Intro. [Recording date: February 8, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is February 8th, 2022. And, my guest is author and columnist, Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post. Her latest book and the topic of today's conversation is To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard. Tamar, welcome back to EconTalk.
Tamar Haspel: It's great to be back, Russ.
Russ Roberts: This is Tamar's second appearance. She was here in July of 2017. This is a--
Tamar Haspel: That long ago!
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I know. Well it's COVID and everything. There's a lot of things to make life and timing difficult.
Russ Roberts: I found this to be a very charming and surprisingly moving book. It is a story of what you call first-hand food. What is firsthand food?
Tamar Haspel: Firsthand food is anything you get dirty in the service of. So, it's anything you get with your own two hands. And, for a lot of people, that's gardening, fishing and hunting; also foraging, raising livestock. And my husband and I spent a decade-plus doing all of those things, and like you I found it surprisingly moving.
Russ Roberts: And, we're going to talk about that, but just some of the--your list includes things, you did all those things or have done.
Tamar Haspel: No, I did all those things; and I still do many of those things.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, we're going to talk about some of the details of that, but also how it changed you and how it made you think about food and where you belong in the cosmos. There's a lot of very superficial and entertaining parts of the book and some very deep and thoughtful parts of the book.
But, let's start with just the basics. You started with a goal of eating something firsthand every single day, right?
Tamar Haspel: We did. And, this was on the heels of a sort of a lifestyle u-turn. My husband and I lived in New York City. We lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and we ended up on Cape Cod almost by accident. The Internet was disrupting both of our professions, and we decided it was time for a change. And so, we traded in our Upper West Side apartment for a small house on two wooded acres on Cape Cod. And, when we got here, we started looking around and saying, 'Okay, well, what can we do here that we couldn't do in New York?' And, the answer was: All kinds of stuff. And, because I'd been a food writer for a long time, I naturally started looking at food-related projects. And all of a sudden, instead of writing about other things that--things that other people were doing with food--I could do things with food myself.
And so, the first thing we did was plant a garden. But, that just introduced me to the range of possibilities.
And, I thought, 'Okay, well, there's lots of fishing here. There's decent foraging. What if we tried to do this firsthand food project? What if we try and eat one thing every day that we get firsthand?'
And, Kevin who is extremely supportive of my--any venture that I undertake--and is also very can-do. When I remember, when I floated this to him, I said, 'Honey, do you think we can do one food every day?' And, he goes, 'Not a chance.' And, I'm, like, 'Who are you? And, what have you done with Kevin?' And, I brought him around. But, and that first winter, I have to say, was that we ate a lot of clams that winter, because there--we started doing this project in January, where there just aren't that many options. So, yeah: We still refer to it as our winter of shellfish.
Russ Roberts: But, it's a very shellfish winter, I thought. And I have to say that most people who move from New York to Cape Cod would be thinking about the things they can't do on Cape Cod that they used to do in New York. But, you went the other way. Very, very good idea. Was this kind of a shtick to start with, this one every day, eat something? Did you think to yourself, 'Well, it's going to make a great book,' and of course it has? And did you think it was going to be a year and now it's been, you say 12 years since you started it? Tell me about the--what was your thinking?
Tamar Haspel: Yeah, there was definitely a shtick element to it. And, this was--I was looking for a hook to write about these things. And so, the one-a-day part was definitely shtick. And I wanted to do it for a year; and I wanted to have a blog about it. At that point, I had no idea, sort of the importance it was going to take on in my psyche and that it would become a book. But I wanted a framework to write about these things. And so, that's what we picked. And, yeah, so it was more than a lark but not much more.
Russ Roberts: Now the book is short: It's 230 pages and it's a pretty big print. It could have been 600, if you had described all the problems you had in detail. It was nice of you not to go into too much detail there: you kind of hit the high points, which I appreciate. But, at one point you said something about getting something like 30% of your calories first-hand. How much of that calculation did you do and was 30%, like, the average? Like, what would be a high number in a certain month? Do you have any feel for that?
Tamar Haspel: I do, because I've done the math on all of these projects. And, yes: so we started off doing one food a day. But, sometimes it felt like, 'All right, yeah. We ate a tomato from the garden. But that's really no big deal. It's not going to make an impact on our daily caloric requirements.'
And so, as time went on, I started to want it to be a substantial part of what we ate. And, it was also sort of an exercise in seeing just how feasible it was to get a decent proportion of our calories ourselves. And, you know, we have a lot of luxuries that most people don't have. I mean, we have flexible jobs. We have enough financial security so we can make small investments in these kinds of things. You know, we don't have kids at home. It's a lot easier for us to do these things than it is for a lot of people.
