As American society speeds toward a mechanized, technology-centric future, local food emissaries Joel Salatin and Alice Waters are fighting an uphill battle against cheap, fatty, widely available junk food.
Waters is an author, founder of the Edible Schoolyard and chef of locavore restaurant Chez Panisse, and Salatin owns organic Polyface Farms near Staunton. Both want to teach Americans to see food as more than just sustenance, something to be consumed in the time between meetings.
Speaking Friday at the Paramount as part of Human/Ties, the four-day 50th anniversary celebration of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the pair trumpeted the virtue of teaching children about the value of food, and warned against mechanized food production.
The discussion, moderated by Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva — of National Public Radio’s “The Kitchen Sisters” — was prefaced by NEH Chairman William Adams sautéing local vegetables onstage as a playlist of covers of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” filled the theater.
“We all need to be educated about the big picture of what’s going on with food in this country,” Waters said. “I have a theory that what we eat is not just something that is good or is not good for us — we are eating the values that come with that food.”
Waters’ Schoolyard Garden seeks to teach public school students the value of food and provide free school lunches by having students grow, prepare and distribute meals as part of their regular curriculum.
Waters and Salatin’s work, Adams said, represents a critical intersection of the humanities and daily life.
“The deeper purpose of this gathering is to demonstrate the ways in which the humanities — work, reflection, thinking and writing — relate to public life and how they help illuminate matters of concern in public life,” he said. “I think Alice and Joel are good examples of that connection — as Alice said, when we are consuming food, we are at the same time consuming values and ideas.”
For Salatin, who brought two live chickens onto the stage with him, food culture is not one of the United States’ proudest exports.
“The food space and farming space are winding their way into this discussion because people are starting to recognize that it is part of our national identity,” he said. “When you look at the food identity that the U.S. has exported around the world — factory farming, chemicals, genetically modified organisms — there are a lot of people in this country saying, ‘Whoa, this is not who we are.’”
Salatin and Waters’ urgent message about the necessity to appreciate where and how we get our food mirrors challenges facing the humanities, Adams said.
“We have to continue to demonstrate why [the humanities] are practically relevant in the living of a life, and how they are not just helpful, but critical in certain dimensions,” he said. “One of the most important things to me is how the humanities have to be front-and-center in education for citizenship. We can’t lose sight of those as a country, because if we do, we are going to see the withering of a democratic political culture that is genuine.”