Food: the time of our lives

This morning I had breakfast. At midday or thereabouts I’ll have lunch, and then tonight, once home from work, I’ll make dinner for the family. In between there’ll be breaks for coffee, and then, if I am as undisciplined as usual, a late evening raid on the refrigerator.  No doubt, what I eat and drink from day to day will change, but the rhythm never does. Day in, day out, food sets the hours of my life.

‘Foods, and the meals we make of them, are our clocks,’ says the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy; ‘they are our faithful calendars. In a real sense, they are the time of our life.’ While this certainly encompasses our daily feeding routines, MacClancy’s idea of ‘food as time’ includes more.

As a city dweller—my beloved’s balcony garden of tomatoes, herbs and chilies not withstanding—my daily life is far removed from the agricultural rhythms of the earth. Regardless, they persist. Indeed, for great swathes of people across the earth, still the food they produce and harvest determines their lives. The cultivation of crops and the nurturing of livestock set the calendar year after year.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in the Mallee of northwestern Victoria. Without the machinery of modern farming, he used horses to pull ploughs and prepare the ground for seed. It was this back-breaking task that determined his life in the late autumn each year. With minimal rains—around 10.5 inches (267 mls) annually—timing was crucial, constant observation of weather patterns and seasonal changes essential. All being well, the harvesting took place in the relentless heat of summer and lasted for two months. Dad recalls Christmas dinner eaten under the shade of a tree in the paddock while the work continued. The harvest would not wait.

Harvesting in Quambatook, c. 1930s

In situations like this, food exercises power. The farmer does not set the pace of life. Rather, he works by a pace set by the earth itself. Food and its production is the time he lives by. My grandfather was not a church-going man, but ‘God fearing’ no less. I suspect that when one is so relentlessly dependent on resources outside of oneself—a dependence that colours every season of life—the possibility of God is much more pressing.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992, 58.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Geoff Leslie says:

    When your grandfather worked the land, he was close to it, observing it, feeling it. The modern ‘productivist’ farmer can sit in his air-conditioned massive cabin metres above the land accomplishing in a day what took the ancestors weeks. Every year, more paddock trees are lost, more conserved vegetation is lost as machines get bigger and farmers get further from the earth. The earth is laser-levelled and uniformed so that it can hold up the monocultural crop while it is artificially watered and fertilised.
    I speak of the worst excesses of modern ag. Many farmers good and true love their soil and the rural community it supports. Look up ‘post-productivism’ in Google.

    1. I suspect, then Geoff, that even farmers can become disconnected from the times and rhythms of the earth. Perhaps the choices to remain engaged with the earth and with our sources of food is as much a challenge in the rural context as it is in the urban. Thanks for your comment.

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