crossing to safety

3 January 2017

 

Poem for Glenn Roberts.

 

 

 

I care as little as you do, what they say about you. I care less about what you stand for, or who you stand with. Or where you come from. Or where you’re going. Because, despite all the compasses, you’re the barometer that brought us together.

 

We all draw our self portraits on the plates in front of us. We are all the artists of our own lives (Dylan). Each meal is a mirror. You broke the color barrier. You decolonized the kitchen and proved, again, that the meek who inherited the earth also cultivated the Garden. You threaded life as it were a loom: every filament was endowed with the respect of its texture. Every grain of sand was a kernel in the chorus. It’s the singer, not the song—you wove worm holes into tapestries embroidered onto the daily fabric of our lives. Food is our cohesion, how we eat our food is our fundamental carbon. The restaurant is a church and each recipe a prayer. You, Glenn, the thirsty Baptist, Johnny Evangel-seed: precious and lopsided and jurassic seeds—each palm cracked with age and their burdens hold these seeds. These jewels. These stories. And you, snake oil scarecrow, twisted biology wonk, watch with secular glee as each story curates its own mitosis. Slipping, spreading, and separating away from its origin, its parent, its dirt. Genesis unpacked like an accordion into the old Testament, into the seed catalogue.

 

You, Glenn. Daddy Beat, as Greg Corso used to say. PT Barnum. Timothy Leary: polycrop in, dry farm out, fertilize your cuisine. You, like Merce Cunningham or nervous Nureyev, pollinating the entire maudlin show. Big tent politics—you set the timbers and let us all in. Tickets? Fuck ‘em. You only sell tickets if the stories are bad.

 

But if it weren’t for you, we’d have no roles. If it weren’t for you—no matter what the playbill says—we’d all still be off Broadway, slouching towards Bethlehem. You know what it is about you Glenn? If we understand our food, we’ll understand ourselves. And you ticket the circus—from amongst and from within emerges our stories. Our fears. Our talents. Through your work, you let us all speak for ourselves. You gave us each our flour, our grits, our peas—whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. Doesn’t matter. You gave us the luggage of language, of ingredients.

 

There was another Glenn in American history. He brought us into orbit. And may god bless you for bringing us back to Earth.

Elegiac Feelings America

9 November 2016

 

 

“I don’t think you can live with yourself when you are humiliating the man next to you.”

Robert Penn Warren.

 

Anger, anxiety. They are states of mind. Fear is a way of living. The United States of Mind and Living…this is a bitter hangover. And we are regretting everything we didn’t do last night. Instead of a culmination, a sigh, an easing of shoulders, this gasp is now a compression, a tightening of our throats. We are incredulous at some thing that came true. But it was true all along. How could he? Why did he? What did they do? We are surprised that the branches betrayed the roots on Election Night.

 

The election was, by all means, an anti-election. It was a fulcrum of a four year mitosis. A mitosis in which we think, just maybe, one wealthy white man (or now a woman) can save US from the very system which is causing the cancer. It is as if the doctor emerges from the hospital to say Colt designed a non-lethal bullet and Philip Morris designed a non-addictive cigarette. During elections, patients come to be cured, not treated. We’re led to believe that more medicine, more insurance, and more prescription is the solution. But the balm is not more rash. Candidates are not democracy, voters are.

 

This year was utterly melancholic because the (anti)rhetoric was so cancerous. Fear of the other candidate, anger towards the other candidate. The Milennial maneuvering of voting in order to block, voting in order to stop, the voting in order to keep him out by any means necessary was pure violence. By pandering to fear with open palms of anger those who supported Clinton in sheer figuring were wrong. Politics aint maths. Regardless of anyone’s experience or belief, we live in a political paradise. The paper and ink architecture of our nation is gorgeous. It’s the furniture which is rotten. We live in a hypothetical plurality where all get on according to agency. Free will. Choice. Desire. Passion. And New Orleans, more than any other place in the U.S., illustrates this reality. So too does it provide its desperately bleak binary. New Orleans economy is a political one. And its currency is fluid corruption. Corruption, in essence, is the mutation of a healthy system—biological, political, religious. Martin Luther sought not to destroy the Catholic Church, he sought to reform it. Tolstoy sought not to destroy Russia, he sought to transform it. Gandhi sought not to destroy British India, he sought to transform it. Martin Luther King Jr and the SCLC sought not to destroy America, but to reform it from cancerous mutations. They were not afraid of the bruise becoming a scar.

 

My grandmother voted for Trump. She is an 86 year old immigrant from Belgium. One of her first memories is of S.S. storm troopers driving through her village. She was 11 years old when Nazis occupied her town for four years. They had trouble riding their motorcycles, she told me, because the weight of what they’d stolen from the church was difficult to balance. They were grinning as they drove through and like Mardi Gras the entire village turned out to watch them parade with their loot.

 

Her relatives all fought against fascism, against xenophobia, and against oppression. Her father-in-law was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp; her brother-in-law to a German labor camp; her other brother-in-law to a Belgian labor camp; and her husband also went to war. None of these men and women who participated in the Resistance were under a direct threat from Nazism. None of them were Communists, Jewish, Queer, Roma, or any other stigmatized group. Instead, they chose to resist what they found abhorrent, even if it meant life, limb, or family. And, oftentimes, the children were involved in the resistance (my pre-teen uncles ghost rode bikes to downed pilots, showed them the way home, hid them in between the walls for two nights, and ferried them to the coast’s freedom under darkness. It was more innocuous for children, rather than adults, to do such work).

 

I asked her on Wednesday night if she would have voted for Trump when she arrived on Ellis Island 64 years ago. No, she said, I wouldn’t have. Something in her voice changed. Something in the voice of a woman who once told me, “If we understand the origin of light, shadows will lose their meaning.”

