Book Review: Oceans of Grain

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade World History. (Basic Books, 2022) Kindle Edition

Much recent discussion about world economics and global power, say the last 60 years or so, has focused on petroleum, and occasionally on food. Too much dependence on foreign oil, or OPEC or Russia manipulating the price of oil, or peak oil, and what have you seemed to dominate the headlines at least yearly, with dire predictions about the world’s dependence on oil producing countries. Wheat only appeared when there was a famine somewhere, or someone embargoed someone else (US and USSR, 1979-81, for example) Scott Nelson argues that wheat is far, far more important. Food is life, and control of food is what allows empires to form or fall.

Nelson’s specialty was US history, focusing on the Civil War and the role of food supplies. He grew interested in Russian attempts to mimic the US’s success with wheat, and ended up discovering the writings of the Russian exile Israel Helphand, who wrote during the late 1800s- early 1900s as Parvus. Parvus, a Communist and son of grain farmers and grain traders, argued that control of wheat transport routes and wheat production, along with the industrial proletariat, would be key to bringing about a Communist revolution. Nelson uses Parvus’ writings as a launch point to look at grain trade and civilization in Europe, going back to the Neolithic and the discovery of how to safely store grain, especially wheats.

The western steppes of Europe, what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia, have been the source of wheats and other grains for thousands of years. The trading routes were called”black paths” because of the rich black chernozemic soil. Many of those routes formed in the late Stone Ages and continued in use first as roads, then as railroads. Nelson next looks at how empires sought to control food supplies, bringing grain from the periphery of empire (North Africa, eastern Europe, Gaul) to the metropolis (Rome). The Black Death and other plague waves interrupted the flow along the black paths, weakening empires or leading to major changes in how they arranged themselves. The black paths, and later flow out of the Bosporus once Russia expanded south and grain moved with Russia, were the choke points for empire. Then along came the US.

Nelson shifts gears to talk about how the Union Army’s supply chain failed. From that failure, caused by too-centralized a system that led to micro-managing, corruption, and price gouging, came a new way of buying grain through the Chicago Board of Trade – grain futures. This allowed anonymous purchase, which reduced gouging, and made it possible for the army to buy from a large number of individual dealers rather than depending on six warehouse men and grain brokers. The new system worked, as did early mechanization, and after the war, the US became the grain exporter supreme, sending cheap wheat all over Europe. The inexpensive food made Europe’s large-scale industrialization possible. Once Hungarian flour-milling technology also spread to the US, Americans could undercut Austro-Hungary (the former lead flour exporter) as well as inadvertently breaking the centuries old system of grain trading and shipping and storage. This put Russia in a financial bind much like the one that plagued the Austro-Hungarians.

World tensions, the need to control the wheat export points, and international finance, according to both Parvus (in the 1900s) and Nelson, led to WWI and the Russian Revolution. I’m not entirely sure that Nelson is right to put so much weight on wheat trade as a primary cause of the war, because a lot of other things were swirling around between 1910-1914, but his account of how Bolshevik control over the food supply affected the Russian Revolutions and civil war makes good sense.

Nelson is an excellent writer, although there are some disconcerting typos and awkward phrases in spots. He also assumes that readers are already aware of how futures markets work, and have a good understanding of geography during the various periods he addresses. I found myself having to stop, go back, and reread in places, because I’ve not tangled with economic history and world systems theory in several years. He also jumps from topic to topic a bit, but does return to the original theme and tie everything together. The book is very timely, and adds a dimension to the ongoing rolling disaster in Ukraine and the ripples in the world grain supply systems. Once more, the Bosporus is a critical choke point, and the closure of the black paths is leading to trouble (with “help” from other factors, some of which are outside human control.)

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the history of world trade, people looking at the role of food trade in European and US history, and students of the internal conflicts within the Russian Communist movement prior to 1920. The book is quite readable, provided you have a solid background in economic history and finance terminology. It needs more maps, but that is my usual plaint, and maps are easily available on-line if you want to find them.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.


Apple-Crisp Days

No, not for baking, although right now I’d really like a plop of apple-crisp with vanilla ice cream, or apple pie with vanilla ice cream. No, I’m thinking about the sort of day that starts chilly, turns crisp, and is full of smiles, laughter, kids doing kid stuff, and signs of the turning season. It might not be perfect, but it’s worth savoring.

Most days, I still can’t go out for a walk unless it is early morning, because the sun is still too intense, and the weather too warm. However, more and more strong cool fronts are coming through, dropping temperatures and warning that winter will ease in (or roar in) sooner than we’d like to think. The berries on the hawthorn are half-turned, green shifting to blazing orange. The leaves are also starting to shift color, soon to be crimson. The sweet gum trees are also turning, brown crisping the edges of the large green leaves. Acorns have begun to drop, to the delight of doves and other birds that wait until a car rolls over them, then feast at ease.

