A woman who wouldn’t stop asking questions, and her seminal role in today’s food fight.
Last spring, when hundreds of alums and faculty of the nutrition program of Columbia University Teachers College gathered to commemorate the department’s 100th anniversary, one speaker riveted the audience. Shoulders back, patrician chin jutting forward, Joan Gussow strode toward the stage. A recent octogenarian, she remains in remarkable shape.
“Good morning. I don’t come with slides,” the seasoned speaker quipped to immediate laughter. “But I have to say that if anyone told me 35 years ago that I would be speaking after a Manhattan borough president had talked about New York City’s foodshed, I would have thought they were smoking dope.” More laughter and applause. “So this is a thrilling moment for me.”
Thrilling because for the past 40 years-half her life-Gussow, a longtime occupant of the Mary Swartz Rose chair of the college’s Nutrition Program, the oldest in the nation, has been waging a tireless war against the industrialization of the American food system. Long before mad cow, avian flu, E. coli or the “diabesity” epidemic made headlines, Gussow foretold the impacts of the post-modern diet on public health, ecology and culture, “depressing generations of graduate students,” as she now puts it, with the news that “life as they knew it was not sustainable, and destined to come to an end unless we urgently changed our ways.” And along the way she didn’t just lay the foundation for modern-day locavores. She also challenged nutritionists everywhere to look up from their microscopes to see the cafeteria, the factory farm and beyond.
“In many places we have begun serious dialogues about the corporate malnourishment of our children,” she told the crowd last spring. “We have painfully begun to fix school lunch, and we have a family in the White House that is publicly committed to local, organic food and has begun digging up part of our national lawn for a vegetable garden. It is hard to not yield to a kind of heart-lifting optimism.”
But Gussow’s hopefulness was really just a polite intro, and in typical firebrand form she soon dropped a bomb: To a room of nutritionists, many of whom have long seen her as their matriarch, she announced that she had stopped introducing herself as one. Months earlier, while preparing this much-anticipated talk, she had shared with me a solemn epiphany: “I have concluded that it is highly likely that the science of nutrition is no longer improving things. The public is being influenced. But we’re not part of it. What people feel is not nutrients. It’s eggplants and peaches.”
These days, denouncing the perils of our food supply seems common-and like common sense-but Gussow’s been doing so for decades, and although most food activists today are echoing her ideas, a substantial number of her students and nearly all her peers once considered her certifiably insane for drawing a direct connection between the way we farm and the way we eat.
Gussow’s longtime colleague, and one-time student, Toni Liquori, who has been helping to infiltrate New York City school cafeterias with chard, sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole wheat pita and beans for nearly two decades-and now directs School Food FOCUS, a national effort to do the same in some 25 big city school districts-explains that back when Gussow was first preaching the real food gospel, “the world of nutrition was merrily defined as everything that happens to food after the swallow.” You know, the Krebs cycle, calcium absorption, metabolic pathways. But growing, transporting, processing and cooking the food? “That’s policy and economics and farming. And that was what Joan was interested in.” For a nutritionist, it was heresy. In interviews with people who studied or taught at Teachers College since the late 1930s, Liquori found more than a few people who called Gussow crazy. “They were angry. She was really upsetting the apple cart. She was a huge thorn in the side of the nutritionists who didn’t get it at the time.”
Yet Gussow was convinced that to understand human health, she must study soil, and worked tirelessly to persuade others in her field to take this perspective, challenging nutritionists’ obsession with, well, nutrients. While peers thought in terms of milligrams and prescribing pills and powders, Gussow turned her attention not to calcium and potassium, but to cauliflower and potatoes.
Her approach helped found a new worldview that has bolstered organic farmers, eco-conscious chefs, radical city planners and today’s most prominent food fighters. The placemats at the pioneering Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vermont, bear one of her many resonant quotes: “I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” In fact, because she published her food manifesto, The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology, way back in 1978, she is arguably the most influential food thinker many modern food enthusiasts haven’t read-at least directly. (See sidebar.) You might not have taken Joan Gussow’s class, read her book or even heard her speak. But if you’ve been inspired by the writings of Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollan, nourished by the cooking of Greenmarket-shopping chefs, eaten a food bearing the USDA’s organic logo, or even read this very magazine, you’re under her influence.
This is Gussow’s 38th straight year teaching her course on food and ecology at Teachers College to a packed room of would be nutritionists, as well as chefs, farmers, food writers, and city politicians who stop by to get schooled-it’s been attended or audited by just about everyone in the food decision-maker community, with 60-some-odd students, plenty of whom are seldom seen in a graduate class. And her lectures have become a sort of urtext, a playbook riffed on by the great food minds of the 21stcentury food fight.