 

Successful, holistic, organic change is manifest in modern models of peace. Violence, theft, anger, anxiety, and fear never changed anyone or anything. They merely corrupted them. Think of a single moment in your life—or in the life of New Orleans—when a raised voice, when coarse language, when a gunshot, or when a fist changed anything. Moments may change anyone, for their exposure is a formative lesson, but they don’t change anything. Moments of crisis, reminds John Berry, are moments of grace. We can all point to moments in time when calm, decisive honesty and thought resolved conflict. In fact, it is only within the eye of the storm that we comprehend the weather around us.

 

Anger, fear, blame, anxiety. We will not change anything—ourselves included—if we pollute our behavior with the same tactics employed by Trump and Clinton. These candidates always were and always will be scapegoats. Like a collage, we pasted any and everything onto them in the hope that it would stick to them not us. Mendacity, disrespect, and anger are all they stand for. In convincing ourselves of the cheap heroin of Clinton we shot a bag of delusion. We wanted that four year fix until we, until they, could figure it out. Remember how fuzzy things were in 2008? Even if you didn’t take the Soma then, the opium of hope and change was ubiquitous. And free. We were going to change our country by voting for one man? Right, and then he asked for four years to finish a job he never started.

 

Fear of voting our hearts, our ethics, is an anti-vote. 2016 was an anti-election, because by nature an election is a forum in which to choose who/what best represents us in absence of ourselves. The mutation of our system lacks plurality in order to foster such addiction, such anger, such conduits of self-expression through fear. It was the same drug we dosed with Obama. We bought his brand (and its $1billion re-election campaign) just like we bought Nikes in middle school. Then, sooner or later, we realized that the sneakers didn’t help us jump like Jordan. You don’t get religion by going to church.

 

Where do we go from here? What are we going to do? There’s a West African concept called Sankofa. It states that we can only understand who we are and where we are going if we embrace where we come from. We cannot, and we must not, duplicate the same oppression—in ourselves or in others—that we so resented in him and her. Fear, anger, disrespect, blame, and bitterness because Trump “won” is not the answer. Even those who voted for him lost. Moving to Canada because it’s better there? It’s better there because citizens made it so. Our true election, our true country, will be born and will begin the moment we cultivate a sincere understanding of why people like Trump and Clinton have any appeal in the first place. That delicate gestation is now. We must create bridges not for confrontation, remorse, or resentment; but for understanding, sympathy, integrity, empowerment, and peace. The quilt must be unstitched, thread by thread. How do you teach compassion? By learning it.

 

All human beings seek security, shelter, and food. Most everyone seeks pleasure, education, family, leisure, meaningful work. The courage to achieve these needs peacefully is relative only to the behavior we demonstrate to achieve them. No one is full when others are hungry. No one is home when others are homeless. No one is right if everyone is wrong. We have to diagnose why Trump exists. Why he was viable? Maybe more importantly, we have to displace the belief that voting for the lesser of two evils is acceptable. Or right. Our lives, our freedom, and our communities should not operate on cheap strategies of pragmatism. When we dilute the nature of choice, we negate the essence of choice. Definitively, we must learn ourselves and teach others that we need to defeat injustice, not people. Evildoers, as Christian Nonviolence reminds, are victims too. There are those who must be willing to suffer in order to secure justice. And unfortunately, I see more coordination, consistency, and community when people watch a Saints game than I saw before and during the election. There’s power, and there’s influence…

 

Some farmers that see weeds in a field use chemicals to kill them. Substances which, sprayed conservatively or liberally, destroy the weeds. The best farmers in America don’t kill. Nor do they encourage it when they see weeds. Instead, they understand what created the weeds. What, in the soil or in the environment, created something that was not intended? Buddy Bolden saw the same lesson. He sculpted through the granite of noise to reach the marble of sound. He found Jazz, that pure rhythm, when God holds her breath. And now, we too, must seek the same pure rhythm of diversity if we are ever going to love ourselves and our country again. For the first time, for the last time. We have to grow soil, not food. If we nurture the substance, Nature’s form will follow. Politics is like a garden: whichever seeds you plant will grow. And that music will cling to us like sunlight.

 

 

What we lack is an organization, a value system, which unite us all. Our generation has much in common with our ethics, our morals: equity, respect, justice, equality, freedom. Yet, we have no architectural framework to organize around. And this is what helped Trump win: existential fear and an oiled political machine. Our generation has something more powerful; for the first time in American history, a vast majority of urban youth of all colors, gender identities, and relgions have deep passions for justice, equity, empowerment, and identity. Yet we do not have cohesion.

 

 

muscle, bone

What are we going to do? Everything we didn’t do before.

 

 

friend’s bread

 Pain des amis …september 2016

 for Christophe, for Erik.

 

…The crust refracted through the flavor of the crumb. It was light and crispy, yet the compression of flavor and caramelization was incredibly deep, thick, full-bodied. A Malliard Eucharist which would not melt. Chestnut, earthy, dusty straw, creamy, tender, yielding: the texture like leather run wet with wheat water, then veiled in fermented dough to dry. In June, with a moist sun. Blonde memories of rust.

Pain des Amis is honest, nurturing; life of food wombed within the soul of a crust. Profound in its simplicity, the sum of process curated by parts. Most incredible aroma, perfume of the Beauce’s blood, France’s oxygen. That smell—its moisture, its curtain, a cathedral of fragrance without remorse or arrogance.

Its meaning as useless as the chatter of Paris, two thousand years of rain in Lutetia, where the characters come and go, recycled like corks in so many of the same bottles, same stage, same lips to different crystal. Different juice, different lips, but always the vintage desire of Paris—the hubris of such beauty, the essence of this kernel. We bake bread, just as we build monuments, to forget what we already know…but when I ate your bread, I remembered something. Like my memories, like Paris, there is no innocence in this bread.

