Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Farmville Files: An Urban Rural Perspective

Further Findings by Ian Halbert

Exhibit G: Further evidence can be found in Industrial Food’s “Supermarket Pastoral” – Michael Pollan’s term for the images of rustic barns, cows and farmers used to sell us our heavily processed and industrialized meat and produce.

Exhibit H: But farms have a fighting chance, due in large part to a renewed interest in food and agricultural issues in urban areas. There is a movement to bring the country to the city with vertical gardening and there is also a healthy cohort of young urbanites actually leaving the city for rural areas to revive lost food arts or agricultural practices. Wendell Berry would be the best example of setting a trend years before it became one, by leaving NYC for the confines of Port Royal, KY. Others have followed in suit, if not in style: we have no other comparable body of moral and agrarian writing. Nevertheless, over the years, we have been getting better and better pork, cheese and produce from those willing to take up again responsible agriculture and animal husbandry.

You can find a good deal of that artisanal cheese at Formaggio Kitchen. For a brief while, I volunteered on weekends at Formaggio here in Cambridge, MA. Formaggio is easily the largest and most well-regarded cheesemonger in the United States, with an average of almost 300 cheeses from across Europe and the United States regularly in stock, many of which are exclusive to Formaggio. It is also the only cheesemonger in the U.S. which has a cheese cave for aging and finishing the cheeses (a process called affinage, during which every wheel of cheese must be weekly turned and the cave scrubbed of all cheese mites – a chore I have had the pleasure of doing). You can take a video tour of the store here (mid-page).

Exhibit I: Among the American producers whose cheese Forgaggio carries is Twig Farm, located in Vermont and started by Michael Lee and Emily Sunderman. Mr. Lee got his start in cheese managing Formaggio’s sister store in Boston’s South End, before the pair headed north for more rustic digs. 

Exhibit J: This phenomenon surrounding cheese is most vividly described by the author Brad Kessler in his wonderful book Goatsong. Mr. Kessler himself left NYC for Vermont to raise goats and make cheese. Part memoir, part history lesson, Goatsong catalogues Kessler’s trouble and joy in raising goats and making cheese. Though the opportunity for Romanticism abounds, Kessler does not skimp on the details of the actual dirt of rural work – as in the following excerpt from his adventure in finding a bull goat to mate with his does:

“Mary Beth approached Goliath. He eyed the does on the opposite side of the fence. Then he reached back toward his stiffened penis, lifted a hind leg, and shot urine into his mouth. Urine dripped down his beard, and he turned and stared at Mary Beth" (pp. 27-28).

From this episode, Kessler goes on to discuss the derivation of the word “horny” and the Graeco-Roman god Pan, famous for his licentiousness. It is a particular strength of Kessler’s book that such episodes of agricultural realia are followed by explorations of the philological, literary, artistic or cultural history of agriculture. The title itself points us toward that end: goatsong is a literal approximation of the Greek word tragoidia or our tragedy. Kessler’s point of view – one shared by an increasing number of urban people – is that art is a product of its environment. Who knows, perhaps among the Vermont cheesemakers there skulks a second Hesiod or Vergil!