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Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford



Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic.  This month, the goal was to go on a hike to learn more about fungi, edible and otherwise.  We asked Ariel, one of our members, if she would be willing to tell us a little about edible fungi, as she forages for fungi and sells them to a local grocery store.  As for myself, I undertook the task of trying to connect fungi with feminism for a short presentation on that topic.  Connections between these two topics are not commonly made, but almost anything can be connected to feminism.  Indeed, fungi can be connected to feminism through an exploration of women’s roles as foragers and food preparers, the connection between fungi and witchcraft, and the contributions women have made to mycology, the science of fungi.

An Introduction to Fungi:

To begin, it is useful to outline some basic information about fungi.  Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that consist of everything from yeast in bread and beer, infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, mushrooms and toadstools, and mold on bread.  Most people are probably most familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some fungi.  However, this is just a small portion of the diversity of this kingdom.  Taxonomy is always changing, but fungi are often considered to be one of five or six kingdoms of organisms, including plants, animals, protists, archaebacteria, fungi, and bacteria.  For most of history, fungi was lumped into the plant kingdom and it was not until the 1960s that they were separated into their own category of lifeforms.  It might be easy to confuse fungi with plants, due the fact that both grow in soil and tend to be stationary.  In actuality, fungi was more closely related to animals and 1.1 billion years ago they shared a common evolutionary ancestor with the animal kingdom (Staughton, 2002).  Fungi are similar to animals in that they cannot produce their own food, as plants do through photosynthesis.  Rather, they feed on dead and living organisms, breaking them down by excreting enzymes and absorbing nutrients through their cell wall (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  This means that they differ from animals in that they do not ingest their food, rather they absorb it.  Another similarity between animals and fungi is that both of them use oxygen in cellular respiration to convert nutrients into energy.  That is, both use oxygen and release carbon dioxide as waste, as opposed to plants which use carbon dioxide and release oxygen (Bone, 2011).  Yet, fungi are similar to plants in that both have cell walls, although the cell wall of plants is made of cellulose and the cell wall of fungi is made of chitin.  Chitin is the same substance that the beaks of squids and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects is made of.

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Despite the clear differences between plants and fungi, historically, fungi have been lumped together with plants and even today, mycology tends to be lumped within botany departments rather than zoology.  While fungi have had a sort of identity crisis over history, they do indeed have a very close relationship to plants.  Over 90% of all plants have a mycorrhizal fungal partner.  In other words, plants often have fungi that live on or in their roots for the purpose of helping them extract more nutrients from the soil.  In exchange, the fungi obtain sugar, which the plant produces.  This is why a person often sees mushrooms at the base of trees.  Some unusual plants, such as monotropes (more commonly known as Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant), do not produce chlorophyll and depend upon fungi to obtain energy from nearby trees.  Almost every plant has fungi living between their cells.  In addition, 85% of all plant disease are caused by fungi.  In fact, chili peppers evolved their hotness as a defense against fungi (Bone, 2011).  Therefore, it is no wonder that plants and fungi are associated with one another.

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One of the most interesting thing about fungi is how diverse that kingdom is.  While the animal kingdom contains a wide array of organisms including lifeforms as different as horseflies, sea horses,  horseshoe crabs, and horses fungi vary even more greatly.  Fungi include organisms that reproduce sexually, asexually, and both.  This makes them extremely interesting from a sexual standpoint.  Unlike animals, they can be one celled or made up of many cells.  Subsequently, fungi include such diverse phylums as club fungi, which include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and shelf fungi.  This is the phylum that most people are probably familiar with.  These fungi often have club shaped structures with gills containing spores.  Another phylum of fungi are called sac fungi, or fungi which produce spores in tiny sacks.  This group includes yeast, truffles, molds, and morels.  Another phylla is called zygomycota, which feature sexual and asexual reproduction and include black mold.  Finally, there are imperfect fungi, which have unknown methods of reproduction and include penicillium and aspergillus.  There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, but only one tenth of these are known to science.  Interestingly, the mass of the world’s fungi is far greater than the mass of all of the world’s animals, amounting to about ¼ of the world’s entire biomass (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  Fungi also outnumber plants six to one.  Finally, the largest organism on the planet is actually a honey fungus in Oregon which is over 2,400 years old and larger than 1,666 football fields (Bone, 2011).   Truly, fungi among the most fascinating forms of life on the planet.

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:


For most of history, fungi were not given much attention as a unique group of organisms.  Thus, most early humans would have understood fungi mostly through the sexual phase or the fruiting body of a mushroom (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Humanity’s earliest encounters with fungi would have been with mushrooms and shelf fungi.  Humans lived as hunters and gatherers, in small communities that foraged for their food, for 190,000 of our 200,000 years as modern humans.  Some human societies continue to live this way.  For most of human history, humans foraged for fungi, for food, medicine, ritual, dyes, etc.  However, mushroom foraging is confounded by the fact that mushrooms may appear only at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.  They may not appear in the same place each year, making them harder to forage than plants.  Mushroom foraging is also made difficult by the fact that some mushrooms are extremely toxic, which means that misidentification or experimentation could result in illness or death.  Around 2,800 species of mushrooms are used today by humans.  Much of the mushroom foraging in the world is done by women  (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).   This comes a little surprise, as in a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food.   According to Crane’s research (2000) the food that was typically gathered by men was further away and harder to obtain.   Today, in Mexico, Bahrain, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, Zaire, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Russia, mushroom foraging is largely women’s work.  However, in Poland and Switzerland, is is more often done by men.  In some tropical areas, women collect mushrooms closest to their homes whereas men collect mushrooms that are deeper in the forest (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, & Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  This is not unlike the gender dynamics of collecting honey and may reflect the importance of women in society for their reproductive capacity (Crane, 2000).   In Guyana, men pick up mushrooms that they find incidentally on hunting trips, whereas women engage in active, premeditated mushroom collecting.  Beyond this, there are gendered ways in which mushrooms are collected, with men tending to be solitary foragers who search out more valuable and hard to find mushrooms and women collecting them together and in more energy efficient locations.  Mushrooms that are collected for ritual purposes are often done by both genders.  Mazatec healers in Mexico can be women or men and Maria Sabina was an important informant of mushroom rituals to ethnographers (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez (2012).


While it seems that among many hunting and gathering cultural groups women play an important role in obtaining mushrooms, this is not the experience in industrial United States.  Bone (2011) found that many of the people she encountered while foraging for mushrooms were men.  Professional mushroom foragers, who often travelled the country in search of various mushrooms, were often men.  In particular, men from Mexico and Southeast Asia made a living by foraging and selling mushrooms.  At the same time, even amateur or more casual mushroom foragers were men.  When she sought to learn more about foraging mushrooms, it was always men who shared their expertise.  She also noticed a certain machismo among mushroom foragers, as some took risks by eating mushrooms that were known to be toxic or have negative health effects.  Bone (2011) was focused on developing her knowledge of mycology and experiencing fungi from the perspective of a foodie.  Her book, Mycophilia, does not examine the gender dynamics of mushroom foraging at any length.  However, it does very clearly support the idea that in the United States, mushroom science, foraging, commercial production, and preparation are all largely dominated by men.  This begs the question of why mushrooms exist so differently from the women centered foraging that is prevalent elsewhere in the world and presumably elsewhere in history.

There may be a few explanations for their phenomenon.  For instance, until the 1600s in France, mushroom foraging was women’s work.  However, with the scientific revolution, mushrooming became a men’s activity as men began to monopolize the science of mycology (Dugan, 2008).  The shift from mushroom foraging as women’s work to men’s work represents a shift of the power of behind which knowledge is given privilege in society.  As men took control of institutions of learning, medicine, publishing, science, etc. and systematized scientific knowledge, the folk knowledge of women, but also poor people, indigenous people, criminals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups was denigrated, ignored, or suppressed.  This might explain why according to Dugan (2008) mushroom collecting was mainly conducted by women in the United States until the 19th century.  In was during the 19th century in the United States that women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine, and the natural world in general was suppressed by emergent medical and professional institutions.  As this knowledge was professionalized and monopolized, the knowledge of men was empowered and given social value at the expense of women.  Long before the advent of science, many groups of people developed the a body of knowledge about mushrooms that scientists would only later rediscover.  For instance, Russian peasants had a deep knowledge of mushrooms and some of the common names for these mushrooms were associated with the tree that the mushrooms grew near.  Europeans were latecomers to mushroom identification and even Darwin was indifferent to fungi when writing about evolution.  However, the Mayans developed their own system of classifying mushrooms, as did the Chinese.  Chen Jen-yu’s Mycoflora, written in 1245, proposed 12 types of mushrooms (Dugan, 2008).  In all, this should illustrate that humans have had thousands of years of interactions with fungi and through use and observation developed a body of knowledge.  Some of this knowledge was dismissed or overlooked on racist, sexist, and classist grounds.