In Paris we sit still like rocks in a stream. One thousand years of a fluid center before freezing—all passes and merely, one day, we eddy to let go. This is serenity, peace, liberty. Divorce yourself until communion is here. France’s tragedy of destiny, obscured by commerce and culture and church in the prisons of time and fashion. Chimneys of rhetoric choking Paris. France mutilates history and her only memory is that of forgetting, forgetting the burden of too much wisdom, the burden of understanding, the burden of beauty unmeasured.

 

 

 

Slow Food Terra Madre 2016

“Nothing is lost. Everything is transformed”

 

September 2016. Graison S. Gill. Slow Food New Orleans.

 

Food is a human right, not a privilege. How do we uphold this self-evident truth socially and politically? Paradoxically, globalization has globalized our problems. I also think it has globalized their solutions. Same architecture, different furniture. This is an essay through my journal about my first trip to Italy, and first time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre:

 

Terra Madre, Sala Gialla, 24 September: Cold shower. That’s the initial feeling. Thrust into a cacophonous womb of immediate, tactile contact. Confrontation: just like Italy, Terra Madre confronts me immediately, onto a mattress of now. There wasn’t a pensive moment, not a minute to think, to reflect, to process. It is a visceral now, a liquid experience of time which ebbs like water’s tide. Chewing, smelling, talking, listening, seeing, tasting, walking, wandering—mostly it’s watching. Looking—like a first trip to the Grand Canyon—a poetic panorama, a digestion of this incredible human portrait. This entire carnival of sensual horizons.

 

Not France, or Mexico, or Germany. This isn’t a place of contemplation, of stepping back, of taking a breath. Italy isn’t known for its poetry, its contemplation—the dogma here is a catechism of public life: opera, theatre, living architecture, and restaurant terraces. Tragedy and triumph, unlike other places in the world, are not behind closed doors with shy locks. Life here is an embroidered drama, stitched by the threads of food, the threads of stories.

 
Our personal relationship to food—no matter where we are in the world—is our compass, our gravity. It is, whether we accept food and its implications or not, the sole factor that determines how, or how not, we live our lives. Food connects us first to ourselves, then to everyone else, and lastly to the earth from which it comes. From where we come. Like no other human language or endeavor, food and eating determine, then dictate, our personal and communal lives. How we eat, when we eat, who we eat with, and why we eat is the most fundamental human act, more pertinent than shelter, clothing, or any other behavior.

 

How do we connect with each other? That depends how we connect with ourselves. And we connect with ourselves most intimately with—or without—the passion of food. (In the words of our Slow Food USA President in his opening address to our delegation, this is inclusive and democratic access to the “pleasure of food”). Flesh was put onto this bone of a fact when I arrived in Turin. For years I have been struggling with connecting dots. As a baker, miller, business owner, eater, shopper—every role I play is always frustrated by a lack of cohesion. It is, in one metaphor, the loss of looking up at the sky and recognizing no patterns. When we see the carpet of stars above, our appreciation of them and our understanding of ourselves is illuminated when we comprehend their relationships, their organization, their meaning. But, like any discipline, or like any pleasure, passion and respect and indulgence require training, require patience. Threads are teased, meaning is massaged. This is enrichment.

 

If we want to change the future, we must learn about the past. In order to be a better Slow Fooder, this lesson hit me hard at Terra Madre. Despite being an avid history student, I recognized the need for understanding the constellations better. For understanding the policies, the facts, the relationships. Negotiating the bigger picture, the gestalt, is fundamental in order to deconstruct what is immediately in front of us. We see a flower first, and then we register the petals…John Lewis, a Civil Rights pioneer and Congressman, made a very pertinent and simple observation. Regardless of one’s opinion about the erosion of the Civil Rights Movement in the end of the 1960s, Mr. Lewis noticed that the language, the attitude, and the comportment of activists changed. It went from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had familiarity with the Scriptures and wore overalls with denim shirts to men and women in dark sunglasses holding semi-automatic rifles and using coarse language. He cautions that anger and confrontation is a strong, positive trait in a mature set of hands. But, antagonism—denigrating others, deriding others—is not healthy, nor constructive. And if we seek to change the world and how it eats, that commitment requires us to be twice as civil, twice as gentle, twice as understanding, and twice as educated as that system we seek to usurp. We have to dress the part, metaphorically speaking, too.

 

Einstein said that one cannot “change the old problem with the old thinking.” Nor can we change the current behavior with the same attitude, or the same thinking. We cannot think in terms of failure, of struggle, of scarcity, of fear, of binaries; we have to exude thoughts of success, of possibilities, of empowerment. How do we reach Middle America with a message that every single American agrees with, if only the wording is correct? Who, I seriously question, would disagree with “Clean, good, and fair”? I’d argue no one in America, if they were asked in conscientious language. It is how we present ourselves, and our message, that tips the scales of ally or alien. Truth and honesty are our ballast, and we must simply learn to promote our message—to evangelize its democratic truth—to everyone we encounter.

 

We are missing a fundamental audience in America, one that had strong presence at Terra Madre. Commerce. What I witnessed at Terra Madre was an incredible harness of transaction, of trade. My most impressive experience, really, was witnessing how effectively the European and African and Asian vendors secured this. Instead of allowing Whole Foods and other corporate giants to appropriate our message and our food, leaving us victims in other ways, these artisans were self-steering and self-organized. Anyone who attended Terra Madre can corroborate the fact that the sheer scale of goods (food, clothing, beverage) being consumed was incredible. A lot of overwhelming things were happening, and they weren’t in supermarket aisples.

