by Aviya Kushner
I. Ballad of the Big Strawberries
The first time I went to synagogue in San Francisco, what I noticed were the strawberries. I had been to many synagogues in my life, and I was used to a modest repast after services consisting of silvery herring taken out of the jar and served on toothpicks festooned with curly, colorful ribbon; semi-stale store-bought cake served in slices; tiny plastic cups of far-too-sweet red wine; and occasionally chulent: a bean, potato, and meat stew braised overnight in a slow cooker to avoid lighting a fire on Shabbat. But these strawberries were something else. They were definitely fresh—not frozen, jarred, or canned. And they were huge.
“They’re organic,” said a friendly guy flexing his muscular forearm in the direction of the strawberries. “They were picked right before Shabbat.” He then tried to tell me what farm they were from, how much they cost, and the great effort he had expended to procure them before the sun came down and Shabbat had begun. I ate the strawberries gratefully—glad he did whatever he did to get them.
I had no idea then that those strawberries were a marker. Food, for the people who had food, was about to become a cause, equated with justice, morality, and progressive values. Food would be the new morality, but hunger would rarely be a part of the conversation.
If the Bible is to be believed, what is moral is one of the oldest questions of all, coming not long after the most basic question of whether God is around. In the Bible, morality has nothing to do with juicing, with kale, with brown rice burgers, or with the absence of preservatives. The Bible doesn’t even bother to tell us if the fruit in the Garden of Eden was fresh or organic; though it is reasonable to assume it was chemical-free, since corporations were mercifully not part of creation.
The first question in the Bible, in Genesis 3:9, is when Adam asks God where He is. One short chapter later, in Genesis 4:9, Cain, Adam’s son, rhetorically asks God if he is his brother’s keeper. Cain’s question is haunting. Of course we are responsible for each other. God’s answer is poetic and memorable. Your brother’s blood is calling from the earth.
Morality, first and foremost, is about the most basic of questions: whether and how the people around us are staying alive—and whether we, in our flawed humanness, still care.
II. Ballad of the Cities
San Francisco was—at the time of the strawberries, as it is still now—a city of juicers, of believers in raw everything, of worshippers at the altar of body cleansing. There was even a place called Café Gratitude where you had to tell the waitress what you were grateful for before you could order your vegan meal. At first, I thought having ten-dollar-a-pound fruit at synagogue was a San Francisco thing. But that was 2007.
Now, in 2015, I notice that food obsession has nothing to do with San Francisco. Everyone I come across—in Chicago, where I now live, in New York City, where I grew up, and in many cities I visit—seems to be talking about their food and its healthful properties.
Among food-secure foodies, food is cool. Food is a word that connotes politics, not survival. Food needs to be hand-rolled granola with farm-fresh bananas, instead of just granola. Food must be “just-picked,” as those strawberries were. Food gets bonus points if it is vegan, praise if it is raw, hallelujahs if it is certifiably GMO-free. I do this too sometimes. I happily drink an overpriced smoothie made from organic fruit without thinking about how I am standing in a segregated city, within easy walking distance of a neighborhood with an unacceptably high murder rate.
But now I worry about the subtext, about all the food talk at parties, usually within sight of the chef’s kitchen that is more and more a standard feature of our home lives and yet another divider between the haves and the have-nots. I worry that what we are saying is: If it’s for me, if it goes in my mouth, if it will swirl around and through my body, if it will be used to prepare my daily bread, it better be the best.
Listening to all the discussion of the highest-quality quinoa, the biggest cage-free eggs, or even the eggs some people now gather from chickens running around their own yards, I hear a form of selfishness. The speakers are secular, but the sentiment is ancient, strangely religious, and almost missionary in its zeal. It insists on a lone and clearly demarcated path to salvation. I hear what I have been afraid of all my life, reading liturgy insisting on chosen-ness and wondering what that idea does to a person. I hear a complete and unshakeable belief in the absolute holiness of the self.
III. Ballad of My Mouth
Food culture is the tastiest part of our great turning inward. It is part of a religion of the individual and a slow banishment of all that is communal, including, for many decades now, organized religion itself. At a time when one of eight Americans is on food stamps and large, low-income tracts of American cities—the same parts of cities where poverty is most concentrated and homicide rates are highest—are food deserts lacking access to fresh, affordable sustenance, it is absolutely socially acceptable for people who have plenty of food to discuss just how ethical and moral their food consumption is. In Chicago, a city suffering from segregation and food insecurity, a city split into two parallel lives—and perhaps two dueling personalities—all the food talk is especially disturbing.
