The Politics of Food and the Historian’s Work: When the Twain Shall Meet, Part 1 (*1)

Part OnePart TwoPart Three 

This three-part rumination is prompted by a comment from Tim Beauchamp, who blogs at Open Fermenter and who I follow on Twitter. (He provides excellent Twitter content, by the way. None of this “I’m at the grocery store now” crap from him!) For some reason, today he complimented me in a tweet and ended with:

She may be the Upton Sinclair Jr. of today. (*2)

I was touched by his sweet words in the rest of his tweet (modesty prevents me from including those), but — I gotta say something about the “Upton Sinclair” business. (Tim, this is NOT an attack on you. No way, no how.) He inadvertently hit a nerve. And proved a point that I’ve been wanting to comment on:

That the current “food fight” has become so heated, so contentious that people assume that because I’m writing about meat, I must have an agenda.

So, Tim, thanks for prompting me to get busy writing a blog series that I’d been putting off. (The next beer’s on me.)

I’ve mentioned before, I’m writing a history of meat in modern America (c. 1870-1990). I spend most of my days digging through primary materials, hunting for information, trying to figure out “what happened” and then writing about what I learn.

But as part of my research, I’m also learning as much as I can about current agricultural issues, our existing food system, government food policies, and the like. That’s been an eye-opener. I had no idea how politicized these topics were.

Sure, I knew there were recurrent debates over, for example, farm subsidies. Over food tariffs and export quotes. Yes, I knew about the conflict unfolding here in the midwest over land use: Should large feedlots be allowed to exist? What kinds of controls ought to regulate their wastes? How can we reconcile the rights of homeowners with farmers?

I was, however, more-or-less oblivious to the other food fight: The one between the nation’s food producers — farmers and manufacturers — and the people who want to dismantle the existing food production system and replace it with one that is more “sustainable” (preferably more “organic”). (*3)

Next: My “agenda” __________

*1: No pun intended. Honest.

*2: Upton Sinclair was a committed socialist whose intent with The Jungle was the reveal the misery of factory working conditions. As he himself said (and I’m paraphrasing), he aimed for the nation’s heart and accidentally hit its stomach.

*3: More accurately: I wasn’t completely oblivious to the issues or the debate, but I sure didn’t know how, um, heated it had become.

One thought on “The Politics of Food and the Historian’s Work: When the Twain Shall Meet, Part 1 (*1)

  1. Since twitter reduces expression to 140 characters or less, the full character, color and motivations of what you(I) want to say can be hidden or non-obvious. I was worried when I tweeted, that it could be misinterpreted, I would like to explain the Upton Sinclair reference.Certainly, Mr Sinclair had an agenda and strong political beliefs that drove his work. His most well known book, “The Jungle”, was a fictional work, not an expose’ or historical piece. Although, he did do extensive research while writing it. Maureen, my comparison of you and Sinclair was intended to say that I think that your writing has the potential to empower change. Your blog and twitter comments show a commitment to writing about a subject armed only after extensive research.I read your book “Ambitious Brew” after being introduced to you though the documentary “Beer Wars”. That prompted me to read your book “All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing”.What struck me about both of the books was, although you do indicate your opinion about the subject, those opinions are confined to the introduction. The chapters are very complete and thorough descriptions of the subject. What is compelling about your books is that they cover more than just the nuts and bolts of the topic, but you have researched and included the cultural anthropology aspects that surround the topics.So, I believe that your work can impact the industries you write about, just as Sinclair did. Other than that, I was not drawing any comparisons of genre or politics.P.S. Now I need to compress those 6 paragraphs into 140 characters so that I can tweet it.


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