Charlotte’s Web: Our Connection with Food
In the American children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, the spring pig Wilbur learns that his purpose on the farm is to be raised up and killed for pork in the coming months. Distraught at his fate, Wilbur seeks deliverance from anyone who can help. Charlotte, a cunning but loving barnyard spider, offers to help Wilbur escape the dinner table. She uses her web to give Wilbur a new place on the farm; not only is he tasty, but also Terrific, Radiant, and Humble. Charlotte makes Wilbur out to be Some Pig with her web, and the humans in the story come to agree with her. The pig is not only delivered from the dinner table, but is also awarded a medal at the county fair for his outstanding character (White, 1952).
The story of Charlotte’s Web is a tender children’s fable, and a work of fiction. However, there is a surprising reality captured in Charlotte’s sticky strands. The complex food web we live in today has also dissociated us from the places, both geographical and existential, that our food comes from. We struggle to find where we fit in the world, in part because we have forgotten where the things we consume fit in the world. The dissociation of people from their food is not only silly (as in the story mentioned above), but also contributes to a host of societal woes. Reconnecting with the food we eat will reestablish a sense of place not only in the food web, but in the world generally.
It is imperative before exploring the social implications of food web dissociation to define what that means, and so we’ll start from the start. The first threads of the human food web were woven when the first humans started eating. Small, familial groups of hunter-gatherers foraged for whatever was available for their sustenance. This is the most basic human food web. The first major innovation to this system came approximately 13,000 years ago, when Mesopotamian clans moved away from nomadic hunting and gathering toward more stable, stationary agriculture (Agriculture Timeline). A couple thousand years after that, goats and pigs and sheep were domesticated, expanding the agricultural food web to quite a dietary variety. People planted, irrigated, weeded, and harvested their plant foods. They birthed, protected, nurtured, fed, and butchered their meats. This model kept humanity fed through several millennia.
The next major development in the human food web came with the advent of complex trade-based societies. As more people came together in ancient cities, the idea to trade between neighbors became a foundation for the success of urban civilization. However, trade also became the fundamental dissociating agent between people and what they consumed. As blacksmiths and potters and weavers and tradesmen became real places in society, the food web expanded to feed them. Because of limitations on transport and food preservation, though, the level of dissociation remained relatively small for about 10,000 years.
For example, on 25 August 1790, Martha Ballard prepared a meal of baked lamb with fresh vegetables and whole wheat rolls for her family in Augusta, Maine (Martha). She lived in the same basic food web that had been in place for millennia; Martha’s husband operated a grain mill for local farmers, and she was the town midwife. These labors provided a means of bartering with local farmers for the lamb and whole wheat flour used in her meal. The Ballard family also cultivated two large backyard gardens for fresh fruits and vegetables, and raised a milk cow, chickens, turkeys, and an occasional spring pig. Maintaining the health of these food sources required constant vigilance, and the Ballard kids would often be sent to the bean patch to squish pesky bugs or to the chicken yard with a bowl of table scraps for the hens. Such a lifestyle planted in the Ballard children a concrete awareness of where their lambs and fresh vegetables and whole wheat rolls came from. This experience was very similar to that of Fern, from Charlotte’s Web, who at the age of seven had to face the grim reality of the fate of small spring pigs (White, 1952).
If the classic market system kept people fed and close to their food for over 10,000 years, what changed that has moved people away from those barnyard experiences? How has the human family taken food as it really is – living plants and living animals that we consume to survive – and woven it to the outer reaches of our food web? Ann Vileisis, a writer and historian, explores this evolution of the human-food relationship in her book Kitchen Literacy (2008). Vileisis illustrates how several innovations in transportation technology, refrigeration, and large-scale agriculture changed the way people eat in America.
She acknowledges that railroads, canals and engines widened the geography of the food web in the first three decades of the 19th century, expanding the average farm-to-food distance from within fifteen miles of the eater to fifteen hundred miles (pg. 37). Then, changing social expectations of women at the onset of the 20th century to be better educated, better cultured, and more devoted to their children further ostracized people from their food. Moms simply didn’t have enough time to accomplish the housewifery and comply to the new ideals of motherhood. By the turn of the century, most Americans were too busy pursuing the American dream to worry about things mundane as food preparation.