Soon, fireplace smoke will start to replace the perfume of smoking meat in the evenings, although not entirely. When the weather permits, grills and smokers remain in service all year around out here. Piñon firewood and other specialty woods are starting to pile up here and there with prices posted by the bundle, half-cord, and cord.

The Mississippi kites have gone south. Autumn is here.

Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.

Food and Taboos

“Fish is brain food.”

“Fish will make you cold and slow and will block medicine power.”

“If it doesn’t have fins and scales, it is unclean.”

Don’t compliment a baby or you will bring down the evil eye. Don’t sit so that the sole of your shoe or the bottom of your foot is pointed at someone. Don’t touch someone on the head lest you interfere with their chi. Don’t eat within one hour before going swimming. Women shouldn’t bathe during . . .

Every culture has things that Must Not Be Done. Some of them seem odd to outsiders, and on occasion, even those inside the culture can’t explain precisely why you Don’t Do That. When anthropologists and folk-lore students start finding patterns, well, then it gets interesting.

Many Plains Indian peoples had taboos about fish – don’t eat them. Either they are just bad luck, or their are bad for medicine power, or they will make you slow, or . . . Up and down the Great Plains of North America, freshwater fish were taboo. Which made ethnographers wonder what the connection was, since these groups all moved to the Plains at different times, and had somewhat different cultures. What probably made fish bad news was the lack of fat. Most parts of the Great Plains, especially the western parts, lack carbohydrates but have lots of lean-meat protein sources. Eating too much lean meat without access to fats and carbohydrates can lead to medical problems, and that may be the origin of the prohibition. Season-dated Paleoindian bison kills show a preference for females in the fall (when they are fattier than males), but males in the spring (when females are far leaner than males.) Some archaeologists have speculated that rules of hunting might have included taboos, although we can’t tell.

The Jewish and Muslim rules about not eating pork are probably the best known food taboos in the western world, although they are not identical. Jewish rules hold pork to be unclean, but pigs may be raised and sold to outsiders. In an emergency, pork may be consumed if the alternative is starvation. Finding a package of bacon on the front step of a synogogue does not render the place of worship ceremonially unclean. The same is not true of a mosque. Pork and pigs are abominations in Islam, and are to be avoided at all costs.

Many food-related taboos are tied in with ideas of ritual purity and cleanliness. Insects and things that creep on the ground may be “dirty.” Likewise many cultures have a ban on consuming carrion eaters, because they eat decayed (and thus corrupt and unclean) flesh. For the Comanche, fish are unclean, and they won’t eat dog because Coyote is close to dogs. Other Indian peoples have no problem with consuming dog meat (the Cheyenne and Maya, for example) but the Kiowa eschew bear meat.

Ritual cleanliness also places a lot of limitations on women of child-bearing age. A woman having her menses is often ritually unclean, or might have the unfortunate ability to break medicine-power or certain blessings. In some cases, women were strictly confined away from sunlight and the rest of society, under the strict care of a post-menopausal woman, until their cycle had finished. In other cultures, the rule was that women of child-bearing age could not go near where the shaman or medicine man lived. Sometimes, women were to avoid hunters for a set number of days before a major hunt, to ensure that hunting magic would remain strong, and that the “scent” (real or spiritual) of blood would not contaminate the hunters and scare away the game.

Some cultures have a lot more taboos than do others. Entire slices of society might be under strict limitations because of a caste system, to the point that if the shadow of a certain person touches the possessions of a different person, the offender is to be executed for polluting the one of higher rank or spiritual authority.

The west doesn’t have as many religious taboos as many cultures, although we certainly have unspoken customs and limitations. Don’t talk about your income or job. Don’t tell dirty jokes or swear in mixed company. Certain cuts of clothing are not suitable for daytime or business attire. Don’t forget to leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, unless the service has been truly terrible. Men should remove their hats when entering a place of worship unless that faith requires the head to be covered. Don’t talk about sex, religion, or politics at the supper table. (Note that “religion” can include college or professional athletics in some parts of the country.)

And never, ever comment on a no-hitter baseball game in progress, or a smooth ride on a flight, or say anything like, “Boy, this equipment test is going really well!” Every fan, pilot, and tech or engineer will turn well-deserved wrath upon thee.

For an intriguing academic look at food taboos around the world:

Cheese: A Luxury, but not an Indulgence

So, the question arose in a chat over on MeWe. Is cheese a luxury? Well, people can survive without cheese, be it cow, water-buffalo, sheep, goat, or otherwise. If you have to severely trim your budget, good cheese tends to get shed from the protein list in favor of legumes, milk (for those of us who do milk), eggs, and cheap meat cuts. Soft cheeses, like cottage cheese or queso fresco don’t keep that well. Milk can be used to cook other things, as well as drunk straight, turned into really good chocolate milk, or tapioca pudding (stretch your dairy and starches), or to fortify hot cereal. I’m not so sure about Cheddar cheese and cereal, but I’m sure someone has tried it at least once, if only on a dare.

