Joan Gussow

Tastemaker

Joan Gussow

ALMOST ANY CONFERENCE HAVING to do with our food systems—processing, organics, security—will likely include Joan Dye Gussow. Former teacher and chair of the department of nutrition at Columbia University, this septuagenarian, among the first to sound the bell for eating locally grown foods, is finally being heard. She comes to food with a global perspective, concerned that our agricultural "progress"—genetically engineered food, synthetic additives, industrialized production and artificial price supports—is destroying environments as well as economies around the world.

Joan Gussow: When my book came out and I became the guru of local eating, I thought, what things would I tell people to do? The first thing would be to find out what's grown in your region and when. You can do that by going to a farmers' market or by talking to a farmer, getting in touch with the organic farming association of your region, finding out where there are farms, who's growing what and so forth. The next thing is to start trying to eat locally. Start with one meal a day in the summer because that's really easy. Then work up.

Deborah Madison has a new cookbook coming out. It's all about community markets and eating from community markets. The first recipe is for boiled greens. (It takes someone with a lot of self confidence to do that.) I'm sure they're delicious the way she tells you to make them. But it's very market specific—this recipe is for what's in the market now, and this is how you can cook it. It is just going to be a wonderful asset for us.

I really believe we can send a message by the things we buy. That's the only way we can send a message. The trouble with being a non-consumer like me is that you don't have any effect, except to create a depression, right? I mean, you only have an effect if you consume.

I really think we have to get people to understand that food is too cheap. We cannot keep American farmers alive with this kind of food pricing. We can't. They can't make a living except by specialty things, by selling at farmers' markets, cutting out the middlemen entirely. We're destroying Third World farmers just as fast because we're exporting our subsidized foods into poor countries like India, and undercutting local farmers so they can't make a living. We have a wonderful farmer-destruction system going here. Mexican farmers are being wiped out by subsidized American corn (which we made them open up to with NAFTA), and they're all flooding into the cities and then they're flooding up here. I could be a conspirator and say it's a way of getting cheap labor, but I won't.

There is a part of me that says we have to go through Armageddon before we get to the other side. I don't think the real food supply is going to change short of a cataclysm.

The whole industrialization of organic is deeply upsetting to me. The point is, we've lost organic. It may be that the production end of it—the actual growing of grains and fruits and vegetables—will be cleaner, not as hard on the earth. But as far as the quality of the food—the processing end of organic—nobody's paid any attention to it except a few nuts like me. You can make an organic Twinkie. (You can, and people have: There's nothing in the rules that is going to prevent that.)

The Organic Materials Review institute asked me if I would be one of their materials reviewers. I said I don't want to do this; I don't know enough about it. She said we need somebody in processing. So I'm reviewing shellac—whether shellac should be allowed on food! Is shellac natural? Well, shellac is natural; it comes from the backs of insects. This particular company is making formulations that they put on apples. But what is all the other stuff in [the formulation]—is that all organic? Do I really want my organic apples shellacked? I think I'm going to say that since organic is supposed to have a certain implied notion of freshness, I think the idea that you would be putting on a material that is really a preservative is not consistent with organic production.

She and her artist husband Alan reclaimed a village lot in Piermont. The Hudson River literally lapped at their back door. They tried to save their house and ended up rebuilding it from scratch. They transformed the land into a productive garden, a small space where they could grow most of what they would need to eat, along with a peach tree, apple tree, cherry tree and Asian pear tree, fig tree and paw paw to satisfy their yen for fruit. Next door, they rallied support among villagers to reclaim a plot, destined to become a parking lot, that became the Piermont Community Garden. Alan Gussow died too soon after the project was completed. Joan continues her crusade to transform the global food system—one small, local act at a time.

JG: Ten years ago, if you said I think you ought to eat locally, it had no meaning to people. I do think there has been a huge leap forward in the notion. It's now talked about in a very wide range of places. When I first started talking about it I was really thought of as kind of nuts. I had to do long lead ins about why we had to do it because people didn't have any understanding. Now I almost feel that most people know we need to do it to save farmers. They just say, well it's good to buy from local farmers—for personal reasons, I think as much as anything—health reasons.

There's a reason why you have turkey at Thanksgiving, a reason why you have lamb in the spring... And cows have to be freshened, as most people forget. Cows don't give us milk, we take it.

The whole notion that organic would save local farms, which we thought for a while in the 1970s and '80s, that because they could get a premium they could manage to stay on this land—that's not going to do it. When you have organic fruit being shipped from Mexico to New York, you destroy local farmers.

You know, it's easier to eat locally in New York City because the greenmarkets are open year-round.

