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PURCHASE MEALS MATTER THROUGH YOUR favourite seller, several mail-order firms, or through Columbia University Press with a discount.*** E-books are instant.
***Here is the Columbia link to use the friendly promo code CUP30 for a 30% discount.
ONE EXCEPTIONALLY CLEAR day, when living in Tuscany, I spotted the Duomo in Florence, 23 kms away.
This was from the village of Bacchereto in the hills above Prato, where four of us (all expatriates) opened the Cantina di Toia restaurant for the Tesi family.
From Bacchereto, we often popped into Florence, so that I was surprised when a neighbour asked, as we stood admiring the cupola in the distance: “What’s it like?”
Old enough to have a teenage daughter, she had never visited her regional capital, a 40-minute drive away.
This was admittedly some decades ago, when traditional village life, even in sophisticated central Italy, still surprised an outsider like me.
Living in a former watermill near Radda-in-Chianti (SI) through the previous year had been eye-opening. One afternoon, we returned down the rocky, ancient Roman road to find the locals trailing what looked like long streamers down the stream and under the rustic bridge.
They were running water through pig intestines to prepare them for sausage and salami casings – an old trick, presumably thousands of years old.
The groundedness of village life, especially its food, contrasted with the “One Continuous Picnic” back home (becoming the title of my gastronomic history of Australia). Industrial food had to be portable, like a picnic, as well as profitable.
I was reminded of this seeing Honeyland the other evening. The New York Times’ usually reliable reviewer, A.O. Scott, rated the movie his best for 2019. It scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Award successes have included Oscar nominations for both “Best Documentary Feature” and “Best International Feature Film”.
Honeyland is a North Macedonian documentary about a woman who survives with her aged mother in a ruined stone village by collecting wild honey from hives in rocks and tree trunks. That’s the good bit. For I would have walked out of the cinema, if not for sitting next to the family beekeeper.
I have not found one review less than enthusiastic, and so how to explain my reaction?
Film critics are taken with the blend of hardship and beauty. What did they expect? They learn Hatidze’s father had prevented her marrying to retain a daughter for help in old age. As if many women are not still having to do that!
Reviewers also seem pathetically grateful for the environmental message. Breaking into the tranquillity of the deserted landscape, a family of seasonal herders arrive in their clattering old truck and caravan. With seven rowdy children, they prove unbelievably brutal and ignorant. Count the bee stings!
The family decide to bring in some hives for short-term exploitation. Rather than follow our heroine’s wisdom (only take half the honey, and leave half for the bees to survive the winter), they rip the bees off, so the commercial hives then have to rob from the wild ones. The men chainsaw a tree trunk in search of a wild hive’s bounty.
Besides the striking landscape, and Hatidze’s charming steadiness, the movie is slow, simplistic, and, I have to add, nasty. The makers worked to become the “invisible observers” of “direct cinema”, editing out any sign of camera awareness. Likewise, they never intervened in fights and disasters, so that we could think we witness the unvarnished truth.
According to co-director Tamara Kotevska, their bee-handler “wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way”.
On the other hand: “Hussein’s family represents the capitalist world, of wanting to take as many resources as you can so you, personally, will thrive – not thinking about how this will impact the next generation.” The family went along with the filming, Kotevaska suggested, for the company provided by the small crew’s frequent visits.
As an outsider, I felt like I was intruding on them. You feel ashamed in some situations; you don’t know if you have a right to be there for their family argument. But you keep shooting.
The big-city intruders did not even speak the same language as those they filmed. The two women and nomadic family are remnants of the Ottoman Turkish era in a bewildering succession of rulers and migrations that make up the Republic of North Macedonia (which only gained independence in 1991, and that name in February 2019).
Along with that, the “documentary” is, I fear, something of a con. How amazing to introduce us to, as claimed unequivocally in the movie’s logline, “the last female wild beekeeper in Europe”.
Wasn’t it fortuitous that they just happened to be filming when the seasonal visitors just happened to decide to bring in some hives…
The Honeyland director explained fabrication:
We started editing while we were still shooting … We were able to say: “Alright, what are we missing here? We’re missing scenes of the relationship with the children.” So we would go, find more times, focus on the relationship with them, or their conflicts at home. Different aspects.
Perhaps I was expecting too much, and perhaps I became suspicious too quickly, but take a look yourself. (For all the critical acclaim, it is yet to gross $1m.)
