You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

This month over at The Food Connection we’re inaugurating an award in honor of one of my favorite farmers of all time (which is really saying something), Bill Best. This post (posted first at my ‘From the Director’ blog) sums up my thinking on the value of folks like Bill to our community.

You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

You might miss Bill in a crowd. He has a soft voice with a gentle Appalachian drawl. He asks thoughtful questions and humbly offers advice or knowledge when invited. If you’re not paying attention, you may also miss the invaluable role he’s played in preserving the genetic heritage and agricultural history of Central Appalachia. The stories he tells about seed-saving are as much about the gardeners and families who have entrusted him with their heirlooms as they are about his work preserving them. Back home we would describe him as a “good neighbor.” Some people in the sustainable agriculture community would likely call him a hero.bill_best

All heroes need an origin story. Bill Best refused to accept that he would never again enjoy the tender-skinned greasy beans that he grew up alongside in his grandmother’s garden. And so, he got to work; he turned the soil, tended his fields, and his farmstead became a sanctuary for the agricultural heritage of mountain communities and the plants they have loved. A precious as gold and twice as rare, families have entrusted Bill with their history, held closely inside those smooth and speckled seed casings.

We don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds

That said, I would never call Bill Best a hero. To me, Bill is a steward, which I would argue is a more noble title for those of us who strive to care for our food system. Our Jack saved the beanstalk from the giant not for financial gain or glory, but to ensure the cultural survival and self-reliance of his community.  Unlike the bravado of heroism, stewardship is the slow work of the seasons; found in the practical labors of caring for each other and the land that sustains us.

The mark a steward leaves is not an indelible carving of the earth (or the blasting of one’s visage into the mountainside). Unfortunately, our nation’s farming systems have also gone this way: bulldozed into uniformity by captains of industry. Absent stewardship, our food systems become unmoored, changing with the winds of fashion or price swings at the board of trade.

Even in the so-called ‘good food’ community, we fall prey to the cult of celebrity. We can all name the half dozen “super-star” farmers, chefs or authors with the silver bullet model for solving sustainable agriculture or urban food insecurity. You can pay big bucks to hear them speak, tour their farms and facilities, and buy their latest book to learn all the answers. But can they describe the poetic twining of a runner bean around its trellis? Do they carry the story of that bean close to their heart? I would offer that to heal our food systems we don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds.

The gentle legacy of stewardship

Hand to Hand. Photo from Friends Drift Inn

The legacy of a steward is found in a gentler path, fit for the mountains Bill calls home; carried in song and verse, passed hand to hand, mended and endlessly re-woven. Grounded in an intimate knowledge of land and place, our food and farm stewards build our self-reliance while simultaneously showing us our deep interconnection. They give generously of their knowledge and skill, safe in the understanding that our true wealth and joy can only multiply as they are shared.

As Bill once told me: “You grow tomatoes for money, and beans for love.” I love this quote because it doesn’t diminish the tomato or the bean, or the farmer that grows them, and embraces the simple truths of a what it takes to build a livelihood. In Bill’s words, I hear echoes of the old protest songs calling for Bread and Roses; our labors should bring us not only prosperity but also dignity and joy.

We don’t come to sustainable food systems for a quick buck, but for the long work of learning how to abide together and live from the earth as well as possible. Many of us owe Bill a debt of gratitude. He shared his seeds and wisdom with me in my early days of bean enthusiasm, and I am not alone in my tender affection and deep admiration for this farmer with his coveralls and leather britches. But how do you honor someone whose humility and generosity defines their legacy? I offer that we treat his gifts to us with the same stewardship he has practiced. We tend to the heirlooms of our past by preparing them for brighter futures. We get to work.

Caring about food, caring with food

For the inaugural blog post over at my executive director’s blog at The Food Connection, I shared my comments on the relationship between the work of The Food Connection, the science of neurogastronomy, and the ethical practice of care which I prepared for the third annual neurogastronomy culinary challenge.

Physicians and Chefs (right) listening to a cancer survivor (left) talk about her experience of taste before, during, and after chemotherapy at the neurogastronomy culinary challenge in 2017.

What do we do here?

At the heart of our work at The Food Connection is a recognition of the responsibility of the University to contribute to the health of our commonwealth’s food system: its farmers, eaters, and landscape. Tying together all our efforts is the goal of translating of our highest ideals of what ‘good farming’ and ‘good eating’ should be into the mundane but essential practices of everyday life.

