Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Foodstuffs and stuffed foods

My definition of civilization

January 12, 2010

Read my Yule-log adventures from last winter and you’ll know that I like to make food that looks inedible. When my neighbors constructed a wooden play kitchen for their toddler this winter, I learned that I also like to make toys that look like food.

As I sewed grapes, a red pepper, a pea pod, two carrots, a pizza, and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and stuffed them with quilt scraps, I enjoyed exploring the curious boundary between the edible and the inedible from another side.

In terms of shape and color, these worlds are wonderfully similar. Bright, plump, and symmetrical, yet not entirely regular, foodstuffs and stuffed “foods” beg to be touched.

My husband kept wandering by when I was finishing the pizza, his eyes fixed on the pepperoni slices. The corduroy-and-felt pizza was bound to disappoint a man looking for sustenance, though, which brings us to the other side of the border: perishability.

It seems strange to think of falling away into bad-smelling little parts as ability, because “ability” has such positive connotations. With that undesirable talent, though, come the wonderful smells and flavors that draw us into the kitchen when dinner is cooking.

My cotton, wool, and silk creations are sturdy things that offer nothing to the nose and tongue save colorfast dyes and indomitable fibers. Perishability ensures that our bodies can raid foods for necessary substances like proteins, minerals, and fats, and also that food beckons more than our eyes and hands. An aroma, after all, is teeny-tiny pieces of food wafting up inside of us, the food’s scouts checking us out before the eggplant-Parmesan army moves in.

Joan’s stuffed food.

If a whole host of anthropologists are correct, our particular type of civilizational development occurred because we kept looking for ways to unlock the nutritional potential of the world around us. That bison is awfully chewy, our ancestors perhaps complained, and we can’t seem to eat it faster than all these other animals around us. Voilà, pyromaniacs surge to the evolutionary fore.

What none of our development has eliminated, however, is the need for food. To recognize this need is to recognize our vulnerability to spectacular, earthly forces. Food cooked on a gleaming, restaurant-grade gas stove is, in some sense, the same as food cooked on a smudge fire inside a wattle hut; in both cases, we humans break fibers down, the better to make them part of ourselves.

Unlike humans, durable objects like my stuffed “foods” need nothing to maintain their cellular integrity and so, with any luck, these toys will remain part of Natalie’s kitchen games for years to come, or at least until she introduces them to her dog, Moonbear, or a nearby door hinge.

My egg-headed approach to my sewing project stems in part from a book I read in between courses: Janet A. Flammang’s The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, a scholarly consideration of food in American culture that pays special attention to Alice Waters’ food activism of the late 20th century.

But the book’s main arguments — that cooking represents an under-appreciated feminine contribution to American culture and that greater contact with foodways among children, criminals, and the poor is a positive development of recent history — rely on a few assumptions I am uncomfortable with.

First, gardening and cooking seem allied at some points in the book and separate at others. Is gardening continuous with cooking, and if so, does that bring men back into the historical kitchen equation? Where does men’s foodwork end and women’s foodwork really begin?

Second, are children, criminals, and the poor really “uncivilized” in the same manner, and to the same degree?

While I have no problem accepting the idea that women’s cultural contributions, especially in the realm of foodwork, have been forgotten unjustly, or that tending a garden or learning to cook can benefit children, convicts, and wage slaves, I believe a more incisive examination of how social identity is formed in the United States might have helped Flammang choose her categories more fairly.

For me, the common denominator of “uncivilized” behavior is an ill-defined relationship with the material world. Anyone who despises the complicated and sometimes dirty aspects of life as an organism — cell decay and hunger being the two most on my mind as I tucked peas into that little green pod — stands a good chance of despising people who labor intimately with that perishable thing called food: women, to be sure, but also farmers, fruit pickers, meat packers, and line sorters who can and box the foods even the most food-conscious of us eat every day.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, this is a class thing I’m talking about. The book I have yet to read is one that compels middle-class people to examine their own relationship to food fully, rather than inviting them to shake their heads at the poor unfortunates across town, as I believe Flammang’s book does.

On the positive side, The Taste contains many lively descriptions of gardening and cooking programs across the nation, as well as a clearly written history of Alice Waters’ genesis as a "delicious revolutionary."

My hours constructing Natalie’s immortal foods were true play, as Mark Twain defines it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and . . . play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him [Tom] to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill is work, while rolling tenpins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.” To his list, Twain might have added baking a coconut cake or growing a bushel of green beans.

As I sewed, I had time to conclude that foodwork is neither inherently civilized nor inherently barbaric. But the hierarchies that force some people to work for a pittance while others sew toys in their leisure time can be uncivilized indeed.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by Janice on Jan 14, 2010 at 9:16 AM PST

Thank you for such a thoughtful essay. I enjoy reading your work. It is academic--in the best sense of the word.

2. by joanmenefee on Jan 14, 2010 at 2:11 PM PST

Thanks, Janice! This was one of the rare occasions where my craft and food philosophy genes got spliced. Since I filed this essay, I have made four mushrooms and a piece of sushi. N. got her goodies just after the new year and has been putting them to work in her kitchen with great elan.

3. by donia on Jan 20, 2010 at 3:42 PM PST

“But the hierarchies that force some people to work for a pittance while others sew toys in their leisure time can be uncivilized indeed.”

Best sentence of the whole article. I would love to see more articles here devoted to how those who are forced to work for a pittance can cook and eat healthily and sustainably.

4. by joanmenefee on Jan 21, 2010 at 2:02 PM PST

There are definitely people here interested in class and food--the member community and the site designers, writers and editors. I work with my food co-op’s board and the main complaint we hear is how expensive organic food is. Additionally, we can’t figure out how to talk about and value the time it takes to prepare food; sometimes we feel guilted into thinking we should love cooking for its own sake. I know I don’t always love it, but I do think it’s a source of dignity and self-sufficiency. You toss me the questions and I will try to research them.

5. by donia on Jan 25, 2010 at 3:58 PM PST

As with most problems, it’s many-sided. There’s the question of cost, which can be prohibitive (most of my organic purchases are sales items that have been reduced to comparable and sometimes even cheaper prices than non-organic).

The question of access is another large part of the problem. There are no places I know of that sell organic food in my neighborhood. With public transportation cuts being made in Chicago, it becomes even more of a burden to seek out healthy, let alone sustainable, options.

I have recently thought of growing herbs on my porch, but I’ve never grown anything before. My main worry right now is that my porch will become a snack bar for pigeons and squirrels. What can I do to keep animals away?

6. by joanmenefee on Jan 27, 2010 at 2:50 PM PST

Food and pest: I like it. I think I can do something with that. For now, I will say that we have been trying to get a mouse out of our car with balsam oil and other ingenious devices. Wisconsin in winter must be a challenge for mice; on some level I can’t blame them for seeking shelter in the places I warm and prepare for myself.

7. by Sarah Mae Thomas on Mar 9, 2010 at 5:18 AM PST

I like this article. I will include this to my research. Thanks for sharing!

8. by joanmenefee on Dec 8, 2011 at 7:59 PM PST

Gourmet went on a trompe l’oeil rampage too:

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