Wendell Berry and the Pleasures of Eating

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell BerryThe Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry

Recommended by Wade Peerman

‘Eating is an agricultural act’ is Wendell Berry’s claim in his essay, ‘The Pleasures of Eating,’ collected here alongside his finest non-fiction works. Food, Berry tells us, is now the product of industry and “as in any other industry . . . the overriding concerns are not quality and health, but volume and price.” We have become supremely good at producing massive amounts of food at the cost of diversity and health, and every time we put ourselves at the end of the industrial food chain we choose to allow the world to be a place of feedlots, processed food, hormones, anti-biotics, pesticides, pollution, cancer, obesity, etc. To understand eating as an agricultural acts is to actively determine ‘how the world is used’ rather than being merely a passive consumer who does not participate in the process. Berry offers seven ways to become a part of the complexity of food and agriculture: participate in food production as much as you can, even if only with basil on the window sill; prepare your own food; learn the origins of the food you buy; deal directly with local farmers; learn as much as you can, in self-defense, about industrial food productions; learn what makes the best farming and gardening; and learn about the history and nature of the food species you eat.

Not all of Berry’s essays are as prescriptive as ‘The Pleasures of Eating,’ but all them resist what many would call ‘progress’ in favor of the ideals of community, place, family and transparency. Wendell Berry is a reductionist philosopher who thinks in the realm of the everyday. He has gotten in trouble with some editorial boards because of his claims, for example, in one essay, ‘Feminism, the body, and the Machine,’ that women going back to work in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s was anything but liberating to them. This is because for Berry, any participation in an industrial society is subjugation by the ills of capitalism that enslaves the body and gives a false sense of personal production and participation. At other points, Berry will discuss the values of place and family by looking towards the words of Shakespeare, Yeats, and Whitman. He will question the value of technologies that break community and connections and create isolation. For Berry there is capital ‘V’ Value in community and the diversity that comes from community. And just as the lack of diversity in food will eventually destroy our health, so will the lack of community inhibit our survival.

These are only a few of Berry’s ideas and they do not do his philosophy and point of view justice. Reading Wendell Berry is like reading the New Testament or the Tao or Whitman, where everything seems to be a reminder not a long awaited revelation. Wendell Berry is at the core of the American Green movement, local food and organic crazes, and he was screaming, loudly, many years ago about everything we now question, from pesticides, to hormones in our meat, to large cars and mass production of food. None of his ideas, however, fit neatly into any one of these categories, as Berry preaches about the value of community, diversity, health, the body and freedom, all of which are united by their shared vulnerability to pesticides, industrial food production, and pollution.

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2 responses to “Wendell Berry and the Pleasures of Eating

  1. Adam,
    Thanks for writing and thanks for synthesizing Berry’s ideas so well. I think that we should also credit Wallace Stegner whenever writing about Berry because without Stegner, I believe he wouldnkt have found his voice in the written word. May we as urban/suburban-ites continue to grow basil in our window, if only to make quiet points about industrialized agriculture and it’s discontents.

  2. Wade,
    Well said. I don’t know enough about Stegner – only that like Berry, he is a great about about ‘place’ and someone I should read more of. It feels good to read Berry as a grown up. As a meal plan student he seemed more idealogical but now, as a grown up who makes food and agricultural choices for himself four times a day (a snack after work included) Berry is a wonderful and concrete guide to good choices. He led me to this afterall:

    http://www.washingtonsgreengrocer.com/

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