The sad maps local newspapers release once in a while make it clear that in this city, geography is destiny. High neighborhood murder rates do not correlate with copious, organic fresh-vegetable markets and four-star chefs. We seem comfortable condemning some among us to incessant violent crime and canned food at jacked-up prices. Occasionally, we tsk-tsk about obesity—never facing the connection between poor and fat. We guiltlessly snack on hand-rolled granola as another murder in the beleaguered, blighted, food desert regions of the city is recorded—never looking for the connections between hunger and homicide. “Oh,” we say if we happen to read about it, since so many of these shootings don’t even count as news, since they happen in the far south or west sides of Chicago, areas where reporters generally don’t live. “It happened over there.”
IV. Murder and Our Mouths
I constantly ask myself why hunger and bloodbath are not what we talk about at parties in the economically comfortable neighborhoods of Chicago. My only explanation for the bizarre lack of vigorous discussion of who is or is not staying alive in the city is that we suffer from a collapse of empathy.
We eat eleven-dollar vegan scrambles without donating time and money to fighting hunger. I am complicit in this. I also buy eleven-dollar vegan scrambles once in a while. We don’t think this is strange.
We look away.
We stay home, puttering about the kitchen, instead of standing outside and screaming.
V. The Joy of Cooking
Cooking is far more fun than screaming; it is joy to spend time in the kitchen. I own pie pans, muffin pans, springform cake pans, and far too many cookie sheets that get way too much use. I collect cookbooks in several languages. I have a small but cheerful turquoise kitchen that has produced many hours of delight. I read M.F.K. Fisher’s vintage food essays, and I also imbibe the latest food writing, a category so popular that Bookforum now has a regular column on new food books. Of course, I read the Bookforum column, often while eating a homemade cookie. I like rolling dough and tasting dough. I am not averse to spending an entire cold afternoon reading recipes and saying mmm-hmm, bookmarking the good ones.
What I don’t like is realizing how much of the city is hungry while I eat. I did not like the day I realized a student in my college classroom, who at first seemed so bored, later turned out to be hungry. I was so insulated by my paycheck that I had mistaken hunger for boredom.
I wanted to do something about this hunger with my body, with my feet, specifically, not merely my mouth, so I became a volunteer waitress in a café that served free meals.
I served a guy with a PhD in chemistry and a long beard and another man with an MBA, pressed pants, and an insistent hopefulness. I served a kind, well-dressed couple in their sixties who reminded me of my parents. Their retirement money ran out—the stock market collapsed, they explained, as if I had not noticed—and they were too embarrassed to tell their children they needed food money. I served frazzled, exhausted, and confused diners who told me they were artists; I believed them. Then there were the regulars, who knew my serving schedule by heart and who critiqued how fast I brought food to the table. Critiquing my slowness and klutziness was one of the few powers my diners had—that and getting seconds or a take-home bag, which I did my best to snag and deliver. Often, the people at my tables told me they did not have kitchens. They had a hot plate or a mini-fridge or maybe a microwave.
I tried to contain my horror at a sixty-year-old man living without a kitchen. I was always willing to chat my way into some extra food for my tables—food that would only last the night for the refrigerator-less—and for this, I was praised.
I was embarrassed by the praise for doing so little; all I did was chat.
VI. Ballad of the Open Mouth
In Chicago, I learned as I served, and as I got smarter about noticing when people were hungry, I found out how humiliating and difficult it is to obtain food aid. I imagine this is true throughout America, perhaps throughout the world. A neighbor described to me how she had to tell a secretary of a Jewish charity—whom we both happened to know—all about her assets and her debts before she could get a box of food. After that first student shared with me that she had no money for food, I helped her apply for food stamps and was stunned at how difficult the process was—spending hours on the phone trying to decipher the procedures. I called the 1-800 number listed as a “help” line and told the government representative that even with two graduate degrees, I could not understand the form.
“It can be hard to figure out,” the representative answered.