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

The ability of women to forage for mushrooms is also challenged by capitalism.  Capitalism negatively impacts women more than men, because women are oppressed as workers and on account of their gender in capitalism.  The oppression of women include the being paid less than men, doing more unpaid labor in the home, experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, having limited reproductive freedom, enjoying less political representation, having less social legitimacy, and a myriad of other expressions of oppression.  Thus, at least on the amateur end of mushroom collecting, women may not be as involved because of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy shape women’s relationship to nature.  Within the United States, time in nature is usually associated with leisure, which women have less of due to spending more time with care work and household work.  Women are often also economically dependent upon men and make less money than them, which may mean that taking up hobbies and traveling around to pursue them is a greater economic burden.  Within the context of societies which are less developed and women continue to forage for mushrooms, women have a harder time obtaining wage labor, surviving on lower wages, and supporting their families.  In some areas of the world, foraging and selling mushrooms to middle men is an important way that widows and single mothers generate income for themselves.  Historically, women sold vegetables and mushrooms in markets in Europe.  This tradition conditions in Eastern European countries like Latvia, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic, where women are often the source of mushrooms in markets (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012). Therefore, mushroom foraging is an important source of income to women.  Because it is work that is outside of the formal economy, they are more vulnerable to difficult labor conditions.  And, because of the environmental problems wrought by more developed countries in the context of capitalism, women are vulnerable as the environment they depend upon for livelihood is threatened.  For instance, women in Puebla Mexico must obtain permits to go into the forest and collect mushrooms.  In other places, such as Burundi, logging has diminished the abundance of mushrooms.  Another challenge is other ecological issues, such as acid rain and soil nitrification in Europe.  Mushroom collectors are often independent workers, so they are not afforded health or safety benefits (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Indeed, mushroom yields around the world have decreased over the years, perhaps as a result of climate change.

Women and Food:

Closely related to foraging, women are engaged in cooking and eating fungi.  The preparation of mushrooms, including cooking and storing, is mostly done by women around the world (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez,2012).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an average day, American women spend about twice as much time as men preparing food and drinks.  In an average day, 70% of women reported preparing food compared to 43% of men.  This means that women not only do more food preparation than men, more women are engaged in this activity than men (Charts by Topic: Household activities, 2016).  This should come as little surprise to feminists, who have long articulated that women do more unpaid household labor than men.   This work is often devalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted as part of the normal gender roles and relationship between men and women.  Although women do more unpaid cooking, men dominate professional cooking.  Women and men attend culinary school in equal proportions, but most celebrity chefs and paid culinary professionals are men.  Men also outnumber women 7 to 3 at more prestigious culinary schools and when women do go into culinary arts, they are disproportionately represented upon baking and pastry programs (Jones, 2009).  For instance, at B.A program in pastries at the American Culinary Institute is made up of 86% women (Tanner 2010).   Both of these trends represent how “women’s work” is undervalued in society.  At culinary schools, pastry sections are called the “pink ghetto” or “pink section” because they are dominated by women.  Food and work are both gendered in society.  Baking and desserts are associated with femininity (Brones, 2015).    This relationship to cooking also creates a special relationship to fungi, even if this relationship is not immediately obvious.

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The first relationship to fungi is the relationship between women and yeast.  To begin, bread of some kind or another has been eaten by humans for at least 30,000 years.  But, early breads were unleavened flat breads which were made from ingredients other than grains.  The first recorded discovery of yeast is from Ancient Egypt, where yeast was used to leaven bread and make beer 6000 years ago.   No one knows how yeast was discovered.  It may have been floating in the air and landed in some bread, resulting in lighter, fluffier bread.  Or, it is possible that yeast entered bread by adding ale to it instead of water.  In any event, the discovery of yeast necessarily coincided with several other developments in human history.  First of all, it arose out of settled societies which domesticated and grew grains.  Grains were domesticated by ancient farming civilizations about 8000 years ago.  But, for most of human history, people foraged for their food.  Settled agriculture allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the invention of written languages, private property, and social stratification.  It also is considered to be the beginning of patriarchy, as with the invention of private property, monogamy and the associated control of women was ensured the transmission of property through sons.   Settled agricultural societies were possible because of a surplus of food.  This surplus of food also allowed for the creation of professions, thus, in Egypt, there were professional bakers, herders, teachers, doctors, scribes, etc.  Egyptian art depicts both men and women engaged in bread making.  However, it is more likely that men were involved in the actual profession of bread making or baking, while women made bread in the home or as supporters.  This gendered dynamic continued through time.  For instance, in Medieval Europe, women prepared food for their families or homes, whereas men were professional breadmakers in guilds.  In both examples, the work of women was essential the same, but not given the same social value.  So, although women are more likely to work with yeast or for that matter cook with any other fungi, it is not seen as work that matters in the same way professional culinary work matters.

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While women have a close relationship to food and by extension, fungi as a food, due to their role as a cook for their families, this often goes unnoticed or unheralded.  Despite gender inequalities, women managed to influence society through cuisine.  For instance, countries can roughly be divided into mycophobic and mycophilliac depending upon their relationship to mushrooms.  France is viewed as a mycophiliac culture, with many recipes calling for mushrooms and a history of foraging for mushrooms.  It was largely through women that this French passion for mushrooms spread to other countries.  For instance, Hannah Glasse wrote an  English cookbook in 1747 which drew from French cuisine and included 110 mushroom recipes called the Art of Cookery Made Easy.  Eliza Action’s cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) also included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Cookbooks focused on the historical cuisine of the British isles tended to have few mushroom recipes.  The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons in 1796, does not feature any mushroom recipes.  But, by the 1800s, various cookbooks featured mushroom dishes.  Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, introduced in 1934, popularized mushrooms as part of American casserole cuisine.  And, one of the most popular American cookbooks of the 20th century, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Irma Rambauer’s book The Joy of Cooking included 30 recipes with mushrooms (Bertelsen, 2013 ). In each of these examples, women were able to influence culture by working within the traditional social space offered to women.  The household has traditionally been viewed as the sphere of influence of women.  Books about cooking, by women for women, is a way that women exerted power within the confines of tradition.  In doing so, in a small way, these cultures were changed.  Today, mushrooms consumption has exploded.  The global export value of mushrooms was almost 1.75 billion dollars in 2010, compared to 250 million dollars in 1990 and negligible in 1970.

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Another way in which women relate to fungi is through the ways that food is gendered in society.  Because mushrooms are a viewed as a vegetable and something healthy, one might assume that women eat more mushrooms than men.  After all, women are told to watch their weight, monitor their food intake, and make healthy food choices.  At the same time, masculinity is connected to meat eating.  Eating mushrooms seems to be something lowly and feminine.  There is even a racial and ethnic component to eating mushrooms, as they are associated with mycophilliac cultures such as India, China, Japan, and Russia.  Surprisingly, men and women in the United States actually eat roughly the same amount of mushrooms each year.  According to the USDA, women consume about 8% more fresh mushrooms then men, but men are more likely to eat processed mushrooms.  As a whole, men ate about 49% of all mushrooms produced in the United States, whereas women ate about 51% (Lucier, Allhouse, and Lin, 2003).  Yet, this isn’t to argue that gender does not shape mushroom consumption.  In Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, a food writer from New York, expressed disdain when she attended a Midwest mushroom foraging event and the men in attendance planned on battering their mushrooms or putting them on steaks  (Bone, 2011).  In this example, gender, geography, and class intersected to generate a different sense of taste from the Midwestern men with less social capital.  In another example, the white truffle is the most expensive food in the world, at $3000 per pound (Bone, 2011).  However, men with power are more likely to obtain and ingest truffles.  For instance, a 3.3 pound truffle was auctioned for $330,000 to a billionaire named Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner.  The truffle itself was discovered by an Italian truffle hunter and his father, along with their dog.  Gordon Wu, a property tycoon from Hong Kong purchased two truffles at an auction for 125,000 euros.  An anonymous Chinese writer purchased a truffle for $120,000 at an auction.  Globally, women and children are more likely to be among the world’s poor and less represented among the super wealthy.  The truffle’s value is because it is hard to successfully commercially cultivate, rare, and labor intensive.  At the same time, some its value is more symbolic than material, as truffles are abundant in China, where labor is cheap enough (i.e exploited) that they are raked from the earth by humans rather than trained dogs and pigs.  But, these black truffles are viewed as inferior to European black truffles.  In this sense, when food is associated with power and privilege, women are less likely to partake in this indulgence.  So, while men and women may eat equal amounts of mushrooms, how they are eaten may differ.  I would hypothesize that men eat them more often on pizza, battered, on burgers, or on steaks and women in salads and as a meat substitute.  Class certainly shapes mushroom consumption as well, not only in access to elite foods like truffles, but in consumption of mushrooms in general.  Bone (2011) noted that the biggest consumers of mushrooms were those who were 350% above the poverty line.