And so, I figure: 'Okay, well, this is as close to, as I'm ever going to get to understanding, you know, subsistence agriculture.' And, because I write about agriculture for a living, that was an interesting part of the exercise for me.
And, so, yeah: I did at one point start tracking our calories. And not to the nth degree: this was a back-of-the-envelope calculation. 'Okay: we shot a deer. It was x-pounds' venison.'
And, at the end of the year, I would add up everything that we got.
And the year that we did best, we got around 30% of our calories from food--from food that we had gotten firsthand.
And, that surprised me, because I thought we would do better.
But it turns out so many of our calories comes from things I would never in my wildest dreams try and grow. Like, wheat. And, we don't have a climate for things like fruit and nut trees, which is where you can really make a big difference in your caloric intake. So, and, you know, collard greens just don't get you very far.
Russ Roberts: Now, on the program the last time you conceded--and you mentioned again in this book--that a fresh egg from a chicken in your backyard is, in a blindfold test, is indistinguishable from a store-bought egg. Which is enraging to many chicken owners, but appears to be the case. And, you could argue that all that really matters is the non-blindfold taste. The fact that blindfolded you can't tell them apart, it's not relevant. If you think it tastes better, then that's fine. But, what's interesting, of course, is that I think most people would assume that firsthand food tastes better generally.
So, why don't you quickly give a survey of some of the things that taste, like, radically better. Some of them taste worse, wrong kind of fish. You mentioned a certain kind of tuna, give us some of the--so, one other footnote: the word 'shtick' is Yiddish, I think. And it means kind of--it's a hard word to translate, but it's kind of a gimmick for a comedic effect or a special effect, I would translate it as. But, why did you want to do this? So, talk about what was--one answer would be: Because everything tastes better. But that wasn't really the whole thing. So, back up a little bit, tell us why you wanted to do it and then tell us what made a difference in the consumption that you thought was really magnificent, say, versus, 'Eh, not so much change.'
Tamar Haspel: So, I wanted to do it because it was interesting. And that's a profoundly unsatisfying answer.
And, when I first started doing it and writing about it on a blog, people would ask me why I was doing it. And, there was an assumption, a lot of the time, that we were doing it because we were interested in self-sufficiency. But we are absolutely not interested in self-sufficiency. Kevin and I are staunch advocates of interdependence. And, we think the world is better when we all get to trade things and we're not interested in building our own stockpile of food and protecting it against all comers. But to say, 'Okay, well, I thought it was interesting'--it doesn't really explain what's compelling about this.
And, it was only after I had done it for a number of years that I really understood what was so compelling about it, because I found my ideas about food shifting.
And, one of the reasons, as you say, one of the reasons a lot of people talk about doing these things is because you get better food. And, sometimes that's the case. So, some of our big wins--certainly fish. Fish that you catch yourself is better than fish--and, as long as you treat it properly--fish you catch yourself is better than fish that you get even--when I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we bought our fish at Citarella, which is one of the top fish markets in the country--probably in the country, certainly in New York. And, I figured this is as good as it gets. But it's not as good as it gets. As good as it gets is: You catch it, you ice it, you take it home, and you eat it. And that's as good as it gets.
But, you do mention: there is one fish that swims in these waters called a false albacore that is just not delicious, no matter what you do to it.
But, the shiitake mushrooms that we grew, wild mushrooms that you forage--some of them are kind of slimy and unpleasant, but a Hen of the Woods is delicious. Chanterelles, Black Trumpets are delicious. The pigs and the turkeys that we raised were delicious. Although it's hard for me to swear to that because they were so imbued with significance because we had raised them. So, it could be--I could think that those were delicious for the same reason that other people think that an egg from the chicken coop tastes better because eating things is more than about just the flavor of something, as you point out.
And, I will just add that nothing makes people matter with--of anything that I've written, the thing that infuriates people is when I say that all eggs taste the same.
But there are definitely some things that are not so good. And, if you've ever gardened, I'm sure you have come across these things. We raised some of the woodiest green beans, and sour blackberries; and some mushrooms, as I say, are really not delicious, not--but, here's the thing about--that isn't--that's not super-delicious about firsthand food is that it has an inherent problem. You have none at all until the very moment that you have much too much. And, that's sort of the nature of seasonality. And you have no tomatoes, you have no tomatoes, you have no tomatoes. And, all of a sudden you've got a bazillion tomatoes. And you don't think you're going to get tired of them until the third week. And, then you're, like, 'Ughh, tomatoes.'
And so, what you do when you have too many tomatoes--or, believe it or not, too many lobsters, and that happens--is you find a way to preserve them. And, some people do a lot of canning or drying. I rely on freezers because I think that's the best way to handle most of this stuff.
