Monday, February 6, 2012

Food and Power and Magick and Power

Thesis: Magick is about power, and leveraging that power to shape and form the world we live in to the world the practitioner wants to live in, and food is a medium of power leveraged by many to that end.

This might seem somewhat extreme. Very few people think about food in these terms. Generally food in our lives is thought of in terms of what we can get our hands on quickly and conveniently enough to eat before the next event in our overbooked schedule starts. This simple human experience defines everything about why food is a medium of power though, and why we are the ones being controlled.

Now before I jump into how I think we can leverage food as a medium of power I want to spend some time defending the position. I'm going to do this because I'm sure I'm on the verge of loosing some people. Food is power?!?!? What is that drivel all about?

If you stop and look at the average expenditures on food in America you see that we spend roughly 12% of our income on food. The other large expenditures are housing, transportation, and retirement expenditures. Now one thing I would like to point out about these numbers is that this is an average. If there is one thing the 99% conversation has shown us, it's that averages don't really tell us anything about the average person. So the person who is bringing in a median income of somewhere in the 25-26K range the amount of money spent on food is probably much much more, and if one has a family at that income then you have to purchase the most affordable food available.

Now most people would assume that means people who are in this low income bracket must cook for themselves. Here is where things get interesting though and you begin to see the food as power dynamics at play. For many individuals food that must be cooked is not accessible. I recently watched Food. Inc. and one of the pieces of the film profiles a low income family who is struggling to get by on a very limited budget. The father drives for a living (they sadly don't provide additional detail on what exactly this means) and has diabetes. The mother also indicates she has an incredibly oppressive schedule and is unable to take the time to cook for her family.

Now I could go into great detail in this post about the conclusions that they came to about this family in Food Inc., but that's not really what concerns me. What struck me when I watched this family is how similar they were to my family when I was growing up in many ways, yet how different their approach to their difficulties were. We had very similar income and time restraints, and my mother exercised strict control of the checkbook. Food was made in a crock pot, or included simple baked casserole style dishes. Protein was often tuna from a can, or the absolute cheapest cut of chicken from the store. That's just how it was. She demanded that we have balanced diets though. That included frozen veg because it didn't have additives, and it's what she could afford that was healthy. In the Food Inc. segment the family compared Burger King, and it's affordability to fresh pears at the store, or a head of fresh broccoli. They looked at the head of fresh broccoli at a dollar a pound and compared it to a hamburger from Burger King, like someone was going to sit down and consume just a head of broccoli as a meal.

I have run into this all or nothing, fresh, beautiful, perfect, often organic produce is unattainable so I have to eat fast food mentality in my own life experiences as well. This is where food truly begins to be power, in terms of power over other people. We are at our core dependent on what we eat for health, for energy, for thought and vitality. If a person knows how to leverage food to bring out that vitality in one's self then they can do nearly anything. I'll use the burger king example. At the beginning of the profile of the family from Food Inc. they are driving through a Burger King drive in lane and they order 4 burgers, 3 regular drinks, and a large drink for the father. This amounts to somewhere around $11 after tax. Now I'll use a comparison meal my mother made for us regularly when I was growing up. Lentil soup. A pot of lentil soup might have a $1.30 bag of lentil's in it. A few carrots and a few ribs of celery along with an onion. The carrots would be about $0.50 fresh, the celery would also be about $0.50 and the onion would be maybe a dollar. A can of tomatoes to throw in for an even $1 and we'll allot $0.50 for spices and general seasoning like garlic and dried herbs. We now have a pot of food that comes in just under 5 dollars that will provide dinner for said family of 4. Toss in some iced tea or heck we'll even allow them the soda and you get to maybe 6 or 7 bucks. The lentil soup takes maybe 20 minutes of prep in the morning before going in a crock pot.

To look at the meal above it might seem obvious, but you have to look at the $1 bag of carrots and the $1.20 bunch of celery and understand that you're designing multiple meals off that veg. You have to be able to strategize a menu, and know how to use up all the food you buy without wasting any of it. These things aren't necessarily difficult but they do require something that has been all but lost in the lower income segment of the American population, a dynamic knowledge of cooking. I'm not talking about Food Network cooking either. I'm talking about the kind of cooking you learn growing up watching your mother and grandmother. I'm talking about sticking scraps of vegetable in a bag in the freezer to make veg stock with later, and old recipes that sustained us in the past. Our great grandparents didn't have McDonald's, and pre-packaged convenience food. Those things came about later, and oh how they have changed things.