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

Another way in which mushrooms have been associated with women is through medicine and witchcraft.  In Europe, mushrooms have often been associated with mushiness and evil.  French words for mushrooms translate to eggs of the devil, devil’s paintbrush, and toad bread.  Toadstool and toad hat are names derived from Danish mushrooms.  In Estonia, Fulgio septica, a large yellow slime mold is called “Shit of a Witch (Dugan, 2008).”  An edible yellow fungus commonly found on dead branches is called “Witches butter.”  Western Europe and the British Isles in particular associated mushrooms with witchcraft (Bertelsen, 2013).   In Russia, Baba Yaga is associated with magical tree mushrooms.  In one story she spares the life of a hedgehog that is eating a mushroom, under the understanding that the hedgehog will become a boy and serve her.  She is also accompanied by spirits that live under mushrooms.  In Italy, there is a story of a witch who disguised herself as a mushroom to figure out who is stealing her cabbages.   Mushrooms have been associated with fairies and in 1599, the word fairy ring described, which is a ring of mushroom left behind by dancing fairies.  In Germany, fairy rings were known as Hexen rings, where witches would dance in a circle on Walpurgis night or the night before May Day (Dugan, 2008).  Plant diseases caused by fungi were sometimes believed to be caused by witches, as exemplified by a decree by Pope Innocent the VIII who noted that witches cause crop failure.  Witches were also blamed for the poisoning of cattle, which itself was often the cause of grain fungi.   Witches were believed to use fungi in herbalism, and that least Inquisition documents indicate the beliefs that witches used puffballs in potions in Basque country, Amanita Muscaria is known as “Witches mushroom” in Austria, and witches in Portugal used a hallucinogenic mushroom called  Panaeolus papilionaceus.  There is also a Finnish belief that if someone is bothered by a kobald like creature, a certain species of mushroom was fried in tar, salt, and sulfur, then beaten, and the woman who controls the kobald would appear to release the creature.  In the Balkans, dried mushrooms were used to ward of witches by placing them in the windowsill (Dugan, 2008).   It seems that mushrooms have been associated with witches, mischief, powerful women, and misfortune.  Though, there are some exceptions.  For example, in China, the lingzhi mushroom or mushroom of immortality, was associated with Kuan Yin, the goddess of healing and mercy (Bertelsen, 2013).

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)

There may be some actual connections between witchcraft and fungi.  For instance, there is a connection between ergotism and witch trials.  Ergotism is caused by the grain fungi, Claviceps purpurea.  The fungus colonizes cereal crops, producing nectar like droplets containing spores.  The disease is called ergot, the French word for spur, due to the rooster spur like shape of the fungus on the infected plant.  In medieval times, up to 30% of the harvested grain was actually fungus, due to wet weather conditions.  When humans or animals ingest the fungus many symptoms can arise.  The infected can feel intense heat over their body and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing the limbs to rot and fall off.  This condition was called St. Anthony’s Fire due to these symptoms.  The alkaloids produced by the fungus can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, the sensation of ants on the body, twitching, hallucinations, seizures, and distortions of the limbs.  Ergotism outbreaks occurred through the 1800s.  Peasants were vulnerable as they had to eat lower quality grain or could not waste the diseased grain.  Children were particularly vulnerable with 56% mortality in some outbreaks.   Historians such as Mary Matossian have hypothesized that witch trials and bewitching may have actually been the result of ergotism.  She argued that most witch trials happened in river valleys in southwest Germany and south east France, where cool and wet conditions would have promoted fungal growth.  Both places grew rye and peasants in the area would have consumed up to three and a half pounds of bread a day.  There was only one witch trials in Ireland, where grain was not grown as much.  Trials for witches often happened in the fall or winter following wet years.  Even the Salem Witch Trial followed this pattern as it occurred after a cool spring.  The symptoms reported in the witch trials were similar to ergotism and the fact that children reported these symptoms is also consistent with the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of ergotism.  It is interesting to note that in studying ergot grain fungi, Albert Hofman developed LSD (Hudler, 2000).  In any event, it is possible that outbreaks of ergotism were blamed on witches and a catalyst for witch hunts.

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(A vintage Halloween postcard featuring a costumed witch with fungi)

Beyond this association with witch trials, it is useful to dissect what a witch is.  A witch is symbolic for a women with power and knowledge.  For thousands of years, humans obtained an immense amount of knowledge from the natural world in terms of edible foods, useful medicines, dyes, animal movements, etc.  Because women had an important role in gathering foods, they had special knowledge.  Further, prior to the invention of patriarchy, women likely had important roles as religious or spiritual leaders, healers, and religions with goddesses.  Over time, with changes in social structures and the introduction of Christianity, the role of women was diminished and their knowledge was viewed as threatening and connected to paganism.  In this way, the idea of a witch is a way to diminish and persecute the traditional knowledge and roles of women.  Witches may be associated with mushrooms because of how mushrooms were used in healing and rituals.  Indeed, some fungi have healing properties.   Mushrooms are valued in Chinese cuisine, culture, and medicine.  Chinese medicine includes 100 species of mushrooms, including the wood ear mushroom which was eaten for its perceived improvement to circulation and breathing.  The health effects of mushrooms are only recently being discovered in the West.  Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which boost the immune system and can be a source of protein, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, copper, and selenium.  Chanterelle mushrooms are 11 to 24% protein.  In contrast, the average potato contains 3.9% protein.  Mushrooms also secrete antibiotics (Bertelsen, 2013).  The most famous fungal cure is penicllin, but fungi are used in many modern medicines.  Beano is made with the fungi Aspergillis niger, which digests methane and in turn relieves flatulence.  Lovastatin and Pravastatin are both derived from fungi and used to treat high cholesterol.  Cyclosporin comes from a fungus and is used to suppresses the immune system for organ transplants.  Shiitake mushrooms may have cancer fighting properties (Hudler, 2000).  Gypsy mushroom may be effective against herpes, the steroids used in birth control come from fungi, turkey tail mushroom may be a treatment against hepatitis C, and fomitopsis officinalis has been used to treat tuberculosis and e-coli.  Midwives in Germany and Italy used ergot, the deadly grain fungus, to induce labor (Bone, 2011).  Mold was used by Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, and French to treat wounds (Hudler, 2000).  Of course, the benefits of fungi should not be overstated.  They may be hard to digest due to their chitin cell wall.  Some fungi are deadly.  Designating fungi as a superfood is a marketing ploy to sell more mushrooms.  However, the healing properties of many mushrooms may mean that witches were associated with mushrooms because healers traditionally used mushrooms as medicine.   By associating healing with evil and witchcraft, women’s knowledge, experience, and power was de-legitimized.  At the same time, through witch hunts and trial, women themselves were terrorized with violence and the threat of violence as a form of social control.

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Women and Mycology

It should be clear that one of the themes related to women and fungi relates to the value of the knowledge and work of women in society.  It is suiting then that the final point is how women have contributed to the science of mycology.  In this feminist narrative of history, women have probably been closely connected to fungi for most of human history as foragers for food and as healers.  With the end of hunting and gathering societies in many parts of the world, women took on new, but subservient roles in society.  Still, women continued to be connected to fungi through their preparation of food and role as caregivers, even if this labor was not given social importance.  This final segment of history is about women struggling to assert themselves in male dominated science.  Outside of the realm of formal science, women are often responsible for passing down knowledge of mushrooms to their children.  Even the science of mycology depending upon the knowledge of women.   For instance, Carolus Clusius and Franciscus van Sterbeeck, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively were two of the the first pioneers in mycology.  These men relied upon the knowledge of wise women, known as herb wives, to obtain information about mushrooms (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  It is tragically ironic that when men were developing science based upon the knowledge of women, these very same women were persecuted as witches for their knowledge of nature.