But, then that puts you in the position of having to use the thing that comes out of the freezer. And, at that point you've lost any advantage of freshness.
And, the thing that you're working with is probably not as good as the thing that you would buy in the grocery store, at least some of the time. And, I will vouch for that. And, especially: What if it stays in the freezer a little too long? What if the vacuum seal is compromised and the fish has a little bit of freezer burn?
So, part of first-hand food is learning how to use those suboptimal things. And, I got as much satisfaction out of making fish tacos with the compromised Striped Bass that was in my freezer for seven months as I did from the fresh Striped Bass coming out of the ocean.
And so, it's the first-handedness that calls to me.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned that you weren't about self-sufficiency. You have a very nice boat that you did not construct from scratch, in the book. You have a very good Ford truck that's large and can pull the boat. There's a bunch of other things you build though, although not the hammer itself--so, it's very clear that you're not a Luddite. This is not an anti-civilization shtick. It's a different kind of shtick. And, you also--
Tamar Haspel: You could stop using that word, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Sorry. Don't take it personally. Don't take it personally. But, you also point out that this is not--generally--generally, it is not a financially lucrative strategy in life. So, talk about that a little bit.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah. And, I've thought a lot about that and I've crunched a lot of numbers. And, there's a really funny passage in E.B. White's collection of essays called One Man's Meat. And, he wrote these when he moved up to Maine from New York and he started raising animals. And, this is with World War II looming in the late 1930s. And, at one point he decides to raise turkeys. Okay, this is a decision near and dear to me, because we did the same. And, he writes about getting the poults [baby turkeys--Econlib Ed.] and losing all birds but one to disease or predators.
And, by the time he adds up all of the money that he spent constructing the housing, calling the vet, getting the feed, he ends up with a $420 turkey. And, this is in 1938. It's nuts.
And, then there's a funny part where he says, 'And this is not factoring my time.' Now a writer's time is notoriously difficult to account for because sometimes it is not worth the paper he is not writing anything on. So, you can see why this essay spoke to me.
And, some of the things that we do, do pay for themselves. And I've run the math on the chickens. And, if you amortize a coop that's not ridiculously expensive, over 10 years of a flock's life, you will be ahead on eggs. Certainly foraging is a huge win because there's really no investment to start.
There are certain kinds of gardening that do pay off. And of course, the better a gardener you are, the better it pays off. We're kind of crap gardeners, and we have crap soil, so gardening isn't a big win. But again, those fruit and nut trees? Ooh, that's a big win.
In fact, the only one that is really not going to be a win is the one you mentioned, which is fishing. And, that's weird because the fish that you catch is some of the most valuable, first-hand food that you can get. I mean, Striped Bbass can sell for over $35 a pound around here when it's in season. But, you're never going to pay for the boat.
But, one of the good things about first-hand food is that most of it doesn't require much in the way of investment. Some of it is downright free. A lot of it is quite cheap. And, it's really only fishing when you start getting equipment and boats and trucks that you get into expense.
Russ Roberts: A lot of this book is about the acquisition of skill. And, one of my favorite episodes of EconTalk is a monologue I did on David Ricardo and Adam Smith and the differences of their ideas about trade. And, I start off with this example from Robert Frank, about how he lived in Nepal with a highly skilled person who could repair his roofs, kill a chicken, do a thousand different things; but he had a very low standard of living. And of course, it takes extensive--my argument in that monologue is that it takes extensive interaction with others--trade and the economies of scale that Adam Smith emphasized, not so much the comparative-advantage side that David Ricardo emphasized--to make life yield a bounty. To have a high standard of living.
And I thought it was fascinating--you didn't write about this, but I'll ask you to reflect on it now: You are an incredibly more skilled person than you were when, 10, 12 years ago, when you started this process. Just list some of the things that you know how to do. And, I'm just going to add that they're wonderous, and it's beautiful to read about your growth. But, they didn't exactly make you rich, because these skills require a much larger scope to, and ability to trade with others and to add capital. But, talk about some of the things you learned how to do in the course of this experience.
Tamar Haspel: It's funny because you're zeroing in exactly one of the things that was most important to me about doing this, and it was so compelling to me because--all right, I write for a living and I have spent many, many hours, many articles trying to be a better writer. And, I hope on a good day, I'm okay. But, if you ask me for a skill that I am proud of, I will tell you that I can shoot, field dress, and break down a deer. And, I'm proud of that because it was way outside my comfort zone. It was something I hadn't had any inkling of doing. And, it's a little embarrassing to admit, because, like, 200 years ago, any eight-year old could do that.
But, skill acquisition is funny that way, because it's not so much the magnitude of the skill. It's the steepness of the slope.
