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By Nick Sutera ‘22
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  • Department of Global Development
  • Food

As Community Food Systems minors, students engage with community-based organizations to gain rich, hands-on experiences in the food system. This narrative is a reflection of Nick Sutera ‘22’s connection with local food systems in New York. 

I spent the second part of the Fall 2020 semester ‘going’ to school remotely from my girlfriend's father’s house in Western New York, in a small town outside of Batavia, which is a small town outside of Buffalo. It was one of the last nights of the semester; finals were over and it was nearly time to go back home to New Jersey. I was sitting in a creaky rocking chair in the basement, enjoying the now-familiar heat of the wood-fired stove when my mom called. In short, my brother Alex had been hanging out with some friends, she said, one of whom unknowingly had the virus. Alex went to get tested and the results just came back positive – and hearing this, a chill went through my veins. Maybe you should just stay there for a little while longer, she finished, and I agreed, meaning I wouldn’t be home for the holidays this year. It felt like COVID had finally hit close to home, but the initial shock faded, and eventually in its place grew a recognition of my relative privilege. We certainly were lucky if the worst that we got from the pandemic thus far was one missed holiday and, for my brother, a month of not tasting his food.

Usually on Christmas Eve, I go with my parents and my brother and we gather with the rest of a large extended family, and we do our Italian-American/Roman-Catholic traditions like eating Seven Fishes, but not ‘meat,’ though I’m not sure why (was Jesus a pescatarian on his birthday?). For dessert my favorite is Grandma’s honey-and-sprinkle covered struffoli, and my other favorite, fresh cannoli from the bakery. After all the courses were served, we’d wait right until it struck midnight, Christmas Day!, to open presents. There were other traditions I was less proud of, like spending more time playing my cousin’s copy of Guitar Hero than I did talking to family, and as I got older, more time instead on my phone. But this year, I was stuck in Western New York, though I don’t mean stuck entirely in a bad way. It was nice to be there even if it wouldn’t be the Christmas Eve spent among the many Anthony’s and others that I called family that I was used to.

What made it a stranger Christmas Eve for me still, being the sheltered suburban child that I was, was that Dave — the name I eventually worked up the courage to call my partner’s father — had recently shot a deer. That meant we had meat to get into the freezer before it went bad. So he proposed to me, my partner, and her brother “well, we can all hang out and talk while we put it away. It will be quick, and fun to do together, and I know you're interested in learning about venison, Nick!” to which I could say nothing but “well, sure, Dave!”

Before we started that task, my family and I had a brief moment to chat on Zoom. It was sort of sad, seeing everyone trapped inside their little boxes on my screen, no scrod or struffoli to be seen, not to mention smelled or savored. I didn’t realize how much I had taken it all for granted, the privilege of always having good food and a loving family. I was well-aware of the irony of this situation; here I was, wishing I was with family, while in the past when I was there with them, I was often on my phone or playing a game, effectively saying ‘I wish I wasn’t.’

After the call, we went out to the garage, with its walls lined with antlers, where we set up and began. Down at one end of an old folding table, Dave took some meat and wrapped it in a square of plastic wrap, which we ripped off a roll and handed to him, while at the opposite end of the table, we wrapped the plastic-wrapped meat once more in a square sheet of thick freezer paper, taped this shut, jotted down the date, and then stacked these now block-like hunks of meat on top of one another in a milk crate to later be put in the basement freezer, and then eaten throughout the rest of the year.

An unusual place for me to be on Christmas Eve, for sure, but the strangeness of it all got me thinking. While at this point I had been a vegetarian for a while, and a very bad one at that, it was only since the pandemic had started that my partner and I had begun cooking most of our meals for ourselves. And only then had I been forced to think even a little bit meaningfully about where my food came from. And here now, albeit wrapped in two layers of packaging, was a once-living animal in my hands, one that wasn't raised in a factory farm but that had lived its life within a few miles of here and that was probably shot out in the woods behind this house. And while I had spent all semester learning about how the experts say we need a low-meat diet to save the planet and reduce incidence of non-communicable diseases and so on, this was surely different. I’d probably have a much smaller impact on the world eating this hunk of meat compared with the usual pescatarian Christmas-Eve feast, or perhaps even an organic, vegetarian meal sourced mainly from California or somewhere else hundreds of miles away. Either way, I certainly would have a much greater connection to the food: the actual animal, not just the McNugget-ified version of it. I hadn’t shot the deer myself, and I doubt I ever will shoot one, but at least I knew where it came from, and felt for sure that it was alive at some point, and that it didn’t live a horrible life in some shit-covered CAFO.

Whether I realized it then, or only later with some hindsight, it’s clear to me now that on Christmas Eve and most other days I was quite disconnected, not only from my food (where do you even get seven types of fishes?), but from the world around me. My habit of mindlessly stuffing my face doesn’t exactly make me privy to appreciating the journey the food, whether plant, animal, or chemical for that matter, had to undergo to get from the farm (or factory) to my fork. Give me a cell phone with friends and flashy feeds and the world around me, the people, the food, and the beautiful if sometimes silly traditions that the food came from, is practically gone.

So here’s the funny thing — COVID-19 made it so Alex couldn’t taste anything, nor could he safely be with the family on Christmas Eve, but you don’t need the virus in order to quarantine yourself away from the reality of what you eat and the people in your life. In fact, you can shield yourself from pretty much any reality if you try hard enough. The world has a whole lot of realities that we’d rather not face, but if we don’t face them all we can do is bury our heads deeper in the sand.

Sometimes it takes a pandemic, a few year’s time and a few hundred miles of distance for you to be able to perceive things with clarity, when those habits and traditions and foods and people are so familiar to you that you become blind to them – but then again, sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe we don’t need all that to see things for what they are. My point isn’t that we can only eat right if we shoot it or grow it ourselves, nor am I glorifying mindfulness, vilifying phones, or disputing expert advice. I think all I’m saying is that this story taught me a little lesson, and that lesson is that there is virtue in being grounded in the world, which for me means giving up video games and contributing to a meal, a conversation, or when the chance arises, venison-wrapping instead. It means recognizing the privileges that I hold and the damage, or good, that my choices can create – and to do this, I think the story asks that we peel back the fancy food packaging and see past the screens and silicon in our pocket, that we dig our heads out from under the sand to see if we are missing something important. Maybe we have to work on knowing not only where our food comes from but also where we come from, where we fit in, and where we have to go from here.

 

About the author

Nick Sutera ‘22 is a senior majoring in Environment & Sustainability, Psychology, and minoring in Community Food Systems. His interest in food and food systems began during the pandemic, when he was forced to start cooking for himself and to think more about where his food came from. He spent the first summer of the pandemic getting his first experiences with agriculture, WWOOFing on a farm near Seneca Lake. Nick's passion grew when he came back to Cornell and took classes like Agriculture, Food, Sustainability, and Social Justice. He was excited to find the CFS minor that same year, and for his practicum, he was lucky enough to be one of the four managers for the 2021 season at Dilmun Hill, Cornell’s student-run organic farm. In his time at Cornell, he was active with Climate Justice Cornell (CJC) during its fossil-fuel divestment campaign, and is now a recovery officer with Cornell Food Recovery Network (FRN).

Read the entire Community Food Systems 2022 narrative series.

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