If you give a dude a kale chip, he’s going to ask for some coffee to go with it. He’ll probably want to know if the beans are in season, and how recently they were roasted. Reading about the coffee’s origins on the back of the bag will remind him of the local farmers’ market going on that day, and he’ll want to take you.
He’ll want to fixed-gear-bike there, and, rather than a helmet, he’s going to want to wear a beanie to “keep his head warm.” He’s going to raid your closet until he finds not only the perfect cuffed one but also a denim jacket that belonged to your mother in college. He’ll probably tell you that his personal style is not a “style,” per se, but a representation of himself expressed through vintage finds with punk inflections. While explaining this, he’s going to forget about the farmers’ market, so you’re going to have to remind him.
One night a few weeks back, I found myself gleefully removing the packaging of a KitchenAid stand mixer and clearing a place for it on top of the old dresser that functions as extra counter space in my Lilliputian apartment. I stepped back to admire it—bold, shining, beautiful—blood rushing through my veins like I was doing something illicit. And then I made a pound cake.
“Don’t you have to have a marriage card to get one of those things?” a friend asked (between bites of KitchenAid-made pound cake) a few days later.
That’s what I had been thinking, too. I have longed for a KitchenAid mixer for years, but always pictured myself carefully unwrapping the appliance of appliances from crisp white paper and a lacy bow at a nebulous bridal shower. The KitchenAid would be a harbinger of my new life, the cornerstone of my new home.
I travel a lot, often slipping off the edge of the map to places barely connected to the outside world. Sometimes, when I come home, I feel that the world I’ve returned to isn’t quite the same one I left. I go away, and Bill Cosby’s the revered elder statesman of family-friendly entertainment. I return and he’s embroiled in a drug and rape scandal. I leave, and Russell Brand’s a prancing prat. I return, and he’s arevolutionary.
It’s not exactly Planet of the Apes, I admit, but cumulatively it’s disquieting, particularly since I never quite know what’ll change next. Take a recent trip to my local off-license—what Brits call a shop that sells booze. This one is popular with hipsters and thus stocked with draft wine and craft ales. As I waited for my payment to clear, I noticed the shop counter was adorned with half a dozen bottles of “London dry gin”—brands I’d never even heard of before; brands with hand-designed labels, funky bottles, unusual names; brands that bore the unmistakeable signs of being hip.
Hip? Gin? The world had slipped again.
America’s heartland is graying. The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58.3 — and that number has been steadily ticking upward for more than 30 years.
Overall, fewer young people are choosing a life on the land. But in some places around the country, like Maine, that trend is reversing. Small agriculture may be getting big again — and there’s new crop of farmers to thank for it.
Fulfilling Work, Noble Work
On a windy hillside just a few miles from Maine’s rocky mid-coast, it’s 10 degrees; snow is crunching underfoot. Hairy highland cattle munch on flakes of hay and native Katahdin sheep are mustered in a white pool just outside the fence. Not far away, heritage chickens scuttle about a mobile poultry house that looks a bit like a Conestoga wagon.
Jim Koch was pissed off.
The most recognizable man in American beer, who sold us all on the idea of craft brew three decades ago on his way to a billion-dollar fortune, was having dinner last October with a group of brewers inside Row 34, one of Boston’s top-rated beer bars. The drink list was filled with esoteric options from hot new breweries throughout the country, as well as palate-pleasing offerings from abroad. But Koch had a problem: Though this mecca for beer nerds carries two dozen beers on draft and another 38 in bottles and cans, it doesn’t serve his beloved Sam Adams.
Staring at the beer menu, Koch began to criticize the selection. More than half of it, he said, wasn’t worthy of being served—inadvertently insulting the establishment’s owner, who unbeknownst to Koch was sitting next to him. Then Koch interrogated the beer manager about the offerings. Unsatisfied with the answers, Koch complained about the beers so intensely that an employee at the bar teared up. Koch rose from his seat and walked into the keg room, where he started checking freshness dates on his competitors’ kegs.
Houston Wright cut meat, made sausage, and cooked barbecue at Kreuz Market in Lockhart for sixty years. He was tying sausage there before the brick building that housed the market (and is now home to Smitty’s Market) was built in 1924. He was deaf and mute by then—former Kreuz Market owner Rick Schmidt said the disability was the result of a stroke when he was nine. Smitty’s owner Nina Sellsagrees on the age, but blamed spinal meningitis. Either way, they called him “Dummy.”
When I first noticed the collection of photos at Smitty’s pinned to a glass covered bulletin board, I asked Nina Sells about the cluster of images featuring a tall black man. She said, “Oh, that’s Dummy,” and I was slightly taken aback by the name. But she said it wasn’t meant in a mean way; that’s just what everyone called Houston Wright. Nina described those photos from the seventies that now hang behind the glass. “He would tell you a story, and that’s what I wanted to capture here,” she said. “He couldn’t talk but he would tell you things by acting them out, and we’d all listen.”