So, you go from knowing nothing about something. And, one of our first brushes with this was building the chicken coop. We didn't know jack about chickens. And, we went to the Internet, like everybody else, and looked at other people's coops and Kevin mostly did the designing and we decided how we were going to do it. And, then we got the materials and we built the thing and I learned to use power tools. And, I learned a little bit about framing and construction, and I made a tragic mistake on the roof shingles, but Kevin doesn't hold that against me.
But, I think that there is something about skill acquisition--and I have a long list of them. It sounds stupid to say, because it's such a small thing. I can filet a mean fish. I know a little something about gardening. I can identify mushrooms. And, I can back down a trailer. And, if you've never tried to do that, you're like, 'Yeah, big deal.' But, it was a big deal, because it's actually not that easy. It's not that hard. It just takes practice. It's not splicing a gene.
But, there's something about acquiring a brand new skill that builds you up. It buoys you, it makes you feel strong. And strength begets strength.
And that was one of the best things about this experience. And, it surprised me. Because, as you say, after, I've told you stop saying 'shtick,' I went in with sort of this idea that it was a little bit of a shtick; and it became this thing that gripped me. And so, do you remember--I'm sure you do--the Marie Kondo bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up? It was an international bestseller and I picked it up because I'm, like, 'What's all the fuss about tidying up?' And, Marie Kondo was on record saying, her clients went on after they used her method to clean up their house. They went on to ask for the promotion or change their diet, lose weight, get the divorce that was overdue, whatever it was. And I'm, like, 'Yeah, why? Because your house is clean?' But that's not why. It's because people take a problem that is in their purview to solve, and they solve it. And, that makes you big and bad and strong. And, that was one of the things that surprised me most about this whole enterprise.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's one of the things that's moving about it. And, I have to say most of the skills that you use in the book, I don't have. The ones that I have a little bit of, they scare me a lot, if you'd ask me to do them. So, if you said filet a fish: I've fileted, I don't know, probably three or four fish in my life. And, if you said, 'Oh, we've got company coming over. Why don't you filet these four fish?' My heart would shrink. My stomach would hurt. And, I'd think, I think 'I'm going to make, it's going to be a big pile of a little pile of--not a big pile--little pile of mashed up little pieces.' Not the kind you see at the store or that you've seen with a person on a boat who is skilled at it.
And, the idea of backing a trailer with a boat on it down a steep hill--that's one of the most frightening things I can possibly imagine.
I would be humiliated to be--if you told me I have to do I would pay any sum of money not to do that, to not to do it in front of group of people who have done it often and who are watching and going, and you know, 'Let's say, this guy put the boat over the edge, ruined his car, go down the hill, float his truck.'
So, the idea of mastery, I think is underrated in the human experience. And, like you say: You and I have tried to master this--a skill, called writing--that I have worked at, like you have; and with unknown, unmeasurable success.
But, these skills actually have a very tangible outcome. The boat is in the water and the truck isn't. Or, the filets look they should, or they don't.
And, all of those things, I think--and the fact that they have been part of the human experience other than the boat for hundreds or thousands of years is also part of the mystique and the power of the things that you did.
Tamar Haspel: As I said, it took me by surprise. And, part of it was that the, these were all skills that were alien to me. But, part of it was, they were of a different order than the skills I had been accustomed to acquiring, which had to do with mostly, what goes on inside your head. It's the life of the mind. It's how do I write better? How do I think better? How do I get a better handle on the issues that I write and think about?
And, you can do all of that in your armchair. And, I was a big armchair of aficionado, I have to say. And, putting your phone down, rolling up your sleeves, going outside, and doing a physical thing, something with your hands--and, don't get me wrong: these all require thinking, as well--but you have to execute. You have to use your body.
And, I had never done much of that. And, I probably never would have, if it hadn't been, for marrying Kevin. And Kevin is a doer. He always has been. And he had physical skills. There were all kinds of things that he could do that I had no comprehension of. And under his--I would say tutelage on some things, but certainly it was inspiring for me to see these skills in action--but there were some things that we learned to do together. He had never hunted deer, either. And, a lot of it was the pivot from just thinking, to thinking and doing.
And, I feel like it rounded me out as a person. It helps me connect with other people who do these kinds of skills, who have these skills, but also who do this kind of work.
We have a friend here, Gerald, who is one of the most skilled people I know. He does exquisite finished carpentry. And, he's a terrific fisherman. And, I watch as he is--he's an immigrant from Brazil--and he has just, he watches people and he learns, and he's just constantly acquiring skills. And, I'm like, 'I need to be more like Gerald.'
