I’ve been thinking idly about Marx of late, and I’ve also been fantasizing about being the next Food Network star. I do realize that talk of Marxist strawberries pretty much guarantees that I will never get close to being on the Food (or any other) Network, but, hey, that was already true.
So one of the basic tenets of Marx is that of alienation (this Wikipedia piece is a pretty good overview, and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 also lays it out pretty well, if I remember correctly): we are alienated from the products of our labor, because we have no say in how a product is produced; we are alienated from the act of producing, because we receive wages or a salary rather than the profits of our labor; and we are alienated from ourselves (and from each other) because we lack the control of our lives necessary to become fully realized/actualized human beings. (We can discuss this more if anyone actually cares.)
One of the shorthand ways of thinking of this, in my opinion, is that we come to think of ourselves not as whole human beings, with mutually interdependent connections with each other, but as cogs, as pieces of an economic/industrial machine. We have jobs, not so much because we want a job qua job, but because we must have money–we have to sell our labor in order to buy food and shelter (and health care/insurance). Sometimes we can find jobs we like, many of us aren’t “workers” in the manufacturing sense (not least because those jobs are overseas now), but all of us need money to live, and few of us make anything that we sell–or, better, barter–directly.
Another part of alienation, though, is being disconnected from our food. Processed, industrial, food-like substances are the most extreme version of this, but a more insidious version is the notion that we can get whatever foods we want no matter the season and whatever the cost. (Obviously this does not apply for people who aren’t exactly sure where their next meals, or their kids’ next meals, will be obtained, but that’s a connection for another day.) What we get when we buy foods that are out of season in the area where we live is often an approximation of the food. The two foods that most exemplify this for me are tomatoes and strawberries. Tomatoes kind of don’t count, though–tomatoes can be preserved in ways that make them available year-round, so long as you don’t try to eat a fresh tomato out of season. Out-of-season fresh tomatoes are an abomination: pink and mealy and flavorless.
I wandered through a farmers’ market last Sunday, and one of the vendors had strawberries; I bought four pints, and I ate them every day this week, and I was in heaven. (I also got a pint in last night’s farm share, and I expect they’ll be just as heavenly.) They were red all the way through, and the strawberry aroma was intoxicating. My lunch each day was a big pile (as in nearly a pound) of strawberries with a touch of balsamic vinegar, a touch of honey, and a bit of feta cheese, all mixed together. The markets and the farm share will have strawberries for maybe another couple of weeks–by early July they’ll be gone–and that’s the end of strawberry season for the year. Of course I could (and sometimes do) buy them from the grocery store, and sometimes those are even half-decent, but they really don’t come close to the bliss of fresh, ripe, local strawberries. Some years, when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I buy a flat of strawberries and freeze them; that’s not going to happen this year, most likely.
I try to keep the memory of the season’s strawberries in mind when I’m shopping the rest of the year–I know, from experience, that the berries on the rack won’t taste anywhere near as good as what I’m eating now. They will be . . . strawberry-esque. They’ll be missing that heady perfume, and that perfect texture, and, no matter how red they look on the outside, they’ll be white on the inside, and maybe a little hard and mealy, because they’ve been grown to ship well, not to taste good.
That said, the farm share the past month has been mostly greens of one kind or another: lettuce, chard, Asian greens. This week there’s also mizuna (a bitter green) and parsley, and some spinach. And strawberries–did I mention the strawberries? I’ve been trying to find enough things to put on the lettuce to make actual meals out of it, so there’s broccoli and broccoli rabe in the fridge at the moment, to be steamed and added to the mix, and I got some onions and garlic to make a dressing, and some avocados, because they’re awesome, but those things aren’t available locally yet, so to claim I’m eating “locally” would be a misnomer.
And, for that matter, avocados are never “local” here in the midwest. So does that mean if I eat avocados I’m alienated from my food? If it does, then I’m going to stick with alienation. Seriously, though, you can see how complicated this gets. It’s relatively easy to see the extremes–industrial food-like substances in shiny packaging, versus whatever you can grow yourself–but there’s a whole lot of room in the middle, and figuring how to negotiate that space in a way that makes sense for you and your family is hard work, especially when the same people who make the industrial food-like substances find ways to package and advertise their product to disguise its industrial nature.