A few stories here that demonstrate how illuminating it can be to pull on a thread until it has little more left to give.
A couple of days ago, someone I follow posted this:
I had been drafting a piece on the old prison work song “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” — and then I discovered that someone already wrote it.
The song title rang a faint bell, and I was in a mood to read something interesting, so I clicked on through. Quickly I realised that this was about far more than a work song. It is about history, about the consequences, intended and otherwise, of taxation, about the nature of agriculture and about enslaved and incarcerated people. About just about everything. Even Earl Butz gets a dishonourable mention.
If you happen to have an interest in that kind of music, as I do, then there’s also the song and its own life through history, but even if you don’t, my view is that this could be the most interesting food-adjacent story you will read all week.
And if you are interested in the music, and get peeved that one of the links provided has rotted away, I’ve got you covered. Here’s a working link to the Lyle Lovett version on YouTube.
Hakai Magazine has done us a service by publishing an article on the history and consequences of turning fish into fish meal that is based on a paper in the journal Environment And History. It is a pretty miserable story of how industrial food production in the global North, primarily The Netherlands to begin with, depends on plundering the protein resources of the global South. As long as fish meal was being produced only from the scraps of fish processed for people it was a reasonable way to minimise waste. Once Californian businesses started converting entire fish into meal, they created animal feeds and fertilisers that farmers quickly realised were too cheap to ignore.
The California sardine crash of the early 1950s, which shuttered Cannery Row, gave us the Peruvian anchovetta crash of 1972–3, which gave us the boom in soybeans and deforestation of today. The action has now shifted to the Africa’s west coast, where foreign fleets hoovering up local fish are at least in part responsible for migrants desperately trying to reach The Canary Islands as the closest part of the European Union.
You may have seen stories about how renewed rain and snow have brought Tulare Lake in California back to life. The lake was effectively drained in the late 1800s by diverting its water for agriculture, but every now it reappears when there is plenty of precipitation. One effect of its latest rebirth is to bury much of the agricultural land that developed in the basin. And that has shed light on some of the whacky economics that drive the lives of rice growers in California.
Aaron Smith unpacked some of the details in his article proclaiming California Rice is Back. One kind of insurance payment goes to farmers who cannot plant a planned crop as a result of a natural disaster, which includes inadequate irrigation water. In 2021, farmers reported that the drought prevented them planting 300,000 acres (121,000 ha) of rice. Preliminary figures show that this year, prevented-planting for rice is down almost 90% to 32,000 acres (13,000 ha).
Smith explains that “[w]ith the drop in prevented planting, rice acres are back up to their level for most of the last decade. The drought did not cause a permanent shift out of rice (this time).” Cotton acreage, on the other hand, continues to decline. Tulare Lake is currently covering about 96,00 acres (39,000 ha) of cotton, and flooding, like drought, is another natural disaster. In an earlier piece, Smith looked in detail at who farms the Tulare basin, suggesting there may have been some skullduggery in which fields were flooded. How soon before that farm gives up on cotton?
In 1943, about a year after the US entered into World War 2, the US Secretary of Agriculture announced a ban on sliced bread as part of the war effort to save both bread and paper. You can imagine what happened next. A story of courage and sacrifice that I would barely have believed, had I not read it on the internet.
Flavors of Diaspora has had a few links from me in the past, sometimes for recipes, sometimes for the way Jonathan Katz welcomes neurodivergent people and their specific needs to cooking. To be honest, he is the person who opened my eyes to those needs, which I have not seen many other people address. That’s a long preamble to a new venture, Safe and Neurospicy, described as A Food Safety Site for Neurodivergent People.
As Jonathan says, “Neurodivergent folk often get left out of food safety because writers assume you know things – which is not always the case!” Indeed, they are often also left out of basic cooking instructions and recipes, something Katz has worked to remedy. “‘Common sense’,” he continues, “can be both wrong and also not shared. So this site is your guide for various things so that you do not get sick, hurt, or injured from your own kitchen.”
My hope is that Safe and Neurospicy will encourage everyone who wants to to cook, when they want to, and to share in that basic human pleasure. If you know anyone who might find it useful (and frankly, you need not consider yourself neurodivergent to find lots of good information there) consider recommending it.