Archive for March, 2009

This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

In December 2007, NYU Professor George Shulman taught a course entitled “Authority, Modernity, and Democracy,” in which the students read (among other books) Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.  I wrote about this reading on Thanksgiving Day that year, in an essay entitled Arendt & Berry on Joralemon Street.  I had been reading Wendell Berry too.  I am only now adding the genius of Wes Jackson into my jungle of a brain.  I have not written about Wes because I would prefer to just write what he writes.

For now, I’ll share what I wrote in 2007.  My final essay for George’s course was the one I have posted below.  I apologize for the academia.  And for the imperfect footnotes.  I still believe what I wrote.


The Newness of Survival (December 12, 2007)

The following essay will evaluate the distinct separation of political agency and human survival throughout Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and the unnecessary boundaries drawn by this separation, with which Arendt limits her own brilliant ideas.  The German Jewish political theorist values the complexity of newness, remembrance, and public space, and yet sets boundaries on the political potential of those values by separating them from the privacy of “simple” life and survival.  While articulating the valuable ideal of individual agency through creative, political action, Arendt fails to utilize the interactions of the system of Nature, which, if recognized and emulated, would allow man not only to act with agency, but to live by our ability to act.  Arendt’s theory would do well to incorporate and adjust to the fact that the material of man’s work, the inspiration for our action, and the historical and geographical context of the change we create all depend upon the earth’s environment, and on the evolving, mutually dependent, biological cycles of our natural world.  Instead, Arendt limits her core values in The Human Condition to a world that requires selectivity, subordination, and slavery, when man could embrace her underlying vision of agency, remembrance, and diverse individuals, in a system without such negative qualities.

Download the full essay here.

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This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

Assata Shakur has now lived in Cuba for thirty-five years. She was a Civil Rights activist, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and is today just 61 years old. State and Federal police departments harassed and assaulted her throughout her years of activism, convicted her of many crimes she did not commit, and victimized her and her community through the FBI’s Counter Insurgency Program (COINTELPRO) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Cuba granted her political asylum when she escaped from prison. In her autobiography, Assata, she relates the horrors of her time in the hospital and in prison before and during her trial for the 1972 New Jersey Turnpike Shootout. She tells this brutal story in sections, spliced with the chapters of her childhood in New York City, and her youthful years of gradual political and philosophical growth.

The publication of Assata in 1987 gave a powerful, personal voice to the violent and enraging racist reality confronted by black activists during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the book speaks as much of a woman’s childhood memories and their importance, of her youthful decisions, judgments, and actions, and of her mind, always learning and expanding, even while fighting a world of aggressively closed and narrow mentalities. Assata was a formidable individual, yet she acted as a participant in a movement, rather than a leader. Two years ago, when I first read her work, it was her mention of and reflection on her smallest actions that changed my perspective. Her simplest stories fueled my love of the otherwise humbling, often fundamental, elements of my own social education and participation.

Assata was nearly eighteen when she became friends with a group of African students at Columbia. “One day,” she remembers, “Vietnam came up. It was around 1964 and the movement against the war had not yet blown up in full force. Someone asked me what I thought. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I said, ‘It’s all right, I guess.’” When she justified her stance by saying that, you know, the United States was fighting the war for democracy, against communism, “the brother asked [her] if [she] knew anything about the history of Vietnam,” and proceeded to explain about colonialization, exploitation, starvation, illiteracy, and the long fight waged in the North. “I sat there with my mouth hanging open.” Assata remembers. “He knew all this stuff and he wasn’t even studying history. I couldn’t believe that this African, who didn’t even live in the u.s. or in Asia, could know more than me who had friends and neighbors who were fighting over there.”

She began to read about the war, to educate herself, and found that the Africans had told her the truth. “I never thought I could be so easily tricked into being something I didn’t understand,” she writes. “It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.” Five years later, as a member of the BPP, Assata was assigned to the children’s breakfast program in Harlem, and woke up early in the morning to make the kids’ pancakes, eggs, and sandwiches. “Working on the breakfast program turned out to be an absolute delight,” she recalls. “The work was so fulfilling. From the first day I saw those kids, my heart went out to them. They were such bright, open little people, each with his or her own personality.”

