New Course: Concepts Made Clear

“A significant part of the pleasure of eating is one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world form which food comes.”
Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” in What are People For?

There are very good reasons to consider where our food comes from. Let us aside some of the obvious ones, such as general nutrition, food safety, and stability of the social order. Wendell Berry reflects on the human importance of being connected to the sources of our food by an awareness and appreciation of these sources.

He writes: “Eating with fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”

Here is great richness to ponder. Consider a couple of his points.

“We are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” What a profound insight. The very term ‘sources of our food’ points to a rich causal chain involving many things, each of which calls for reverent appreciation and gratitude. Earth, plants, animals. Human workers. Cosmic forces including weather and heavenly bodies. A divine ordering. What an incomparable symphony of factors stands behind a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread! Our daily sustenance catches us up into a mysterious web—if we have eyes to see.

“In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and gratitude.” The pleasure of which Berry writes cannot be taken for granted. It is a profoundly human experience born of cultivated knowledge and humility; it is born of intentional awareness of the mysterious web, and an active participation in it. Such participation is by our own work, as well as by our efforts to support sustainable and humane methods of food production.

I cannot but keep coming back to these words: eating as we should—which again requires a whole set of interior dispositions—is literally an enactment of a profound connection. This connection elicits, among other things, gratitude. And living in gratitude calls for set times for giving thanks—such as traditionally at each and every meal. It also calls for more special occasions of thanks-giving, such as the great American tradition in late November, after the harvest.

Many factors today make it harder for us to see, to feel, and to enact the rich connections inherent in eating well. Berry warns: “When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia…” “Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.”

But vision can be restored, and hearts changed. Broken bonds can be reforged. We will need to take initiative and be intentional. We can start by really considering where our food comes from; and perhaps re-forming our whole approach to food; and by giving thanks to all to whom thanks are due.

Wendell Berry (1934-) is a farmer, essayist, novelist, and activist who lives on his homeplace in northern Kentucky.

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