And, it has been--I mean, when we came here, I was, what, 45? And so, this is the sort of the kind of the time in your life where a lot of people are on the road that then they will continue on, up until, you know, you're done. And, to do something completely different in middle age that had me doing things that changed me as a person felt very, very satisfying. And, I keep saying this, I know, but it surprised me.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, it's beautiful. I would point out it's a luxury. You know, part of the lack of financial return to most of these things in small scale means that it's a bit of a luxury. It requires a certain source of income elsewhere to live the lifestyle that you have. But, having said that there are a thousand things you can pick. That doesn't mean you have to have 30% of your calories come from first-hand food. You could just try to add something now and then.
The book, obviously, reminded me somewhat of Michael Easter's book, The Comfort Crisis, where he talks about the Japanese concept of the misogi--I don't know if I'm pronouncing it correctly--but where you stretch yourself to do something that you try to do, you might not be able to do it. And, if you achieve it, you take the pride in it that you're talking about. That would certainly, for me, include backing a boat down a steep ramp into a body of water.
But, I do think there is something profoundly human about adding the physical dimension.
I am not a doer. I am an un-doer. I'm a super-armchair guy. Nothing I'd like more than to get--than to read a book and get better at reading books. And, it's been the main focus of my life--is, the inner life of the mind. And, I'm not ashamed of it. But, it's an interesting thing, especially as I get older, to think about the physical things that many, many people can do, and that are mostly have been part of the human experience for not just decades, but millennia. And the book captures that.
Tamar Haspel: Michael Easter and I, we're sort of friends and we've talked about this and the similarities between his book and my book, because they're both about pushing boundaries.
Now, he pushes them in ways that I just can't go there with him. He ended up spending 30 days in the remote part of Alaska and shooting an elk and carrying 500 pounds of meat [?]. I mean, man, that's beyond my ken.
But, it's actually an interesting point because it dovetails with what you said before, about how a lot of the things we do, it's a luxury. And, Kevin and I have time, we have enough money to do some of these things. We have flexible schedules.
But, one of the great things about first-hand food is that it's scalable. And so, on the one hand, you have Michael Easter going to Alaska and shooting his elk. And, then you come down from there and you have me going to Virginia and shooting my deer.
And then, there's some financial investments involved in fishing, but then you go down the scale. And, if you don't have much time, if you don't have much money, there are always options. And, that's one of the things that's great about it.
And, it doesn't have to be a lifestyle change to be interesting and moving and horizon-expanding. It can be something small that you've never done before. Put some herbs in a window box, get one of those crazy mushroom kits where you put it in the refrigerator and it grows. There's so many things that you can do that don't involve even having outdoor space.
And, there's a woman who writes about food--her name is Kat Kinsman, and she writes for Food & Wine--and she wrote this wonderful thing about growing a lemon tree indoors. And, so you have this citrus fruit growing in your house, and it's this smell and using those lemons. And, it's just a wonderful, wonderful piece.
And so, no matter where you are in your life--with your finances, with your time--you can fit something in and see if it speaks to you. I didn't go into this thinking it would be this big thing that would change me. It was just a fun thing to try. But you don't know until you actually do it. And, that's kind of, like, the running theme here: is doing.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk a little bit about death. One of the--there are two times in the book there, you really confront your food choice. You slaughter a turkey and you shoot a deer. And, I assume many of your friends from Manhattan--first of all, many of them, I assume, are vegetarian or vegan. The ones who eat meat would find it somewhat repellent to actually cut the throat of the turkey or fire a rifle at a deer. And, you also talk in the book very beautifully about how those practices you got good at--those skills--allowed you to interact with people who are very different from you politically, philosophically.
So, I'm curious about that aspect of it. First, talk about how you dealt with that emotionally, because it wasn't a light thing, it's clear. The book makes it very clear. But then, okay. So, it's not a light thing. It didn't make you vegetarian, though, or you're not a vegetarian. So, how do you--I'm curious about the social aspect of it, both with your new friends who are hunters, say; your old friends who find hunting disgusting; and also just how you came to grips with it.
Tamar Haspel: I think most of my old friends are omnivores. So, there wasn't so much that. But they certainly weren't hunters. And, the idea that you go out in the world and kill your own food is certainly alien to a lot of people who I interacted with in New York. And, I lived in San Francisco before I lived in New York; and these are urban people; and it just wasn't part of our experience.
And, when I started doing first-hand food, I didn't aspire to it. Because, I mean, if I'm watching a movie and somebody kicks a dog, I look away. On Wild Kingdom, I root for the gazelle. And, if you had told me when we started that I would learn how to use guns and I would kill animals, I'd be, like, 'No, I'm not going there with you.'
