Feeding the City (for the Mouse)

Food is a primary motivator for all life on earth. It is, at its base, a matter of self- and species-preservation. For humans, the Neolithic, or Agricultural, Revolution (circa 8,000–5,000 bc) led to our first settlements and civilizations. In order for these early settlements—villages, towns, and eventually cities—to thrive, humans had to domesticate plants and animals, allowing for a controlled and stable food source. With food came culture—the development of support networks, the sharing of recipes, and the passing on of agricultural knowledge. New methods of food procurement, food storage, and agricultural labor arose with civilizations along with the development of customs, commerce, and politics. So cities formed and grew with agricultural technologies.

Our foods today are built on tradition and knowledge. So are fables—and one fable deals with a paradox of food procurement by setting up an urban–rural food dichotomy. This tale is one of Aesop’s Fables, and is commonly called either “Country Mouse, City Mouse or “Town Mouse and Country Mouse.” In this tale, two mice are represented anthropomorphically, in customary fable fashion. One version states:

A City Mouse once went on a visit to his cousin in the country. He was rough and ready, this cousin, but he loved his cousin and made him heartily welcome.

Beans and bacon, cheese and bread, were all he had to offer, but he offered them freely.

The City Mouse rather turned up his long nose at this country food, and said: “I cannot understand, Cousin, how you can put up with such poor fare as this, but of course you cannot expect anything better in the country; come you with me and I will show you how to live. When you have been in town a week you will wonder how you could ever have stood the country life.”

No sooner said than done: the two mice set off for the town and arrived at the City Mouse’s residence late at night. “You will want some refreshment after our long journey,” said the polite Town Mouse, and took his friend into the grand dining room.

There they found the remains of a fine feast, and soon the two mice were eating up jellies and cakes and all that was nice.

Suddenly they heard growling and barking. “What is that?” said the Country Mouse.

“It is only the dogs of the house,” answered the other.

“Only!” said the Country Mouse. “I do not like that music at my dinner.”

Just at that moment the door flew open, in came two huge mastiffs, and the two mice had to scamper down and run off.

“Goodbye, Cousin,” said the Country Mouse.

“What! going so soon?” said the City Mouse.

“Yes,” he replied; “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.”

We can tease out layers of meaning from this fable—for example, why were the foods different at all? Where was the city mouse getting his food from, if not from the country? The presence of dogs (which are mastiffs in many versions) lends a clue that we can trace this version to British origins, whereby we are more likely to find the importation of exotic goods. However there is a more salient point to recognize here—and is not the direct lesson of this tale, necessarily. We can use this fable to illuminate our contemporary food system. I do not aim to draw out direct parallels, but this parable does directly instruct us that eating food in the city is fraught with danger—so the modern extension of this is that city dwellers are eating foods and they do not know from whence they came. This is indeed the danger in contemporary cities.

We tend to separate country and city as diametrically opposed. Food comes from elsewhere. Grocery stores, the media, and popular authors today often paint food as a study in contrasts—chiaroscuro. Food is either organic or conventional, healthy or unhealthy, ethically produced or, well, nauseating. People have become afraid to ask about where their food comes from because they often don’t like the results of their inquiry. The diametric opposition, though, is a falsehood that needs dismantling. Our food system has moved in a direction of factory farms, CAFOs, pesticides and secrecy, but it has also moved away from that with sustainable agriculturalism, the USDA offering Organic Certification, and window boxes filled with lettuce. The problems persist in the system, but in order to understand what we may need to do next, we need to understand that food was the essential fabric in the formation of cities. Studying this will help us by laying the foundation to explain and to understand our contemporary foodscape.

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