Assata’s activism was one of important friendships, gradual education, intent observation, and seemingly intuitive self-reflection. She respected those whose work she truly admired, and voiced thoughtful disapproval of others’ work, even when she knew criticism was not welcome. She volunteered for the groups and organizations that she saw were doing good. She heartily accepted that opening her eyes would mean having to act. The day-to-day construction of her convictions reflects these simple, grounding principles.

Just as Assata built up her convictions, and did not let them make her self-righteous, so should we. By knowing that we do not learn in order to lead, but to open our eyes, and to act as a result. In the social movement towards environmental justice and food sovereignty, we who participate will need to embrace the power and fulfillment to be found in even the smallest forms of participation. The work of this movement will necessarily evolve as we become better informed of opportunities for change, but it will most likely continue to be the work that is least valued in our culture. We will continue to cultivate land, pick tomatoes, organize our communities, sort garbage, drive trucks, set up market tents, weigh vegetables, cook meals at soup kitchens, outdoor markets, senior centers, and at home. None of these constitute or lead to a highly paid or well-respected career. Nor do they give us a specifically strong voice in Washington. But they are each a way of participating in the movement, and each is as necessary as cooking breakfast was for black children in Harlem in the 1970s. Working towards the freedom of all people to understand, decide upon, and control what they will grow, cook, and consume, it is our (ever-growing) knowledge and our fulfillment that will be our strength.

Shakur, Assata.  Assata: An Autobiography.  (Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago, 1987).

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There is certainly a difference between sharing a meal with people and sharing the butchering of a meal.  And most people – even doctors – would not want any learning experience to involve physically sawing a corpse in half.  A butchery workshop, therefore, doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable gathering of family and friends, nor like a particularly pleasant educational opportunity.  Yet, somehow, it can be both.

In a break from the usual pattern on this site, pictures will be prominent here.  The subject of this essay inspires a craving for images.  But the point is more in the history, and in the story of a profession of profound importance.  Butchery is a craft, a formerly respectable career of prominence and skill, rendered nearly obsolete by the industrialization of agriculture.  Should strong regional food systems truly begin to emerge across the country, it is a craft we will have to recall.


Jake Dickson led our butchery workshop last Friday, accompanied by our host, Moe Albanese, of Albanese Meats and Poultry.  We butchered two small pigs, raised by Jenny of The Pig Place in Fort Edward, New York, and processed at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, New York.












We began by sawing the first pig in half.  While the half-pig remained intact, Jake pointed out the loin, ham, belly, shank, shoulder…as well as the head, feet, tail, and teeth.  We proceeded to butcher each of the two halves of pig, each differently, so as to produce a variety of cuts.  From those first halves, we cut little pork chops and baby back ribs, two hams, and thick bacon.  From the second pig we saved the head to make head cheese, removed the bones from the whole loin for porchetta, left the double ham for good presentation, and cut the picnic shoulder, as well as the boston butt.




Meanwhile, Jake told us about what breeds are good for this quality or that characteristic; why some farmers feed pigs a vegetarian diet and some don’t; and how pigs hold flavor in their fat (like apples, or acorns), and thus foraging affects the taste of the pork.  As Moe nodded agreement (and instinctively, endearingly, repeatedly reached for the knife to correct our novice butchery), Jake told us about the change in the meat industry over the past fifty years.

 Moe’s father opened Albanese Meats and Poultry in 1945, a few blocks away from it’s current location on Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston, where it has been open since 1945.  With the help of her son, Moe’s mother ran the butcher shop until she was 90 (1995), and Moe has run the business ever sinceIn 2009, he is nearly alone in his profession on a block where seven butchers once served the local population of European immigrants.  Our two pigs hung on the shop’s old hooks where whole animals used to hang daily, ready to be butchered according to each customer’s requests.  But Moe hasn’t butchered whole animals for his community in over twenty years.  The industrialization of meat raising and processing has dumbed down the butcher’s profession, and  Moe now receives “boxed meat,” just like most grocery stores and super markets.  The meat is shipped into the city, neatly packaged, already prepared in standardized cuts.  The modern “butcher” is in fact a low-skilled worker, trained to slice big cuts into smaller cuts, in large amounts, as quickly as possible.  The high quality product, transparent sourcing, personal interactions, and customized services of a true butcher shop are nearly impossible to provide, and are no longer even expected.   








