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.
One of my favorite things about having spent five years writing a doctoral dissertation is that odd stuff floats up when I am doing something repetitious — chopping and cooking carrots for freezing, for example.
I am sure everyone knows how this goes: an image pops into your head and you say to yourself, “Why did I think of that?” Before you know it, you are feeling your way along a silken rope of associations, blessedly far from your humdrum point of origin.
At the beginning of this week, with pounds of freshly harvested produce menacing me, I stacked the basement floor with the contents of my 10-cubic-foot chest freezer in an attempt to understand what exactly was there — a dispiriting task indeed.
In the midst of this cold-handed shuffling, I looked up to see John Dewey leaning against a damp, cobwebbed wall. I pushed the dirty clothes that had spilled out of the hamper away from a bag of blueberries, as if Dewey were a health inspector and not a figment of my imagination.
How is it, I asked myself, that my good intentions — year-round pursuit of fresh, local food — had led to this stiff, ugly collection of plastic containers littering my basement? And why was I hallucinating John Dewey?
The second question is easier to answer than the first.
I became fixated on John Dewey in the early ‘00s. Though I like to think I grew out of crushes long ago, the truth is that infatuation fuels my brain. When I am trying to understand an idea, I attach myself to people surrounding that idea in order to stay focused on sometimes dry and distant collections of facts. John Dewey was, for a year or so, one of these brain crushes.
In reading about John Dewey’s ideal school as I wrote my dissertation, I learned that Dewey would often alight at the threshold of his classroom, asking students question after question while leaning against the doorjamb. I soon began to see him lecturing me in that very fashion, and I can still hear him comparing books to dried corn, as he explains to me why we try to teach children anything at all.
Education is not solely of benefit to children, he argues; adults also get something vital from it. When children learn the things we adults value, holding perishable ideas inside them as memory and belief, these aspects of culture persist. By Dewey’s logic, books are temporary holding places and not true preservation sites — which is why, by the way, he advocated hands-on, problem-based education.
If ideas stay trapped in books, they lie motionless and stale; nothing new can come from them, for they fail to nourish humans truly.
I struggled for months to understand this simple, powerful idea because I grew up in a book-worshipping household. Slowly, however, as I mused on the dried corn visible in a photograph taken at the Chicago Laboratory School in 1904, I began to see how preservation depends on good storage, good labeling, and clear directions for use. It’s much easier to see what information is for when it is fresh and vivid and relevant.
Freezers, too, are temporary holding places, not true preservation sites. Harold McGee calls it “the most drastic form of temperature control.” Lodge food in a freezer too long, and all sorts of terrible things happen to it — it dries out, it loses its ability to nourish and please, it becomes painfully cold to the touch. Millimeters at a time, food hardens, its molecules moving in an ice dirge rather than the spritely room-temperature jig.
Though the overall cell structure is preserved by blocking the major agents of decay (bacteria and oxygen), cells still collapse. Ice imprisons once-vibrant forms, and its large crystals often puncture skin cells; fragrances are lost; organic, plump shapes harden into tasteless squares.
Dewey looks at me sadly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. For such an apt pupil, I haven’t managed to think very far outside the big white box. It has taken me too long to see that what’s true of the school is also true of the kitchen. A freezer too often is a hiding place, somewhere to dump food when I am tired of trying to figure out how to prepare it.
There is advice about how to get frozen food back into circulation to be culled from this reflection; perhaps there is also some hint about how to finish a dissertation.
Certainly, there is information which preserves the legend of John Dewey for a time longer. Here, though, is what I will remember: freezing is beautiful, but we humans can only take so much of it. If we want to keep our beauty, we need to find a way to get it inside us. Sometimes, that’s harder work than we know.
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