Adaptations in food production and marketing solidified the cultural shift taking place. In the top image, a vendor is preparing a cut of meat for his customer the way all meat was prepared in the 18th century. The bottom image is a 1902 advertisement from Gustavus Swift’s meat packaging company. Swift revolutionized the meat processing industry by butchering cows in Chicago meat plants and transporting steaks to any household in the continental United States. His shipping model replaced the antiquated idea of sending the living heifers in crowded, dangerous, and inefficient livestock trailers. As demonstrated in the images, the butchers of yore advertised their meats by the animals they came from. According to Vileisis, it was common practice for a customer to ask about the life, growing-up, and disposition of the animals their butcher prepared for sale. The practice of marketplace inquiry became obsolete by the 20th century though, because people didn’t see the animals their meats were coming from. Swift’s business model delivered less damaged meats at a cheaper price, so consumers eventually accepted his pre-cut, government-inspected, finely wrapped cuts of beef. It was the wrapper, not the knife, that severed the strand between us and our meats.
The expansion of the food web has continued up to today, when the average tomato trades hands 8 times before ending up in our “homemade” salsa (B. Cox, personal communication, c. 2005). Essays and books and documentaries and protest speeches and supreme court rulings have all been written to address the myriad environmental and health and trade implications of our new and humongous food web, but I haven’t found in my research any conversation on what I believe to be a more foreboding consequence than the popular ticket items. How has food dissociation contributed to the lost sense of place in relation to things grander than ourselves?
Investigative journalist Michael Pollan discussed the role of food in planting us in reality with Oprah recently, on her show Supersoul Sunday (Winfrey). In this interview, Pollan reflected on a childhood experience he had in his grandfather’s garden. “It was magical to me,” he commented, “that we could put these little things [seeds] in the ground and they could become plants and even more!” Pollan explained that his wonder and fascination fostered a sense of outwardness in him, rather than just “me-me-me all the time”. If most Americans aren’t having those moments of self-actualizing wonder, what kind of people are we becoming?
Answers are often more evident in extremes, and the people with the most extreme dissociation from natural food processes are those living in highly concentrated urban areas. Because poverty restricts opportunities to travel to more rural places and experiences, inner-city populations are especially cut off from reality by the current food web. Moreover, many of these crime-prone areas are referred to as “food deserts”, due to crime risks dissuading major food market chains from investing in storefronts nearby (USDA). That of itself is an indication of the volatile social climate existent in inner cities. If Pollan’s experience with outwardness born in the soil holds true on a general scale, then gardening for inner-city populations will foster in participants a sense of place in the outward community and curb violent crime.
Gardening programs for inner-city youth are taking a step toward that change. In Oakland, Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle has organized the garden program Acta Non Verba. Oakland inner-city children and youth can participate in growing their own fruits and vegetables to eat, and sell extra produce to save money for their futures. Carlisle was prompted to start the garden when she returned to Oakland after active duty and found her neighborhood to have a 40% dropout rate and on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Dangerous Cities list. She was a master gardener, and found peace and identity in gardening. In her words, Carlisle wanted her garden to be “[a place] for youth to learn about nutrition, food, and themselves” (Carlisle). That dream has become a reality. Since the garden’s first season in 2011, hundreds of kids (like Jarome, pictured here) have come to learn, work, play, and eat together at the Acta Non Verba garden.
Kelly Carlisle isn’t alone in connecting people to their food. Will Allen, former professional basketball player and businessman, has also organized a gardening program to help the kids in his Milwaukee neighborhood find their place in the food web. “It’s way more than just putting a plant in the ground,” Allen claims in a short documentary of his farming project, Growing Power. “Kids that come in here, they are wired. And they are bouncing off the walls. But as soon as I put some soil in their hands they just calm down. So there is something very spiritual about touching the soil” (Winfrey). This grounding, calming effect is what Allen, Carlisle, and others hope will nourish a stronger sense of importance and self-value in kids growing up in dangerously underexposed neighborhoods.
I have personally seen the power of helping people find a place of value through producing food. Forgotten Angels, a mental health rehabilitation center in Pearland, Texas, saw the potential benefits of gardening for their residents. The labor to begin the project was beyond their means though, so the volunteer organization I was in town with organized a series of work days to clear fields, build planter boxes, haul soil and mulch, and perform a variety of other heavy labor tasks. Once the groundwork was laid, residents with various mental and cognitive disabilities had the chance to cultivate food that they later sold at a local farmers’ market. I’ve never seen someone more excited to talk about peas than Chris, a resident with hydrocephalus. “Look!” he said one week, brandishing his planter of newly sprouted pea plants. “They grow!” As my group returned week after week, I was able to see that Chris grew along with his peas. He was able to share something of value that he had helped create. His communication became more intelligible and purposeful. He learned the very practical skill of turning the garden’s water hose on and off. And like Will Allen described, Chris found remarkable peace when he was able to spend time in the soil with his peas.