Marion Nestle, the prolific chair of NYU’s Food Studies program, who was an associate professor at UC Berkeley when she first heard Gussow lecture in 1980, recalls how it electrified the Berkeley nutrition department: “She was the first, she was the first, she was the first.”
Barbara Kingsolver, who once gave Gussow a trifoliate hardy orange tree that still thrives in Gussow’s Hudson-side garden, says, “Her writings and creative thought have shaped the history and politics of food in this country.”
“Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought,” says Michael Pollan, “then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.” Pollan’s pioneering 2001 piece “Behind the Industrial-Organic Complex,” harks back to Gussow’s clairvoyant question from a decade or so before-an essay entitled Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified? she’d penned while serving on the nation’s Organic Standards Board from 1995 to 1999, in which she foretold processed food’s eventual co-opting of the nascent label. Similarly, the crux of Pollan’s In Defense of Food-”eat food, not too much, mostly plants”-was inspired by a like-minded essay Gussow wrote back in 1972. (Gussow’s happy to have helped along such writing: “He has a trumpet so much bigger than mine,” she says admiringly.) “She connects the dots,” says Pollan. “She has Often sent me down just the right path.”
Peggy Zamore, another former student and lifelong friend who has since devoted her life to bringing good food to under served communities, and who was one of dozens of disciples at a party thrown for Gussow’s 80th birthday at the Nyack Club in November 2008, perhaps says it best: “All these people are channeling Joan.”
PLANTING THE SEEDS
Gussow’s father was an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and when she was growing up there, orange groves and peach orchards still covered much of the land. During World War II, her mother bemoaned the scarcity of good vegetables after the Japanese farmers were sent to internment camps.
Young Gussow was instilled with an affinity for nature (a relationship that has in recent years morphed into love/hate, since ornate Harlequin beetles have destroyed her Tuscan kale and since she has trapped countless skunks to save her seedlings) and a penchant for hoeing her own row. She bucked convention once by planning to be a doctor-at a time when there were few lady MDs-and again when, after ultimately pursuing journalism and finding no good jobs in California, she boarded a plane for New York City. “That took about all my guts in the world,” she says. Armed with recommendation letters addressed to Time magazine, she landed a job as a researcher (“Women were never writers”), conducting interviews and dutifully placing a dot over every factchecked word. Food wasn’t yet her profession, but that first Christmas away from home she scoured Manhattan for fresh gooseberries, craving her mother’s signature pie. “Finally, in the German section, I got two cans of gooseberries for a price which was, then, about 20 percent of a week’s salary. Well worth it.” It wasn’t long before she’d be picking her own homegrown gooseberries.
In 1955, she met Alan Gussow, an abstract impressionist painter who was doing paste-ups at the United Nations for food money, with whom she would eventually buy a house, have two sons, and plant the sort of garden one would expect to find on a small farm rather than in the suburban backyard of young professionals. “We both had this thing about nature and food,” she says of their connection.
After Time, she stayed home for five years raising the boys, then worked as a researcher at Yeshiva’s Graduate School of Education, but soon decided to go back to school. “I didn’t want to work for any more great men and write their books for them,” she explains matter-of-factly. At Columbia she dove into a doctorate in nutrition education. Shortly after she defended her dissertation- which proved that people lied about what they ate-the newly appointed president of Teachers College confessed that he’d planned to make her chair all along.
Teachers College had grown out of a kitchen garden association formed by young women living in northern Manhattan in 1880, a collective concerned with the then-emerging field of home economics. Members studied sewing, cooking, selling and buying food-how to keep a household. In 1884, the association also began teaching boys and, in 1887, with the goal to train teachers who could carry the homemaking message outward, incorporated as the New York School for the Training of Teachers, to become an affiliate of Columbia University. (In its famous energy metabolism lab, white coats could measure the calories expended while playing the piano or eating a sandwich.)
In hindsight, Gussow’s rise at the school seems to fit this legacy of innovation. But it was only in a vacuum left by an abruptly departing department chair, in a subject area that had been marginalized by the medical profession and other sciences, that Gussow-40 with two young children-could behave the way she did. She skipped faculty meetings because she didn’t realize she was supposed to go. But moreover, she was all but innocent of academic etiquette.
“There was no one to tell me that there were things I shouldn’t ask about,” she recalls. “That eating and farming had nothing to do with nutrition.”