The actual process of change in the meat industry over the past fifty years is a story of immense complexity, inhumanity, danger, and waste.  The history of butchering in New York City begins with prominent figures of practiced skill, proceeds through cycles of immigration, threats in sanitation, gangs and wars, surges in population, industrialization, and barely survives to the present day.   I have learned only little of this enormous and intricate story of meat, but one brief workshop brought that little to life.  No textbook or lecture, demonstration or meal, could ever have made me so eager to learn.  It was a gathering of family and friends like no other.


Although most animals are skinned when slaughtered, Hilltown can leave the skin on, through a process of dipping the bodies in boiling water and removing the loosened hairs with a machine (much like that used for removing the feathers from chickens).

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This is one in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.

The latest two interviews conducted for this project presented a rather revealing story.  The first was with the organizer of a small delivery company that links farmers to restaurants in New York City.  The second was with a representative of a Brooklyn District Public Health Office (DPHO), who is involved in the Brooklyn Coalition of the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership.

Representing the small delivery service, the first interviewee eagerly told me about how her company works.  She gave me the nuts and bolts, the logistics, the schedule.  The farmers post their products on Fridays, the restaurants order on Mondays, the farmers harvest to order on Tuesdays and deliver to a drop-off site that night.  The truck is loaded that same (Tuesaday) night, the driver departs early Wednesday morning, the city driver takes over by sunrise, and the restaurants receive all their deliveries before Wednesday evening.  The company works with farms in a single county.  They deliver to about twenty restaurants.  They charge their farmers a fee that leaves them (the farmers) with a higher percentage of the price of their produce than they would ever receive from a wholesaler or mainstream distributor.  The interviewee herself is essentially a vibrant link, on the phone, answering farmers’ questions, dealing with chefs’ neurosis, solving the little crises that occur when the truck breaks down or the traffic is bad or the frost lingers longer than is ideal.  She told me about the possibilities for the company’s growth, who might be served, how service could be expanded and made more efficient, what additional farmers she might work with, what additional clients she might seek.  We spoke for nearly two hours about the potential and possibilities of the model her company has pioneered. 

Of course, the small delivery company serves relatively high-end restaurants that are committed to buying fresh, local products, and of sourcing through a short, transparent supply chain.  Such restaurants are willing to pay a premium for the high quality (and marketability) of these products, as are their customers.

The bodegas of Central Brooklyn are a different story altogether.  They are no more able to pay a premium for perishable produce than they are to charge their customers $4/lb for tomatoes.  But they’re still a part of the same food system.

As a result of the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Fitness Partnership, the second interviewee participates in many meetings and conferences regarding the regional food system, and in particular, related to the high rates of diabetes and obesity in the neighborhoods within her district of Brooklyn.  Her DPHO, along with the one in Harlem, recently conducted research that shows a correlation between a lack of access to healthy foods and health risks.  The research found that most community members buy their food from bodegas that rarely offer fruits, vegetables, or milk, but instead primarily provide the residents with cigarettes, alcohol and soda.  This research led the NYC Department of Health’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program to partner with local bodega owners to expand the availability of healthier food choices in target neighborhoods the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the city (Harlem, South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn).

As the second interviewee explained the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, she did not lose her eagerness to share her experience, but her words were not hopeful.  “The distribution network does not exist,” she said, “to make it feasible for local, small grocery stores to source foods from local farmers, even if fresh produce were financially accessible.  It would be great if the farmers who sell at markets in nearby [more wealthy] neighborhoods,” she continued, “could just come here at the end of their day, and sell their leftover produce at a discounted price to a distributor at a central drop-off/storage location, rather than trucking it back home.  Storeowners could then purchase the produce from the distributor, at a lower price than is possible at the moment.  But this system is not set up, and at the moment, the farmers don’t have the incentive to come here!”

So the story goes: When enough high-end restaurants begin to demand fresh, local produce, a delivery company emerges to cater to their demand, trucking quality products straight to their door from upstate New York.  When community residents demand fresh, local produce, they work to change policy.  But their bodega-owners can’t “demand local produce” because there isn’t an efficient distribution system in place to make fresh produce convenient and affordable enough for their business.  The community demands may change policy – in some ways, they already have.  But only purchasing power can inspire the creation of a distribution system.