During a recent visit to California, I attended a party at a professor’s house with a Slovene friend, a heavy smoker. Late in the evening, my friend became desperate and politely asked the host if he could step out on the veranda for a smoke. When the host (no less politely) said no, my friend suggested that he step out on to the street, and even this was rejected by the host, who claimed such a public display of smoking might hurt his status with his neighbours … But what really surprised me was that, after dinner, the host offered us (not so) soft drugs, and this kind of smoking went on without any problem – as if drugs are not more dangerous than cigarettes.
This weird incident is a sign of the impasses of today’s consumerism. To account for it, one should introduce the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment elaborated by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: what Lacan calls jouissance(enjoyment) is a deadly excess beyond pleasure, which is by definition moderate. We thus have two extremes: on the one hand the enlightened hedonist who carefully calculates his pleasures to prolong his fun and avoid getting hurt, on the other the jouisseur propre, ready to consummate his very existence in the deadly excess of enjoyment – or, in the terms of our society, on the one hand the consumerist calculating his pleasures, well protected from all kinds of harassments and other health threats, on the other the drug addict or smoker bent on self-destruction. Enjoyment is what serves nothing, and the great effort of today’s hedonist-utilitarian “permissive” society is to tame and exploit this un(ac)countable excess into the field of (ac)counting.
The late afternoon of March 25, 2012, a voice crackled over the police scanners that perch on the coffee tables or hang on the belts of many residents in San Saba: an ambulance was headed out to Harkey Pecan Farms. Scanner chatter is a rich source of gossip in this tiny Central Texas city of 3,099, and ears perked up that Sunday as paramedics and law enforcement officers rushed four miles west of town to Harkeyville, where a 1927 red-brick house sat among three hundred acres of pecan orchards. The Harkeys had long been one of San Saba’s most prominent families, and their property sat next door to a stretch of pastureland owned by another notable native son, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Sheriff Allen Brown was already out on patrol when the 911 call came in. He sped down U.S. 190 in his white truck, passing neatly tended rows of pecan trees and the cattle auction barn, then crossed the San Saba River and rumbled down the caliche road to the two-story house. He knew the house well; since the early sixties, generations of San Sabans had attended the church suppers and cookouts hosted there by Bonnie Harkey, the family’s matriarch. Bonnie, her white puff of hair always freshly coiffed, was a fixture of San Saba’s social scene, known for never missing a Sunday school class or a meeting of the garden club. Her pecan-based desserts were legendary, often earning her first place at the county’s pecan food show and a front-page mention in the San Saba News & Star. But she was now 85 and increasingly frail; it was common knowledge that she was suffering from dementia and required the attention of a caretaker. Six months earlier, she had been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, and it was only a matter of time, everyone knew, before it claimed her.
But when Brown arrived at the house, he found a puzzling scene. Bonnie’s caretaker, a fifty-year-old redhead named Karen Johnson, was sprawled facedown just inside the front door, atop the floral doormat. Her reading glasses were resting on the floor beside her head, and she was cool to the touch. The paramedics who arrived five minutes later quickly determined she was dead. What had happened to Karen? And where was Bonnie? Karen’s eleven-year-old son, who had found her and called 911, stood on the front porch clutching a cordless phone. He had been playing video games in another room, he said through tears, and hadn’t heard any commotion. There was no sign of a struggle, except for a broken fingernail on Karen’s right hand. Brown wondered if Karen had died of natural causes and if Bonnie, confused upon discovering her body, had simply wandered off.
NEWBERRY, S.C. — A shabby bunkhouse sits just beyond the shadows of this small city’s colossal Kraft meatpacking plant. Inside live a few older men with nowhere else to go, and several younger men who pay to throw down a mattress.
There is also Leon Jones.
Mr. Jones, 64, has an intellectual disability and a swollen right hand that aches from 40 years of hanging live turkeys on shackles that swing them to their slaughter. His wallet contains no photos or identification, as if, officially, he does not exist.
And yet he is more than just another anonymous grunt in a meat factory. Mr. Jones may be the last working member of the so-called Henry’s Boys — men recruited from Texas institutions decades ago to eviscerate turkeys, only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights.
This may sound familiar. In 2009, a sister of one of the men complained toThe Des Moines Register about exploitation in a bunkhouse in Iowa, prompting investigations, reforms and a momentous court verdict concerning the workplace abuse of people with disabilities. This year, The New York Times published an examination of the case and its aftermath.
The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming “Product of Mexico.”
Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers.
American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.
These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.
But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
The Times found:
- Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
- Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
- Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
- Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
- Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.