The loss of knowledge passed down through family experience has resulted in a generation of parents who can't really cook for their children, or themselves. They can learn to cook for themselves, but where will they find this knowledge? At this point the most accessible cooking information is on the internet, and in old re-runs from early Food Network, and sometimes in publications like Food and Wine or Vegetarian Times. The problem with all of this is that these guides are often driven by a desire for excellence, not sustainability. On food network they will tell you to get "only the best ingredients" and use "only the best parts" of those ingredients. This results in profound food waste, and a psychological effect where if you can't afford "the best" then you're somehow not doing it right. This discourages many people from pursuing home made food, because of the "perfect or go home" message that is wrapped up in so many cooking shows. The accessible, mistake prone, but perfectly acceptably delicious days of Julia Child are behind us at this point, with no expected return.

The push for excellence sells, because people like glamor, and as with all things in our modern society money does the talking. Unfortunately the dis empowering impact it has on people is more than just a subtle side effect. When you look back at the impact food availability has on lower income families, and consider that the leisure time to pursue something like cooking as a hobby, where you might take the time to perfect your food is truly a luxury that is not afforded to many.

Now I've made a small argument about the power of food, and the power of cooking knowledge which is now so heavily ensconced in the culture of "eliteness". The real impact comes in how those things interact relative to the health impacts of our diets. Modern medicine often does not look at someone who has a diet induced illness and push a diet based fix. This is partially because Americans are often bad at changing our habits, so we have invested the past several decades in making it chemically possible to maintain poor personal health behavior while we continue to draw breath. Setting aside the arguments about the quality of life on multiple medications they are profoundly expensive. For many once you have spent the money on the personal pharmacy required to maintain an American lifestyle there is little left to invest in a dynamic diet, especially in the absence of a strong culinary education (I use this term in the broadest sense, not in the academic context).

So thus far we have seen how food can keep people down, keep them unhealthy, and ultimately maximize their role in society as a constant stream of revenue that could otherwise go elsewhere. Food's intrinsic place in this process also gives it the power to remove all of us from this particular enslavement.

The only thing standing between us an truly healthy, enriching, empowering food is knowledge and a willingness to give up a little bit of convenience for great gains. We can each choose to take the radical step of offering to teach someone else how to cook for themselves, or to make truly wonderful food for someone who has only ever had pre-packaged space meat. We can also take the time to engage our family in the craft of food and the rituals of nourishment.

Rituals around eating open doors that I have seen very few pagans walk through. Many of us grew up Christian, though a few lucky individuals may have been raised by pagan parents. As such the rituals of eating might seem intrinsically Christian in nature, the prayer before meal, the bowing of heads. Let me assure you that they are not. As pagans it is important to remind ourselves that many of the rituals we associate with Christianity have much older roots, and we must be willing to reclaim our connection to those roots. While the traditional meal time prayers of judo-christian households focus on thanking God, and a simple pagan prayer might thank the gods and the Earth, in truth the potential of this act as a source of self empowerment goes much farther. Here I must point out the difference between the worshiping pagan, and the witch. For a worshiping pagan giving thanks and honoring the gods is truly the root of the the meal time observance, and it is a ritual well worth taking the time to perform. Just as much of our food system is hidden from view, there is also much that can be hidden in this simple meal time act as well.

The food in front of you at any given meal represents the cumulative energy of countless workers, spirits of the land, and depending on your paradigm deities. A meal is not a time just to give thanks to them, but a time to see the path the food took to reach you, and as part of giving thanks invoking the spirits and energies which contributed to the nourishment you are about to take into you. This magickal act is empowering in two very different ways. On a spiritual level taking such power into yourself is a potent magickal act, and it is an ideal time to regularly engaging your talents as a will worker, and engage more completely with the energies and spirits which not only surround you naturally, but which are brought to you day in and day our by our strange modern world. This also evokes a place within the practitioner where one becomes aware of what one is consuming. One becomes aware of the impact of their food, form a health standpoint, from a cultural standpoint, from a societal wellness standpoint (I don't just mean human raising of animals, issues of humaneness in our food extend far more profoundly to farm laborers and the communities they are part of). This engagement, this moment of reflection in and of itself empowers us to make conscious choices about our food, and though even the briefest regular meditation to begin to understand how our engagement with food empowers or dis empowers ourselves, and can empower or dis empower those around us. These moments are important, and can make a huge difference in our lives.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sorry I've Been Gone - Now Back to the Show

