were so earnest, so careful to avoid offending the moderator or each other. No pulse, no risk, nothing unexpected. For a while it was Main Street in Williamsburg.

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Amy Thielen, image grabbed from http://www.amythielen.com

And then, after a half an hour of predictable patter—farm fresh ingredients! potlucks! family recipes! We are local, hear us roar!—the moderator apologetically raised the issues of factory farming, chemical use, and everybody’s favorite boogeyman, Monsanto. Something shifted. It was Elsen in her high canvas director’s seat, uncrossing her legs.

“My father says that he couldn’t have reestablished his farm without Monsanto,” she said, quietly.

“Monsanto has helped a lot of farmers,” said Britton Bauer, also uncrossing her legs. “The issues are a lot more complicated than people who don’t have custody of huge tracts of land understand.”

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Jeni Britton Bauer

(At least that is what I think she said, I wasn’t taking notes. I know that the panelists clicked from eager-to-please, late-night-talk-show to something closer to talking-turkey-at-town-meeting).

Thielen, formerly a chef in New York City, suggested that “local” is more than twine-bound bunches of organic kale, but is, also, about social context and local habit. She talked about guns, and gutting deer, and cooking at a hunting camp.

Britton Bauer, an artist, who originally turned to ice cream to support her painting, is now emerging as a voice of the new Midwest. Her creamery supports a re-vitalized family dairy. She said that the Midwest has both the land and the cultural memory of stewardship required to reinvent the nation’s food system.

She talked about the creative economy. I imagined that economy springing up like little towns on the prairie did a couple centuries ago.

Just as those towns simultaneous hearkened back to settled life in the east, while looking forward to a barely imagined future, Tamarkin seemed to say, the best Midwestern cooks are drawing inspiration from their own landscape, their own bounty, their own synthesis of history and current events. He might as well have been talking about his ‘zine, Middle West—that, like Superman or Oz, could only have emerged from the Midwest imagination.

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Middle West Magazine (left) and its founder, David Tamarkin (right) (images from Tamarkin)

“I used to have to go to New York to get inspired,” said Tamarkin, who was a long-time restaurant critic with TimeOut in Chicago. “I don’t anymore.”

There was talk of the artists, musicians, writers, photographers, and chefs who are flying back to the flyover, putting down roots. Because it’s possible there to have a business and a life. Because there is, if even only in the shared myth of Midwestern-ness, historic precedent for creating coherence out of chaos.

The trap-door opened and I hurtled down, down, down.

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From an Iowa supermarket, by Ame Gilbert

Images from recent months—empty Main Streets, vacant factories and machine shops, Walmarts sparsely populated by elderly people using oversized shopping carts in lieu of the wheeled walkers they require—flashed by as I fell. I whooshed past the billboards for “The One, the Only, the Original Field of Dreams,” sighing barns, ethanol tanks near the railroad tracks. The tanks were still full from last year; the trains have been diverted to the Dakotas, I was told, to move fracked oil.

Onward I tumbled, past the glassy-eyed tweaker gunning a semi-truck on the midnight interstate. Past the school buses lumbering country roads at dawn; as school districts are consolidated, the yellow buses ferry students for up to four hours a day to their classrooms. Down, down, down.

For a second, I was afraid in the way that you get afraid when, driving an endless Iowa road toward a nonnegotiable horizon, you wonder if the world might not really be flat, after all.

I tumbled past the kitchen table where a farmer with custody of five generations worth of land uses the calculator on his I-phone before rolling the dice on this year’s planting: corn for fuel or corn for the table? I hurdled by the tag-sale jumble of the kitchen where a Mexican former meat processor who is now a hospice worker and gardener displays last year’s dried peppers with the reverence of showing so many raw rubies; she can’t afford the land to grow enough to sell, so she gives her tomatoes and peppers to the soup kitchen at her church.

I sailed past the book-crammed office a Iowa State University, where Fred Kirschenmann tries to make sense of it all, skidded across the grease at MaidRite, where I tucked into a hamburger bun layered with loosed griddled beef and listened to Mary Swander, Iowa’s poet laureate, talk about living inside an epic battle.

In a nanosecond, I’ve sailed through the stench of confinement hog operations and past bucolic small farms where hogs burrow happily in straw and sup on corn and acorns to grow flesh fit for the nation’s most discriminating palates. I’ve flown by some really bad meals that meant well and some really good meals, particularly La Quercia‘s superb prosciutto and speck, that weren’t intended to be meals at all.

I’ve slid across the corn-colored light of morning at Couser’s beef feeding operation, the lavender scented respite at SeedSavers Exchange, the sage-hued twilight in Paul Willis‘s kitchen. I’ve passed over the haunted sidewalk in Clear Lake where Buddy Holly gave his final concert, the field where his plane crashed the day the music died, and I’ve landed back in Columbus circa 1975.

A recession along with Civil Rights and Cleveland burning, peace rallies and Kent State are causing both-ness to be confused with same-ness again. I’m an artist and a poet, a feminist and a cook. I don’t fit in. I have to leave home to find home. I’ve never even heard of prosciutto.

Thirty-odd years later, at Food Book Fair in Brooklyn, I feel like Dorothy waking up in her bed after Oz. Except that I am still in Oz and, for at least the duration of their panel, so is the cadre of food visionaries from the Midwest. And they look and sound as if they belong here, which each could, if they wanted to, but they don’t. They want to stay in the middle, where they can make a life with their own hands and make a difference.

My generation’s yellow brick road is another’s career path. I wonder if Jeni’s Splendid will become Ben & Jerry’s. I wonder if Tamarkin’s Middle West will become Food & Wine. I wonder if Thielen is the next Martha Stewart. I hear myself reciting the last few paragraphs of “Main Street,” the part where Carol imagined her infant daughter as a bomb that could blow up smugness, passivity, and complaisance.

“Think what that baby will see and meddle with,” wrote Lewis in 1920, “…She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aero planes going to Mars.”

Then—cutting through all the complicated issues, the high stakes, the terrifying epoch, the zillion shades of gray, my own ambivalent relationship with the region, and, in the face of no easy answers, the terrible temptation to romanticize and fetishize and commodify—a jolt of joy suddenly vibrates my marrow.

When there is food and the love of it, the bone-crunching work of it, and the daily poem of cooking it, there is the possibility that both-ness will abide. Because food demands the cook to be fully present, fully alive, and fully human—and when you are, the world feels as wide and open as the land that scrambles glacial valleys to the Mississippi bottoms and then rises, a thousand miles of prairie tabletop to the Rockies.

I’m looking for phone booths. I’m looking for my ruby slippers. I’m getting ready for LongHouse. Last week, we opened the barn.

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First barn lunch of 2014 with culinary intern Bettina Banayan, image by Mackenzie Smith