And, this is sort of another thing about skill acquisition, is that: you start in one place and who knows where you end up. And, at some point several years in, I decided, 'All right, well, I eat meat. I care about the lives my animals lead. And, in for a penny in for a pound.' And so, the first animal I killed was a turkey. And, we worked hard to figure out the best way to do it. And, I did it with great trepidation, but also with real commitment to doing it well. And, that's the thing about killing an animal, is that you have to be able to set aside emotions about it when you're in the moment, because what matters is that you do it well. Because there's something at stake. This animal's life is being taken and you need to be able to take it with minimal pain and distress and suffering. And, that needs--for me--that needs to be all I'm thinking about when that happens.
And, it was really hard for me. And it remains hard for me. And, now when we slaughter birds--I've killed a fair number--but Kevin kills more of them than I do, because he finds it less emotional. Whereas, he hates pulling: he hates cleaning them and pulling the guts out, and that doesn't bother me at all. So, I do that part.
But, you're absolutely right that this is something that connects me to a group of people--hunters--who I had had very little interaction with. But then, because at the Washington Post I write about agriculture, I talk to farmers. I visit farms and sometimes standing in the middle of the cornfield. And, we would both know there was a gulf between us, because most farmers in the country's heartland are Republicans. They're mostly older men. They're white. They live in communities where a lot out of the life [?]--excuse me--revolves around the Church. I write from one of these coastal elite newspapers. And, I'm so coastal, my socks are damp. And let's face it: Everything about me screams New York Jew. And, here's this guy whose experience is so different from mine, he's wondering about what I'm going to say in print about him and his farm. I know that we come from two extremely different ideologies. We just don't have a lot of common ground.
But, lots of farmers hunt, or they have people come and hunt on their land because deer are a perennial problem in the heartland. And so, we can often talk about hunting. And, I'll show him the picture on my phone of the last year I shot, last season, and he'll show me his. And, if you can talk about hunting, you can talk about guns. And, if you can talk about guns, you can talk about anything. And, it establishes a common ground.
But, this is the thing: it's not just about hunting. This is the thing about food, is that we all have this in common.
And, I'm so generally distressed about the state of public discourse, about poisonous polarization, about terrible nastiness and meanness and what goes on in the public sphere. And, I really want to try and lead with the things that we have in common. And, we all feed ourselves. We all want to eat better. We all want to be better. We all have this in common. We want to feed our children well. And, can't we just talk about that for a little while? And, then we can go back to all those other things. Maybe once we've made a connection, human to human, person to person? And I know it's all kumbaya, but I feel pretty strongly about it.
Russ Roberts: That's okay. I think there's always room for more kumbaya. I think kumbaya is underrated. And, part of book mentions the importance of being nice, which is also underrated. Easy to say, harder to do.
Russ Roberts: I'm just going to read--we've been talking about killing animals and as an economist, I couldn't resist enjoying this passage. You said:
Keeping humans fed is an animal-killing enterprise. Although vegetarianism keeps the evidence off the dinner table, the animals we don't see, killed by machinery, chemicals, and habitat destruction, are just as dead. I can't find reliable data on how many rats get poisoned each year to keep them out of the grain stores, but spare a thought for them when you reach for a dinner roll. Eating small pieces of large, carefully chosen animals might be a more humane choice than eating only plants. We'd need the rat numbers to figure it out.
For me, the question isn't whether we should kill animals or not kill animals, it's how to minimize suffering. I opt out of most conventionally raised meat because I don't like how the animals in our system are treated; my priority is to try to make sure the animals I eat have a decent life and a humane death. The decency of a wild animal's life is probably debatable, and some are undoubtedly better than others, but at least it's not a cage. As their death options go, a clean shot by a hunter is probably one of the better options.
That's very powerful. I assume, though, you have some friends who don't like any kind of hunting and don't find that passage interesting at all.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah. I think that there are people who don't find this compelling. But on the other hand, I've met a lot of people who are vegetarians or vegans who have respect for this kind of take on killing animals. So much of vegetarianism and veganism is driven by, I would say, revulsion at how animals are treated in our conventional meat-producing systems. And, most of the time when I talk to vegetarians and vegans, I don't get hostility. And, I've even had people who are vegan, come to my house and make an exception for the eggs from our chickens, the venison from the deer that we have shot, because of their provenance. And, if shooting an animal face-to-face is something that you just object to under any circumstances, I understand that, and I respect that. But, I have a slightly different take--but I think it's a take that is not an anathema to a lot of people who opt out of meat.