Officer Kathleen Green has also started a garden as part of a rehabilitative program – only her office is at Maryland’s Eastern Correctional Institution, the state prison. If anyone has lost a sense of place in society, it would be prisoners. Upon conviction, they are punitively ripped from their dark cobwebs of criminal life and thrown into the prison system with no connections, no support, and no place to belong. Imprisonment could be viewed as cruelty; Officer Green prefers to treat it as a new start. “These guys have probably never seen something grow out of the ground,” she explained in a Washington Post interview. “This is powerful stuff for them” (Roselwald, 2015). Inmates can pay back their debt to the state by the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and the opportunity to do so engenders a feeling of appreciation for the officers that allow them to work in the prison garden. Their new connections aren’t founded in criminality, but civility. Fresh threads of cooperation, work, humility, interdependence, respect, and lawfulness begin to replace the old cobwebs of crime. Prison inmates are able to weave a new and improved social web by discovering the food web of which they have always been a part.
As has been illustrated, food dissociation contributes to several major issues. A simple solution to those problems is to promote opportunities for people to cultivate their own food from the real, living plants and animals that food comes from. Now, to critics who see this proposal and cry out that people could never produce enough food on a small-scale level to provide for themselves – you’re absolutely right. In a society with such highly developed trade systems and urban culture, proposing that everyone ought to grow their own salads and raise their own Chicken McNuggets is irrational and inapplicable. There is not enough real estate in Manhattan to feed Manhattan, nor are there enough New York minutes in a New Yorker’s life for full-time agriculture. That is not the proposal of this paper. People do not need to be self-sufficient in order to have enough food-familiarizing experiences to change them. The kids of Acta Non Verba don’t provide for all their nutritional needs in the garden, nor do the prisoners of the Eastern Correctional Institution subsist entirely from their produce. Yet because these people participate in food cultivation to the degree that it is sensible, they know where they belong in the web of life. The ethical, financial, and environmental impact of agribusiness is a compelling topic that is largely irrelevant to this article, which focuses primarily on the personal and societal need of people to maintain a connection with their food.
The current food web that we live in efficiently provides for our nutritional needs. However, because we as eaters are removed from the reality of the eaten, we lose a basic opportunity to understand the world around us and within us. We started in Charlotte’s Web, and we can just as easily end there. E.B. White was the author of the story, but also a farmer in Maine. It wasn’t uncommon for him to raise a spring pig each year, to provide pork and bacon for his family through the winter. In 1948, the pig he purchased fell sick and died before it was ready to serve its purpose in the White household. Over the three-day course of attempting to nurse this pig to health and watching it die, White later recorded that “[the pig] had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world” (White, 1948). The reality of life for White’s spring pig affected him deeply – so much so that when he recorded the audiobook for the pig Wilbur’s story in 1970, his emotions mandated as many as 17 takes in a recording session (Lanzendorfer). The threads that connected White to his pig were stronger than death or time, and wove into his soul a kinship and compassion that we would all do well to seek after.
Agriculture Timeline. (n.d.). In Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/timeline/Agriculture/ Butcher’s Shop. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.safran-arts.com/42day/art/art4jun/art0628.html Carlisle, K. Acta Non Verba. Retrieved from http://anvfarm.org/about/stories/ Lanzendorfer, Joy. 10 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Charlotte’s Web’. 24 August 2015. Retrieved from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/67639/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-charlottes-web Martha Ballard’s Diary Online. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://dohistory.org/diary/ Roselwald, M.S. (7 June 2015). Can gardening transform convicted killers and carjackers? Prison officials get behind the bloom. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/can-gardening-transform-convicted-killers-and-carjackers-prison-officials-get-behind-the-bloom/2015/06/07/bf5c4cf0-0afb-11e5-a7ad-b430fc1d3f5c_story.html?utm_term=.f52b1af5beae Tip BIG for Summer Camp ANV. (2016). Retrieved from http://anvfarm.org/tip-big-summer-camp-anv-june-23/ USDA website. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/about-the-atlas/ Vileisis, A. (2008). Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. Washington, D.C.: Island Press Winfrey, Oprah (host, CEO/CCO). Montgomery, T., Wishom, A. (producers). Interview with Michael Pollan. Supersoul Sunday. Interview retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/full-episode-oprah-and-michael-pollan-video White, E.B. (1948). Death of a Pig. The Atlantic, 181(1). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/animals/white-excerpt.html White, E.B. (1952). Charlotte’s Web. New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers 1902 Ad Swift Premium Ham Bacon Pig Child Basket Meat Silver Leaf Lard. (1902). Retrieved from https://www.periodpaper.com/collections/vintage-advertising-art/products/1902-ad-swift-premium-ham-bacon-pig-child-basket-meat-silver-leaf-lard-victorian-201705-yyc2-064
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