As a grad student, Gussow often found herself screaming silently against the reductionist absurdities in the field-a visiting lecturer asking for one more experiment on the storage of a given vitamin in starving children-and she’d recorded this anguish in the margins of her class notes. Now, she could follow both her instincts and her intellect. (“For a number of years I had a file on air pollution, despite the fact that I hadn’t yet decided what air pollution had to do with food.”)
“I think she actually likes the role of goading and challenging the profession,” says Isobel Contento, whom Gussow hired in 1977 and who replaced Gussow a decade ago as the chair of the nutrition department. “She has this ability to encourage people to change, to try new roles.” Contento experienced this first hand when Gussow asked her to go to Washington to testify at hearings on school nutrition. Contento declined: “I’m not the confrontational sort, but I did become more involved in policy.”
Think of Teachers College’s nutrition department as part academic think tank, part activist quilting bee. Jennifer Wilkins, now at Cornell and one of the nation’s leading researchers on the ability of regions to feed themselves, recalls rooming with Gussow at Society of Nutrition Education meetings 20 years ago, when Gussow would stay up into the night chatting with young students. “A lot of professionals or chairs of departments don’t give [students] the time of day,” says Wilkins.
Gussow was good at asking questions-her genius process of conceiving a conclusion and then finding the explanation is actually called pre-paradigmatic thinking-but she was even better at encouraging others to do the same. And the questions she emboldened students to ask went far beyond testing vitamins. Two students, Liquori and Peggy Ravich (now Peggy Zamore) dissected New York City school lunch menus, exposed the ubiquity and appalling quality of frozen meals, and got Gussow in hot water when the Times wrote about the renegade students (they would later be instrumental in changing the way New York feeds its kids). Another student researched the effectiveness of food advertising in subway cars.
“We formed all sorts of coalitions,” recalls Zamore, who was a 20-something grad student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health when she first met Gussow. Gussow later brought Zamore to Teachers College to help push the classroom deeper into the neighborhood: starting community gardens, taking city school kids on field trips where they learned how much fuel it takes to transport a tomato. “Joan was right next to us at every juncture, spurring us into action.” When Bryant Park was a drug haven, Zamore, with encouragement from Gussow, cleared the park, and set up “Food Day” booths under a large tent.
Teacher of Teachers
Nor did Gussow confine her influence to the classroom. Liquori says Gussow gave “an incredible number” of talks, many to audiences outside the academy. In 1971, Gussow testified before Congress, equipped with storyboards of Saturday morning cereal commercials. When her testimony was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education, handwritten letters from dieticians around the world poured in thanking her-and a food company CEO wrote Columbia’s dean calling Gussow’s behavior inappropriate. When Reagan slashed food stamps, she railed about it to a packed house at Riverside Church.
And in 1980, when Gussow toured the California coast meet ing the era’s gurus, Marion Nestle, who was teaching at the University of California School of Medicine, heard her speak. Gussow asserted that “you can’t understand how people eat without understanding the food and ag system,” Nestle recalls. “I learned that from her in that amazing lecture that hardly anyone came to.”
But soon audiences would be drawn in droves. Her ideas were revolutionary, her years as a researcher at Time, writing reams of background material, had honed her skills as a writer and she had the wit and confidence to deliver show-stopping speeches. “She always has the metaphor,” says Pollan. “That Anglo-American, Strunk-and-White, Orwell strain of plain speaking. She just kind of has this knife that cuts through so much bullshit.”
Those early eager audiences included many modern stars in the motley crew we now call the food movement, including farmers, environmentalists, community activists and chefs.
“Lightning struck for me when I saw a speech she gave called the Organic Twinkie,” recalled chef Peter Hoffman, introducing Gussow at a party honoring her two years ago at the Astor Center. He read from her 1978 book that still tastes as fresh as lettuce picked at first light, citing now-famous concepts she introduced, including food miles (decades before the word locavore was coined), fair trade (long before it was called that) and industrial agriculture’s indifference to degrading topsoil. “She was prescient, really prescient. There are now entire departments devoted to these ideas.” (The party menu included deviled Stone Barns Farm eggs, goat from Hoffman, and honey-kissed angel food cake pitched in by Michel Nischan. Rick Bayless took the mic to declare himself “a Joan Gussow groupie.”)
Other “groupies” now head major nutrition programs throughout the nation. Betsy Haughton speaks for many alums of the Nutritional Ecology class when she says she “took that course and changed direction.” Back in 1978 Gussow encouraged her to consider what a sustainable food system for New York might look like given probable future resource constraints; today Haughton is professor and director of the Public Health Nutrition Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Similarly, Jennifer
Wilkins says that when she took Gussow’s class in the ’70s, “I had this epiphany: This is exactly what I want to focus on.” “I was completely woken up,” echoes Gail Feenstra, whose dissertation under Gussow in the ’80s looked at why so little of the apples and lettuce in city produce carts was locally grown; today Feenstra is food systems analyst at UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute. And Rich Vergili, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, was inspired to design a similar class for his own students, to convert one of the school’s restaurants to a “locavore place” and to take some of the school’s land under the plow.