Later in history, Mary Elizabeth Banning was a pioneer in mycology who sought to identify mushrooms in the 1800s (Bertelsen, 2013).  She identified 23 new species of fungi and completed one of the first guides to mushrooms of the New World.  She worked as a teacher to support her mother and sisters after her father died, but found time to pursue mycology, then associated with botany.  Men dominated professional botany, but women were sometimes amateur botanists.  For 20 years, she studied the mushrooms of her home state of Maryland at a time when there was only one book on American fungi.  She never earned money or recognition and was often viewed as a lunatic by those outside of the scientific community.  She did however correspond by mail with various scientists (Pugliosi, 2016).  Her life represents several barriers for women who wish to pursue science.  For one, she was burdened with care work for her family.  Her mushrooming adventures were limited by the constraints of caring for her family.  At the same time, her work was stymied by the fact that she also had to be a wage laborer as a teacher.  Her “hobby” as a scientist was an unpaid third shift.  While she produced useful information, she never published it out of lack of confidence and her outsider status to scientific institutions.

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

In a similar but less tragic example, Beatrix Potter was interested in mycology and painted hundreds of scientifically accurate portraits of fungi.  She studied fungi under a microscope and presented a paper on fungal spores at the Linnean Society of London.  She began creating watercolor paintings of mushrooms at the age of 20 and sent her paintings to the naturalist, Charles McIntosh.  In turn, McIntosh gave her scientific advice and sent her specimens to paint.  Beatrix Potter also began studying lichens, which she wrongly believed were fungi rather than a symbiotic relationship between fungi, algae, and bacteria.  The mycologist, George Murray, rebuffed her, both for the position on lichen and her earlier work on spore germination, which he said had already been studied in Germany decades earlier.  Her paper was never published and she was told to make revisions.  Female students were not accepted into the society until 1905 and she was unable to present the research herself.   Her biggest contribution to mycology was her illustrations, which were used for fungi identification (Flemming, 2016).  Potter went on to achieve fame as a children’s book author and illustrator, but her scientific endeavors largely went unnoticed in history.  Again, she was shut out of a world controlled by men and men mediated her access and legitimacy within science.

Image result for beatrix potter mushroom

(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)

With successes of the early women’s rights movement and other social movements, the social space within science slowly expanded for women.  In 1950, Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered Nystatin while trying to isolate antibiotics from Strepomyces noursei  (Hudler, 2000).  Nystatin was one of the first anti-fungal drugs and is used to treat various Candida infections such as diaper rash, yeast infections, and thrush.  Both scientists worked together for the New York Department of Health  and went on to develop two antibiotics.  Developing anti-fungal drugs is particularly challenging because, as it was noted earlier, fungi are closely related to animals.  This makes fungal infections harder to fight than bacterial infections.  Bacteria are simpler organisms, with a cell wall but not the complex cellular structures of animals and fungi.  This makes it easier to destroy bacteria.  Drugs developed to fight fungal infections may attack healthy human cells, as they are more similar (Staughton, 2002).

Image result for elizabeth hazen

Another contribution to mycology was the discovery of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroyed elm trees in Europe and the U.S..  The cause of this disease was discovered by a team of five female Dutch scientists (Hudler, 2000).  The source of the devastating tree disease was uncovered in 1921 by a team, lead by Johanna Westerdjik.  Westerdjik was a plant pathologist and the first female professor in the Netherlands.  She wrote over 70 papers on mycology and plant diseases and supervised over 55 Phd students, half of whom were women.  It was her student, Marie Beatriz Schwartz who isolated the fungus infecting elms and another student, Christine Johanna Buisman who developed Dutch Elm Disease resistant elms.  The project that she started continued until the 1990s.


“Moldy Mary” was another contributor to mycology.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after observing mold attacking bacteria in a petri dish.  He hired a woman nicknamed “Moldy Mary” to collect moldy produce so the mold could be studied.  Her real name was Mary Hunt and she was a young lab assistant.  The molds that Hunt found were tested to determine if they were penicillin.  Some of the cantaloupes she collected indeed contained a culture of Penicillium chrysogenum and many modern strains used in modern penicillin come from her moldy melon (Hudler, 2000).  Another contributor to knowledge about fungi was Valentina Wasson.  Unfortunately, her husband, R. Gordon Wasson is more famous than she is for his research into the cultural relationship between people and mushrooms.  However, he was struck by the cultural difference between them when on their honeymoon, Valentina, a Russian, began collecting mushrooms.  He was terrified that they were toxic, a reaction that highlighted a difference between his American upbringing and her Russian upbringing and how that shaped their relationship to mushrooms.  The incident inspired the couple to research these cultural differences together and they authored Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.  They went on to travel to Mexico where they studied the relationship to mushrooms among indigenous people and went on to introduce psychoactive mushrooms to a mass American audience through Life magazine (Hudler, 2000).  Unfortunately, this attracted droves of Western visitors to the Mazatec community and especially to Maria Sabina, who was interviewed in their book.  Maria was investigated by the Mexican police for selling drugs to foreigners and had her house burned down.  Thus, while they examined cultural differences in the relationship between cultures and mushrooms, their work had a negative impact on indigenous people of Mexico.  Finally, as one last tidbit of mycological history, all button mushrooms, the mushrooms commonly used in pizza, salads, canned mushrooms, and cream of mushroom soup all come from a spore discovered by the Dutch scientist Gerda Fritsche in 1980 (Bone, 2011).

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

While women have made contributions to mycology over time, gender inequality in mycology persists today.   There are two times as many male members of the American Mycological Society as there are females.  Only 13% of the presidents of the MSA (founded in 1932) have been female, starting with Marie Farr in 1980.  MSA secretaries have been consecutively female since 1991, but treasurers have historically been men.  Various MSA awards have also gone disproportionately to men, although female students have won travel grants in greater proportion to their male counterparts.  The majority of published articles in Mycologia are written by men (Branco and Vellinga, 2015).  Mycology is not unique among the sciences.  The gender inequality within mycology is pretty comparable to similar sciences such as botany, ecology, and lichenology.  It begs the question of why women do not enter the sciences or when they do, they are not as active in leadership roles.

Oddly enough, I wanted to be a botanist when I was a kid.  I even went through a period of time in the 5th grade when I wanted to be a mycologist.  I attended science camp and continued to be interested in science through high school.  However, I think a deterrent for me and science was a lack of confidence and a fear of math.  Low self-esteem is pretty common among girl.  There are varying statistics on the occurrence of low self esteem, but if one believes the statistics put forth by Dove’s Self Esteem fund, as many as seven in ten girls believe they are somehow deficient.  If girls indeed believe they are not smart enough or capable enough, they may be deterred from science.  And, if they do enter the sciences, they still must contend with the social expectations of women, such as having a family, doing research, doing unpaid labor at home, etc.  This cuts into time spent for research or going to conferences and limits the ability to become leaders in their field.  They may also face sexism and sexual harassment in their work environment, like many women do.  Finally, as it has already been outlined, scientific institutions have not been welcoming to women in the past and have suppressed the knowledge of women.  Rationality itself is associated with masculinity, whereas femininity associated with emotions.  But, rather than viewing one as inferior or that reason and feeling are opposed to each other, they are instead, interconnected.  The drive to study the natural world, interest in research, dedication to a subject, and passion for science all come from an emotional place.


I am certainly not a scientist, but I hope that the presentation and accompanying hike provided a few insights about fungi.  Personally, I find fungi pretty fascinating and hope to learn more about them in the future.  That is the goal of feminist frolics, to get together, share knowledge, and hopefully open the door to future learning.  For thousands of years, the knowledge and experiences of women have not been valued.  I think that learning together and sharing builds confidence, community, and self-efficacy.  It is also a way to find a place in nature, science, and history.  Hopefully you will join the Feminist Justice League in future feminist frolics.  I think you will find we are a bunch of fun gals and fungi!

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”



Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Mushroom: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.