Bees have also starred recently in: Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? (2010); More than Honey (2012); Il Tempo delle api (2017); Tell it to the Bees (2019); and, last but not least, The Wonders [Le Meraviglie] (2014).
The Wonders rates 96% RT approval, and won the 2014 Palme D’Or at Cannes. This time, I’m with the positive responses.
Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher follows the family of a former German hippy now beekeeping in Tuscany. Family life buzzes around the bees, and vice versa, and meets cruel modernity. But this time it’s fiction, which enables the audience to get involved, while keeping its distance. The movie is somewhat autobiographical, too, because Rohrwacher and her actor-sister Alba Rohrwacher grew up in such a family.
I came to Alice Rohrwacher’s work through her mysterious Happy as Lazzaro [Lazzaro Felice] (2018), which, again, pits tradition against modernity. This one shows nastiness even more thoroughly than Honeyland, but this movie-making is a joy.
The North Macedonian documentarians wanted their manipulative literalness and invasive exploitation to be invisible. By contrast, the creative sophistication of Rohrwacher puts the badness of late modernity up on the screen, and its wonders.
STALLHOLDERS AT THE weekly Lister Meile street market here in Hannover (Germany) sell fruit and vegetables in brown paper cones. At the last market, we picked up highly seasonal plums. As the photo shows, they are a type of damson.
We knew that Zwetschgenpflaume had just arrived on the market, because they featured on the specials board the night before at restaurant 11A Küche mit Garten (11A Kitchen with Garden). The name derives from its address, being in the square that translates as Kitchen Garden.
(Horror alert: creepiness coming).
My mobile phone has taken to opening with a YouTube suggestion, and when we returned from the market, it proposed a demonstration of how to use the plums.
How did it know? I can think of three possibilities: that it was coincidental, that google tracked us at the market and the plums are in season, or that google had eavesdropped, and heard the word.
That was so creepy that, as soon as I showed Marion the video running, I turned it off. To be correct, I thought I turned it off, because it disappeared from my phone and started on a television in the next room. We’d last turned on the tv the previous evening, making our way through dvds of the wondrous 1982 series of Heimat.
Adding to the horror, Mozilla had only just sent a blog item about how you can’t believe even baking videos any more, with a link to Sydney dessert-influencer Ann Reardon showing how so-called “content farms” are crueling the internet.
A “content farm”, such as So Yummy, creates low-grade “how to” videos to game the algorithms and drag in advertising dollars. That reduces the income of more serious posters, such as “Renias Backwelt” (Renia’s Baking World) with her plums, or Ann with “How to Cook That”. While I cannot imagine who would make Ann’s novelty dessert items, including a Prince Harry chocolate sculpture that took her three days to make, So Yummy has more than 100 million views a month with videos that merely look like cooking videos with their boring bits speeded up. As Ann demonstrates, So Yummy’s cooking instructions are way post-fact. The recipes she attempts don’t merely fail, they plainly would never work.
Incidentally, I have retained quotes around “content farms” as maligning farms; they are content production lines.
The monolith at the top of surveillance capitalism, Google owns YouTube and so much more, but does it really listen in through microphones in homes, cafes, offices and therapists’ rooms?
The next day, I received another Mozilla post:
“If you have a voice assistant in your home or on your phone, have you ever been concerned that someone from the company could listen to your voice recordings?
“Recent news coverage confirms that suspicion.”
According to the quoted sources (Mozilla Foundation, “What can you trust on the internet?“), eavesdropping is now banned in the EU, but I still worry.
Returning to humour might distract from the creepiness. The secret agent comedy series Get Smart had a device called the “cone of silence” – those inside the bubble couldn’t hear; those outside could.
Or I might also cheer us up by turning to a second highly seasonal German phenomenon on the streets the past day or two: the two-century-old tradition of the Schultüte (school cone). A Schultüte is sometimes also called a Zuckertüte (sugar cone), because it is a large cone, almost as big as a small child, that contains sweets, toys and school items.
The cone marks an important rite of passage – a child’s first day at school. Parents have made or purchased a cone, filled it with the items, and hung it on a tree at the school. The child carries it home to open at a family party.
We saw children carrying them home yesterday, and I snapped an illustration of one, in a line-up of first-day-of-school children’s books, each showing cones, in the window of the nearby library.
ACCOMPANYING Marion for a few academic weeks in Hannover, Germany, I have just sent off the final revisions to a manuscript that’s kept me busy for many years, being something of a magnum opus, well, that’s my story.
More later, but the title is Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.
