Feb 07 2011

Nature Pulls You Forward: Joan Gussow’s Organic Life

Joan Gussow exhibits a multitude of consistent character traits that I can only one day humbly hope to possess.  Perseverance, honesty, a sense of humor, humility, strength, and a strong sense of morals:  Gussow embodies each of them. I was lucky to see Dr. Gussow speak last Tuesday at the 92nd St. Y about her work and hew newest book, 'Growing, Older'. Dr. Gussow succinctly stated a moral philosophy: “As long as one has a future, one is alive.”

I first learned of Gussow’s name about a year ago, shortly after moving to Brooklyn.  As I began to consistently read food blogs and publications, as well as work with local food organizations, her name was always surfacing, paired with lavish praise describing Joan Gussow as the pioneer of the local food movement.   Michael Pollan has said, “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought; then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.” Noted Chicago chef, Rick Bayless, has even declared himself a “a Joan Gussow groupie.”

Joan is the former chair of the Nutrition Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Even at the age of 82, Gussow still teaches her course on food and ecology at the Teachers College.   Her outspoken nature and firm beliefs on nutrition have remained unapologetic since the very beginning of her career.  Shortly after her appointment as Nutrition chair at the Teachers College, Dr. Gussow testified to a Congressional Committee about the poor quality of foods advertised to children.   This testimony shocked her cohort and peers—testifying about media and food sources wasn’t considered to be a nutritionist’s job.  Along with her academic career, Joan has gardened for 50 years, helped to co-found Just Food, and served on the boards of numerous respected food organizations such The National Gardening Association and the Society for Nutrition Education.

This brief biography is just that:  brief.  I couldn’t possibly sum up Dr. Gussow’s career and impact in a mere paragraph.  It seems to me that understanding Dr. Gussow’s impact can’t fully happen from reading a book or seeing her speak.  While these actions are more than appropriate places to start—and I plan on reading more of her books and articles throughout this year--the best illustration of Dr. Gussow’s vital importance in our national conversation about food is this question:  What do Pollan’s ‘Food Rules’, Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’, or the works of Marion Nestle have in common?  Those books are the respective authors’ words…but their shared model and inspiration is Dr. Joan Gussow

As with any passionate and opinionated person, Dr. Gussow hasn’t become as influential as she is without a stream of constant negativity directed towards her.  A quick internet search for ‘Dr. Joan Gussow’ immediately resulted in a scathing article, complete with this dismissive quote: “Complement this with an arrogant insistence that organic-only foods are inherently superior, and you have Gussow figured out.”

My latest food book was Gussow’s This Organic Life, published in 2001, and still shockingly relevant ten years later.  In fact, I found myself flipping to the front several times to re-check the publication date.  Though it was written at the start of this new century, her thoughts, ideas, and voice are just as relevant today. It’s very possible that Gussow’s book could be more easily received today than when it was first published. As Gussow said on Tuesday:

“It’s very scary to scan my essays from 30-40 years ago.  Nothing has gotten better.  You could just add 1-2 paragraphs at the end and then republish them.… We’ve been taught not to pay attention to the food supply.  Someone else will fix it.”

I bought This Organic Life several weeks ago with the hopes of finishing it before. Dr. Gussow’s appearance with Annie Novak at the 92nd Street Y.  Despite my notoriety for inhaling books, when I first started the book, I wasn’t sure I could finish it in time.  Though the narrative is engaging from the start, I had to read the first several chapters slowly. This slow start was partially due to my non-gardening background, but I also felt ‘This Organic Life’ to be like an onion:  the deeper I read, the more layers and nuances I encountered.  The book starts out as with Joan recounting personal events matter-of-factly;  these personal stories center on the Gussows’ lifelong home in Congers, New York and their purchasing of a new home in Piermont. Ultimately, Gussow used this narrative of moving and starting over as the bookends for discussions on local food, recipes, and gardening.

As the book moved away from Congers and positioned itself firmly in Piermont, Gussow began to share more, evoking the experience of first meeting a person: they’re friendly, but not completely forthcoming and it’s only when you get to know them more that the ‘true’ person is revealed.  This is how I felt about Gussow, so much so that when I heard her speak on Tuesday and she was as genuine in person as she was in her book, I felt fulfilled and gratified.

The process of selling their former home, the seemingly constant crises with their new home--including having to raze what they thought they could restore--constant flooding, a difficult neighbor, and the death of her husband: Gussow tackles these weighty personal moments and serious global issues in a mere 260 pages! As the book continues, Joan shares important gardening knowledge that she has gleaned from 50 years of gardening.  When I have my own garden, I plan on re-reading key sections of this book (and others she has both written and recommended).  She also sprinkles delicious, seasonal, low-key recipes throughout This Organic Life.

I especially appreciated that Gussow used moments in the garden or her community as jumping off points for discussions about our food system.  Though I’m not at the point where I can articulate all of my beliefs in such a well-thought out manner, after 50 years of talking, teaching, and living a consistent moral life, Joan is.  Joan succinctly captures what I believe in, on topics as varied as vegetarianism, genetically modified foods, and the actual worth of eating local food.

So, is eating local worth it? Well, of course it is.  For Joan’s take on that last question, I recommend reading Chapter 14—or just reading the entire book!

For a fantastic article that really captures Joan’s impact on some of the most influential and important people in today’s food movement, click here.