In many ways, the food movement has spent the last 40 years catching up with Wendell Berry. This most steadfast of advocates for healthy and sustainable food was a lonely voice when he began his defense of traditional farming in the early 1970s. In those days, most thinkers on the subject were still praising corporate farms for increasing production.
A sixth-generation Kentucky farmer, who is also a poet and novelist, Berry was not fooled. The big farms might have solved the problem of production, but at what cost? They had replaced the careful labor of people with “machines, drugs, and chemicals” that damaged the land and put farmers in debt. And when those farmers finally picked up and left, they took with them an irreplaceable knowledge of how they worked on those particular parcels of land and of sustainable practices.
The industry hailed all this as an increase in efficiency, but Berry saw it as a crisis of body and soul. “We have enough farmers to use the land,” he wrote in 1986, “but not enough to use it and protect it at the same time.”
This change had profound consequences for the health of our politics as well as our bodies. “A great danger to democracy now in the United States is the steep decline in the number of people who own farmland,” Berry wrote in 1978. Power cannot truly be shared in a society unable to feed itself.
Pragmatic and passionate insights appear in each of the 24 essays in Bringing it to the Table, which manages to convey the essence of 40 years of activism in just a few hundred pages. The organization of the collection is superb. The first section on farming lays out Berry’s principles, which are supported in the second part by profiles of particular farmers. The third section consists mostly of selections from Berry’s novels, which show the preparation and consumption of food in the eminently sociable context where Berry feels it belongs.
For urban readers who may never have enjoyed a meal quite so sumptuous in both cuisine and company as those Berry depicts, there’s a pang of sorrow in reading about ways of life, once common as dirt, that now seem oddly foreign. Yet Berry insists that this healthy and sensible life can be ours again, and this book offers essential advice on how to take it back.