Bone, E. (2011). Mycophilia: revelations from the weird world of mushrooms. New York: Rodale.


Branco, S., & Vellinga, E. (2015). Gender Balance in Mycology (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Brones, A. (2015, May 17). Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn


Charts by Topic: Household activities. (2016, December 22). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

Dugan, F. (2008) Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, [S.l.], v. 3, p. 23-72, ISSN 1937-786X. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 11 Aug. 2017. doi:


Fleming, N. (2016, February 15). Earth – Beatrix Potter: Pioneering scientist or passionate amateur? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Fungi – an introduction. (2009, October 27). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Garibay-Orijel, R., Ramírez-Terrazo, A., & Ordaz-Velázquez, M. (2012). Women care about local knowledge, experiences from ethnomycology. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8, 25.


Hudler, G. W. (2000). Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Jones, G. (2009, November 19). Male to Female Ratios in Culinary School. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Lucier, G., Allhouse, J., & Lin, B. (2003, March). Factors Affecting U.S. Mushroom Consumption (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from USDA website:


Puglionesi, A. (2016, November 08). The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Staughton, J. (2016, November 18). How Are Mushrooms More Similar to Humans than Plants? » Science ABC. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from


Tanner, P. (2015, February 20). A Debate About The Role Gender Plays in The World of Retrieved August 12, 2017, from

Marxmas: A Commie Candyland



Marxmas: A Commie Candyland

H. Bradford


The holiday season is finally over.  To be honest, the holidays were a little depressing.  It has been brutally cold all month.  Also, I experienced a chest cold that lasted from Thanksgiving through Christmas.   I have not been very active because of this.  I have mostly felt like hiding under blankets and sleeping.  I worked on Christmas and New Years at a domestic violence shelter.  So, it was a little grim to have no holiday meal, no time with loved ones, or no celebration.  It was just work and…going home to sleep.  While I don’t believe that my lethargy is seasonal depression, I do think these circumstances put me into a state of semi-hibernation for the past month.   But, perhaps it is alright to slow down and rest from time to time.

Things perked up as I planned Marxmas.  Marxmas is the socialist alternative to Christmas.  Each year, Twin Ports Socialist Action hosts a Marxmas party for our friends.  For the past two weeks or so, I have been frantically planning for the big day.  This year’s theme was “Commie Candyland.”  The theme was chosen because my friends and I dressed up as the characters for Halloween and it was a way to re-use our costumes.  My life for the past two weeks have been related to the preparations for this epic annual party.  The party involved a skit wherein the Candyland characters are trying to overthrow Candy Capitalism.  The skit had four acts.  Each act was punctuated with rounds of Pictionary, trivia, and “hodgepodge” challenges, as three teams competed with each other for the purpose of overthrowing the king/candy capitalism.  The skit/game ended with the victory of the rebels, the singing of The Internationale, and the breaking of a cupcake piñata meant to represent candy capitalism.  All participants received prizes, the house was decorated to look like a version of “commie candyland”, and included a feast of two tables of food.  Oh, and there was also a soundtrack of 36 sweet related songs!  This party was an ambitious undertaking.



The Menu:

I wanted the menu to be very colorful, but also with a wide variety of sweets to match our theme.  I also wanted the non-desert foods to be as vibrant as candy!  Many of the guests are vegetarian or vegan, so that is also a consideration.


Desserts: baklava, Turkish delight, revolutionary gingerbread men, cupcakes, cake, dried fruits and nuts, a cringle, a wide variety of candies, fruit fondue, and a giant chocolate chip cookie in the likeness of Karl Marx

Drinks:  Orange Dreamsickle punch, coffee, Cranberry punch

Not Desserts: Pita plate with hummus, falafel, and olives; chips and salsa; vegetarian meatballs; vegetarian orange chicken; phyllo asparagus, Forbidden rice bowl with edamame and mushrooms;  vegetarian sushi-sweet potato, asparagus, and cucumber; shitake; beets and sweet potatoes.

The Decorations:

One enormous time sink was actually decorating the house!  I envisioned that the house should look like a magical candy dystopia.  To this end, I created two large posters that depict scenes from my imagined Candyland universe.  One of the posters represented “Kandygrad” the industrial center of Candyland.  The other represented a battle in “Sweetbearia” the icy frontier of Candyland.  Both are part of the nation state called Chokovia.  The posters introduced new characters.  All of this made me decide that I should really create a graphic novel called “Candywars” (though changing out the Hasbro related things to characters of my own creation).  But, we’ll see if I have time for that..


To continue on the topic of decorations, the room was decorated with dozens of balloons and streamers.  I created some candies from tissue paper and cardboard, which were placed in various places around the room.  Admittedly, I did buy some decorations on clearance after X-mas.  I just did not have the time to create elaborate decorations beyond my posters, candies, balloons, and streamers.  Different parts of the room were decorated to represent the regions in the game.  For instance, there was a blue and white color scheme where the team from Sweetberia was meant to sit.  The team from Kandygrad sat in a red and pink area.  The villain team featured a makeshift throne for the king.



    The Skit/Game:

The party mostly consisted of a skit/game.  The skit began by introducing the characters from Candyland as well as the political situation therein.  I pretended to be Lord Licorice, a villain aligned with King Kandy.  I was also the narrator/game master.  The acts of the skit was broken up by rounds of a game, wherein three teams would compete with each other in trivia, Pictionary, and hodgepodge.  The category was determined by which color block the teams landed on while moving along the Candyland board.  For instance, red and purple were trivia.  There were 19 categories of trivia-each somehow related to candy.  The Pictionary items were all current events from 2016.  Hodgepodge included everything from acting to memory challenges.  One memorable acting challenge involved the marriage of two characters in a Candyland style wedding. The game was integrated into the actions of the skit.  Each act was an event- such as a prison rebellion in Sweetbearia, the abduction of Queen Frostine,  and the ultimate victory of the rebels.  As the game master, I had some discretion over the trivia or Pictionary challenges that I posed.   However, in the end, the rebel teams actually won the game without my intervention!   It was interesting to see the teams become upset when they thought that the game was rigged and how the villain team seemed genuinely disappointed when they lost and genuinely boastful when they were ahead.  While it was only a game, the integration with the skit seemed to up the emotional ante for the players.  This also was likely because everyone was playing “roles” in the game.  I invented a book of non-canon characters so that anyone who attended the party could be a character.


The Pinata:

The game ended when we broke the piñata.   The piñata was meant to represent Candy Capitalism.  Personally, I love pinatas.  I try to have them at parties whenever I can.  I even have a piñata song.  However, each party that I host usually ends up with a lot of leftover candy on the floor.  This is a bit of a bummer.  But, the truth of the matter is that adults like the idea of pinatas a lot more than filling themselves with candy.   After a lifetime of candy, there is diminishing returns on the joy that it potentially brings.  Instead, it brings cavities, stomach aches, and weight gain.  Kids love pinatas and candy.  Adults- not so much.  To improve upon the piñata, I filled it with candy- as well as condoms, lube, safety whistles, and carbineer compasses.  I think this improved the outcome of the piñata, as much of the adult centered loot was taken.



The People:

The people are what makes a party special.  Usually, 20-25 people attend Marxmas.  This year had our lowest turnout in a long while.  But, there was a good quality of people and this made the space less crowded.   I think conflicting schedules and bitter cold kept some attendees away.  Honestly, everyone was a hoot.  My friends dressed up as characters from Candyland and were good sports about the game.  The game ranged from silly to demoralizing.  For instance, when a rebel team was in the lead during a time when the villains were supposed to be in the lead- I gave the rebel team a very difficult Pictionary topic: Muslim genocide in Myanmar.  I would tip my hat to anyone who can successfully draw this in two minutes.   On the silly side of things, I later had Mr. Mint move a gummi bear to this mouth from this belly button-while lying on the floor-without using his hands.   I really love my friends for attending these parties and making my vision a reality.

Aside from attending the parties, I must thank my friends for their help making the party possible.  For instance, Jenny, Angie and I made a chocolate cake.  I have never made a chocolate cake from scratch.  It was the best cake I have eaten in my life.  The frosting tasted as rich as gelato or ice cream.  The cake was epic!  Angie randomly decided to make a giant cookie.  This cookie turned into a Karl Marx cookie.  Wow!  Adam and Lucas helped me decorate and clean.  Adam did all of the cleaning after the party, which is about as fun as cleaning up elephant turds after the circus was in town.   But, he was happy to have the house return to normal, since he was not as fond as I was of the candy wonderland.  He missed seeing the thousands of books we have everywhere.