Russ Roberts: I'm the president of what's sometimes called a liberal arts college here in Jerusalem. And, we're supposed to probably think well of Henry David Thoreau. But I did want to get in your cheap shot against him. And, I recommend Kathryn Schulz's essay, which we'll post to, on Walden, and Thoreau's personal habits. But you say:
I am on record as believing that Henry David Thoreau was a self-important gasbag and Walden is unreadable, but he did say, "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
I have to say that, as a long-ago, one-time fly fisherman and having many other hobbies that require new clothes, for many people that's a feature, not a bug. But, say something about Walden or Thoreau in that quote.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah, talk about shtick? Yeah. He did it just for the sole purpose of fame and fortune. And, look, I'm not going to belittle that because, okay: there was an element of that in what I did, too. But, if you try and--have you read Walden, Russ?
Russ Roberts: Long time ago, and I've caught a trout from Walden Pond when I was about 14 years old--first day of the season. And, when I was living in [?], Massachusetts. And I've seen his hut there, I think.
Tamar Haspel: So, it is beyond me how this book entered the canon, because all he does is just assert how superior he is to all of his neighbors. And, it is, it is--it's unreadable. I do not understand why people are preoccupied with Walden.
And, so, yeah--but the thing about "Beware of enterprises that require new clothes," that, I have to confess to liking.
And, again, one of the great things about doing all this stuff is that, with the exception of fishing, you don't need a lot. You don't need to gear up. You don't need new clothes. You can just roll up your sleeves and get started. But, boats--boats and trucks--are the exception.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, of course that's for an ocean-goer. It's generally--although, surf casting, you can pull in a few fish. It's very hard--
Tamar Haspel: No, you probably can. And, that's actually a really good point, because if you're fishing from shore, fishing can indeed pay for itself. And, my husband and I live on a lake that's stocked with trout, and we can literally catch them out the back door. And, if we limited our fishing to that, it would pay for itself. But nothing pays for a boat.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, except for the pleasure you get from it and the fun of smacking the waves, and--yeah. Yeah.
Before I forget, I--just briefly mention that you can grow mushrooms. I didn't know about this, that you could take logs and soak them in water and let them get rained on. This is a crazy thing. And, then shiitakes, right? Which are delicious. How do you do it?
Tamar Haspel: This was one of my favorite projects that we did. And so, you can grow mushrooms. Well, if you go out in the world, you can see mushrooms grow out of trees because the mycelium--the part of the mushroom that you don't see--colonizes a tree, usually a diseased or a dead tree. And it thrives--it eats the decaying wood. And, you can make that process happen.
So, you buy these little dowels that are impregnated with shiitake spore, and you take an oak log, and you drill little holes in it, and you put one of the dowels in each of the holes. And then you stand it up and you wait--six months, a year. And, then it starts to sprout shiitake mushrooms. It's positively magic. It was, that, we were like, 'Shiitake mushrooms!'
And, then what happens is you can make a flush come because--I'm not explaining this very well. You can make the shiitake log flush by soaking it in water. And so, since we live on a lake; we put it in the lake for a day, and then we take it out. And, two days later, we have this huge--I have pictures of these logs that are just covered with shiitakes. And, it is one of the most satisfying things. And, those logs will keep going for several years.
So, yeah: You have one afternoon of pretty arduous labor getting all the little dowels in the little holes. But then you're done, and you get mushrooms for years. It was one of the best projects we did. And, it is one of the projects that pays for itself.
Russ Roberts: My dad, and I'll let you react to this, because I didn't sense any of this in your book. But, my dad was a very avid gardener. His father was a tomato grower. His dad was an urbanite from Philadelphia, Philadelphia on the streets. And, when he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, he became a tomato grower, and cucumbers and other things. And, as a boy, I remember having a good time in his garden. And my dad became an avid gardener. But I never became a gardener. My brother is. I don't think my sister is. But for my brother, I think most of the thrill of gardening for him is thinking of our dad and being part of that chain of self--you call it self-reliance. It's a beautiful--it's not about self-sufficient. It's about self-reliance: learning to acquire the skills we talked about earlier. And, making something come out of the ground from a seed, it's--like you said, it's a miracle. It's magical.
Russ Roberts: And, my dad--so I never became a gardener. So, it's not a way I connect to my dad. But, my dad took me fishing all the time. And, I have many, many memories of him sitting in our driveway after a fishing trip to Marblehead where we would row, like a 12-foot boat out into the real ocean. I was always a little worried we wouldn't come back, but we'd catch a lot of flounder. And, sometimes some other surprises with our friend Lanny. And we'd come back, and my dad would sit in the driveway and he'd clean the flounder. He, by the way, never fileted them. He's not a filet guy. He would just take off the heads of the fish. We would eat the freshwater fish, especially; and he'd take out the guts--but, not a filet guy, never passed that skill onto his son. But he did teach me to love fishing.