I kept trying. Eventually, I contacted a local politician to complain that the location where people are supposed to sign up for food stamps was not accessible by public transportation; the politician had no idea. She also did not know that according to the forms, aid kicked in after 10 days—far too long for someone like my student, who was actually hungry before we began.
Desperate, I went down to the diner on my block, got a seat on a stool, and told the waitress there I needed to know how to get some free food right away. If she knew anyone who knew, could she send them over? Eventually, a guy named Pedro sat down next to me and told me about the places that were available, when they were open, and how to insist that the food-stamp forms get processed faster. But we shouldn’t require a greasy 24-hour diner, a decent waitress (whom happens to be blissfully married to a cop, second marriage for him, third for her, a detail which always thrilled me) and a guy named Pedro, who also told me about a local minister who gives out free furniture from his garage in Edgewater Glen. We should discuss this politics of food—those who have too much, those who have too little, and those who have none—in our religious spaces and our public spaces. We should admit that some of our college students are too hungry to concentrate and admit that this fact is shameful. We should work together to make thinking about other people’s welfare cool, to make it the new party talk.
To her credit, the politician rushed to do something. But the party chatter has not changed.
Educated people still find it acceptable to spend hours discussing what goes into their mouths. The diner closed—replaced first by an overpriced brunch place, now by a “social club” where Brussels sprouts cost nine dollars before tip. I haven’t seen Pedro since the diner closed its doors.
VII. The Best Minds of My Generation
Food sanctimony has become the most intoxicating part of affluent culture. We have allowed food obsessions to eclipse justice, to become, of all things, glamorous. I remember the poet Daniel Halpern saying that in his generation people were excited by poetry; today it’s farm-to-table food ethics.
Imagine that. Once talented young people dreamed in verse.
Today they dream in plates.
My college students often dream of working on urban farms, becoming vegan chefs, advocating for slow food. Forget poetry; forget politics. Our best young minds seem obsessed with personal nutrition, confusing it with justice. I sometimes wish we could turn the clock backward to when being progressive meant thinking about war and peace, about civil rights, about feminism, not fennel. Instead, food obsession has survived our economic crisis; it appears to be thriving as never before. It is our art, our music, our religion. We follow chefs as we once followed bands; we tune into food television as our grandparents once tuned in to the speeches of preachers or the commentaries of rabbis. Focusing on the best possible food without having a concurrent discussion of the millions who hunger seems another way we are complicit in making America a play in two acts, a story of two lives—that of the struggling and that of the comfortably wealthy.
Sometimes I want to scream: It’s not just about what we are eating, but what the neighbors are—and whether they are eating at all. But it is embarrassing to be a screamer: uncouth, lonely, and frankly unsocial. It is easier to scream with others. And so I wish we could admit, to ourselves and then to the streets, that eating well—eating ethically, as some people insist on saying, as if all of ethics resided in our mouths, swirling around our lips and our teeth and our tongues—doesn’t make us more moral creatures, or moral at all.
VIII. Ballad of Our Brothers’ Blood
What is often intriguing about God in the Bible is how God communicates, and especially how God attempts to convey morality. God does not scream when faced with the Bible’s first murder. God knows Cain offered glorious food and Abel offered crappy fare as a sacrifice. God knows that this difference in food and in behavior becomes violence, becomes murder—the very first in the Bible.
And faced with murder, God asks Cain, in Genesis 4:10, what he has done.
I love this question’s simplicity. We all know what happened to Cain; we all know God told Cain that Abel’s blood was calling out from the earth; and we all know how Cain was condemned to wandering and labor. But we sometimes forget what God initially asked Cain. And what God asks Cain—What did you do?—or in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation—What hast thou done?—often returns to me as I walk through Chicago. I know the drill. I know to look down, to the side, away, to not make contact with some of the creatures of the street, the beggars, the chat-her-uppers. I know to be suspicious, to be “street-smart.” I know to remember I am a woman and to stay “safe.” But that question stays with me: What did you do?
All God wants is for Cain to look at reality, to admit that his brother is his problem in life and after life, to not turn his head away from pain.
Aviya Kushner’s first book, The Grammar of God, about the experience of reading the Bible in English after a lifetime of reading it in Hebrew, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau / Random House in August 2015. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She teaches in the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago and is a contributing editor at A Public Space.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • May 2015
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