Each year I exhaust myself to make a great big party.  It costs me a lot for the food, prizes, and decorations in terms of time and money.  But, it brings me joy.  I like to create an experience.  I think of it as my version of a potlatch.  I don’t mean to appropriate a Native American practice, but many cultures hosted big feasts with gift exchanges.  This exhausting event redistributed resources and could build the prestige of a leader.  Now, I don’t think that the event that I host significantly redistributes resources or builds my prestige.  However, I do think it serves the purpose of building social bonds.  My friends always tell me that I spend too much time or money on it.  They want me to scale back the party.  But, I take a lot of joy in creating an experience for my friends and giving them something like this.  I want to create a memorable experience.  I want to create happiness.  This is a gift that I want to give to people on this day- even if it means I have to work non-stop for three days before the event to make the final preparations!  Maybe all of our holidays involve some remnants of a forgotten time (to Europeans)- when we celebrated to give.  This is useful in capitalism as it drives consumerism.  Yet, the urge to give is socialist at its heart, even if it is distorted by free market interests.   Hidden behind the labor, plates of food, and endless trivia is the promise of an economy of plenty.  It seems like an impossible dream, but I think that is the heart of Marxmas.   Celebration is role playing the fantasy of possibility.

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

by H. Bradford


As you may or may not know, one of my hobbies for the past few years has been urban gardening.  I can’t say that I have a green thumb, but I do have a “red thumb” as I try to connect this hobby to my larger interest in socialism.  This is why the garden is called “the vangarden” as it is a play of words on “vanguard.”  I try to do different theme gardens and one of the themes is an Eastern European or Russian inspired garden.  This involves growing vegetables that hail from Eastern Europe.  In particular, I have been trying out some varieties of tomatoes that have ties to the former Soviet Union.  Now, as a Trotskyist I am not someone with a blind adoration of all things Soviet, but it did represent possibility and a distortion of potential.  It is also interesting to learn about the history of plants and try out varieties of vegetables that are not available in grocery stores.  There are dozens of tomatoes that can be connected to the Soviet Union.  These are just a few!  (note that the images are not from my garden)

Cosmonaut Volkov:

I found this tomato plant at the farmer’s market in Duluth this year.  It is an heirloom variety of tomato which was developed in the Ukraine.  The tomato seemed to grow without problems from disease, cracking, or pests and produced medium to large sized red tomatoes, with a slightly tapered bottom.  I purchased only one plant, but it produced well and actually climbed up the clothes line and a barrier that I had created for a raspberry plant.  It was the best growing full sized tomato that I grew last year.


Cosmonaut Volkov is one of hundreds of tomato varieties grown by Igor Malsov (a retired engineer).  Maslov named the tomato after his friend Vladislav Volkov.  Volkov was one of several cosmonauts killed on the Soyuz 11 accident.  The accident occurred on the 30th of June 1971, when the re-entry capsule containing three cosmonauts depressurized as it prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.  The cosmonauts on board were the only humans who have died in space.


I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an astronaut.  However, a newly discovered bush tomato is Australia was named after the fictional astronaut from the movie/book “The Martian.”  Solanum watneyi or Watney was the name assigned to the bush-tomato.  Bush-tomatoes are wild plants that can be toxic to humans, though aborigines ate some varieties by burning, drying, and roasting them.

Paul Robeson:

I have not yet grown Paul Robeson tomatoes, as I only learned about their existence this past fall!  It is a smooth, dark colored tomato introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s by a seed saver named from Moscow named Marina Danilenko.  Paul Robeson was an African American singer, scholar, lawyer, athlete, actor, Civil Rights activist, anti-imperialist, socialist.  He was popular in the Soviet Union, hence the naming of a tomato after him.  I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an African American


Memory to Vavilov:

I have not tried out this variety of tomato, but I thought it would be a good addition to the list.  Memory to Vavilov produces small red fruits.  Like Paul Robeson, it was made available in the United States by Marina Danilenko during the 1990s.  Unfortunately, I can not find out any additional information regarding who Marina Danilenko is.  Vavilov was a famous geneticist/botanist from the Soviet Union who contributed to plant science by hypothesizing that there were biodiversity hotspots where many domesticated plants originated and by creating an extensive seed bank in St. Petersburg.  He recognized the need to save seeds to preserve biodiversity, which he viewed as essential to food security.  This mission was taken so seriously that the scientists at the seed bank did not eat their seeds, even when faced with starvation during the 28 month siege of Leningrad.  Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Award, but was later thrown into prison once Stalin consolidated his power, where he continued to give lectures but later died.  He was thrown into prison for his opposition to Lysenkoism, or Stalin’s state sponsored scientific position against genetic inheritance, natural selection, and the existence of genes.  Vavilov was a hero to science, so I am glad that there is a tomato named after him.


Black Krim:

Black Krim is a widely available tomato that I began growing a few years ago.  I was fascinated by the fact that it was a burgundy colored tomato.  The tomato itself originates in the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula.  It is a large, beefsteak tomato.  I have not been able to located an “isle of krim” even though almost every source on the history of Black Krim lists this as its place of origin.  The Russian translation of “Crimea” itself is “Krim.”  I wonder if these sources are confused or if there is really an “isle of Krim” that also happens to be a part of Crimea.  In any event, it is a tomato that is associated with Crimea.

According to various sources (listed at the end) it is possible that the tomato was popularized by soldiers returning from the Crimean War who gathered the seeds and shared them.  Although many sources list this history, it is more likely that soldiers popularized black tomatoes in general rather than Black Krim specifically.  I believe this because another source lists that Black Krim was discovered by lars Rosenstrom of Sweden in 1990.  Black tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine and were popular across the Soviet Union.

Black tomatoes perform better in warmer climates and do not become as dark in the north.  Black tomatoes also have the strongest taste.  There were over 50 varieties of black tomatoes grown in the Soviet union, with some black tomatoes that have since been developed in the United States and Germany.

Black Krim tomatoes are dark colored because they have a gene in which the chlorophyll does not break down at it ripens.  Thus, the tomato is both red and green, making a purplish brown color.  Other black tomatoes, have been either selectively bred or genetically modified to have more anthocyanins, or the pigment which causes eggplant, blueberries, grapes, and plums to be dark colored.  The purpose of this is to make it have more anti-oxidants, a longer shelf life, and deeper, darker coloration.  Indigo rose was selectively bred over the course of decades (using wild tomatoes) to obtain a darker purple color.  There is also a GMO tomato that uses snapdragon genes to create a darker color, though I am not sure if it is commercially available.  The media has called the GMO tomato “cancer curing” which is a pretty big feat for a tomato.  I think Vavilov would probably approve of simply breeding new varieties and saving the varieties that are already in existence.


Black Prince or Choyrnii Prins:

This is another dark colored tomato.  I found a seedling at the farmer’s market in Duluth. The appeal was that it has been grown in Siberia, which I thought would make it particularly cold hardy.  It is medium sized with a round shape.  I tried it out, but it did not seem to grow as well as Black Krim or other varieties.  Since I am already growing Black Krim, I probably would not grow this one again.  I am not sure how cold hardy it actually is, as we had a pretty late hard frost this year (Nov. 15th!).  But, since tomatoes were first cultivated in Central and South America, I can’t imagine that any tomato is really cold hardy…even one from Siberia!


The above was just a small sample of tomatoes with Soviet connections.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet about the history of tomatoes, so it is a patchwork of what I can find.  Perhaps next year I can grow the Paul Robeson tomato and “Amur Tiger” an orange cherry tomato.   There is also a pink tomato called Kremlin Chiming Clock, named after the 15th century clock which chimes twice a day in Red Square.  The variety of tomatoes attests to the popularity of tomatoes in the former Soviet Union.  I can imagine them grown in dachas, eaten fresh, added to borsch or solyanka, or chopped up with cucumbers into a salad.   While beets, cucumbers, and cabbage rank higher among the vegetables many people associated with Russia and its neighbors, tomatoes must have a special place to have yielded such variety.






