Since my grandmother moved into our house around 2008 when the housing crisis closed the family construction business, she quickly took over responsibility as the house cook from my mom. After that, I was rarely hungry as every morning, afternoon, and night my home was filled with delicious foods from chicken pot pie to country ham and biscuits. I’ll never forget when I came home from college for the first time, walked into my kitchen, and saw my grandma, or Gaga as we call her, frying eggs and bacon on the stove for me. We embraced and she told me, “I bet you’re sick of them avocados and healthy stuff out in California. Well don’t worry I’ve got some good food for you here.” The meal was amazing, but it really got me thinking about what had changed while I was gone, and how this class in particular had altered my perspective.
I was born and raised in a little town just south of Nashville called Franklin, Tennessee. My family has roots in the state that stretch all the way back to Davey Crockett, supposedly an ancestor of ours. I’d say I lived a pretty stereotypical southern lifestyle, going to church every Sunday, watching the football game, and, of course, eating southern comfort food. See, culture in the South is, if anything, a fortress. Change is slow and the people are traditional, leading to some reprehensible behavior in regards to civil rights and other matters, but also helping us maintain a cohesion of regional identity that I would say is unparalleled in the United States. Southern people are distinct. We talk funny, act funny, and eat funny food.
The center of my hometown is marked by a monument to Confederate soldiers that fought at the Battle of Franklin.
Coming from this environment, I never really questioned a lot of things. In particular, I never questioned the food, and why would I? It’s delicious. Just the idea of hot fried chicken, buttery biscuits, and sweet blackberry cobbler makes my stomach growl. I grew up on my grandmothers cooking, on massive family Christmas and Easter lunches, on low country boils on the South Carolina estuaries. Southern food was my food, and I didn’t know anything outside of it that carried the same force in my life.
Things changed when I walked into my first CTW class. I knew there would be a culture shock coming to California, but I never really believed that anything would be jarring enough to rattle my Southern disposition. I had prepared myself to defend many cultural aspects of my home state, like our manners, our weird accents, and other noticeable differences, but I had never prepared myself to defend our food. Vegetarianism is not a big fad where I’m from. We love meat, and its present in all our dishes from fried chicken as noted earlier to green beans which we usually mix with ham bones and bacon for more flavor. To us, it’s an alternative lifestyle for hippies living in forest communes, not for regular people. When I found out that my teacher, Nick Leither, was a vegetarian, I had my doubts.
It’s hard to look at this and not get hungry.
Given these preconceptions, when we started reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, my opinions on the matter started to change. Initially I went through a stage of denial, refusing to believe disgusting facts like that the common occurrence of fecal contamination of birds during their death and automatic evisceration, and that feces is now considered a “cosmetic blemish” rather than a cause for throwing a bird out (Foer 71). I had never considered the food I ate unsafe until I started to learn the horrors of the factory farm system and where our food actually comes from. Suddenly, that same fried chicken didn’t sound as appetizing when I thought of the possibility that the chicken’s body cavity had filled with its waste after its intestines were ripped open on an assembly line. Another upsetting fact that came from our research was that the FDA, the organization I had blindly trusted with keeping me safe all my life, was weak and poor at its job. Learning how little control they had over the food production process now, with things like microbial testing being rejected in courts, showed me that the blind faith me and my family had for the government to provide quality assurance on our food was a mistake, and made me conscious for the first time when buying seemingly identical meats at the supermarket (Food Inc). All this new information had an effect on me, causing me to question the truths about food that I had held dear all my life.
It was these books and movies coupled with our discussions that really got me thinking about the role of food in my life, and why none of this had ever occurred to me before. I had watched Food Inc before in my high school health class, and it had no effect on me. However, this different environment, with all the conversations we were having on where our food comes from, made the second viewing a lot more profound. Things really started to click for me after we read an article called “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. In it, he writes a scathing criticism of the Maine Lobster Festival, reflecting on the inhumaneness of boiling lobsters alive and how we try to avoid thinking about the unpleasant side of food. The festival is a cultural phenomenon, a product of New England and their pride for their food. In this context, I started to realize why I was so willing to ignore the truth for most of my life. From birth, I had become immersed in Southern culture, and this taught me to love our food. Furthermore, I was insulated by all the other people around me who had been born and raised in the same environment, leading me to assume that food was to be unquestioned. It wasn’t until I came to college in California and met people from all across the country that alternative perspectives dawned on me. Where I would see a delicious plate piled high with comfort food, another person saw a greasy mess of butter, flour, and caloric overload.
Maybe old fashion is a little outdated?
Once the questions were out there, I couldn’t really turn back. Although I still really do enjoy my grandmothers cooking, I’m much more conscientious of what we eat and, perhaps more importantly, where it comes from. Now I can explain to my mom or grandma why we should buy alternative products, because new outlooks, largely facilitated by CTW, taught me that it’s important to question things.
The final article from class that really impacted me was called “The Interview” by Douglas Starr. Describing the fallibility of interrogation techniques used in America that lead to many false confessions, Starr explained a typical issue that occurs to detectives or interrogators when they attempt to pursue the truth of a case. Before receiving all the facts, they convince themselves that a person is guilty, and this skews the rest of their thought process as information is subconsciously twisted to fit this decision they’ve already made. From this, I realized that this had occurred to me my whole life. Ingrained with an idea of Southern superiority, I had gradually convinced myself that our way of life, our food and other traditions, were the best in the world, and I had allowed this to cause bias against other parts of the country.
I love my state and my region, but this CTW class has allowed me the opportunity to step back and re-assess everything I had been taught in my life. More important than factual evidence are the questions that bring them to light. It’s through questioning that we refine ourselves. I’m going home in a few days, back to my quiet town for three months of much needed rest and relaxation. I know I’ll see it differently, comparing aspects of it with my experiences in California this year. Thanks to this class, I’ve learned that there is always change to be made, if you’re willing to get out there and ask some questions.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009.
Food, Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. DVD.
The Custom of Life. Southern Cuisine. Digital image. Wikimedia. Wikipedia, 24 May 2005. Web. 7 June 2015.
Johnson, Joshua J. Downtown Franklin. Digital image. Capture Productions Photography. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 June 2015. <http://captureproductionsco.com/home>.
Maderazo, Jennifer. Soul Food at Powell’s Place. Digital image. Wikimedia. Wikipedia, 6 Oct. 2007. Web. 7 June 2015.
Starr, Douglas. “The Interview.” New Yorker 9 Dec. 2013: n. pag. Web.
Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 525-41. Print.