Monday, September 28, 2009

Do the Clothes Make the Man?

So, my daily commute down Thomasville has been witnessed twice recently by a Man in Overalls. The first day, I drove past too quickly to take in much more than his sign: GROW YOUR OWN FOOD AND SHARE IT. The impetus for this blog was, in part, giving more attention to how and where we obtain our food. So this particular coincidence was noteworthy. Perhaps it's also helpful to point out that I grew up in a small, rural farming community where many people did grow food, including my own family with our garden plot. Now here in Tallahassee, just before the intersection of Thomasville and Seventh Ave., was someone taking time to remind us that food is both a responsibility and a gift.

On the second day, I slowed a captured this rather poor picture. It was clear enough, however, to read the second sign stating that he had a blog. Nathan, it happens, is passionate (and thoughtful) about gardening: what it represents, challenges, and makes possible.

Seeing Nathan reminded me - as things do occasionally - of having lived for a time in Malawi (East Central Africa) in a region where almost everyone grew their own food to survive. One of the first nights on my own, I heard drumming coming from one of the small cluster of homes below in the valley. At the time, I was convinced that it must have been a ceremonial right or celebration.  A conversation the next morning with a Malawian colleague revealed the true reason. In the midst of a severe drought, an family had exhausted its food supply (corn). The drumming and accompanying singing were a call to all families within the area to bring one cup of corn from their stores to share with the hungry family. While there are many enduring memories from those experiences and years, this remains exceptionally clear in my mind. 

I understand that a blog about cooking is a privilege. Sharing what we make with the produce of others is perhaps a way to enhance our appreciation of their efforts, and a recognition that we have options unavailable to most people in the world. Nathan's message offers the opportunity for reflection. For that I am grateful.

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It's the man in overalls... said...

I'm honored by your generous words. Thank you. I'm glad you took the picture.

How interesting that you would write about a past that involves Malawi... as I have also been there (only for three weeks), eaten N'sima, and heard stories and reports about how the IMF structural adjustments made it exceedingly difficult for Malawians to grow their own food and share it... as they were required to sell much of it on the international market to cover debt payments. And, as there was not enough n'sima to feed themselves after selling so much corn, Malawian-folks ended up re-purchasing corn-- at a higher price-- in order to eat.

Your story of drumming remind me that when we visited our friends in Mzuzu, they gave us rice and beans and corn as presents. It reflects a reality in which food is critical and special. In the States, by contrast, we rarely offer food as gifts... unless it is an exotic dish or a "secret family recipe," or home-made sugary stuffs. Staples, however, are not given. The assumption so many of us live with is that "everyone already has that," so we go to great lengths to find things to give.

Here's what I love about homegrown food: even though such foods as collards and lettuce and tomatoes and oranges are fairly routine, when they are grown by the giver... such presents are accepted in spite of the fact folks could "just get it at the store," because... when it comes down to it: people mostly don't have "primo" produce. They're staples and luxuries at the same time.

Jim said...

Eaten nsima? A wonderful coincidence. Well, there aren't many outside of Malawi who can attest to having eaten nsima. I may make a batch and talk about it here. Growing your own food, like participating in community supported agriculture (CSA), can significantly diversify our diets here in the U.S. Where subsistence agriculture is predominant, as in Malawi, there a few viable options for a more complex diet given the many natural and man-made constraints.

My students ate nsima (boiled corn flour) three meals each day, supplemented with greens, beans, and the infrequent egg. Meat almost never entered the picture.

At the macro level, Malawi is greatly impacted by quasi-governmental organizations and policies/practices of entities like the IMF and World Bank. My years (1992-1994) there overlapped with the replacement of Kamuzu Banda (President for Life) with a democratically-elected government. This represented an enormous political realignment. More importantly, it exacerbated the many food insecurities facing Malawians day-to-day. Sugar and corn were in scare supply. Most people were eating a meal per day (or every other day). All the while, they were working to plant and tend their "gardens", hoping to ensure they would have a supply of food in the coming year. Local environmental and national economic conditions made this a truly heroic act for many.

Despite this, the Malawian people were (are) exceedingly generous with one another - particularly with food...nearly all homegrown.

Anonymous said...

Jim I do believe that one reason you fell in love with your future wife Pam is that she graciously respected and appreciated the offerings of nsima in your travels together in Malawi. love, your Mom.

Jim said...

Yes, yes. She was a fan of nsima from day one. Laugh ;)

Kudya Bwino Bwino (Eating Well) © 2009