“To almost single-handedly take on the profession of nutrition,” says Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer who is also a professor at Iowa State University, and president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester. “That couldn’t have been comfortable.” Kirschenmann, who has been invited to the Obama White House to talk national food policy, says the American Dietetic Association is making “real strides” in areas of sustainability and whole foods advice, and those strides resulted partly from heavy long-term lobbying by Gussow.
“She’s very generous,” with her time and her ideas, says Pollan, who first met Gussow in 1998 when his Times magazine cover story on genetically modified potatoes prompted quite an outcry from agribusiness. They met over dinner the evening before he was going to speak to a group of chefs at the Culinary Institute of America. “She understood the game and what these corporate people had to do,” he recalls. “It was just the voice I needed to hear. It stiffened my spine.”
This Organic Life
When I call Gussow at home, I hope she won’t pick up the phone. That’s because I want to listen to her answering machine message, which she updates every few weeks: It’s a snapshot of her mental mood, the weather in the lower Hudson Valley and the gardening tasks behind and ahead-tweets that long predate Twitter. Last June her voice proclaimed: “You’ve reached the riverfront home of Joan Gussow on an absolutely beautiful day. And so far it’s been absolutely spectacular. I’d like to think June is still spring, because it makes me happy about life.” In October she declared, “It’s cooling off, though I haven’t yet dug my sweet potatoes.” And, in November, “I’ve dug my sweet potatoes, but I haven’t yet planted my garlic. I’m waiting for after the first full moon after the first frost.”
Gussow is celebrated for her life’s work in the halls of Columbia and on the boards of the Chefs Collaborative, Just Food, National Gardening Association and the Society for Nutrition Education, two terms on the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, a term on the National Organic Standards Board and a term on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee. She has delivered thousands of lectures and speeches and authored, co-authored or edited six books and countless papers, essays and op-eds. But despite these many academic, not-for-profit and civic accomplishments, she is as well known for her achievements as a self-declared suburban homesteader. She works her piece of land every free moment between spring and late into fall, and spends all winter strategizing how to do it better the following year. As much as anything else-a blossoming of small farms across America, city council people holding food summits, edible landscaping at the White House-it’s the never-ending rite of growing a garden that has kept her faith alive. And while the food cognoscenti may brag about dinners made from locally sourced food, Gussow hasn’t bought a single vegetable-definitely not a sweet potato, leek or pepper, all of which she grows prolifically- since most locavores were in diapers. Her current garden, which she refers to as “my bathtub,” because it is sometimes filled by the Hudson River, is roughly 1,000 square feet of beds raised by weathered boards she’s placed there one by one, separated by brick paths, and a wide central clover route to the river. There are endless trellises constructed of spare bits of fence, knobby sticks, pipe resourcefully laid across cider block towers-”I’m a child of the Depression,” she explains, “and had a mother who was tight to beat the band.” There’s a stocky, well-pruned Asian pear tree and Permaculture darlings like walking onions and poppies. There are dry-stack stone walls and decomposing mulch heaped up against the Hudson over many years. There’s a bench and an arbor and a birdbath.
In This Organic Life, Gussow’s 2002 memoir-cum-locavoreopus she recalls the thinking behind her previous garden, the 30- by 40-foot garden she planted with Alan in Congers in 1975: “Although it now seems obvious that vegetable self-reliance is possible in the Northeast-after all, the settlers did it with many fewer storage possibilities than we have-it didn’t seem that way when we started.” Years later, after they sold the house, she and Alan realized they needed to sneak back onto the property to dig up forgotten gooseberries, prompting their younger son to ask, “Don’t you think you guys are kind of obsessed about growing food?”
With her writing studio neatly perched overlooking her potato patch, gardening is both mentor and muse. She has a “crush on gooseberries.” She calls her Lenten Roses “gorgeous.” She regards her sweet potatoes as “giant gifts,” and grows mounds of them each year from slips she has rooted herself: “I just take a sweet potato, put toothpicks in it, and put it in a glass of water. The potato sends out roots in about a week and shoots follow. When the shoots get to a reasonable size, you break them off and put them in water. They root in about 20 minutes. I’ve never seen anything like it.” This 81-year-old who has stared down corporate titans, political misguidance and academic hypocrisy, heralds every garden innovation and success with the giddy enthusiasm of a schoolgirl. She recently discovered that vinegar-soaked rags offer plants rabbit protection. She cloaks her blueberries in Reemay (“Birds don’t smell”). Her “Tomato Glut Sauce,” which I first read about in This Organic Life, is a height-of-season recipe so effortless-it involves roasting chucks of tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots and whatev er else is available with ample olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and freezing-that I’ve made jars of it every year since.