 

Why is the commerce of Slow Food so successful in Europe? Policy. Support. And what is missing in our success at home? Policy. Support. I had a great conversation with Richard McCarthy at Terra Madre where he clarified that this was not capitalism, but commerce. It was clarifying because each of those foods, those spices, and those flours were created (ideally) by small producers buttressed intuitively by good, clean, and fair. But each of those producers, from what I understand, had their government’s support in the protection of their integrity as artisans, as small producers. That is precisely what we lack in the United States. There may be a clutch of support on the coasts, or in more progressive states, but the vast majority of our country is under the boot heel of corporate government. Until we understand and begin to change the narrative from that of revolution to transformation, we will not be as successful as any of us can be. There are some people who, no matter what, may never wear a seatbelt. But, when the law dictates that you must wear a seatbelt or face a $500 fine, a lot of people will begin wearing seatbelts. If the law requires farmer market vendors to use 50% local ingredients in their value added products; if the law requires that school lunch contract bidder use 50% of local ingredients in their kitchens; if the law requires that each Land Grant University establish an Organic Department…then bingo. Until then, we will rely on philanthropy and bourgeois chefs to popularize and democratize fresh, local, and organic food. Until good, clean, and fair become rules of our government (for the people and by the people) instead of just a effective slogan, we will never make our goals as equitable and accessible as we need them to be. We must learn the knots before we untie them.

Carlo Petrini, in his written address to delegates, said that, “Loving the earth means defending diversity in all its forms.” In Slow Food USA we need a serious diagnoses of privilege. Winona, for those of you who attended the SFUSA opening meeting, spoke incredibly on this reality. Privilege is, in my opinion, healthy water in dirty jars. That is, good intentions with misguided behavior. (All birds fly the same wind). Sometimes, in an effort to preserve or annunciate or defend diversity in all of its forms, some of us with more privilege—educational, financial, gender-based, emotional—muffle or impede the voice of others, the lives of the more diverse. And that is, to rip the band-aid off, reflected in our organization of (mostly) middle-aged white males. Myself included. (To take it even farther, I noticed an uncomfortable privilege in Mr. Petrini’s presence, one in which he came to speak, rather than listen, and he came on his time which caused the mortgaging of others’. I don’t think it was a just, healthy example to set. And that behavior, the two times I saw it, did not mirror the verbal sentiment for caution, solidarity, and respect). But, instead of ignoring or erasing or deprecating privilege, we should embrace it. We should speak to what makes others uncomfortable. And most importantly, we need to take a clean deep look at ourselves and understand what is so ingrained from the old system, the old ways, that we’re trying to dislodge. All of us, in the words of economist Stefano Zemagni who spoke at Terra Madre, need to “decolonize our imaginations.” Because no matter who we are, or where we come from, we have in myriad ways been colonized in our behavior, our endeavors, and our attitudes. Slow Food is about, through the conduit of food, razing that colonization. The sooner we accept, understand, and ultimately embrace our privilege and its implications, the sooner our movement will roll. Privilege, at the end of the day, is responsibility. Every one of us who had the privilege of traveling to Terra Madre in 2016 has the responsibility to alchemize that knowledge into wisdom at home.

 

What did I learn at Terra Madre? Not much. What did I realize at Terra Madre? So much. It was an incredible weekend of epiphanies. I need to slow down, I realized. We control time, we are not controlled by it. I also realized that I must not resent what I want, but do not see. Too often, leaders talk twice as often as they listen, they teach twice as often as they learn. I know that it would behoove us all to present more good news, not bad. I spoke to many delegates and attendees who, despite a deep empathy and sympathy, heard enough narratives.

 

We were inundated with problem-sharing narratives at Terra Madre; let’s move towards solutions. Let’s change our perspective from victim to protagonist, from re-active to pro-active: imagine a perfect world and start there. We all know how dire and desperate the situation is. What we are all thirsty for are solutions. We need cohesive agendas for change that are welded to the ethics of inclusivity, access, and empowerment: good, clean, and fair. We want to democratize the movement. We want blueprints, inspirations, pivots for engagements. We want models, tactics, goals, architecture. Show us, don’t tell us. We are, in all sincerity, an army of love. An army in defense of pleasure, of food. But I felt, and feel at home, a lacking cohesion in agenda. What I realized at Terra Madre was the fact that we cannot wait to find or stumble upon solutions. We cannot wait for leaders to drop out of the sky like religion. We all, in our own unique and positive way, posses the qualities we so desperately seek in the world. It is fear and maturity that keep us away from ourselves. In some cases for a lifetime, in some cases a few years. This is the wilderness.

 

Leadership is sacrifice. We cannot wait to find solutions, or for them to find us. We will create solutions create by diagnosing problems like a doctor. They are giants, but we are millions. They have the power, yes, but we have the influence. Think of all the titans of justice in human history. Mohammed, Cesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harvey Milk, Harriet Tubman, Bayard Rustin, Edna Lewis, Diane Nash, Grace Lee Boggs. These heroes—and scores of countless, countless others—agitated and organized. They, figuratively or metaphorically, went to the doctor. They checked in, they diagnosed, and they prescribed cures. Social movements are simple in that perspective because it’s a matter of origins, of ontogeny. Locating the origin of a disease in order to develop its cure. Angela Davis said that, “Radical simply means grasping something at the roots.” We are all doctors, and we are all patients. Human rights, just like food, need to be cooked before they’re eaten. Every harvest, every victory, is an opportunity to put more back into the soil. Nothing in modern American history is given. We live in a country with a history of withholding, and everything we have as citizens today was purchased with the blood of integrity from people who believed, people of faith. Civil Rights, LGBT Rights, Women’s Rights, Union’s Rights: seeds of justice were sown and respect was the harvest.