The Sociology of Pumpkins


The Sociology of Pumpkins

H. Bradford, 9/25/2016

For the first time in eight years, I am not in school.  You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things.  Nope.  I’m just a pretty ordinary person.  Not particularly accomplished.  Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush.   I can see it now.  It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March.  Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps.  That is my brain.  No, I must rage against this.  I must learn new things.  I must not forget the old things.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Write about things.  Write about sociological things.  Write about pumpkins.  Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott.  While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins.  I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins.  So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins.  My late night rage against my dying life.  You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.   


Cognitive Schema:  

I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology.  Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us.  Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things.   For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things.  We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly.  As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth.  Each of these categories have a shared social meaning.  Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth.  Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights.  There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths.  Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas.  They are social objects with some shared meanings.  Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category.  A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident.  Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence.  When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women.  Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.     

Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it.  The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables.  As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash.  Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions.  Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families.  In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry.  Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon.  Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash.  Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash.  No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards.  Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie.  There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.  

With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s.  This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays.  It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society.  The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America.  It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War.  The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins.  Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert.  Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists).  It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today.  It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia.  It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America.  As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash.  Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.  


Use Value:

Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness.  For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write.  A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade.  For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value.  To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times.  Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter.  It was also used to feed animals.  Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts.  Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound.  In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity.   Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed.  Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle.  Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations.  In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient.  Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations.  Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers.  Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions.  Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.            


McDonaldization of Society:  

The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society.  George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society.  This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency.  A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce.  Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins.  Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient.  For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers.  There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations.  Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying.  That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.    

On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced.  In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell.  The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful.  Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food.  A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally.  Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours.  Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling.  With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results.  Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers.  For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie.  Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves.  These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters.  The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them.  Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them.  Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes.  These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory.  This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process.  At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers.  If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.       



Cultural Capital:


According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital.  But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well.  Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses.  The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people.  They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized.  By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans.  Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness.  The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital.  That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins.  The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital.  Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class.  To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits.  Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats.  A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins.  A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.

Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon.  However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty.  Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital.  Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries.  Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital.  On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common.  It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary.  Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society.  Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right.  In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods.  A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital.  While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic.  A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon.  It is also looked down upon for being feminine.   Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.  


Hypermodernity and Consumption:


Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society.  Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism.  He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism.  This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement.  Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations.  I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin.  The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs.  In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds.  In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds.  To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded.  The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention.  The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.  

Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child.  The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!).  She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her.  She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win.  Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin.  However, she has no means to tow it.  She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town.  Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin.  In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest.  She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin.  The episode really spoke to me as a child.  I remember it after all of these years.  In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself.  Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins.  In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos.  Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate.  The water and fertilizer are the things we buy.  In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity.  Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…


I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins.  It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework.  Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is?  Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin.  To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are.  Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not.  For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests.  Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective.  Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her!  How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities.  Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc.  I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice!  Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.  

My Two Cents on Two Twenty Five Cent Books


The Superior Public Library hosted its annual book sale a few weeks ago.  Usually I pick up way too many books, but this year was pretty modest.  This is partially because the house I live in has over 2,000 books and there isn’t much space for more.  With that said, I picked up the following two books for 25 cents.  Here is my two cents on two twenty five cent books:

Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture by Jeremy Rifkin, 1994

I had some misgivings about the book because it was from 1994.  I thought that the book would be about factory farming and all the horrors of meat consumption.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, I thought that if it was about these things, it would be dated and inaccurate.  While this is one aspect of the book, the book is more of a multifaceted history of beef.  Therefore, I think that a meat eater and vegetarian could be both frustrated and pleased with the book.  The following are some of the ideas that I found the most interesting about the book:

Beef and Patriarchy:

A vegetarian or vegan feminist reader might enjoy the connections between beef and patriarchy in the book.  Basically, the book posits that beginning in about 4000 BC, nomadic herders from the Pontic Steppes conquered Europe.  Over three thousand years there were several waves of conquest, which introduced cattle culture to Europe.  This also introduced private property in the form of cattle and as such, more patriarchal social relations.  Prior to this, Europeans were more agrarian, female centered, and less warlike.  Essentially, this perspective is part of the Kurgan Hypothesis of where Indo-Europeans came from.

The author posits that beef as movable wealth was a form of proto-capitalism, but this isn’t elaborated upon in the two chapters on this topic.  I would have liked to see this argument developed and what the author meant by proto-capitalism.  Capitalism is based upon private property, but so is any deeply stratified society.  This does raise some interesting questions about the relationship between animals, property, and patriarchy.  Perhaps it is nice to think that at one time Europeans were more peaceful, collective, agrarian, and equal.  Then, suddenly invaders came on horses with herds of cattle…plundering, destroying, and introducing property/patriarchy.  Modern Europeans are descendants of those plunderers.

A knee jerk reaction to this is, “Aha, beef is terrible.  Beef is the food of patriarchy!” I certainly had this reaction.  But, many things could have and probably did serve as the basis of early private property: land and other kinds of animals for instance.  In this sense, an aversion to beef on the basis of its connection to private property can only be a kind of guilt by association.  And, the book points out that the relationship between humans and cows has changed over history.  For instance, the book argues that over time cows became sacred in Hinduism because of their value for fuel, housing material, fertilizer, and dairy, as well as depleted land resources, popular unrest against beef eating overlords, and Buddhist influences.  The book also notes that cows can be symbolic of fertility, bounty, and the feminine divine.  In this very materialistic perspective, the relationship between humans and animals is based upon economic relationships and necessities.

The book later discusses the relationship between gender and meat.  Like clothing, hair styles, emotional patterns, and career choices, food is gendered.  There are foods that are seen as masculine and foods that are viewed as feminine.  It is not because of an inherent characteristic in the food, but rather, because of such things as the function and value of the food in society.  Unsurprisingly, salads, diet food, and vegetable based foods are viewed as feminine.  Steaks as masculine.  The book spends a chapter or so discussing this.  Again, the chapter is short and this topic could be explored at greater length.  It made me wonder what should be done about this?  Meat is idealized because it is associated with masculinity, which is valued over femininity.  The nihilist in me does not want anyone to idealize anything.  We could unhappily eat gray mush and endlessly contemplate our meaningless existence.  The feminist in me recoils at anything that promotes a masculinity based upon conquest, subjugation, mastery of nature, and rugged individualism.  The socialist in me wants what is sustainable and equitable for the environment and society.  These three ideas run around in circles, like dogs chasing each other’s tails.  Conclusion: dismantle gender, don’t idealize foods, think about nature and the future of society.

 Beef and Ecological Imperialism:

Another interesting thread in the book was the association between beef and imperialism.  Basically, the book argues that one reason or at least benefit of slaughtering all of the bison was so that the West could be used as pastureland for the beef industry.  There were definitely some startling passages about the slaughter of bison and the subjugation of Native Americans.  It is no wonder why many Native Americans feel that their fate is connected to the fate of animals.  They have been.  The book included stories of tribes looking for the last buffalo so that they could perform certain ceremonies, but found none.  It is hard to imagine how such a dramatic and quick change in something that was taken for granted as plentiful and central to survival is suddenly entirely gone.  Can we imagine that?  It would be like the sudden end of electricity or automobiles.

Europeans introduced cattle to the Americas pretty early on, letting them go wild for future colonization efforts.  The cattle themselves introduced invasive grasses that are now taken for granted as having always been here.  So, we really changed the landscape.  Like aliens terraforming a new planet…we introduced our animals and plants at the expense of what…AND WHO… was there.  Again, in reading this there is a tendency to hate cattle as a symbol of conquest.  Really, the book did a good job introducing me to new ways of thinking about cattle.  However, this is again guilt by association.  Cattle didn’t ask to come here.  They have no adversarial relationship with bison.  The fault is with European conquest.  Of course, it isn’t always easy to separate a symbol from an action, event, or system.  Cattle did not ask to replace bison.  Red, white, and blue did not ask to be colors on our flag.  Bald eagles did not ask to be our national bird.  Cattle are not widely seen as a symbol of conquest.  Though, it seems reasonable that those who relate to this symbolism might have an aversion to beef in the same way a socialist probably doesn’t wear patriotic clothing and a Lutheran does not keep statues of Mary in their home.  These things can always be explained away, but if something has a symbolic meaning that a person doesn’t want to associate with…it is challenging to navigate the expression of the self (i.e. it’s just a nice statue) with the perceived meaning of the self (i.e. you worship Mary! Catholic!).

