Amazingly researched and written history of the African-American/black migration from the south to the cities of the north, midwest, and west. Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, and journalists doing history usually drives me crazy. But she knows her stuff, can research, and can write--and her journalism background is undoubtedly useful for doing good oral history.
Wilkerson follows 3 black adults who left the south for somewhat different reasons (to escape to safety after his activism was well known, to achieve his dreams of being a top doctor, and to escape a life of sharecropping), in different decades, from different places, and for different destinations. The three did not know each other and came from fairly different backgrounds (educated but trapped in menial work, well educated, and sharecroppers)--but all lived under Jim Crow and had dreams for themselves and their children.
This book should be required reading for all Americans. It is moving, depressing, hopeful, and more--all at the same time. And it explains a lot of things Americans see every day--from segregated neighborhoods to crowded southern restaurants.
More a biography of Will Allen than a manual (of any kind) for growing food, this book is inspiring and shows that hope is out there for underserved communities.
The son of parents that fled the south and sharecropping for Maryland, Allen still grew up helping his dad in the garden. Though his mother never achieved her dreams of being a teacher, she did get to see her son go to the U of Miami to play basketball. And Allen has successfully leveraged all of his "failures" into a different form of success. With his NBA career stalled-to-over, he played 3 years in Belgium (and his wife and kids went along).
When the basketball part of his life was over and the family was settled near his wife's mother in Wisconsin, he took a sales job. And did his best and succeeded. When he got bored, he switched companies, and again did his best and succeeded. And when he realized what he really wanted to do, he went for it. Back to farming, but with the goal of bringing fresh food to the urban poor.
In the process he has been nearly broke, he has given people chances, he has made great friends, he was been named a McArthur fellow, he has gotten grants and even support from Walmart (which he accepted, because refusing money will not help those he is trying to help).
I really wonder if Allen and Joel Salatin have ever met. They are trying to do very different things, but I think they would each approve of the other's goals, and of the other's methods. Both share the closed-loop ideal.
Most importantly, Allen has successfully spread his knowledge and shared it with those doing similar things across the south and in Michigan. It is exciting, though the whole process moves so slowly.
The story opens with Lars Thorvald and his virginity due to his long-standing family affair with lutefisk. Finally in his 20s, he falls in love with Cynthia over pesto. Their daughter, Eva, is born in 1989 and Lars immediately starts her on a life-long food journey with pureed shoulder roast, among other things. Unfortunately, Cynthia is considerably less interested in her own child and soon exits the picture. Adding to that, Lars passes away soon after and Eva is raised by her loving, but less food conscious, aunt and uncle. The rest of the story shows how she rises in society through her incredible palate and food sense.
This story started off very interesting and stayed that way until about the half point. At roughly 50% of the way through the book, Eva is no longer the main character, but rather a side character that the main characters are all talking about. Because of that shift, I found the second half of the book way less interesting. The entire book is made up of connected stories. Each story could probably be read on its own. While this worked for the first half of the book, where each of the stories featured Eva, it didn’t work so well for the second half of the book.
There’s tons of great food in this book and anecdotal info on how to make such great food. I loved watching Eva explore the foodie world, especially after she got a job at a decent restaurant. As a kid, she had this crazy tolerance for hot foods and because of that, hot peppers were the things she explored first. From there, it went to tomatoes, and then fresh caught fish, and onward. Eva’s love of food takes her into circles she never expected to be and her honest unpretentiousness makes her an oddity in the foodie world.
Eva’s also got this whole convoluted family thing going on. She’s raised by her aunt and uncle, though they decided to never tell her she was adopted and for much of her childhood, she knows them as her parents. Lars, her real dad, is in turn referred to as her uncle. Then we toss in the cousins Brock and Randy. For a while there, I was confused about who were the parents to Brock and Randy, but eventually that becomes clear. Brock is such a fun character! She’s a total jock and about 8 years older than Eva. She is so blunt! I just loved the chapters with her.
Later in the book, as Eva becomes less of the focus, the chapters explore more and more how people use food to separate themselves from others – a kind of food snobbery. There’s some very interesting characters in these chapters but I never got attached to them like I did with the recurring characters in the first half of the book. Finally, Eva and some of her friends have established this elite pop up exclusive supper deal. They pick a place, set up a guest list, charge a large amount of money, and serve a really decent meal. Then they clear it all away and do it again when they want to. The on-line waiting list is long and can take years to get your name called. While I found this a very interesting idea, we never get to see what Eva truly thinks about it all because she’s no longer the focus. I was a bit sad that we no longer had access to her thoughts on such things.
All together it was a quirky story with some highlights and a few memorable characters.
The Narration: Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg both did great jobs with this book. They had distinct voices for all the characters. I loved Ryan’s voice for the character Brock. Both had that Minnesota Scandinavian swing in their voice for all the characters that required it.