 

Milan Airport, 29 September: Life has become diluted and distended and fast; but if we can and when we do slow down our food, then everything else will slow down with it. And the gears spin, and they spin fast, because of commerce. When we commodified food—in factories, on farms, and in freezers—we relinquished sacred control over our most human endeavor. Just as religion lost it essence when it was moved to the church, so was our humanity lost when we put food on the stock market. Lost, yes, but misplaced is the more accurate direction. For something to be lost, it must be impossible to find. But our foodways—our mother earth—is the only thing in this life that will never be lost. It will always, always be the one place where we will be found. Try as we may, forget as we will, we will always and only find our way back home. Sankofa, with that Trail of Breadcrumbs leading us back to Terra Madre.

 

 

 

pilgrim, roads are made by walking

winter and spring 2016

contact diffusion: Every good life sleeps on a myth…

Dear Sebastien:

There are not accurate words in the languages we share to express my gratitude for you and your spirit. My visit with you was life-changing. A paltry thank you will never repay my debt or your gift. I struggled to discover how I could thank you, how I could share my sincere depth of relief, of courage, of solitude. How like a faucet you turned something on, moved something forward within me. Do you know anything about psychics? I don’t. But I do remember a few rules. Namely that a body at rest will remain at rest. A body in motion will continue in motion. A body at rest, collided upon by a body in motion, is a victim of violence. Energy cannot be created or destroyed…You unhinged and re-aligned a passion within me that was stopped like a bad gear, or a sore leg. Your effervescence, your compassion, your longing…this incomplete essay is an attempt to elucidate and verbalize what was truly a pilgrimage for me. A journey back to myself, with breadcrumbs in the woods of time, through you. Thank you for keeping the road wet, and clean. Thank you for the shoes, for the love, for listening. Thank you for being here for others when we cannot be there for ourselves.

I’m not one for private emotions in public spaces. But social media, and the bathroom wall, is a liminal floor, where nothing is quite private because everything is now public: we publicize every private thing we do, usurping our vulnerability in turn. When it’s all personal, it isn’t necessarily honest. When we are safe, we are raw nerve, which is the biology of growth. To paraphrase Michael Ondaatje, the coin of the word “passion” is so over-circulated that it’s now bankrupt. But it’s currency nonetheless, and language is our legal tender. For all debts private and public we trade words: vows, promises, remorse, provocations, imprecations. We even swear on time, as if we owned it, not vice versa. The human indulgence for liquidity, for credit, is at best, dramatic. We’d mortgage our noses to finance our face if only its money would fold.

I grew up with people above me. People taller, older, wiser, reckless, richer, educated—giants of Lilliput in strength, balance. The poise of hubris, beautiful in its very human swanning. I watched that. And I’ve believed since day zero that someone should always block your view; those frustrated by life will blame others. But maturation teaches a gentler reciprocity between analysis and motion: step and pause. Eventually, hopefully, you’ll cease to blame others for blocking your view and make it yourself. When past blame, you’ll realize that your own steps trip, your own mind slips, your own eyes miss meaning. The role of a mentor is to tell you not to look for something which is already here. It’s the diagnostics of omnipotence, in a gentle genesis; we may ceaselessly turn over the leaf of our lives, tracing its cuneiform, its scars; we beg the oracle for what we know we will find when we really begin to see. We know it’s there, what we seek, and that’s why we long for it. We want what we deny ourselves, but which others give. The petty dialectics of fear. Like a child playing hide and seek, we yearn for the concealment knowing we’ll be discovered. Yet we cannot wait to be found, to allow our clever choices to reveal us. The smoke clears, and we hold the mirrors smiling. The mentor is meant to flesh out the palm; to trace it, read it, guarantee it. A mentor’s role is to disrupt fear, never to displace it. Without that blood of doubt, we’d lack the oxygen of substance. But without the spleen of reason, of faith, we would achieve nothing beyond pale resentment. A limpid, translucent life. The veins of a leaf are visible years after it’s alive; on the tree that transparent flesh is buoyancy against anonymity. The vulnerability of showing where we’ve come from, if only to tack sail closer to where we may go. It was the roots which fed that leaf, and the branch which let it go.

Enter Sebastien Boudet, stage left. Graying hair, blue eyes, a gibbous moon of a face. That face is his invitation. Polished cheeks, alacrity, lungs like tommy guns blasting away at anything. His mind is a Geiger counter, pulsing the presence of any activity—atomic or microbial. He has dexterity like molten rubber, which will bounce from biology to psychics to the Maquis resistance to Nazism, before it cools itself. He cultivates fibers like spiders silk between Freud and Jung to Plutarch and crooked timber. Priest, pied piper, zealot. Gesticulating like twisted lightning, evangelizing gypsy of bread who has taught nearly 200 classes. Fatigue would only approach him with weapons and caution. And arrogance. He has put on sneakers of quicksand, and he flies like Hermes through the liminal. The prophet, in his case, is more important than the religion; it is the religion.

I met Sebastien on a road trip he was making in a flame orange Mustang through the South. He had just come from Houston, where he interrupted the NASA guide about wastefulness: why, he demanded, was money spent on Mars when Alabama was starving? Something in the accent, the jocularity of English in a French mouth, instill fears…I was on my back, underneath my 2500 lbs flour mill, when my door opened. It was Sunday, and I was alone in my bakery for the first time in two years. A mutual friend had let me know that Sebastien was in town for a bit. Three days before we’d received one of the country’s largest stone mills, in New Orleans nonetheless, a city that can’t feed itself. And today was consummation with my bride. It was Lorca’s blood wedding that made me run into the bramble of my shop, alone, and I rolled my eyes the minute I heard him at the door. And since that day they’ve never rolled back.