I never eat much meat, but I would have bacon once in a while and sausage once in a while. I knew there was a meat farmer delivering to some of the CSAs in New York because I'm chair of the board of Just Food that has set up 25 CSAs in the city. So I called Dan and asked him how he got into New York. He said across the Tappan Zee. I said, "I'm 10 minutes south of the Tappan Zee, so if I got a group of people together, would you deliver to us?" He said yes, and so we get meat, eggs, chicken.

It's been so interesting, not only because the meat is wonderful. He doesn't have beef, but he has pork, lamb, chickens. We all learned that meat is seasonal, which I never thought of before. There's a reason why you have turkey at Thanksgiving, a reason why you have lamb in the spring. Chickens are kept laying all the time by keeping the lights on, but that's not how it works—there are more eggs at the solstice. And cows have to be freshened, as most people forget. Cows don't give us milk, we take it. It's amazing what we learned. We had to order for the whole season so he would know what to get, what to grow, how many chickens he would need, how many eggs he would need. It was just a revelation to all of us.

I have never said that we have to be self-sufficient. I have always said it was a question of what you imported and what you didn't. It's different having something as a treat and just assuming that you're going to have a glass of fresh orange juice every morning if you live in the Northeast, which I just think is wasteful.

I would say that I am self reliant. I do buy some fruit, but I don't buy any vegetables. But I don't have the range of things that other people would have. In the winter I eat a lot of carrots, wonderful carrots. Some are still in the ground out there and they're still good, I still am digging them regularly. I have wonderful salad in a cold frame, which I managed to remember to plant at the right time this year. I have a lot of potatoes and a lot of sweet potatoes. That's what I have to eat. And butternut squash.

So, yeah, I eat what I grow. The only thing I ever have to buy is onions—I think I have a sort of chronic onion thrip problem or some kind of problem. I think it's chronic because I have a lot of Japanese bunching onions around the edges of the garden and I think they carry it over through the winter. I used to get great onion crops so I don't think it's anything I'm doing wrong.

I eat a lot of different kinds of bread, but I don't think grain needs to be eastern. It doesn't cost a lot to ship. I think that we don't need to do it all here. I have a lot of dairy products; I now get organic milk from Pennsylvania/New York farms, so I'm supporting local farms.

The work that is done around food in this country is among the most poorly paid work that you can find, whether you're an agricultural worker or a farmer on your own farm or somebody processing food... Why do we pay them so poorly? Because they're doing women's work.

The Chef's Collaborative is doing this whole fish thing—there's now a list of fish that you can and can't eat. You can have salmon—wild-caught Alaska salmon. We had a tasting at the CIA at the last meeting up there. They did a tasting of samples of what's called FAS [frozen at sea] salmon, which they do with Alaska salmon. We tasted that, we tasted a fresh East Coast salmon and a farm-raised salmon. And the farm-raised salmon was so clearly inferior—it was very oily, very soft meat. The FAS salmon was unbelievably good; flash-frozen like that it really retained its quality.

So when I go out to eat, I don't buy salmon, which I miss. I would like to eat salmon, but I don't think I can justify farm-raised salmon on a whole lot of grounds. It certainly is hard because of the culture. You really have to set yourself apart from the culture.

Gussow shares much of her experience in her new book, and she continues to learn both as a gardener and a consumer. Yet that hasn't quieted her anger at the economic and social inequities she perceives, especially where food and nutrition are involved.

JG: The work that is done around food in this country is among the most poorly paid work that you can find, whether you're an agricultural worker or a farmer on your own farm or somebody processing food. We now have that all done in society, badly, by poorly paid people, who we hate because they don't do it well enough for the minimal amount they're paid. You know where it's going? The same big corporations are peeling off everything.

Why do we pay them so poorly? Because they're doing women's work. All the jobs that are traditionally women's jobs pay nothing—including cooking, including those women working in those catfish plants or in the chicken-plucking places or the slaughterhouses. They get paid hideously.

As far as whether cooking pays, which was your question, when you calculate the money, it does, for most. If you count quality, then it really does. If you're talking purely about money, I think it would still pay because processed foods are so expensive.

I had a long talk about this in a class I taught. Young women, many of them highly paid and in highly responsible positions, decided to quit all that and come back into nutrition, where they won't be highly paid. One of them said she cooked nothing at home—she basically picked up things from the store and that's how she'd eat. Others talked about how they cook all the time. There's a huge range. I asked them how much time they took. One woman said she spent maybe an hour a day, if that. Clearly, women have decided there are things they would rather do than cook.

The reason we have a food supply that looks like this is because it was a way of selling food. What they did was convince women they were overworked. When processed foods came in (it's still true that working women use less of them then nonemployed women), people were told that they were too busy to cook. The magazines were full of it.

