by Sharon Perrone
The Soul Food Monologues are a collection of performance narratives written and performed by University of Minnesota students over the course of a weekend workshop with Twin Cities food activist LaDonna Redmond. The workshop encourages students to dig deeply into their own food histories and connect it to their own identities as memory and experience. In March, I hitched a ride with two U of M history students out to Morris, MN to see the most recent cohort perform.
As a bit of history, the Soul Food Monologues were an idea inspired by the interaction of food and justice, and the powerfully healing experience of storytelling to transform grief, trauma, and oppression in food systems to insight, courage, dignity, and perseverance. The workshop is a process of guided soul-searching and creative expression. In this context, I was curious to learn more about the challenges faced by such a unique demographic – late teens and early twentysomethings typically originating from rural Minnesota – that is so removed from my own food experience as a late twentysomething East Coast urbanite.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What would I write about, if I had the chance? What stories of grief and struggle have been transformed in my life by or through food? As I settled into the black box theater, I ruminated on my first farm experience at nineteen years old. Working on my college’s student organic farm for four years rid me of insecurity and body dysmorphia and instilled a love of – no, a need for – regular outdoor exploration. How would their stories compare to my own?
And as I listened to the students, I thought my story would have fit in quite well. In one instance, food and meals were shared through a study abroad cultural exchange that was unfamiliar and confusing, but led to a better cross-cultural relationship. In another, a student fished with her father and gardened with her mother, reaping the bounty of water and land well stewarded. In yet another, an indigenous student raised on a reservation found meaning, direction, and healing from historical trauma through her decision to raise baby goats. Several themes echoed from story to story, including childhood and nostalgia; femininity; challenge and newness; self-discovery; joy; healing; human connection; love for land.
Yet, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat unfulfilled by the end of the performance; I was still hungry, if you will. These common themes, to me, framed an often misguided romanticization of agriculture – a farce in which we yearn for a return to rose-colored simpler times, a distraction from industrialized food production and other environmental and social ills, and a realization of idyllic pastoralism (Hajdik 2011). (Indeed, my own food story fell neatly into this narrative.) Food isn’t exempt from romanticization, either. We photograph our home-cooked meals, fancy restaurant dishes, and artisanal cocktails. People attend farmers markets like they would the theater. Cooking blogs are works of art. What is a food experience when these bells and whistles are stripped away?
Specifically, I couldn’t shake thoughts of food stories that didn’t end in such uplifting ways; food stories that are still gaping wounds; food stories that sit heavy on backs and shoulders. This is all to say that what spoke to me most about the SFM was that which I did not hear – both the natural and social or constructed forms of ingloriousness in the food system, ranging from death and decay to apathy to exploitation and oppression. (To be fair, this is perhaps beyond the scope of the SFM.) What food stories are we not hearing when we focus on the need to make sense of grief and trauma to find healing? What if, sometimes, there is no meaning to be derived? What happens when stories are unresolved?Types of stories I didn’t hear. This friend of mine broke his back as a logger when he was 19 and built a house and a farm through chronic and debilitating pain.
I recently visited a friend’s farm for a nature walk to clear my head. The wood lot on her property is rolling and wild, visited by a cheerful and meandering stream if you go deep enough into it. We dug ramps and found a few baby morels that we allowed the forest to keep tending. Her dog, had wandered off on some doggy adventure and returned to her with a wide grin and a treat: the lower hind leg of a deer that had died in the forest some time ago. The leg had bits of matted hide clinging to it, some crusted blood, and wriggling maggots. A part of a second bone hung loosely by some shredded tendons and swung from his mouth, the sinew dripping fetidly by his feet, as he trotted towards us, the flies close in tow.
One of the farms I used to work for raised lambs for meat. I had little responsibilities with livestock, but was present the day that the farm owners were traveling and the apprentices were put in charge. One of the little lambs had escaped our fencing and gotten into the neighbor’s alfalfa pasture, which poisoned it. The lamb started crying, then shaking and foaming. We called the vet, but it was too late. Within a half hour, the lamb was dead in Maggie’s arms.
My mother thinks food is tedious. She finds no joy in cooking, only relief to have pulled something out of the oven and provided for her family. This was partly due to her demanding job, which left little time for creativity in the kitchen, and partly due to her innate personality. Growing up, she told us if she didn’t have to eat to survive, she wouldn’t. When she was a child, she’d bring a book to the table to make meals bearable and interesting. Yet, she always insists on cooking when her children come home (despite my eager assurances that I’d be happy to take over), because isn’t it the most natural thing in the world for a mother to prepare meals for her children?
I could go on. I know a farmer and forester that was crippled at the age of nineteen by a falling tree. I know a student who got her arm caught in the potato harvester during harvest season in Maine. I know an urban farmer who drowned stray cats when animal control refused to help. I know an orchardist who lost his entire apple crop to hail for a season. I work for a butcher, and when I asked their 17-year-old son how he butchers a cow, he made a hand gesture of a gun and clicked it right between my eyes.
The realities of food and farming are often violent, in the sense that they may be powerful and destructive inasmuch as they can be generative and healing. Some of these realities are natural and unavoidable; some of them stem from the inherent tension between land use needs and the danger involved in food production to scale; some of them are a result of systemic injustices and oppression that modern food systems are often built on.
Even in my own privileged, Western, food- and farming-devoted person, these inglorious, indifferent, and painful experiences with food occupy a heavy mental space alongside the joyous ones—the ones in which I built, brick by brick, a dome of self-confidence through farming; the ones in which I cultivated an active and healthy lifestyle through better diet and outdoorsmanship; the ones in which the dirt squeaked through my teeth as I pulled a fresh carrot out of the ground and ate it, because I was hungry and because it was there.
The Soul Food Monologues in Morris were beautiful, creative, and thoughtfully orchestrated, and there was great resonance in their stories with my own personal food experiences. Yet, the absence of these less romanticized themes left me wanting more from a set of performances. To participate in food and farming is to insert oneself into a constant web of life and death that is natural, beautiful, violent, tragic, artistic, difficult, and perpetual. To neglect this dichotomous identity in telling a food story may yield a touching, yet incomplete narrative. I am reminded of the closing stanza in Wendell Berry’s poem, “Sabbaths – 1979, IV,” in which he muses:
Ruin is in place here:
The dead leaves rotting on the ground,
The live leaves in the air
Are gathered in a single dance
That turns them round and round.
The fox cub trots his almost pathless path
As silent as his absence.
These passings resurrect
A joy without defect,
The life that steps and sings in ways of death.
Hajdik, A.T. (2011). Agricultural romance: constructing and consuming rural life in modern America. PhD Dissertation. University of Texas.