Last year, while blight laid waste to nightshade crops across the country, Gussow harvested 60 pounds of spuds. “I never had a crop as disease-free as this crop,” she marveled before stopping abruptly: “Oh, shit, the woodchuck. God damn, I thought we had gotten rid of him. But now I see him right now. So I have to go out and hunt again. And put a trap out tonight.”
Wilkins, who was recently staying with Gussow, wrote me: “She’s always busily improving this garden. She’s out there with a bucket and some boards right now. For someone at 80, it’s remarkable and inspirational.” The river has cut short its share of harvests, and Gussow suspects that climate change could have something to do with the more erratic flooding events, but she has not given up. And she hasn’t stopped tweaking and improving. She confessed that she no longer composts, but rather buries the kitchen garbage under wood chips, eventually seeded with clover.
A certain amount of self-righteousness comes with practicing what you preach. But while Gussow glows with the lifestyle-”I experience irrepressible joy in tending to and eating from that part of the natural world to which I have bound myself.”-she’s neither a fanatic nor a purist.
Last winter, with my infant daughter in tow, I made a pilgrimage to Gussow’s riverfront Federal-style house with one side on Main Street of the sleepy town of Piermont and the other side stretching down to the river, with just enough distance from the busy Tappan Zee Bridge to be out of earshot of the traffic noise. In the kitchen a faucet drips occasionally, with a plastic pail under it-tolerable only because she’s been told by a plumber that repairing it would require replacing much more than just the faucet. She has fixed the top of one slipper with a Band-Aid. Most surfaces are covered with books and papers. Others are covered with harvest from the garden in varied forms-a bowl of her peas being dried for seed, some freshly dug potatoes. The artwork on the walls progresses from her late husband’s paintings in the entryway to a mosaic of family photos up the staircase and many food-related pieces in and around the kitchen upstairs, including several World War II Victory Garden propaganda prints and an old U.S. Department of Agriculture sign exhorting Americans to “Save the products of the land. Eat more fish-they feed themselves.”
It was Sunday and Gussow has made a ritual of a late breakfast of a fried egg sandwich procured at the deli down the road.
We entered the shop, where the staff recognized Gussow-not as a famous food thinker, but as a local-and made idle chitchat while our sandwiches were cooked and wrapped. Back at Gussow’s home, we both admired the marvel and simplicity of a fried egg sandwich-not questioning, for that moment, the origin of the eggs or wheat or bacon.
“I’m not a foodie,” Gussow says. “I’m the opposite of that. I’m a parsimonious eater.” She doesn’t like the flavor of processed food-and she paired our sandwiches with her famous ABC salad (apples, beets and carrots, shredded)-but she will eat it. She appreciates that in her later years she has experienced wonderful cooking at the hands of Rick Bayless, Dan Barber and other masters (though she confesses that, while seated at white tablecloth temples, she is occasionally presented with “these astonishing things” she’s not sure what to make of).
Draped in a loose cream hand-knit sweater, sitting in a big swivel chair as she peers out on the river, Gussow is Yoda-like; unfazed and perhaps vindicated, although she has no interest in vindication. “I like my ideas to be taken up and they have been, so I’m satisfied,” she says.
Age has dampened neither curiosity nor energy. As she will tell you herself, she is an amazingly fit 81-year-old. She is active in a local writing group. She serves on the village board. She has just sent a new book, entitled Growing, Older, to the printer. There is a chapter or two on her late husband. Another on butterflies. Lots on gardening.
“What did I accomplish today?” she asks herself with unwavering drive. If anything, time has quickened her resource. “I make lists more often than before. Because there are things I’m trying to get done.” She recently refurbished a “wonderful” fire-truck-red Texaco fire chief helmet, restoring to function the built-in microphone and speaker that hadn’t worked since her sons played with them. She was preparing it for a trip to her grandchild, the son of her son Adam. She will indulge her contemporaries in idle talk about grandchildren, but only to a point.
“I am thinking about moving forward and giving up nutrition entirely as a profession. It’s about food and we’ve learned nothing by talking about these nutrients,” she says. “All these years, teaching this course, I feel this responsibility to save the world.”
Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End. He planted his garlic last fall based on Joan Gussow’s recommendations.