However, cheese is one of those things that adds a lot of flavor to dishes, perks up otherwise bland things, and has enough fat to be a comfort food. A really, really good macaroni and cheese, or three-cheese-pizza with real cheese, or fresh-grated Parmesan on fresh veggies in a cold pasta or chick-pea salad, those are all things that satisfy more than just the stomach. Flavor and fat make a lot of things far more edible, and cheeses provide both of those. And if you need dairy, but can’t drink milk, hard cheese lasts far better than most yogurts.

So, I would argue that while good cheese is a not a necessity, it is not an indulgence, either. To me, an indulgence is something that goes overboard. A $250/pound Kobe beef steak is an indulgence. $100/lb chocolate is an indulgence. Down here, a full-length fur coat is an indulgence (unless the fur is on the inside, and it has a wind-blocking layer, at which point we’re talking “Arctic parka” rather than “see my fancy fur coat.”) Really good cheese, Cheddar, Emmental, or other similar semi-soft grating or slicing cheeses, Parmesan and related truly hard cheeses, they are worth the money. Man can live without cheeses, but life is far better with them. When I’m cold, and wet, and achy, and my budget is whimpering, well, grated cheese melted in a tortilla (quesadilla AKA Mexican grilled-cheese) with a good salsa fills a physical and emotional hole. And it tastes really, really good.

Book Review: Garden Variety

Hoenig, John. Garden Variety: The American Tomato From Corporate to Heirloom. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) Hardcover.

We all know that there are only two things that money cannot buy, per country music. Those are true love and homegrown tomatoes. Most of us have probably grumbled about the visually perfect and rather bland super-‘mater that is found in grocery stores in January, and many of us have sighed and sweated over trying to raise our own tomatoes in pots, or in gardens. And then felt overwhelmed by the produce overload that is known as August-September (in much of the US). Tomatoes are argued over, debated, immortalized in song, have a folk history, and serve as a powerful symbol of the problems of mass-grown corporate agricultural produce. But what if that story is a lot more complicated that most activists think? Enter John Hoenig and his fun book, Garden Variety.

Hoenig starts about 200 years ago, looking at the slow rise in popularity of tomatoes, and the problem of preserving them. You can’t easily dry, smoke, salt, or otherwise store tomatoes. Potatoes, corn [maize], turnips, squash, cabbage, beans, all can be easily kept for the long duration of winter, but tomatoes were a seasonal luxury until canning came along. Ketchups of mushrooms, then tomatoes, and sauces came first because of the limits of technology. Those limits also led to the creation of lots of regional canneries, each using local produce and serving a limited area. In those places where immigrants and others introduced new diets, like the Italians in the late 1800s, tomatoes became a luxury, then a necessity. To have the first tomato of the season brought a lot of money to farmers, and so cold-frame-grown tomatoes appeared, or tomatoes shipped by rail. However, most tomatoes ended up in cans, either at home or through the local cannery.

WWI and especially the Great Depression and WWII led to the explosion of both canned tomato products and the super-cannery. Standardized foods, like canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Ro-Tel™ tomatoes-n-peppers, and canned meals grew in popularity. The wars absorbed almost all the tomato products that Heinz and others made, forcing gardeners to can at home. With the shift in the economy and changing leisure-time interests, home canning faded for a while. That shift also led to the end of the bracero and other farm-labor programs. This is where the “industrial tomato” arose, when labor shortages in the 1960s forced growers to finally take interest in a mechanical harvester. Said harvester needed sturdier tomatoes, leading to the modern industrial hybrids.

Most histories of food in the US turn here, following the rise in mass-consumption and the “blanding” of the American diet as corporations came to dominate agri-business. However, Hoenig takes a different track, and points out how a combination of “back-to-the-land,” “gourmet,” and “traditionalists,” led to the resurgence in farmers’ markets and heirloom local tomatoes. Yes, most packaged produce still comes from big farms and corporations. However, the local tomato didn’t wither on the vine, and in fact old-breed varieties grew in popularity, as did farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This complicates the story of “corporate food.”

The book is shorter than it seems, because of the extensive end-notes and bibliography. It is not academic, for all that it is written as an academic monograph. Hoenig aims the work at interested readers, people who might know a little about farm history, or gardening, or food history, and who want to learn more. There are no bad guys, no super-heroes, unlike some books about farming and agri-business in the US. The story never strays from the tomato. I got the sense that Hoenig is not entirely comfortable with the giant corporations that dominate supermarket shelves, and the environmental problems associated with monocrop farming. Those topics are not his focus, however, and he steers clear of the shoals of polemic. I suspect a lot of us share his concerns, and are interested in buying local and supporting more variety in ag when we can.