Along these lines, feminist scholars tell us that to acknowledge responsibility for something is to simultaneously recognize an obligation to care. They further argue that despite the way we typically evoke the word, care is not simply a mental state or a character trait. Sure, we say that “I care about such-and-such,” but care happens through action, not thoughts.  To quote Jane Toronto, care is “the concern of living, active humans engaged in the processes of everyday living.” Not simply the fulfillment of desire, but, in the words of Berniece Fisher, an “activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.”

Lumped within the broad feel of healthcare, in neurogastronomy the rational, calculating mind meets the soft, feeling, and remembering body  (which Mol refers to as our “fleshy, fragile, mortal bodies”). For the remainder of my remarks, I will draw our attention to the delicate and productive tension between those two worlds of knowing, and suggest that it is through embracing this tension between analysis and attunement that neurogastronomy’s practice of care emerges. I’ll conclude with the suggestion that networks of care that tie us all together as a human community, and in particular the work of caring for our food system.

“So that we can live as well as possible”

The central role of eating to our sense of self is underscored by the experiences of those who have lost their sense of taste. In a thoughtful memoir about his experience of throat cancer, David Wong Louie describes his journey from a self-described gourmand to a non-eater and the profound changes that happened to not only his body but his experience of himself and the world: “With the G-tube, I did not eat — I fed the tube….Goose in Hong Kong is a meal, not a feeding; the table is laid with utensils, not a syringe; one dines, not feeds.

Describing his post-cancer life as one who does not dine, he goes on to say “I can’t relate to the old, eater version of me. I don’t remember how it feels to be in the presence of food and crave it, want to own it, or how it feels to know its pleasure and anticipate having that pleasure again. I can’t relate to that kind of beauty anymore.” In David’s experience, we see the loss of an essential way of knowing the world (eating, tasting), but also a way of relating to others and himself. Not only has he lost the ability to connect to the particular pleasure and beauty of food, but as he says in this poignant revelation, “My wife and I seemed to talk differently when there was food between us.”

Translating science into care

Considering care in the context of health, Adriene Mol states succinctly that all healthcare providers must reckon with: “How to live well, what to die from, and how, thus, to shape good care.” There is no simple path to those answers.  Many of us are intimately familiar with the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy of a caregiver unable to bring solace or comfort to their loved one. We witness (or experience) the pain and frustrations of inhabiting an ill body – where food and feeding may become yet another regimen to endure, or, conversely the only avenue of power/control left (what to eat, how much, when). Struggling to perform a new self who we are told we must become –a ‘thin’ person, a ‘healthy’ eater while simultaneously trying to hold on to who we were before the prognosis; a life that we have lived around a dinner table.

The science of assays and diagnostics are invaluable of course; as are the gastriques and molecular manipulations and other culinary artistry. These are the tools through which knowledge advances, by which we discover and delight in the workings of the body’s mechanisms and processes. What this science reveals is just how complex our primary senses are, and how contingent our experience of taste is. Which is to say that there is another kind of high science: the translation of knowledge into practice. The transforming nutritional guidelines and ingredients into meals, or knowledge into healing.

Chefs Frederic Morin and Taria Camerino alongside Neurologist Dong (Dan) Han preparing their dishes for the challenge in our Learning Kitchen

Neurogastronomy in action

At the neurogastronomy challenge, we’ll see medical professionals and chefs turn their attention not to the abstract realm of diagnosis or composition, but to the experience of our honored guest judges who are people living with diabetes.

The challenge starts with the deceptively simple question of: “What do you have a taste for?”  Listen closely to the question and you realize that we have taste; we hold it in our bodies, in our memories. Our challenge participants will explore how the taste of a thing (a tomato, a lollipop, a slice of bread) is realized in the unique context of eaters and their bodies. What the science of Nuerograstronomy can offer is a means to understand the unique needs and tastes of the eating person, and then offer the caring practices that can attend to them and their body.

Where the body deviates, we can use culinary ancillaries or peripheral neurological means to access satisfaction and pleasure. These techniques and technologies can help us craft meals that adapt to the needs of the ailing/healing body. Understanding dysgeusia, identifying the connections between smell and taste (in all its complexity), manipulating ingredients to elicit flavors, textures, and memories… all in the service of care.

