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So Big

So Big

I have met a fictional kindred spirit and soul sister–and she’s a Midwesterner to boot! Her name is Selina Peake DeJong, and you can find her in Edna Ferber’s So Big.

I don’t quite remember how I ended up reading this book. I think I looked up Giant, one of my all-time favorite movies (I mean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean–come on!), and learned that it was based on a book by Edna Ferber–really? So that made me look up books by Ferber, where I stumbled upon So Big, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. Well . . . I had to read that!

And boy, am I glad I did. It has been awhile since I’ve read a book that I have really loved, and I relished this one. I was sorry when it was over.

From Selina’s perspective, her early years are charmed. Her father, a gambler, wants her to see that life “is just a grand adventure. A fine show. The trick is to play in it and look at it at the same time.” Unfortunately, Selina is on her own at a young age, and, being determinedly independent and hardworking, she decides to support herself by teaching. She ends up living among the Dutch south of Chicago and marrying a truck farmer, Pervus DeJong, “a kindly creature, tender and good, but lacking any vestige of initiative,” who struggles to grow vegetables and sell them in the city. At this time, Selina awakens to the idea that she, her husband, and their farm are “a vital part in the vast mechanism of a living world. Pervus, earth, sun, rain, all elemental forces that laboured to produce the food for millions of humans.” Their acreage is “a kingdom”; the truck farmers are “high priests consecrated to the service of the divinity, Earth.” I didn’t expect this book to have a connection to the sanctity of the land, but it does and it’s lovely.

Curiosity and an appreciation of beauty define Selina, and she struggles to communicate these values to her son, Dirk. Selina lives in accordance with William Morris’ admonition: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so enough details–you need to read it yourself.

As I read, I kept marveling at the book’s overarching themes that are oh so pertinent today–yet, Edna Ferber wrote this book almost 100 years ago. Education; beauty; class; character; the value of hard work; the not-so-big house; native architecture; parental sacrifice and legacy; organic produce; the emptiness of the rat race; and what it means to truly live a full life, a rich life, a successful life, a life full of beauty–Ferber weighs in about it all.

Selina is of the same ilk as Laura (Little House on the Prairie), Anne (Anne of Green Gables), Francie (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), and Sayward (The Trees trilogy): intelligent, quietly confident girls who become strong-minded, empathetic, independent women–my kind of gals.

The American Way of Eating

Nonfiction has held a greater draw for me the last few years, particularly when it deals with food, farming, inequities in the food distribution system, the cost of our ever-growing reliance on processed food, and the effects these systems and choices have on agriculture, health, and the environment. So when I stumbled upon The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan, I knew I wanted to read it.

McMillan inserted herself at three points in our food system: in the farm fields of California picking produce as a farmworker, in a Detroit Walmart as a produce handler, and in a Brooklyn Applebee’s as a meal “expediter”. Although the accounts of her personal experiences were interesting, the real draw for me was insight into the evolution of the industrial agriculture complex and its role in manufacturing, transporting and distributing food products. I also appreciated her clear and sympathetic telling of the challenges of the working poor in finding, affording, and preparing food, particularly fresh, healthy food.

McMillan’s research is thorough and complete. Some of the information makes you stop in your tracks:

Today, Walmart’s market power is so great that it can essentially tell its suppliers how to make their products, and what price will be paid for them. (p. 118)

. . . roughly one of every four dollars Americans spend on fresh produce ends up at Walmart. (p. 150)

Most of the processed food we turn to in lieu of cooking is so high in salt that it accounts for about three-quarters of Americans’ sodium intake. (p. 158)

By 2010, researchers found that nearly every dinner Americans prepared at home involved a convenience food product, a category that included everything from bagged salads to frozen dinners (but excluded basics like canned beans and plain bread). (p. 210)

I found McMillan’s description of Applebee’s assembly line of prepackaged, pre-portioned, plastic-bagged food–which is nuked in the microwave before being plated–completely unappetizing.

McMillan makes a strong case for home-prepared meals and food/cooking literacy, comparing the cost of a sirloin steak meal at Applebee’s ($16.99) and the time it takes to get the meal (45 minutes) to the cost and time it would take to prepare the same meal at home ($3.72 prepared in about the same amount of time)–a discount of almost 80%. It’s a matter of how one choses to spend time, energy and money. Education and training play into those choices.

My biggest complaint about the book is the abundance of footnotes, which appear in teeny-tiny type and are sometimes completely unnecessary (do readers really need to know that capoeira is a mix of dance, sport and music that originated in 16th century Brazil?!).

In emphasizing the connection between farm and plate, McMillan quotes Wendell Berry: “eating is an agricultural act.” In doing so, she pointed to my next nonfiction read: Berry’s  Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food.

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