The second interviewee had never considered the effect it would have to encourage the purchasing of fresh, local produce in the hospitals of Central Brooklyn.  Yet the main tool she has to work with, besides policy, is purchasing power.  Bodegas may provide many people with “food,” but they are small and unorganized, and have no set choreography for collaboration.   Their purchasing power, as individual entities, is negligible.  Meanwhile, several local hospitals serve thousands of meals a day.  The patients in these hospitals are the same mothers and fathers and children who so are so gravely affected by obesity and diabetes as the customers at the local corner stores.  If anything, hospitals are deeply invested in their patients’ health, and the correlation between human health and consumption of fresh produce has been proven!  The latest draft of the New York City Council’s “Global Warming ‘Foodprint’ Resolution” sets a goal for 20% of food served in city-run institutions to be local and preferably organic produce within ten years, and provided a budget allocation to make this possible.  As policies like these develop, centers of demand for fresh produce are powerful tools for inspiring the development of a stronger local food system.  Hospitals are hubs of such demand.  We who understand (and are so eager to learn!) how we might connect our nearby farmers with the city….we have to talk to the hospitals.

Some other cities and regions at work…

Plow to Plate: New Milford, CT

Center for Food and Justice: Los Angeles, CA

Local Food Plus: Toronto, Ontario

Grow Montana: Montana State  

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Columella: On Agriculture

This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s colloquium topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

The work of a Roman has again, like The Georgics, presented me with strikingly familiar ideas, written about today in all the papers and blogs and research reports, and yet well known to a writer in the 1st century A.D.

The twelve volumes of De Re Rustica, by Lucius J. M. Columella, offer what may be the most comprehensive account of Roman agriculture in existence.  Through this work, Columella does not lyrically entertain nor pleasurably instruct his audiencebut rather educates his readers, politically and practically.  He believes, as Jefferson did nearly two thousand years later, that the practice of agriculture is perhaps the one “method of increasing one’s substance that befits a man who is a gentleman and free-born.” He recognizes the practice of agriculture as “the art of highest importance to our physical welfare and the needs of life.”

The work is rather like a grassroots organization’s guidebook, back when twelve volumes was perhaps the appropriate length for such a thing, and begins with a relatively brief raison d’etre, just as we would today:

– Columella laments the fact that “we think it beneath us to till our lands with our own hands, and we consider it of no importance to appoint as an overseer a man of very great experience.”  He explains, “The common notion is now generally entertained and established that farming is a mean employment and a business which as no need of direction or of precept.”

– He worries about the migration of the population from country to city.  “We have quit the sickle and the plough and have crept within the city-walls; and we ply our hands in the circuses and theatres rather than in the grainfields and vineyards.”  He cites the initiation of importation, a clear result of the slothful activities of young men in the city.  “We let contracts at auction for the importation of grain from our provinces beyond the sea, that we may not suffer hunger; and we lay up our stores of wine from the Cyclades Islands and from the districts of Baetica and Gaul.”

– He questions the lack of a single institution devoted to the education of farmers.  He attests, in defense of the material to be learned, “For my part, when I review the magnitude of the entire subject, like the immensity of some great body, or the minuteness of its several parts, as so many separate members, I am afraid that my last day may overtake me before I can comprehend the entire subject of rural discipline.”

Finally, the author embarks upon his own, detailed education of those who wish to pursue agriculture.  “One who devotes himself to agriculture should understand that he must call to his assistance these most fundamental resources: knowledge of the subject, means for defraying the expenses, and the will to do the work.” When choosing land, “two considerations are of chief importance – the wholesomeness of the climate, and the fruitfulness of the region; and if either of these were wanting and one had none the less the desire to live there, he had lost his senses and should be turned over to his legal guardians.”

And the instruction goes on.  Forever.  Most succinct and poetic of all is the following little passage, on fertility, and mortality, in man, and in nature:

“It is a sin to suppose that Nature, endowed with perennial fertility by the creator of the universe, is affected with barrenness as though with some disease; and it is unbecoming to a man of good judgment to believe that Earth, to whose lot was assigned a divine and everlasting youth, and who is called the common mother of all things…has grown old in mortal fashion.  And furthermore, I do not believe that misfortunes come upon us as a result of the fury of the elements, but rather, because of our own fault.” 

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus.  On Agriculture, Ed. and Trans. Harrison Boyd Ash (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1941).

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