Sebastien could charm a rock because he is charmed by it. He grew up in Montmartre until the age of seven, when his parents packed the Citroen and siblings for Normandy. They opened a bakery and he was encouraged in a plein-aire Montessori way, ensconced in the French values of liberty, fidelity to ego, fraternity to tradition. The iconoclasts in France, of which Sebastien is a prime minister, destroy always the prayers but never the dogma. In his milieu, a divorce is full of love, absent only of passion. And it was in this Eden that he grew among whole grain breads and brown eggs. The chimney of his family’s bakery ran through his bedroom and he knew what was baking just by opening his nose. He made his BAC at 15, then his CAP (French professional bakery certification), and did fourteen months conscription as a paratrooper trainee in Pau by 19. He was, by 22, a father, and owner of his first bakery in Malaga; a legionnaire of sorts, flung to the far corners of the heart’s empire, to defend it against itself. Like any healthy Frenchman, he is blinded in flight like Icarus from the wax of his unyielding values. France, like Sebastien, is not a place of compromise, but of compulsion. They preach reason better than they practice it.

Stints, diversions, and the peripatetic journey to nowhere of every talented chef led Sebastien to Spain, Florida, New York, and eventually Stockholm. And it has been here, in the crown of Scandinavia, that he has come to form. In order to break the rules, you must know the rules. And in his grounding of classical French baking—baguettes, Viennoiserie, tarts, cakes— Sebastien has populated a brand new landscape of baking. The world is saturated with mono-cuisine: from Shanghai to Seattle to Stockholm there is the burger, the fries, the soda. There is the starch, the corn-fed protein, the processed sugar. We’ve lost 50% of our biodiversity in the past 30 years because I can get the same meal in Johannesburg than I can in Lima. It is absurd, this globalization of food, because it has eroded the precedent of local food systems. Systems which not only curated the stomach and our health, but guaranteed public health, regional economies, security. Oh, and the cohesion of culture, the sacred human right of community. The threat of Big Food’s presence is the absence of small food. There are no whales without plankton, no McDonald’s without small producers. The food chain is not a Keynesian belt of low-rent leather from a sweat shop, style and price dictated by the omnipotent “market”. It is a Gordian knot which climbs up just until it needs to fall back down, to start the ceremony over again.

Sweden, like any other place on earth, was a self-sufficient pantry for its entire modern history. Some vitals like coffee, wheat, sugar, and fruit had to be imported, but the system was intact until World War II. Like Mexico or Louisiana or Senegal though, that smooth patterned rug of consumption has been pulled out from under the dinner plate. Heritage grains and breeds, native to the region, are in precarious existence as the country has been groomed for monoculture by corporate food companies.

Entr’acte: They used to mock me, make me feel disappointed. That I’d stay in, stay back; retreat, redraw, sleep. I preferred staying from the petty and going towards the pregnant. I’ve had my fun, my epics, my towers—the binges, the waltzes, the nightcaps and heart attacks. I have seen the sun set in the east, so let us compare mythologies. But most of it never fit; it grew cheap, that’s what I felt, noticed like wet felt, with the frequency. The more drinking, the more departure, the more swerving—it went from raw Technicolor to wet celluloid, where the experience of youth made me feel old. Because that’s all we wanted, a cruel departure. Wanted an exit stage right, where I could walk into something greater, something important. It was so impotent, so dry, so light; I wanted weight, measure, some laws of psychics, just a few. Theatre is for action, not existentialism. Bread is for sharing. Maps are for finding, not getting lost. And yet I fell freely like an apple without the affection of Newton. I knew there was something beyond, something deeper than the faucet. Something formidable, heavy, a metal. If I could only move beyond the doubt, the pity, the apology. If I could pull myself away from the shipwreck, yet still remain wet. If I could take wings and use them for walking. If I could love myself, I would love others. If I served a faith bigger than my life, I’d find the community. I’d find the peace, the sand, the glooming. It is not the murder which flies, but the crow. And see now the trees we perch.

Like a cave. He is the belly of the earth, all dark and damp, where the most primitive transactions occur. It is within him, and through his strength, that we see ourselves through what we eat. In Lascaux, men and women took blood and earth to mirror their lives on material indelible. They wanted what they saw everyday—themselves, their food—to remain forever. It wasn’t selfish, or vain. It was gratitude for the grace of life. It was religion without the pollution of judgment, of fear, of church. It was mature love, awe. It was inspiration in dried ink upon a wet earth. In Lascaux, France, we became for the time human adults with innocence intact. We wanted to depict, to praise, without an ounce of pride. And this is precisely what Sebastien seeks to share. This is the redemption, the resurrection he seeks. (Abstract signs of divorce, of longing, are entirely absent). It was the secular Eucharist of life into art. Of moments into infinity. Painting stars into the sky.

At first, Sebastien was like Kierkegaard’s clown. The country village was enjoying the summer circus when suddenly a fire started. In the tumult and because of the hay, the clown made a snap judgment; while everyone bailed water on the flames, he would run and enlist the help of the neighboring village. Like a fox he ran through the fields and exhausted into the main square. In the cacophony of the moment, he was completely disarmed by reality—of course, he was still dressed in costume, face paint and all. When the villagers began to gather round, they laughed and jeered at the perceived pantomime of his exhaustion—the clown! Doubled over and belligerently gesticulating, selling the snake oil of a fire in the next village! The clown, reaching his arms to heaven like two halves of a ladder, the white paint on his face bright and runny—the fire, the flames, the breathless imprecations to flee, to help! You are next, his lungs leavened with silent rage, you must run—as he became more animated, more vehement, the crowd only grew in size and laughter. This clown was incredible. Bravo. Bravo! What a show, what gesture, what passion—the profundity and sincerity were life like. And it was in this pregnant hypnotism of scorn, in that womb of spectacle, that the villagers failed to notice the approaching flames, rushing towards their lives like a red sun. And it was in this way, laughing at their own disbelief, that they were swallowed by fire.

