FEW THINGS DESCRIBE A CULTURE better than the food it consumes. A celebration of cultural diversity includes ethnic foods as well as language and music. Tastes for certain foods acquired at home in childhood remain markers of our cultural heritage throughout life. Nothing less than an intellectual, emotional, or physical shock can dislodge us from our national or regional foods. As proof, consider the current explosion of ethnic restaurants in major cities with immigrant communities. * Looking back, my own personal food culture was shaped dramatically as a result of a 6-month job in 1945 with the Woman's Land Army (W.L.A.), a program initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to replace farmers drafted into the armed services in World War II. I was assigned to a small family farm run by a couple: Tim, whose younger brother had just left for the Army, and Mandy, his very pregnant 18-year-old wife.
Until that point, I had never had a breakfast of pork and cold potatoes, washed down with hot coffee and milk still warm from the milking can. I spent my first 3 weeks on the farm shoveling manure into wheelbarrows, shucking corn for silage, climbing into the silos, and heaving feed onto the troughs.
One day Tim announced, "Mandy and you are gonna bring Betsy down today." I knew what bringing Betsy (the cow) down meant. Tim and Mandy often talked about what went on in the small gray house near town. Reluctantly, I helped bring the fated animal onto the open truck, but I could not hide my uneasiness. I stood next to Betsy watching her tail swish back and forth. I kept my face away from her.
The whole business took less than half an hour. I did not then imagine the scene would forever be imprinted on my psyche. Although the shock at first had little effect on my eating habits, I decided that my first visit to the gray house would be my last. I waited several days before giving Tim and Mandy notice. But even when I returned home, my manure-scented clothes discarded in the Dumpster, I could not refuse the meat meals placed in front of me. The aromas sabotaged my early anti-meat resolutions. However, a chance encounter with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a 1902 exposé of the meat industry, made me begin to reconsider. Later, marriage and children, and then concern for my children's health, brought the issue up again. But the critical turn came with my activity in the peace movement, a legacy inherited from my parents. I could feel the old barriers of habit cracking. Only then did my family's diet finally show signs of great change, as meat gradually disappeared from our table with only an occasional protest.
At this point, our environmental concerns intensified, as a result of my husband's consulting assignments with the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P. …