How Michael Carolan broke down political barriers by asking middle-class people to pick berries

The author of "A Decent Meal" watched conservatives change their opinions on immigrants through his research

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 26, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Freshly baked Blueberry and strawberry American Flag pie with a slice missing (Getty Images/DebbiSmirnoff)
Freshly baked Blueberry and strawberry American Flag pie with a slice missing (Getty Images/DebbiSmirnoff)

If fixing the anger and inequity in America was as easy as just bringing people together to have a few beers or share some barbecue, we would've moved to all picnic economy by now. That's why Michael Carolan's "A Decent Meal: Building Empathy In a Divided America" doesn't open at a table, but instead, in a strawberry field.

There is something undeniably profound about the common language of food. When deployed creatively, it can bring us together in unexpected ways. And if can be a jumping off point for our understanding of thorny issues like class, immigration and health. As Carolan, a professor of sociology and academic whose previous books include "The Food Sharing Revolution" and "The Real Cost of Cheap Food," describes it, his "strawberry study" participants learned about the experiences of immigrant strawberry pickers through actually doing the same labor themselves over the course of a day. It was action that changed their understanding of the issue, in a way that a sharing shortcake cannot.

Salon recently talked to Carolan about food's evolving power as a "Trojan horse," and the tricky politics of eating in America today.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You say very early on that this is not a "Come to the table" book. 

I have some concerns about the overly optimistic view about the power of not just dialogue, but the assumptions about what allows people to come to the table. There's a lot of hate and vitriol and terrible things going on in the world. It would be disingenuous to make the assumption that we even should be bringing some folks around the same table, given the power inequities and the hate and the fear that exists across populations.

I give the example — having a white supremacist and an undocumented immigrant sit at the table is problematic on a lot of levels, and ignores some very fundamental power inequalities and legal inequities that would make it risky to have these sorts of conversations. It ignores the fact that the people that are willing to come to the table, in my mind, are already more than halfway there. The premise of bringing people to the table is not that they should be brought there by gunpoint. The premise is that they actually come to the table on their own will, or at least they're incentivized in a way that makes them want to choose to come to the table. What happens to allow those people to actually want to do that? There's a lot of cost towards one's identity, time, et cetera, and I want to know what allows people to bring themselves to these spaces.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

You explore in your prior work, and certainly in this book, the idea of food as a conduit to looking at things like immigration, race, poverty. This is not a new concept, and people love watching TV shows about "If we could understand how people cook, we can come together." Some of that's true, but also I know a lot of racists who love Mexican food. Tell me what you see as the particular points of entry to social issues that food can help us understand.

I find food a very interesting way of disarming people. You might even call it a Trojan horse. I know that metaphor has some baggage, but food has this quality where it doesn't immediately evoke an elbows-out sort of response. Whereas, with the "going to the table" metaphor — if you were to bring people to the table to talk out their differences, it would be very defensive and it would be a different conversation than if we were bringing people to a community-supported agriculture space where they're working with their hands, growing food, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics in most cases.

RELATED: Padma Lakshmi's political "Taste the Nation" food series could not have debuted at a better time

For various reasons, there's a wonder associated with food, and that wonder is expressed and realized in very different ways. It can bring very different people into these very similar spaces and allow them to have conversations that are not immediately politicized, and to begin that process of treating others like humans and not as a liberal or a conservative.

I find food as having that very interesting quality. There's other cultural forms that have that as well, but food really just seems to be one obvious point where we all have an interest in it.

And it provokes positive, we hope, emotional responses, which are immediately disarming. We're less defensive when we're relaxed, and when am I more relaxed? When I've got a bowl of spaghetti in front of me. But there are other ways of getting to that point. You talk about studies that you did, and these different ways into that conversation. You open the book with a strawberry picking exercise. Why is that how we enter this world with you?

The book for me was also a journey, and this is how I tend to do my research. I reluctantly call myself a scientist because often we're trained to come in with research questions and that presupposes a whole host of things and immediately puts blinders on. I just often like to go in and observe and experiment and do things and let the research question and the data come to me and speak through me.

I'm very interested in knowledge sharing and different types of knowledge, which speaks to the point about how food evokes a positive, emotional response. This was an early study where I wanted to see if picking berries — doing something physical — actually shaped how knowledge was being processed and absorbed, or resisted and rejected.

I followed some different steps in terms of giving people information and knowledge a traditional way, by giving them handouts and letting them watch documentaries. Then I had them just go out and start picking. I was struck immediately how this physical act, these emotional relationships with the process of doing physical labor, changed how people thought about things. It changed even the cognitive process itself, in terms of what was allowed to slip in and what otherwise would've been filtered out by the well studied process of motivated reasoning.