Other Ideas:
 Throughout the book, beef is associated with many things.  Beef, or meat in general, is discussed in its relationship to social classes.  For much of history and much of the world, meat was not eaten much my lower classes.  Women and children ate it even less.  Meat was also connected to race and warfare.  There were some interesting passages about how British people viewed their racial superiority as evidenced by their meat consumption.  In the refrigerator logic of Social Darwinism, superior people eat meat because they are higher on the food chain.  Thus, British people looked down upon their imperial subjects as lessers, partially because of their plant based diets. The British even attributed their military successes to their larger rations of meat.  There was even a weird quote from the head of Japan’s McDonalds, Den Fujita, that if Japanese people eat beef for 1,000 years, they will conquer the world and grow blond hair.  Thus, a common thread in the book is the long connection between cattle and conquest.

There are other ideas as well.  Attention is given to factory farming and the rise of McDonalds.  This itself is connected to Taylorism or quick, rational, efficient production.  Horrors of factory farms are given attention.  I am alienated from the production of meat, I can only shiver at the thought of rotten meat, pus, and feces mixed into sausages and hamburgers. Yikes!

The information on hamburgers was quite interesting.  The book observes that hamburgers are deconstructed meat.  This is true, as hamburgers really don’t resemble any particular part or aspect of a cow.  The burger itself could be made from many cows.  This very aspect of the hamburger has historically made them so palatable to me.  They are not a fatty, bony, cow part that advertises its existence as an animal.  It is like red and brown Play Doh.  But, interestingly, many people don’t want their meat to look like living animals.  For instance, people don’t want fish that have eyes and heads.  In contrast, in medieval times, animals were reconstructed.  Bird feathers were put back onto the bird carcass to create the illusion of a living animal.

The book was a hodgepodge of ideas.  Each chapter was short and no topic was visited for very long, though there were themes.  The goal of the book was to make a case for giving up beef or meat, but the goal was not always overt.  Arguments were not followed to their logical end and ideas were not given enough depth to support some arguments.  So, perhaps the book tried to do too much with too many different ideas and histories.  I don’t think that anyone would read the book and give up beef.  Someone who is already against meat might have a few new ideas to think about.  The conclusion did not seem to flow from the rest of the book, as the conclusion was that more people would question beef eating and work towards a kinder, gentler, more sustainable world.  The flaw of this was that the book never made a convincing argument that beef was the problem.  There is a cart load of problems: Imperialism, conquest, capitalism, and corporate agriculture…but the cart is hardly ox driven.  Thus, the idea that giving up meat will solve these problems is odd.  It is also odd that people would magically reach this conclusion without a social movement or social upheaval.  Thus, while I like that the book covered a lot of economic and historical topics, I dislike that it does not question economic systems which meat is a part of.  In this way, it is materialist, but not Marxist.   Because the materialism is not given direction by any theories regarding social movements or social change, there is no gelatin to hold the ideas and history together.  That is my beef with  Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture  and far too many meat metaphors.

Book Review Two:  The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages

The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages- by Joyce Salisbury, 1994
Have you ever wondered what people in the Middle Ages thought about animals?  I hadn’t either until I saw this gem of a book.  Like Beyond Beef, this book was written in 1994.  It is also a book about meat, but this time, without a political agenda.  This book is much shorter and tighter than Beyond Beef.  The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals.  The book is pretty short and sticks to building this thesis, making it a tighter narrative than Beyond Beef.  
To begin, the book discusses how Europeans viewed animals in the Early Middle ages, which has some echoes to today.  Back then, animals were seen as separate and beneath humans.  They were created for humans or in the very least, humans were created above them.  In this understanding, animals had value inasmuch as they had use value.  Since they had tremendous use value as food, labor, and transportation, there were many laws to protect animals from theft or misuse.  But, they did not have value for their being living things with any independent value as a life form.  This view makes sense, in that it was a pretty agriculturally centered world so animals had value based upon their usage in this arena.  At the same time, religious views played an interesting role in shaping how people related to animals.  For instance, when there was a larger population in Europe and less land, there were more fasting days in the Catholic calendar.  It is also interesting how Monks ate fetal or just born rabbits as a way to circumvent fasting rules, as this was not considered meat.  Perhaps the criteria was life began with breath, so fetal or just born life could be taken.  Certain kinds of meats were viewed as corrupting forces.  As such, young men were told not to eat rabbit as this would make them promiscuous.  Oddly enough, people believed that hares grew an extra anus for every year they were alive as a sign of their promiscuous nature.  I feel that some of these old fashioned, silly ideas are still with us.  For example, when I wanted to become a vegetarian, my parents told me that God made animals for us to eat them.  This is a very Middle Ages idea!  Even the concept of you are what you eat, which isn’t taken too seriously today, has a Middle Age history.  Finally, the weird things that people give up for Lent, such as Pepsi and Facebook, probably result in no more suffering than baby bunny eating monks endured when they fasted.

It was also interesting to learn how breeds of animals and uses for animals changed over time.  For instance, the book said that Germanic tribes were very fond of pig meat and that in the early middle ages, pigs were allowed to wander and forage in forests.  With time and changes in property, pigs were enclosed in pens.  Also, sheep were mostly used for meat during the early Middle Ages, and only with the introduction of Mediterranean breeds of sheep with heavier wool did they begin to be used more for textiles.  The book also described the rituals surrounding hunts and how dogs were fed special animal parts from a fancy glove as a reward for the hunt or how hawks and dogs were trained to work together to take down larger prey, like cranes.  The breeding and value of horses was also discussed at length.  Like cars today, the coloration and unique markings of a horse became a status symbol.  This was all pretty fascinating.  Also interesting was the evolution of food taboos.  Christians wanted to differentiate themselves from Pagans, which is why they made it taboo to eat horses as this was viewed as a pagan practice.  Likewise, eating animals that gruesomely bled out was also taboo, perhaps a throwback from Jewish dietary laws. Eating raw meat was also viewed as taboo.

I didn’t care for the chapter about sexuality and animals.  It was mildly interesting to learn about laws and punishments for bestiality, but I thought that the book could do without this chapter.  It didn’t add much to the book or the narrative that over time, humans began to see themselves as more animal like and animals as more human.  The book became a bit more interesting again when it discussed myths and stories about animals.  These stories about animals were connected to social relationships.  For instance, animals were used in fables to teach lessons about a person’s place in society.  Fables were used in churches as part of the sermon, as they were popular and easy to understand.  Though, over time secular fables became more popular as well.  Also over time, the types of animals in the stories shifted, with a growing popularity of apes.  Salisbury believed that fables might have helped people to imagine themselves as more animal like and animals more human, though these characters.  There were also a few examples of Saints which according to legend preached to animals or showed exceptional kindness.  This also indicates a shift from a merely utilitarian view of animals.  There was also a growing interest in Bestiaries, or guidebooks which depicted some animal/human hybrids.

While the book maintains a tight and easy to follow thesis, it does not support this thesis adequately.  To support the thesis would require a systematic cultural analysis of 10 centuries and diverse regions.  The book mostly focuses on England, France, and Germany.  It is not clear which years or time periods are discussed throughout the book.  I would like much more social context.  Also, the approach to the supporting the thesis is pretty mixed.  Much of the book focuses on changing ideas, but I would like more political, religious, and economic context.  Why did these changes happen?  Why would viewing animals as more like humans benefit 14th century societies over 4th century societies?  The book is lacking a strong material grounding.  Instead, it flits around between ideas, finally settling on fables.  While a content analysis of fables is provided, it still leaves me wondering why the fables changed over time.  The stories that we tell have a social purpose.  They way that humans relate to animals has some social logic (or at least had some social logic at one time).  With that said, I am not entirely convinced by the thesis.

Still, the book is entertaining and fun.  It provides some interesting tidbits to consider.  If nothing else, it made me consider how we relate to animals today.  Modern relationships to animals are complex and contradictory.  Some farmers continue to have a utilitarian view of livestock.  There are imaginary lines between animals that can be eaten (cows) and those that cannot (dogs).  There are class, gender, and racial lines of how animals are related to.  Cats are seen as feminine.  Steak is masculine.  Girls love ponies.  African Americans do not have the same opportunities to experience wilderness and wild animals.  While science has taught us that humans are indeed animals, this is still hard for people to accept.  It is hard to accept that humans might not be as special and above the rest of nature.  Evolution is still controversial.  So, accepting our connection to animals is still an incomplete process.

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