Contact diffusion is a concept in archaeology that believes in the simultaneous yet autonomous development of traditions and inventions amongst separate groups. The belief that the wheel was invented in multiple, isolated communities around the same time; the belief that agriculture was developed in multiple, isolated communities around the same time; the belief that access to food is a human right, not a commoditized privilege.

What we need now in the food movement, I’ve come to learn, is not archaeology. Yes, we must understand where we are coming from in order to know where we are going. Sankofa is not merely a concept, but currency. But we do need to apply sociology and living sciences to food today. The Food Rights Movement must not seek forgiveness or permission, nor must it achieve its goals with antagonism. No, we direct change with confrontation. The argument of flavor. Sebastien teaches this; he told me that medicine causes sickness, as does modernity. And we cannot treat sickness with the same chemicals and medicine which cause the initial sickness.

I realized, as the night bled through the tin train windows, that I don’t want to meet anymore scared people. I want fear out of my life. And I want it out of all the people I love. Sebastien has taught that: there is a zealotry, a compulsion, a momentum to his presence. there is conviction. That is something I’ve held to like treasure, like coin, like talisman my entire life. But I never used it; I never squeezed. I’ve had ice but could never use the water. Sebastien is a terrestrial Icarus, an angel in flight, an angel without repose, without religion. He is a raw nerve, electivity, fat wisdom, knowledge. Secular church. Iconoclast. Counter-revolutionary, libertine, father, savior. What could the arrows ever pierce St. Sebastien, except mere flesh? He unhinged me. And I’m blinded by sheer light. No superlative no hyperbole—I’ve never been more rapt, more motivated, more shocked. The man is a guillotine, with the blood appetite of Robespierre and the poise of Danton. He is Mary Magdalene, with his compassion and ostracism. His distance is his power. His distance is his power.

 

supply’s demand

9 march 2016

 

Buddy Bolden, Elvis, and the Blues:

supply’s demand

It is my hope, as a food producer in New Orleans, to cast some light on the shadows at our dining tables. Our supermarket shelves may be full, but our landscape is empty. Louisiana is a national leader in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, incarceration, violent crime, poverty—is that relative to our lack of fresh food? I think so. Gandhi said that you could judge a nation by the way it treats its animals. And we can judge Louisiana by the way that one in six adults are hungry. According to the USDA, the top four of five crops grown in Louisiana are non-edible: feed wheat, soybeans, cotton, and feed corn. None of those should be grown in a state where one in four children are hungry.

Food has gotten farther and farther away from our stomachs, from our mouths, from our communities. We are no longer a city that celebrates its foodways, but its tastemakers. We buoy the tourist economy and promote our lions and witches; but the wardrobe is bare. Uber thrives and yet waiting for RTA is like waiting for Charon, for Godot: tedious and raw with remorse. Restaurants boom and supermarkets shutter. Dinner Lab collapses with $10,000,000 in capital weight, Whole Foods opens on the Northshore, and Good Eggs flees in the night; yet we can only allocate about $2 per lunch for our students? We are on a merry-go-round of consumption without a farm in sight.

But now is a time beyond blame. There has been massive, shameful failure which has led to our current womb of crisis—but maturity teaches above finger pointing. New Orleans needs cures, not more diagnosis. We must embrace truth before wisdom, now. We must begin renovating our soil and food system before renovating more restaurants and markets. The St. Roch Market received more than $4,000,000 in public money and not a dime went towards promoting or encouraging actual food production, but instead its hip consumption. More than $20,000,000 in public money went to the Dryades Market and not a dime went towards promoting or encouraging food production. The Whole Foods Market on Broad Street received a $1,000,000 public grant which is forgivable; yet how many locally owned or family owned grocery stores received that grant? None. If I miss a payment on my government business loan or student loan, I’d be crucified on that cross of gold. Let alone forgiven.

Demand for food will always be, but supply is a delicate, delicate web. Our tax money does not need to subsidize consumption, but should encourage production, encourage supply in a state with four growing seasons and some of the world’s richest alluvial soil. There is a dead zone the size of the Hawaiian Islands 50 miles from where you are reading this magazine. This is a direct result of Policy choices made on federal, state, and local levels: the dead zone and its pollution are a question of agriculture and, more specifically, of not eating organically: all the fertilizers and pesticides and poison that we put on our crops or that our livestock excrete is carried down our River and dumped on our shore. It then mingles with British Petroleum and Ship Island tourists. Louisiana contains 40% of the nation’s wetlands, yet we are losing them at a greater rate than any other place on earth. This is a state of superlative: as we imprison our people and as we lose our land—at the highest ratios in the world— we are sabotaging our very existence. And sharing that tragedy with tourists on Segways.

The plate is a mirror we indulge three times a day. And if we do not begin to value the content of that meal, rather than its glamor, then we will paddle soul-deep into Narcissus’ pool. No soil, no farms—no farms, no food—no food, no restaurants. Soybeans and feed wheat and cotton and feed corn don’t taste good even in the best emulsion. We have to dig beyond the plate to its ingredients. That starts in our Mayor’s office; in our high schools; universities; agricultural schools; restaurants; ballot boxes; churches; markets; our refrigerators.