Columbia University Press brings it out in “Spring 2020”, which means (for readers outside such latitudes) in the first half of the year.
Many writers accept that mainstream economics needs replacing.
This book identifies the root cause of the problem, and explains what needs to be done, through Brillat-Savarin’s unduly neglected science of gastronomy.
Paris has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.
Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.
Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”, when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.
Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).
Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.
That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.
Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.
“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.
Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.
While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.
As Croggon explodes:
The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.
She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”
She couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”
I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.
More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).
Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.
Farmers markets, community gardens and other trendy food alternatives tend to “benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers”, complaims American “scholar-activist” Garrett Broad.
Well-meaning foodies might have recognised that low-income communities, especially those of colour, suffer “food deserts” of food insecurity and obesity, but they do little more than dream about boys and girls being transformed by tomatoes from the school garden…
According to Broad in More Than Just Food: Food justice and community change, such foodie advocates downplay or ignore “systemic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health”, leaving them to “reify a neoliberal philosophy of market-driven self-improvement, a strategy that unintentionally absolves the government of its responsibility”.
Elsewhere, he calls this the “magic carrot” approach.
Broad’s discussion is no doubt applicable to Australia, although I was remarking only the other day how the local, self-proclaimed “Organic Foodies” market entirely lacked yuppies and hipsters.
His own polemic also introduces apparently the U.S.’s largest grassroots food access initiative, run by the Black Panthers.
In the late 1960s, Panthers chapters across the U.S. turned from armed militancy to “survival programs” — survival pending revolution. The Party fed at least 20,000 children through a Free Breakfast program in the 1968-1969 school year.
His own interest was piqued by coming across Community Services Unlimited, Inc., founded by a chapter in the mid-1970s in South Los Angeles.
The trouble for me is that Broad, as a self-described privileged, vegan scholar, misunderstands the politics.
This blog is called Meals Matter because humans are the cooking animal, coming together to distribute food, and so labour, that is, to make meals.
Happier, healthier, more sustainable meals are certainly “more than just food”.
Broad argues for more community gardens, food co-ops, and so forth, because he wants More Than Just Food. However, in his case, he wants justice.
For him, food is expressly a mere “tool” or “means”. He had “set out to investigate the social justice potential of alternative food activism”.
The Black Panthers never wanted improved nutrition alone, he says. They used food as a conversation starter in favour of social and environmental justice. They built gardens, provided nutrition education, and improved access to healthy food “in the purpose of a much larger cause. They situated food as a vehicle for a more expansive, people-of-color-led social justice project”.
For him, food serves the struggle for social justice. However, what are the oppressive “political and economic systems”, if they are not the way we eat?
He fails to appreciate that justice is a higher cause, which means less basic, as argued by the sages. Fascinated how “ideologists turn everything upside-down”, Marx and Engels observed: “The judge, for example, applies the code, he therefore regards legislation as the real active driving force”. Like the legal eagles, Broad makes justice supreme.
But justice is merely a means, a vehicle for a much larger cause, meals.
His book’s opening epigraph quotes David Hilliard, former Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party:
We’ve always been involved in food, because food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of
Broad has to ask himself: what are revolutions for? Better meals. And better meals can be near at hand.
In their stirringly-titled essay, “Waiting for the Revolution, or how to smash capitalism while working at home in your spare time”, Gibson-Graham argued that, in terms of the numbers involved, and output, “the household sector can hardly be called marginal. In fact, it can arguably be seen as equivalent to or more important than the capitalist sector.”
They gave the piece another subtitle: “Why can feminists have revolution now, while Marxists have to wait?”
Alice Waters and other foodies have proposed school gardens and hands-on cooking, because better meals lead to better meals. Her “delicious revolution” is upon us.
THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.
Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.
According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.
In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.
As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.
In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.
From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”
And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.
Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:
For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century
This is where I step in.
I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.
Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.
Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.
The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”
Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.
Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.
The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.
To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.
This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.
Now to find a publisher …
I leave Wellington for five years, the flat white adjusts, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better.
In late 2011, I extolled the flat white as the Antipodes’ greatest contribution to world gastronomy.
As Australians living in New Zealand for seven years, we found milk coffee, perfected – blending the best of both textured milk and espresso.
But, with change the only constant, on last month’s trip back to Wellington, flat whites seemed disconcertingly inconsistent, and certainly no longer typically in the distinctive, tulip cup.