So it's been a while since I posted. Right after getting started with the new direction of the blog I was distracted by my rather strong obsession with the Occupy movement, and then a new job in a commercial kitchen. Since taking that position I've been working 50-55 hour weeks, which has left me with far less time for blogging. I'm trying to pair everything back down so I can complete some of the projects that are really important to me. Turns out I can't do absolutely everything, but this project really is important to me. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I want to get back to working on my pondering about the connection between food, magick, and us as human beings.

So the most profound activity I've been a part of in the past couple months related to food is working at Big Jones. Let me just say that it's been an eye opening experience. I'm working there part time, while maintaining somewhat reduced hours still telecommuting for Indiana University. I sought out the position at Big Jones because I have wanted to become more involved in cooking from a professional standpoint for quite a while. What I have discovered from the experience is . . . well not what I expected.

First let me talk about my history with food and why I have such a borderline obsession with what we put in our bodies. I started baking with my mother at the ripe young age of . . . I don't know. I actually have no idea what age I was because I have no solid memories of a time before my mother would put me in front of a bowl with a spoon and have me at least stir the dough. She did this because baking with my sister and I was important not because it helped her make cookies during the holidays, we in fact were a huge production liability until we were around 10 years old, but because it made us love the food we were making and appreciate what was going into it. There was no time of the year I looked forward to more than baking for the holidays, and to be honest that includes Christmas morning. Gifts are awesome, baking is better. That's just how I remember it.

So that's really the foundation of my views of food. It's about love and enrichment and connection and nurturing. Now let me talk about Big Jones. The Big Jones kitchen during a major service is a special slice of hell warmed up and served with delicate garnish right here in the real world. Now I don't want anyone reading this to think that I mean this as a criticism of Big Jones. I "knew" that's what I was walking into when I asked for a position at Big Jones. I put knew in quotation marks because I had seen many many people talk about commercial kitchens. I have read about what they are like, I have seen the TV shows, I met with and spoke with the chef multiple times before I was hired, and I have talked with other people who have worked in commercial kitchens. All of that is unquestionably true, but I put knew in quotation marks because none of that actually prepared me for being in a high end commercial kitchen.

The attention put into the food at Big Jones is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. They make their own jams, all their own pickles, their own charcuterie including Andouille, Tasso, Blood Sausage, Pate and other items as the chef decides to offer them. The staff at Big Jones even makes the Worcestershire sauce they use on the burgers. There is no product that is not elevated above what is available on the open market. I thought that this was exactly what I was looking for, and what I discovered was that while in many ways it fulfilled me in many ways it did not. What I found was that I was removed from people who had always been an integral part of the food equation for me. I live for that moment when I see someone experience something new while eating something I've created. Perhaps it's just the novelty of simple turbinado ginger syrup (which while I was already making ginger syrup the turbinado touch is straight from Big Jones), or eating an all vegan cous cous that has no recipe and being floored by the amount of flavor that I have achieved with no meat. I know in that moment that the world is better by the iota of one persons experience in a way it would not have been if I weren't here.

Even more important than that experience is teaching someone else to cook, to make and create for themselves. I have been teaching cooking workshops on and off since I was in college. In a restaurant kitchen, especially one like Big Jones where you are creating food that the customer cannot reasonably reproduce for themselves the separation we have from our food is strengthened. Almost everyone I know is dependent on restaurants, not just for the occasional indulgence in ethnic food outside their culinary skills, but for basic meals. Every time we consume food at a restaurant and think to ourselves that we could not possible do that at home that divide grows. Every dollar we give someone else to do for us what we could have done for ourselves is a dollar of power over our own existence we have given away. Ultimately I wanted to make a world that was less vulnerable to this phenomenon, not more vulnerable.

It is my hope that I can move towards culinary pursuits that do not provide for people, but inspire people to provide for themselves. In that vein I am going to be teaching two workshops at Edible Alchemy in March. One is on yeast doughs, and the other is on making your own liqueurs. Magick isn't just in what we make, but what we make the world. I haven't completely figured out what I'm going to be able to make the world, but I'll figure it out eventually.