We’re all connected, just like our food system

What an ethics of care teaches is the beautiful and terrifying fact of our fundamental interdependence – we need each other. We as scientists and chefs, we as friends, we as fragile bodies, are bound up in intersecting assemblages of care. Those of us with privilege or power have the luxury to ignore our dependence on the caring labor of others, but crisis (and especially a crisis of the body) will bring our vulnerability into stark relief.  As Maya Angelou wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.”

Our society tends to fixate on the fantasy of universal and unassailable solutions. The perfect meal. The ultimate cure. What to prescribe a prototypical patient unit. Student unit is also applicable here. Farm unit as well. But care is not an ideal definable in general terms – it is a doing, a way of relating continuously refined in its practice. There is no one-and-done in care. It requires humility and good humor, skills and attentiveness.

Because in the end, it is the very uniqueness of loss, the specificity of grief, the scarcity of time that reminds us of the importance of discovering and re-discovering new ways to care for each other so that we might all live as well as possible together.


Angelou, Maya. 1975. “Alone” in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. New York: Random House.

Fisher, Bernice and Joan Toronto. 1991. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Care” in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s lives. Edited by E. Abel and Margaret Nelson. Albany: University of New York Press.

Mol, Annemarie. 2010. “Care and its Values.” in Care in practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Edited by A. Mol, J. Pols and I. Moser. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the problem of patient choice. New York: Routledge.

Tronto, J. C. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. New York: Routledge.

Wong Louie, David (2017) “Eat, Memory: A life without food” Harper’s Magazine. August 2017. Retrieved from

Chief Overthinking Officer Report On Local-Washing

This is the post excerpt.

Flat emoji for my flat friends

Food systems people know that even though winter is off-season on the farm it’s conference season in the meeting room. I arrived in Savannah for the Southeastern Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers  (SERFVG… best/worst acronym ever) conference last week hoping for a brief break from my normal focus on local food ‘stuff’ with a vacation into the ever-so-riveting world of on-farm food safety education. Little did I know what awaited me.

Settling into my hotel room I was greeted by this seemingly innocuous room service menu. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten since Kentucky, I indulged with an order of quinoa-arugula-something-or-other salad AND a side of crinkle cut fries because YOLO. Only after closing the menu did I see their claim to ‘local ingredients,’ which sparked a litany of questions on my part. With no indication on the menu as to the provenance of anything, I was skeptical at best. Perhaps the good farmers of Georgia have miraculously started to grow Quinoa for foodie travelers like me… but I seriously doubt it. What’s more, as someone who spends a significant chunk of her professional life and mental bandwidth thinking about local food systems, this sort of ‘local-washing’ is especially vexing.

Like it’s cousin green-washing, local-washing emerged as a buzz-word around 2009 and applies to when a business makes claims about the ‘localness’ of their products when in fact they are part of the same global corporations and/or supply chains that most of our food comes from. Food purveyors (grocers, restaurants, food manufacturers) claim to offer local food with no clear communication about what food on the menu is local, or how local is defined, or what farms or sources that food comes from. The word ‘local’ serves as an empty placeholder for you, the customer, to insert all your positive assumptions about the food on offer’s freshness, healthfulness, or support of family farmers without any proof. Which is how I ended up with out-of-season tomatoes in my quinoa salad while at the same time a local farmer is left out in the rain.

Sharing my low-key local food outrage with some Georgia farmers the following evening one of them joked that I should add the title “Chief Overthinking Officer” to my business card. He wasn’t wrong, but I’m going to take it as a badge of honor. What we think and say about our world matters, and I’m lucky to be able to spend a lot of time thinking about these things. Now seems like a good time to be sharing more of those thoughts.

The ‘good food’ movement has been critiqued for its style over substance approach. It’s easy to be co-opted or local-washed in the absence of clear communication about how and why the meaning of ‘local food’ should matter to the average American; from what they put on their plates to what advocate for at work or in the voting booth.

My hope with this blog is to provide a substance AND style approach to food systems scholarship. As this blog evolves I hope to provide thoughtful reflection on both emerging issues and long-standing debates within the contemporary food movement. While I tend to approach things from a farm-first perspective, I’m also a social scientist through-and-through so culture, power, and all the other fun dimensions of our socio-political world will also play a part.

This is definitely an experiment in public-scholarship. I value your feedback, questions, or complaints. What questions need asking or answering? Whose perspectives aren’t being considered? How do we better understand each other as we work to build food systems that respect and nourish the people, land, and history of a place? As my hero once said… Let’s go exploring.