I should quickly report excellent versions at Lamason Brew Bar, and one day we even had the dream-team – Dave Lamason and Dan Minson – at the machine together. Paul Schrader retained the tulip cup at the eternally-wonderful Nikau Cafe. And our daughter had an excellent barista lesson from Longe Nguyen.
Inconsistency might have come from complacency, because I don’t think I’ve overly romanticised the scene five or so years ago (or perhaps my home-barista skills have improved?). However, at least for changing the cups, we might try blaming Jeff Kennedy. After he sold his L’Affare coffee business, he launched Acme coffee cups in 2011. These filled a gap left when Italian firm ACF went out of business, along with their pastel colours.
Within two years, Acme (made in China) cups dominated New Zealand cafes and moved into Australia, US, UK and elsewhere. The thicker, lighter, larger-handled cup shapes include a tulip, but that is now deemed a “long black” cup, with flat whites shifted into the wider, straighter-sided shape (left). At least the volume remains the same (around 150 ml).
At the risk of sounding stuck-in-the-mud, novelty can be over-done. Some things are classics, requiring only ever mere tweaking. We need some comfortable predictability to the day, especially with our coffees. Our “conservative” tastes mean we often want the same drink we’ve grown up with.
In a complicated world, I have to admit that flat white coffees earlier benefited from change. New Zealand took world leadership in espresso-making when it still lacked an entrenched coffee culture in the 1990s. The new roasters searched the world for the best, and improved on it, especially the Australian flat white. Meanwhile, the long-established coffee cultures of France and the U.S. are only slowly admitting improvements, including flat whites.
Change or no change? Predictability or novelty? Comfort or disruption? Nothing like being unsettled by a transmogrified flat white to bring sobriety – as a smart pair warned in 1848:
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
To interpret: an excellent cup of coffee reminds that, just as conservationists are the new conservatives, neoliberals preach eternal disruption.
That’s their word – “disruption”. The new Australian plutocrat Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose wealth multiplies in a Cayman haven, carries on about disruption as “our friend”. We must embrace our “disruptive environment”.
Turnbull is hailed for replacing Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans, getting them down to one in this case. But the problem all along has been the ideology.
In his first speech as Prime Minister in September, even before he had got his certificate from the Queen’s representative, Turnbull committed his government to “freedom, the individual and the market”. A foodie welcomes choices, healthy bodies, and laden market benches, but Turnbull meant no such things.
His three ideals explicitly reaffirmed the neoliberal agenda: freedom at the expense of equality; the individual against the collective; and the market to replace democracy.
I feel unhappier with the system, and less welcoming of disruption, as the years go by. But I can always make a true, consoling cup …
A holiday (or holy-day) reveals what a people finds, or is expected to find, sacred. So, Australia officially celebrates such things as the birth and death of a religious leader, the nominal birthday of the highest political figure, workers’ success in reducing hours, horse races – that sort of thing.
We’ve just had Anzac Day, which celebrates war over peace. And today is our Mother’s Day, and in other countries that follow the U.S. lead, and an automatic holiday, because “the second Sunday in May” is a God-given holiday.
Can you already see the core dilemma of our times? – commercialism as the new sacred. As in no long paying workers a bonus for working on traditional holy-days. As in interest groups promoting their trade, charity or political cause through “days”, “weeks” and, in the case of the United Nations, “years”.
The supermarket chain calling themselves the “Fresh Food People” recently marketed the claim that dead soldiers were “fresh” in our memories. Incredibly, no-one in Woolworths knew it is illegal to use “Anzac” (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) for commercial purposes – no selling even of “Anzac biscuits”. (The corporation appears then to have spread a rumour that its campaigns are run from London.)
My interest in holidays started with the oddity of how we, in the southern hemisphere, celebrate Christmas and Easter wrongly by six months – such feasts originally marked the seasons, before calendars.
I’ve only now paid much attention to Mother’s Day, other than both decrying its commercialisation, while knowing our restaurant would be full that day. I hadn’t realised it was such an ethical, political, festival monster. Motherhood – sacred, and an even more sacred marketing opportunity.
It’s perfect blackmail – if you don’t celebrate (i.e., pay up), you don’t love your mother.
One less-commercial answer is not to buy cards, gifts, flowers and restaurant meals by relieving mother of the cooking for the day. But why only on that day – aren’t women liberated?
So what I have just learned? Firstly, an invaluable resource indicates where to place the apostrophe (and we are interested in apostrophes). Apparently, in trademarking the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May” in 1912, Anna Jarvis declared:
“Mother’s” should be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers of the world.
