What did she have to offer in exchange for food?

I recently read Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk and this book is an excellent companion piece to it. They are both writing about food security but where Bittman goes global, Alcalá goes local, in that she narrows the lens to the island upon which she lives, Bainbridge in Puget Sound, in western Washington state. This is deliberate.

Bainbridge simply provides a microcosm of the choices we will all have to make as a members of the human race.

It isn’t only a difference in scale, it is a difference in tone. Where Bittman is furiously sounding a call to arms, Alcalá is thoughtful and meditative, more practical than ideological.

I’m going to speculate that in addition hunter/gatherers quickly shed any members of the group who are not productive or cannot keep moving, while fixed-in-place, agrarian societies are able to keep the elderly and ailing alive even if they are not contributing directly to food production or acquisition.

I immediately thought of Velma Wallis’ Two Old Women. And, I admit, of myself. I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature and I’ve wondered now and then what I would have to offer such a world. Knitting?

Alcalá visits farmers and farmers markets and co-op grocery stores trying their level best to source foodstuffs locally and talks to many islanders trying their darndest to eat regionally and seasonally. After one such farm visit, she writes

I realized that the practical questions I had come with–how many acres, which elevations, how many days of sunlight–were not as important as the question I thought might be the most frivolous: If I were desperate what could I do to earn food?

Bainbridge is accessible only by ferry and bridge. Most of the 25,000 people who live there get their consumer goods, including food, by boat and truck. What if the ferries stop running? What if the bridge falls down? What did she have to offer in exchange for food?

She spends the rest of the book seeking answers to that question. Along the way she stumbles across the history of Filipino Americans on the island

In the early 1900s, a population of migrant harvesters made up of a mixed Filipino and First Nation population moved between Bainbridge, Island, the Alaskan fish canneries, and Eastern Washington following the seasons.

the history of Japanese Americans on the island, including the achingly painful story of their incarceration as enemy aliens during World War II

Most of the other returning Japanese American families sold their land for development, or developed it themselves. The returned to the island owing back taxes, heavily in debt, and without capital to invest in seeds or equipment in order to start over. Others were warned off by friends that the tension on the island made it dangerous to return so they settled in other towns like Moses Lake in Eastern Washington.

and of course the history of the local First Nations tribe, the Suquamish.

The indigenous people of the Northwest modeled their rituals on the gift of natural abundance–they understood that the world provided what people needed to survive, as long as they honored the delicate balance between need and want, between short-term greed and long-term maintenance.

Interspersed with the general narrative of agriculture is Alcalá’s individual account of her relationship with food in all the places she has lived. It roots her narrative in the personal and the palpable, holding up a mirror for the reader to reflect on their own relationship with what they eat and how it arrives on their table. The mirror shows most of all her own reflection, though.

It made me realize that we need to nourish the dirt we live on as though it were our ancestral garden. We have taken and taken over, the land we live on now, so it is our responsibility to not let it die.

Read it and think. I did.

Book Review Monday Chatter

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have Bittman’s book to read and will wait until I get Alcala’s to read along side it. Thanks for this great suggestion.
    I have been thinking about the issues you have raised and look forward to these two reads.

  2. The premise reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable Miracle. We all need to do a little thinking on this as fuel prices affect farmers and the middle man.

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