Successful social movements do not wait prostrate for an epiphany moment of hope and change. Freedom’s angel is agency—the ability to do and to do not. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBT Movement, and De-Colonization were all born when policy—both public and private—failed. There existed a vacuum where we as a community failed our neighbors. Such cathedrals of justice were born in that failure. Assertive in their demands for equality and inclusive access, they provided what the government could not, or would not. The Food Rights Movement is even more potent, more powerful, more democratic: every one in the world puts food into their body. Everyday. There is nothing more intimate or generous or sensual as putting food into your mouth every single day. There is no better way to control your destiny than through nutrition. There is no democracy greater than the empowerment of healthy, accessible food. Because fresh, healthy food is a human right, not a commodified privilege. Producers and eaters must seek to re-align the paradigm and draw it away from consumption; we must begin again to celebrate production, to encourage the harvest, not fetishize the consumption and the fashion of consumers. We should stop sanctioning the renovation of bourgeois food courts and begin constructing organic farms. We should stop privatizing our social health. We should not apply financial solutions to human problems. Our city is predicated on serving others before we’re able to justly serve ourselves; New Orleans is becoming Disneyland with potholes and beads and cold-pressed juices. We are sure to curate the “experience” of New Orleans, but are incapable of the reality. Most fundamental is our failure to feed ourselves. It is sobering and bracing to understand that the vast majority of our city’s food—our religion—is grown thousands of miles away.

Local/regional food is, sincerely, better for everyone and everything: it sustains local jobs, local talent, ingenuity, and integrity. It wins on moral grounds and financial grounds and ecological grounds. Think about it: we do not import our music, our culture, or Mardi Gras. So why do we import our food, that most sacred altar in New Orleans?

Compared to what?

 

Love the lie and lie the love

Hangin’ on, with a push and shove

Possession is the motivation

that is hangin’ up the God-damn nation

Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)

Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

Roberta Flack.

 

 

Thanks for the email. I certainly am disappointed that, after an $0.80 price increase, your restaurant is deciding to no longer support a local bakery. I brought you samples of an alternative bread four weeks ago and never managed to have you return my phone calls, emails, or texts—the time that I took was not reciprocated by you. It is also, to be completely honest, upsetting that no one from your restaurant ever came to our bakery to meet our staff, understand our mill and its flour, or to learn about our process. I’ve been to your restaurant multiple times and am familiar with your menu and your food; but that was never reciprocated. I took consistent time out of my days to reach out to you to invite you over, to bring you samples, to seek a deeper conversation about our ingredients and attempts to share those with others over the past years. I know multiple customers of yours will be incredibly disappointed to sit down to a meal at your restaurant without our bread served. If you think that you’ll save time or money doing something like baking service bread in house—after we’ve both established an incredible reputation for the quality of bread served in your restaurant—I will tell you from experience that you are going to be disappointed. The payroll cost, the ingredient cost, the time cost, the kitchen space, and the headache of producing yet another product in-house—an incredibly detailed and unique product at that—is only going to grow more expensive both financially and emotionally. Great chefs and great restaurants excel because they serve an incredible experience—not because they attempt to do everything. They leave the wine making, the fish catching, the bread baking, and the vegetable growing to the communities that do those things best. And if price is a consideration, as it always is, serve less. Good, healthy, nutritious cuisine is not amount heaping portions: it’s about the nuance of flavor, both of the ingredients, the chef, and the artisan.

 

I know how busy you are. But if you could have taken a small amount of time out of one of your days for the past three years that we’ve known each other, you could have learned more about why we need to charge more for our bread. And if you had done that, I wouldn’t feel as frustrated as I did when I saw your email. But you didn’t, and you don’t, so you’ll instead see it all through a certain lens which is terribly unfortunate. I still don’t make enough money, I still “work” seven days a week, we still make every single loaf of bread by hand no matter how little we sell our bread for. It’s because we love who we are, and we are manifest in what we do.

 

As you know better than anyone else, New Orleans and its ecosystem is in a tremendously dire straight. You are from St. Bernard Parish, and you know this better than anyone else. If we do not do our part to restore and remediate the land, there won’t be much of New Orleans left in twenty years. That starts with how and where we eat, not just what. Not supporting bakeries that seek unprecedented change in how and where our flour is produced by making it ourselves is quite blind. It’s the same betrayal of buying shrimp from Malaysia or Crawfish from Vietnam. At the end of the day, it hurts our neighbors. And what hurts our neighbors will only in turn hurt us, as the Bible teaches. It was the same conversation that I attempted to have with you regarding our grits, which you also disregarded and did not pursue. If chefs do not pursue these changes now, and are not willing to spend a little more now to save later, then there will be no French Quarter in a few decades. If we can’t make food with local ingredients, what kind of cuisine is that? What betrayal to our heritage, our land.

 

And I can’t imagine how impossible it would be for anyone, let alone a chef, to cry “too expensive!” if they only were to spend a day with us at the bakery: 14 hours next to a 570* oven, in a room that temps in August to 110*; on your feet bending, lifting, walking, moving bread bread bread all throughout the city. Milling fresh, organic, identity preserved wheats from small family farms and mixing it with Texas-grown olive oil into a three pound loaf of ciabatta bread that wholesales for $5.25. Do that full-time—on Easter, on Christmas, on Mardi Gras morning—and tell me in sincerity that our bread costs too much. And show me where the profits go; otherwise, I’ll tell you. Back to our farmers, to our equipment, to our mission.

 

I completely understand your decision and although I do not respect that choice, I completely respect you. I mean that sincerely. I only wish, and certainly have asked, that you showed me the same respect that I showed you. No one in this city tries as hard and as sincerely as we do to make something special, unique, nutritious, and wholesome. Your customers, for the past two and a half years, have learned that fact through the flavor and taste of our bread. I can only hope that you can explain to them, with words, the motivation behind taking that quality away.

 

 

 

Best

 

Graison

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