I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the history of food in the US, in farming and mechanization, and in quirky histories about produce.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.

Choice or Privilege or Something Else?

A new ad-campaign for a federal nutrition program caught my eye. It shows a family sitting down to supper, and says, “Because a well-balanced meal should not be a privilege.” My first reaction was, “It’s a choice, especially this time of year.” I can choose to eat junk food, or choose to eat veggies and a good protein and fat source, or toss it all out the window and go ice cream all the way. So can most people. Granted, some face much tighter constraints, as I did when I was flying charter in Flatter-Than-You’d-Think state. One month I made all of, oh, four hundred dollars. Rent was $370 a month. Plus utilities. I had some savings to scrape by on, but I ate a lot of “discount protein and dented can stew.”

But yes, there are some people for whom this federal program is a very, very good stop-gap until things improve and other resources become available. And there are some people who never learned how to cook, and others who live in true utility apartments or hot-bunk and don’t have a place to store perishables or time to cook them.

Still, the description of a balanced meal as “privilege” implies that it is actually a right. That’s where I hit a mental wall. It’s the same wall that rises up before me when I hear non-emergency medical care called a “right” or fast internet access as “a right.” Who is taking whom to give to whom? Because, with a few exceptions, routine medical care costs someone. Even if the doctor is donating his labor and knowledge, or is a nurse in a religious order that provides health care to the truly desperate, someone has to pay for the lights, and the supplies, and so on. Someone has to pay for the wire or cable, and the router, and computer equipment, and other things to make the internet flow.

“Privilege.” From privas lex, later privilegium, private law. These were rules, or exemptions from rules, that only applied to one individual or one small group. Later it came to mean special rights belonging to a group or an individual, then the idea of a special advantage. In early English legal writings, privilege had a negative connotation. It was unfair, and the law should apply to all equally.

“Right” Recht, in German, a straight line, a legal entitlement that follows a straight and proper path. That goes back to the Proto-Indo-European sense of a good, straight path or road (or piece of wood.) The older sense was a piece of property, later more intangible things – fishing rights, justice no matter one’s weregeld or social position so long as he was free-born.

Interestingly, the Latin still has a whiff, strong whiff, of negative connotation. Food of some kind should not be only for the favored few. It is correct and straight dealings for people to have [noun].

More and more, I hear things described as “a human right.” Clean water, clean air, internet, free medical care, private housing with air-conditioning and comfortable furnishings and all the amenities. A smart-phone. Internet access, presumably whenever the person wants it, so she doesn’t have to go to the library and use a public-access terminal. In other words, a late 20th Century, middle class or upper lower-class standard of living, with the diet to match. The person declaring this often also declares that materialism is evil and we should all live simply, with fewer possessions and amenities (air conditioning) and spend more time in public spaces because that’s where true inner peace and satisfaction come from.

My brief taste of a greatly simplified, much harder laboring, lifestyle cured me of any desire to live that way, or to impose it on others. There was no bucolic, rural Arcadia outside of Romantic paintings and Rousseau’s fevered imagination.

Life, liberty, and property. Those are rights. The right to defend yourself and your family. The right to clear title for what you purchased. The right to relocate when I choose, to where I choose, so long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights. The right to determine, as far as possible for your time, place, and talents, how you will earn your living and what hobbies you pursue. The right to believe or not believe as your conscience commands. And even with employment choices, one might be limited by the rest of the people around you. I have a right not to have my goods stolen, so you don’t have a right to make a living as a thief. Most people also oppose human sacrifice, so no Aztec revivalist religion, either. Your rights stop where mine start. Where exactly is that line? Well, we humans are still sorting out a workable, consistent answer. If there is one.

None of those depend on other people giving you anything, or paying you simply for existing. Or for the government providing things. Actually, what our activist above called rights – internet, housing – are actually privileges in the legal sense. A private law and grant is made, consisting of a service or a good.

I have no problem with encouraging people to eat balanced meals. I will happily donate produce, or help sponsor cooking and nutrition classes for people who want and need them. But if someone chooses to make decisions about how and where to spend their funds that lead them to living on pizza, burgers, fried chicken, or mac-n-cheese, or tacos and burritos . . . That’s their choice. Especially if someone has tried to help the person make better choices.

It’s not fair that I can afford canned tomatoes and corn more easily than some, and have the time to find discount meat at the grocery, and can cook. Or that I have time to cook big batches so I don’t have to cook later, and the cost is lower per serving. But those are my choices. Not a privilege. My privilege is living here, now, when all these things are so amazingly cheap and plentiful compared to 100 years ago.