But was Anna Jarvis (borrowed photo at the top) even the founder of Mother’s Day? Some quick research reveals that its invention is as confused as any other.
Let me explain origin myths. My researches (along with Helen Leach and others) have found that named cakes and biscuits almost invariably come with competing stories, none of which is exactly correct. It’s even impossible to declare definitively whether the Pavlova was invented in Australia or New Zealand. That’s the sacred national dish for both of us (and so let’s both declare Pavlova Day!)
What happens is that they are social inventions, by many hands, but through social construction, people endow the apparent solidity of a distinct concept that therefore must have a definite inventor. Or so it seems. To read more, check out my papers, “The confection of a nation” and “The cleverness of the whole number” – available through here or here.
The web tells all kinds of origin myths about today’s “Hallmark holiday”, including Anna Jarvis’s struggles against florists’ exploitation of her mother’s favourite flower, a white carnation. It’s said she devoted all her money to that second campaign, only to have the florist industry secretly pay her nursing home bills, such was their gratitude for having exploited her story.
We might suspect that’s another florists’ myth. Nonetheless, accredited scholars have interesting stuff to say. Not that they agree.
Apparently, social activist Julia Ward Howe’s Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as Mother’s Day Proclamation) called on women to unite for peace. Written in 1870, Howe’s was a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. It was also a feminist push at the political level. In 1872, Howe unsuccessfully sought government backing for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” on 2 June every year.
And Wikipedia claims: “The modern Mother’s Day is an unrelated celebration and it was established by Anna Jarvis years later.”
That is probably incorrect, contradicted by Katharine Lane Antolini in Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, 2014.
The encyclopaedia for our times is relying on an earlier book, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, 1995. Despite (or because of) doing much research into Jarvis, he failed to find any association between the pacifist Mother’s Days and her version. And yet Schmidt knew that Anna Jarvis set out to honour a mother who would appear to have been a pacifist, involved with the earlier version, and organising “special rituals of reconciliation after the Civil War”. These Mothers’ Friendship celebrations brought together neighbours on the border regions, which the Civil War had split.
Schmidt makes much of Anna Jarvis’ insistence that “Mother’s Day celebrations … were founded by me”. Yet she had to defend her holy day from appropriation from not just religious and political interests, but also commercial, as Schmidt shows so well. His earlier paper, “The commercialization of the calendar”, concentrates on Mother’s Day, and is worth reading.
When after a long illness her mother died on May 9, 1905, Jarvis was devastated. In another irony, Jarvis was saddened that her mother’s hopes to have a college education had been thwarted by “home responsibilities”, and her “pleasure and ambitions … restrained by the ties of motherhood”.
The American calendar, Anna Jarvis insisted, was permeated by patriarchy:
New Year’s Day is for “Old Father Time”, Washington’s Birthday is for “The Father of his Country”. … Memorial Day is for Departed Fathers. Independence Day is for Patriot Fathers…. Thanksgiving Day is for Pilgrim Fathers.”
The trade newspapers – Florists’ Review, American Florist, Horticulture and Florists’ Exchange – all noted the day’s first year of observance in 1908. The Florists’ Review carried a letter: “It’s a sentiment that appeals to every man and boy, and people bought flowers that never bought before. … We hope to make it a holiday for the United States. Crowd it and push it … and [it] comes when flowers are cheap and plenty.”
In April 1910, the Florists’ Review reminded: “Well, what have you started to help along Mothers’ day? Seen the mayor about issuing a proclamation? Called the ministers’ attention? Spoken to the local newspapers?”
The trade saw the story of Anna Jarvis’s love for her self-sacrificing mother as “more publicity for Mother’s Day than money can buy.” Discussing advertising strategies for Mother’s Day in 1916, the American Florist advised: “The commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”
By 1920, Jarvis turned against her former allies, now denouncing the “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations known”.
In 1922, the Florists’ Review pronounced Jarvis’s campaign against the trade foiled for another year: “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched!” Her “vaporings” against commercialization had actually increased publicity for Mother’s Day. Even better, controversy was free.
Already in 1913 the Florists’ Review had blustered: “Mothers’ day is ours; we made it; we made it practically unaided and alone.” As Schmidt concluded:
Anna Jarvis devoted a great part of her life to building up what she called the “Mother’s Day Movement,” but she wound up spending an equal share of it bewailing “the mire of commercialism” into which her sentimental and religious occasion progressively sank.
Mind you, I admit that, when separated by distance from a meal with my mother, I have been involved in sending flowers.