I had a student who did a dissertation on that, trying to find how convenience foods emerged. She went through the leading women's magazine—I think it was House and Garden or Ladies Home Journal, one of those—she did a sample over a 40-year period. Basically, what was being said to women by the magazine was "You're brainless. You don't know how to cook nearly as well as we do. We have these spotless, sun-filled laboratories where we're turning out perfect foods." (And this was for canned vegetables!) Really, there was this unbelievably negative tone about women's abilities in the household. They were told they should be out shopping or out having tea or going to lunch with friends. Inevitably, the message was, "Here, we've provided you with this wonderful Italian dinner with veal scaloppini and green beans amandine and you can't do that."

Time is the issue. The only problem is, what are they doing with the time they've saved? What they're doing is watching more television. That's what all the data show. Television and grooming are the two activities that went up for women. They're not spending time cleaning house, they're not spending time in conversation, they're not spending as much time with their children. But, according to Robinson's data, working women have more free time then they had 20 years ago (at-home women have basically the same amount of time they always had). The interesting thing is that most working women perceive that they're busy because they have taken on so many activities. Here are these students, many of whom have full-time jobs, many have families, and they're also going to school. Well, if you are trying to do all of that at once, then you probably feel very busy.

But I also think that people feel that if they want to watch the Academy Awards ceremony and they don't have time, they're cheated—they really must be busy because other people in the family are going to be watching.

I don't really know how we got there. I don't know how you say to some woman who's running flat out, "It would be worth your while to cook just one meal a week or just two meals a week." It's not a life-denying chore. If you have told yourself it's a chore and it's something you want to get out of doing, then no amount of time is acceptable. But if you know that the food will taste good at the end and you enjoy it, then it's a totally positive activity. There are just an awful lot of people who are afraid of raw food. They don't know how to cook. Whenever somebody asks me how to cook a vegetable, I say, stir fry it with garlic.

On the bright side, there are a lot of initiatives locally and around the world—CSAs and community gardens among them—where people are attempting to go beyond just one person, one farm, to really make a community that works and whose food system works.

I often say the reason people like New England so much is because those are the people who never left—they were the only ones in the country that didn't rape, pillage and move on. They stayed. They created a culture and we all sense that when we go there.

I was so proud of myself—they had just come out with the New York census data—they just came out with the fact there were 8 million people in New York City, so I took the number of people that our CSAs served at that time and I figured out that it was 1 out of every 5,000. Now it's 1 out of every 1,333. I kept doing it over thinking I had made a mistake. I thought, that's amazing. It didn't seem possible. So yes, I think amazing things can happen because people are changed by CSAs.

But you really are fighting a culture. I mean, you go to France—there is still a feeling about local food. It's going, but it's still there; in Italy, the same. People still value the taste of fresh, local food even though they're getting these big, hypermarkets and even though they are going to be lured away from it eventually.

We never had a peasant class in this country. That's the point. We never had what they've had and grown from. We were conquerors of the land from the moment we arrived. We just moved on and on. We had no tradition of farming. I often say the reason people like New England so much is because those are the people who never left—they were the only ones in the country that didn't rape, pillage and move on. They stayed. They created a culture and we all sense that when we go there. There's something still left in New England that has to do with a kind of permanence and stability, even though the agriculture has been mostly wiped out.

Gussow spends a fair amount of time considering the state of the world. "Like Kingsolver and moviemaker Michael Moore ("He's terrific—I want him to be president"), Gussow does not hesitate to point out the dangers inherent in current economic and political initiatives. Rob an individual of his or her pride, quash independent business under a corporate thumb, stifle free communication or the exchange of ideas, and you'll become a target.

JG: The average person is so unaware of the issues of science that it's terrifying. I just recently read a wonderful essay by Barbara Kingsolver about genetic engineering. In the middle of it she talks about people's ignorance of science and how they don't want to be bothered. The whole vitamin thing that's going on now, the whole supplement thing, is mad. I mean, these "mind boosters"—good for children, adults, old people, senile, whatever. It's terrifying. People are actually buying this stuff, I guess. It's a snake-oil world out there and I don't know if people realize it. I happen to know a lot about irradiation; it is really a technology in search of a problem. So is biotech, but irradiation is absurd. If I had to characterize the scariest thing that we face, it is the amount of money that is going into misinforming us. To get through that to make any kind of headway is extremely difficult.

I was with a friend yesterday, we went to see A Beautiful Mind, and I said, "I don't want to get gloomy, but you know there are no movie theaters left in Rockland County." I don't think we have maybe one or two left in the whole county that you can go to. I find myself asking how much further we can go in this direction. I hate these places so much, they're so alienated. I won't go to the Palisades Mall. I won't. I'm boycotting it. They don't know this, but I'm boycotting them. I can't go to the movies there.

This reduction of everything to one giant store—how much further can it go? It feels like we're approaching the point of one of those science fiction movies where everyone is living underground and the up part has been destroyed and all the machinery has to work or the people will suffocate.

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