By Christine Dzujna
One of the stories that we Americans like to tell about our nation is that it is founded on freedom and the unfettered ability of each individual to choose her or his life’s direction. That freedom, however, comes with the responsibility to live with the consequences of our choices. As demonstrated by Roosevelt University Professor of History Emeritus Bruce Kraig in A Rich and Fertile Land, choices that our ancestors made, and the ones that we are making today, have shaped the history of the American agricultural landscape, influencing what we eat and how we can make our agricultural sectors efficient, productive, and sustainable.
Kraig identified several intellectual strands that he believes distinguish the American mindset. The first significant wave of colonization took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during the height of the Enlightenment. These colonists brought with them many of the philosophical and scientific ideas then current in Europe, and these new Americans began their never-ending quest to “improve” this land to match their ideal of a “civilized” environment that supported a bounty of familiar Old World foods. The savage frontier needed to be tamed by smoothing America’s rocky and tree-filled territories and containing them within fences.
Another American trait Kraig identified is the notion that, “bigger is better,” something we see nowadays in supersized foods. Kraig illustrated this trope with the story of the “Mammoth Cheese.” On New Year’s Day 1836, President Andrew Jackson received a momentous culinary gift, a great cheshire cheese, 2 feet thick, 11 feet in circumference, and weighing 1400 pounds. Created the previous summer by Col. Thomas S. Meacham, a prosperous dairy farmer with lands north of Syracuse, New York, the popular press dubbed the cheese “mammoth,” and it caused a sensation as it was sent by boat along the Erie Canal, to Albany, down the Hudson to New York City and on to Washington. This “mammoth” cheddar was part of the vogue for the gargantuan, fed by Rembrandt Peele, who proudly showed off a recently acquired mastodon skeleton (misidentified as a woolly mammoth, hence the adjective) that was unearthed in Newberg, NY. Meacham’s cheese was not unique, as other farmers in New Nation America produced similarly impressive wheels: indeed, the intent of the farmers was to use their creations to make a symbolic point about the state of American progress. It was reflective of democratic abundance and of the (excessive) commodities and riches that resulted when man successfully conquered the land and made it produce according to his will.
These immense cheeses were also a display of food, class, and politics in early America. Kraig noted that, unlike the ways in which food expressed power in Europe, the colonial cheeses were made not by a lord with the intention of pleasing “his sacred majesty,” but by the “personal labor of freeborn farmers without a single slave to assist for an elective president of a free people.” Today’s discourses also center on power and class, but now focus on the discrepancies between the diets and well-being of the upper classes and the underserved. While the former has ready access to the healthiest and most sustainably grown products, the latter still largely subsists on a highly processed diet that precipitates of host of undesirable consequences.
Kraig identified another defining aspect of American intellectual history: the embrace of the nineteenth century market revolution that swept—literally—across the land and spawned the industrial food system. This “progress” reconstructed not only America’s economic foundations, but also its cultural and social values. The Jeffersonian ideal had been one of individual self-sufficiency, feeding one’s family from one’s own land; the Jacksonian era saw the rise of merchants and capitalists, whose businesses were able to reach more distant markets through the engineering feats of the Erie Canal and the trans-continental railroads. Cities like Chicago and St. Louis became hubs in a market economy that supplanted the traditional, more localized American agricultural system.
Kraig returned to the theme of environmental manipulation and the American penchant to tame the landscape. America’s wilderness continued to disappear under enhanced axes and milling machines, plows, and steam tractors, all intended to deliver the efficiencies Americans prized, but culminating in the flattening of the land so as to populate it with crops and grasses. This led to a perilous pattern: use the land and when it wears out, move away, shown in several exoduses from depleted farms in New England and plantations in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Other farmers abandoned their lands and headed to the factories. Kraig embraced the argument made by William Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis, noting that one could now buy lumber without considering the forest from which it was cut, or eat a steak without having ever set eyes on a steer: our connections to the land became more tenuous and obscured. Cronon sought to remind us that man and nature are bound together in a moral contract in which we rely on each other to survive and prosper. When we move away from the land, that bond is strained and it becomes more difficult to observe the consequences of our choices. We forget our duty to use the natural resources sustainably. In treading heavily on the landscape, we fail not only the land but ourselves and generations to come. In Kraig’s view, our constant efforts to change, improve, and reconfigure the land, our machinery, animals, and crops can be seen as an extension of our moral character and our never ending quest towards personal improvement. The ideas that underlie our beliefs about how we use the land are key to understanding why we produce the food that we do and why we eat what we eat. He urged us to reflect on the implicit pact we forged with the land that sustains us and with every living thing that journeys through this life alongside us.
The event’s tasting was not only a celebration of the gifts of the land, but also a reminder of our symbiotic relationship with, and accountability to, the natural world. We sipped cider crafted by the aptly named Abandoned Hard Cider Company in Sullivan County whose mission is to reclaim apples from “wild and abandoned” orchards. In a nod to the celebrated mammoth wheel, we sampled a crumbly yellow Cheshire and a white cheddar from Vermont Cabot along with a homemade whole wheat sourdough bread using freshly milled hard red winter wheat from Farmer Ground in Trumansburg New York, homemade red onion marmalade, and Indian pudding, in homage to the corn that blankets so many fields. Our land has been rich and fertile indeed.