"What though on hamely fare we dine..." --Robert Burns, "A Man's a Man for A' That."
Wheaties may be "the Breakfast of Champions," but Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, was a Champion of Breakfasts. Oatmeal, butter, fish, and all manner of hearty, homely foods received his praises, as did the Common Folk who relied on these foods for survival. "Hamely" (or homely, for the non-Scots reader) was not a term of insult, but of honor and praise. "Hame" was, for Burns, the dwelling not only of the heart, but also of the belly.
January is Robert Burns' birthday month. Near his birthday on the 25th, Scots and folk of Scottish descent the world over take time to gather for a unique repast known as a "Burns Supper." Haggis is carried in to the rousing strains of bagpipes and Burns' "Ode to a Haggis" is recited with all the drama--and the best Scottish accent--the reciter can muster. Poetic toasts are made to monarchs and lads and lasses. When the glasses are set down, hired musicians or other entertainers lift the spirits. The centerpiece of the night is a speech known as "The Immortal Memory," an oratory ode to the Scottish Bard. There is much pomp and circumstance, but at the heart of this celebration is an earthy man with earthy appetites. He loved women, loved to drink, and loved to eat heartily in good company. These appetites earned him a fair amount of trouble, but also inspired tremendous creativity.
Food, creativity, and memory are always intertwined. We develop a taste for those things that link us to the past (memory) and draw us toward the future (creativity.) The health of our appetites depends partly on what we seek to feed: the body, the gnawing mind, the half-starved spirit... and food addictions have driven not just people, but entire nations, to horrific acts. Chocolate, named "theobroma" or food of the gods, has inspired countless works of art. Yet the production of this substance is still linked to child labor and slavery. My Methodist ancestors swore off sugar in their tea because of its connections with the slave trade, but couldn't bring themselves to give up the tea itself--even though tea production was almost as morally questionable. Where would humanity be--and what would international trade become-- without the consuming passions of sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and alcohol?
Whether we take the time to ponder it or not, all farmers--all PEOPLE-- are touched by the connections between international trade and social justice. It matters immensely where we get our food. When I choose "hamely fare," I accept the constraints of a smaller economy. I accept the seasonal limits of availability. I am forced to farm and garden sustainably so that my food--and my neighbors' food-- will continue to grow. But--like the rigid structure of a sonnet or a haiku--these limits result in fantastic creativity. When I wait all year for the sweet, short interlude of Spring's first fiddleheads, Summer's wild strawberries, Autumn's fresh meats and Winter's hearty roots, the rhythms and intervals inspire bardic joy.
As Marge Piercy writes, "Virtue: what a sunrise in the belly!" Locally-sourced food strengthens my connections to plant, animal, and human communities. Locally-sourced food holds me accountable to the farmers and growers on which my life depends. I come to know their names, their faces, their stories. Each bite of food is a sermon in miniature, a powerful reminder of grace and justice and faith. It satiates my senses and satisfies my hungry mind. It feeds my spirit as well as my body.
It's not an easy choice. It's a series of intricate puzzles and ever-present challenges. It takes work, just as growing a crop takes work--or buying fast food takes work, in the form of the hours we earn and the hours they grow, tend, process, prepare, package, serve, clean up, and dispose of what's left after our hurried meals. This morning I made pancakes with Maine-grown oatmeal, but I added a name-brand pancake mix. My lunch of smoked kippers came from a Maine fishery, but I ate them on toast from the grocer's shelf. My hot chocolate was neither organic nor fair-trade certified, but I made it with local milk. The consequence? I feel well-fed and somewhat inspired, but I also feel challenged to do better.
Eating is a political and poetic act. It is a process of relationship-building, of bringing diverse elements together. It is a process of mutual creative transformation. In this season of hard choices, may we all plant seeds of justice, tend Creation with care, and share the great harvest feast of "hamely fare" together!