I'm going to start by posting an unpublished article I wrote about eight years ago. It was inspired by a photograph a friend showed me of glamorous diners on an Atlantic Crossing, on one of those magnificent older style passenger ships, a ship that predates the current 'cruise' industry. As a member of an International Gourmet Club, Bett's 'cruise' offered a culinary journey with the famous French chef Paul Bocuse, cooking classes and exotic dinners of many courses. Oddly enough, it was simply the presence of one particular person in the photograph that inspired this literary observation..., a Mrs. Cargill. Please read on:
I have a confession to make. I have a Cargill connection. It’s a bit tenuous, but still, the connection is closer than I suspected. And it’s put a face on that corporate giant called Cargill, that pervasive transport and ‘agricultural’ monolith which has swept across our Canadian and world landscape changing what and how we eat.
Lets step back a few years..., twenty years ago to be exact. At that time I was working as a publishing consultant and food stylist on a cookbook project, a collection of recipes and reminiscences from a famous Canadian prairie restaurant. This restaurant inhabited several locations over the years, beginning with a few tables in the authors home on the edge of the Porcupine Hills. When it came time for the food photo shoot, this rustic, screen doored, two story, wild rose surrounded, weather beaten home-place overlooking a aspen filled coolee, could not be reproduced in the cold confines of a big city photo studio.
So it came to pass that for an intense week in a hot July the production crew and a team of cooks laboured in Bett’s southern Alberta home. All in all we created some remarkably evocative food photos with a plethora of farm raised corn, zucchini, potatoes, squash, poultry and a side of beef. With the addition of a wagon wheel table, an old side board, wire egg baskets, collectible plates and serving trays, checkered table clothes, canning jars from the cold room and a cheese wheel secured from a neighbouring cheese factory, the setting burned a hole in nostalgia. Barn-board walls and a window view of dry grass and southern Alberta sky provided additional ambiance for a cornucopia of mouth watering ranch food. And yes, we ate it all.
Late each day, when the hot house atmosphere of location shooting was complete and all was quiet in the house, Bett and I would spend the evening chatting and looking at her photo albums. A devotee of all things food related, Bett’s albums were filled with pictures of food and the people who enjoy it. Lively scenes spilled from overflowing albums. Weddings, birthdays, holiday celebrations and community events filled each photo, happy people chowing down on Bett’s legendary menu. Local folks from town, area ranchers, friends, celebrities from near and far including as I was often reminded, John Wayne and Bing Crosby.
Several albums documented Bett’s annual trip with an international gourmet club, each photo accompanied by a commentary on the who’s who of the culinary world, with chefs and dinner guests seated before plates of sumptuous food served in extraordinary settings, here castles in Spain, there sun burnt palazzo’s in Italy.
Pointing at a photo, Bett might say, “Here’s Prince Vladimir of _________ with Paul Bocuse at Paul’s restaurant in Paris. And this is Lord and Lady _________. They were so funny! Oh, and here’s Mrs. Cargill at a dinner party on the SS France”.
Mrs. Cargill? Of the Alberta Cargills? “Yes, Mrs. Cargill, you know, the grain people”.
I leaned closer to peer at this startling image. What I knew of Cargill, “the grain people”, was of an monstrous corporation devouring small town Alberta. The Cargill centralization of grain collection and distribution, and the large Cargill granaries, three and four times the size of garden variety grain elevators, were reducing once viable towns and farms to dust.
I looked down at the 4 x 6 inch photo, a patch of bright colours against the album page. I wanted to know what people look like who are building an agricultural and marketing monopoly and in the process altering our food and our relationship with its production? Pretty much like you and me. Here I saw a prim, well dressed, gray haired woman who looked a lot like my mother, if my mother were to be found dining with European royalty on a luxury liner in the mid-Atlantic.
Fascination bound me to the page. I asked Bett to point out Mrs. Cargill in a series of opulent ship board dining photos. Despite the wealth and array of exotic food, Mrs. Cargill continued to look very much like you or me. And why not. She was someone’s mother and grandmother, a wife. Still and all, it was difficult to reconcile this proper older woman with the wreckage of lives and rail lines that I knew to be occurring.
Only a few weeks prior to finding myself perusing photo albums in an Alberta farmhouse, I had visited an artist friend in north central Saskatchewan. Magda had hopes of creating an ‘artist’s colony’ in the remnants of a small town decimated as its elevator and spur line met the Cargill juggernaut. Magda bought a church for $200, and another friend picked up the community hall, complete with sprung floor, for a song.
Despite the depopulation, my visit to Magda’s coincided with a community reunion and by the afternoon of the second day, the nearby playing field was filled people and long tables sagging with potato salads, meat loaves, buns and biscuits and breads, juices and jams and jellies, hot dogs and cold cuts. Over 300 people had come home on a summer afternoon to eat and talk and play ball. Just plain folks sitting around on lawn chairs telling tales and remembering. I noticed eyes drifting now and then to the elevator and the line of trees where the tracks had run.
When I stopped in at Magda’s four years ago, the elevator and railway tracks had disappeared completely. Magda had the town to herself and it’s been so since the last of the hold out old-timers passed on. Magda struggles to make ends meet with a couple dozen sheep, a small wheat field swamped by nearby agribusiness over spray, and a museum of how it used to be.
It is easy to feel nostalgic for the demise of a small town in the vast Canadian prairies, for a way of life that kept people in touch with the land. But there are even larger issues at stake here, issues that are large and frightening because Cargill and like-minded corporate interests are reaching far beyond a monopoly in transportation. In the late 90’s I came across a news release published in the “Ram’s Horn. It was and is, a clarion call for our attention to eroding food safety and control. This corporate press released trumpeted the intent of Cargill and Monsanto for form a worldwide joint venture first to create..., “a system that links biotechnology research and development from seeds through processing to the customer..., with plans to explore future opportunities to expand the partnership into agriculture and food.”
As we know, these pronouncements have largely come to pass. More centralization of transport, terminator seeds, cattle cloning and genetic engineering..., a process that violates species and organism boundaries.
I was initially taken in by the propaganda of genetic engineering; that genetic engineering is merely a step beyond natural selection, a tweak here and a tweak there, and voila! a marvelous pest free, self fertilizing, sunshine producing agricultural marvel. I considered the media reports that extolled GE and its offer of abundant and overflowing crops for the starving masses. But, when I learned how genetic engineering introduces genetic material into a cell that would not normally accept such an addition I was shocked. It is done with great violence.
My mind flashes back to Bett’s photo album and pictures of her gourmet dinner companions. I see Mrs. Cargill lifting a fork to her mouth, glancing unemotionally at the camera. Granted, this Mrs. Cargill may have had little to do with the decisions being made to dramatically and violently manipulate our food. Somehow I envision the people behind such threatening science, such mono-focused, bottom-line oriented thinking as dark-suited power brokers with leering grins. What intrigued me then and intrigues me now is a frightening suspicion that the Cargill’s are real people, who travel and eat, just like you and me.
Copyright Dianne Bersea