And the photos [participants took] were really powerful in terms of how they very clearly, to me, showed a cognitive change in terms of what people were seeing and how they were understanding what they were doing over the course of the day. Initially it was the selfies and the Ansel Adams in them coming out, taking landscape pictures, then later really focusing on the physicality of what they were doing.

I then wanted to explore that more and one study led to another, which led to another, and eventually I had a book and I felt I had enough to be able to tell a compelling story about how we process information and how maybe we need to rethink that. What I'm saying is not new, it's been said by others, but I think what I bring is unique empirical data. It was the beginning of a long journey for myself too.

Using our connection to our bodies and to our food and to the process of food is a really interesting way into the social aspect of food, but there's also that cognitive aspect of this as well.

Agreed. A lot of the folks doing this are cognitive phenomenologists and other people who are not qualitative social scientists. I was hoping to bring a different set of data. I mentioned in the book repeatedly about how you have these cultural warriors who seemingly out of the blue have an incredible change of heart, whether they're conservatives who once opposed gay marriage to then having a loved one come out and how that radically changed them, to a racist in Germany who led xenophobic parties and suddenly had a change a heart and started to fight for social justice for the Muslim communities they were demonizing.

These cases can be pointed to around the world, but we don't seem to have a very good understanding of what led to that. I'm trying connect various kind of scientific literature with anecdotal stories that could be learned from to tell a broader picture about how we might go about changing our cultural and democratic dynamics here in the States.

That's the question that we keep returning to — how do we change things? How do we make them better? How do we change people's minds? How do we have productive conversations? Talk to me about some of these studies that you did, this research.

We know a lot about what's called motivated reasoning. We filter out what goes against what we believe to be true, and that has a way of creating echo chambers and perpetuating beliefs, whether they're true or not. How can we break down some of that motivated reasoning and get through some of those filters? It's important say it's not just about embodiment and it's not just about facts — facts do still matter, but they matter in a particular context, which I think is where the really interesting cognitive neuroscience is pointing to as well. We still process information, but we have to understand why we let certain things in and not others. I wanted to try to unpack that as a social scientist, to think about how our social situations can play a fairly big role in terms of shaping the feel and look of our filters.

My profession is not communications. I study people and I try to connect the dots, and I'm very reluctant to be too prescriptive. While I reluctantly call myself a scientist, we're not trained to tell people how things ought to be. One of the lessons I glean from this too, is that we immediately want to go do what lessons can we draw from books. But I think it's also a story about prevention too. I think that's probably where I'm most hopeful.

I certainly think there are cases and instances where you can put people in certain relationalities and have them come out different from how they came in. But it also speaks to some very practical policy implications and ways in which monies can be spent at various levels of government for prevention. It speaks to how schools are organized and the types of experiences we allow, how communities are organized and the importance of moving away from the segregated communities that we have today to allow for these types of experiences to happen. If there are lessons, it centers around prevention.

Food is food and the experience of eating is so universal and so understandable by everyone that there is this common language. Yet everything around food is extremely political, and that's what makes it so intriguing and so rich in possibility.

It's a fine line to walk because from the fields that I come out of, we focus specifically on the politics around food and the divisiveness around food. It might surprise people who are not steeped in this world I live in to think about how it might even be controversial to think about food as a uniting factor when there is so much literature about how it is very divisive as well. Being aware of both of those tensions is really important, because if we focus too on too much on food and ignore the divisiveness of it and how it's also used to separate, then we're not getting anywhere and moving the conversation forward in a productive way.

What are you working on now?

A colleague here at Colorado State University and I have been provided resources to create a food systems institute for research, engagement and learning. Our charge is to be one of the best, if not the best, food systems institutes in the world. Right now we're building that up. 

We're hoping to take some of the lessons from my book. One of the things we're working on is the cultural and political divide that exists in our own state. We have counties that are wanting to secede. We have a rapidly growing and wildly affluent front range, and we have rapidly shrinking and wildly unaffluent, rural and frontier communities that exist in this state. There's some very interesting tensions and dynamics, and food comes into this. One example is that Denver, like many cities, has its own urban food plan. And as most cities, these urban food plans are created with very little input from the countryside. The politicians in Denver are not responsible to the rural taxpayers.

It's not surprising that the interests of rural communities are not necessarily at the forefront of these conversations, but it does ask interesting questions when Denver talks about increasing fresh fruits and vegetable consumption and lean meat consumption. It begs the question of where this food will come from. One of the things we're trying to do is think of ways in which Denver — and hopefully this research and this activity can be translatable across sites — can achieve its urban food goals in a way that actually benefits or minimizes the harm of rural communities.

More food culture stories: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

A Decent Meal Anthropology Interview Michael Carolan Politics Psychology