Hamburgers in Paradise: 12 Facts

FrescoDepictions of paradise can be found throughout the centuries, portrayed as an impossible, unchanging ecosystem in perpetual motion that provides an abundance of food, water, and shade to sustain humans and animals in perfect harmony with no effort required. In Hamburgers in Paradise, Louise O. Fresco argues that the idea of paradise as an impossibly stable, diverse, and productive ecosystem has had a profound effect on our thinking about nature, farming, and food, and remains a powerful influence even today. Despite secularization, paradise is a frame of reference for what we think and do in relation to food.

Today at 2:30, Fresco will be presenting her book to Kenneth Quinn, the World Food Prize ambassador, at the 2015 Borlaug Dialogue, hosted by The World Food Prize. You can view the live stream online, and you can join the conversation online using #WorldFoodPrize.

 

A few facts from the book that may surprise you:

  • In most Western European countries, life expectancy tripled in the period 1750-2000, when food began to be available in large quantities.
  • The history of tens of thousands of years of food scarcity explains our preference for foods high in calories, proteins, and other essential nutrients.
  • All religions attribute moral and psychological properties to food. For example, the kingfisher has been seen as a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and so it was not to be eaten. In many religions fasting, or the resistance of temptation for food, is seen as the highest virtue.
  • In the U.S., the tasteless bun of a hamburger is not the norm because Americans don’t know how to bake bread, but because a certain consistency is needed to bring out the juiciness of the meat. The bun is wrapping, plate, and napkin first and a source of carbohydrates to balance out the protein of the meat second.
  • The earliest archaeological evidence of farming comes from 9,500 years ago.
  • Dependence on food introduced from elsewhere is an ancient phenomenon, reflected in the names used and the confusion surrounding them. For example, in Italian corn is called “grano turco” or “Turkish grain,” the word “Turkey” signifying oriental or exotic and not its actual origin since corn comes from Central America.
  • Without the influence of humans, neither wheat, corn, apples, nor lettuce would ever have evolved from their wild ancestors.
  • 30% of the surface of the earth is used as farmland or pasture.
  • Bread can be a symbol of plenty, but it can also be a symbol of want. There are countless examples in literature of the proverbial poor thief who steals a loaf for his family. Victor Hugo used this trope to great effect in Les Misérables.
  • Bread was so important in Ancient Rome that the killing of a baker was punished three times as severely as the killing of an ordinary citizen.
  • Archaeological remains of sieves suggest that cheese may have been made in the Alps more than 5,000 years ago.
  • In the Netherlands no more than 4.5% of people are vegetarians, in Germany perhaps 9%, and in Italy 10%.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD, on Farmers’ Faith

In the Blood jacketRobert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith. 

Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow

In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday.  Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain.  Theirs was a simple faith:  pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.

Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries.  Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat.  The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God.  Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.

Can we learn something important from farmers?  Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?

I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God.  I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed.  The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic.  Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil.  How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?

Writing In the Blood:  Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion.  The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers.  They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background.  Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.

Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple.  It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people.  But it converges on a basic point.  Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out.  And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants.  Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain.  It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge.  As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem.  God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”

Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times.  A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God.  Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die.  It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.

The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies.  Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.

Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence.  Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.”  The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals.  Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life.  But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.

One more thing:  Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say.  Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities.  A few were Tea Party Republicans.  They hated the federal government telling them how to farm.  But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments.  And they were fed up with politicians who did.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

An interview with Robert Wuthnow on his forthcoming book, IN THE BLOOD

Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD

Robert Wuthnow, Princeton sociologist and author of IN THE BLOOD

You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?

RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.

Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?

RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.

In the Blood jacketApart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.

You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?

RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.

Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.

Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?

RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.

Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.

You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?

RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.

What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?

RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.

Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?

RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.

The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.

Read the introduction here.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).