And, like you, I can't fish for fun anymore. I can only fish for food. I will fish if I eat the fish I catch. And, when I do, I think of my dad. And, part of the--I think what was moving for me about your book isn't just thinking about my dad. It was, this is part of the human experience: How we pull food out of the ground, out of the water, out of the woods is part of what we've been doing for a very long time as human beings. Regardless of technology, we still have to eat food in some fashion.
Maybe we'll get some test tube stuff coming sooner than later that we'll actually be interested in eating often at a reasonable price. But, most of the eating we do of food is primal. It goes back to our most--earliest--origins. And, for me, some of the thrill of my little experience of firsthand food is connecting with my dad, say. I didn't hear any of that. Do you have any of that in your life? Was that part of this experience for you at all? Or was it just part of this larger idea of the human experience?
Tamar Haspel: I didn't come from a food-procuring family. And, in fact, I opened the book with the memories of the little vegetable garden we had on the side of the house, which I barely remember--except for the mint, which was awesome. Because I was like, 'Hey look, you don't have to do any anything. It just comes up every year.' That was my idea of gardening.
But, the connection to humans I think is very powerful. And, I've actually looked to see if anyone has ever studied this, because whenever I meet somebody who gets any kind of food first hand, whether it's a fisherman or a gardener or a forger, I always say, 'Does that food seem different to you?' And, every single person says Yes--because I think this taps into this primordial human need to feed ourselves.
And so, it's an accomplishment of a different order. To me, it's not like acing a test or getting a promotion or selling a book. It's this other reptilian thing that itches, and you scratch it by doing this.
And, so there's this connection to everything that humans have done in the past that most of us no longer do. But there's a consequence for not doing it anymore. And, we have become increasingly removed from the sources of our food.
And, in some ways that's very good. Modernity has freed people up to be doctors and lawyers and engineers and writers because we don't have to procure our own food. I am not anti-modern. But, I think there's a downside when we lose connection with the actual plants and the actual animals that are the foods that humans thrive on.
First, we don't get this sense of satisfaction. We miss out on that. But also, we get disconnected from what a decent, healthy diet is.
And, I think as a population, our very sense of what food is, has gravitated away from the plants and the animals and toward the boxes and bags. And, one of the reasons I find first-hand food so compelling is that it can help shift the pendulum back. The things in the grocery store with--the colorful packages and the exciting punctuation--don't even seem like food to me anymore. And, you still can't leave me alone with a bag of Doritos. They still--they appeal to all the things they're engineered to appeal to. But that food is in a different category from the food I put on my table, the food that I feed my family, the food that is the bulk of my sustenance. And, I think we could all use a little more of that. And, so many people are trying to eat better; and this is one joyful and constructive way to try and do that.
Russ Roberts: We talked a little bit about self-sufficiency and self-reliance, acquiring a set of skills that allows you to procure your own food, grow your own food, hunt your own food, whatever. But, there's another theme in the book, which is about to cooperation between you and your neighbors and the people around you.
So, when I--some of my listeners may know I wrote a poem called "It's a Wonderful Loaf." And, it's about how bread--the millions of people who work to--forget the store-bought bread; if you make your own bread--millions of people helped you get to that point. And when I eat bread, and I say a blessing in Hebrew and gratitude for that, I try to stop and smell it and savor the fact that it is the product of not just my effort that brought it to my table, but so many people--not just in the production of it, but the knowledge that is embodied in that bread is also an enormous set of human connections.
And you--you're not, in this book, mainly taking advantage of that network, that's called a market, that coordinates the knowledge and efforts of different people. But it's much more tangible, because you've swapped things with people because you had too many tomatoes; but more importantly, I think, you've leveraged the knowledge of people who've shared it with you. So, talk about how that adds to your enjoyment or experience of the food.
Tamar Haspel: It adds enormously, because--you know, we talked earlier about how I'm not interested in self-sufficiency. And, one of the great things about this is that it's the opposite of self-sufficiency. It connects you to your community. We've learned more from other people who are better gardeners, better hunters, better fishermen than we are. And, in turn we try and pass our knowledge on to other people.
And, we've met people we would not have met otherwise--but not just meeting them, connecting with them. It's this whole idea of common ground; and we all eat, and this is something we all care about. And, yeah, there's--anybody who lives in a community like this, where a lot of people garden, hunt, fish, forage, taps into the sort of underground economy of the barter system--because that's one of the things you do when you have much too much.
We have friends that are in the book, our friends--Alan Crystal--who have this epic asparagus patch. And, you know, in the spring we'll trade eggs or clams or oysters for asparagus all day long. And, it's one of the joys of doing this. And, yeah, we get asparagus, but we also get to have Alan Crystal in our lives.
And, the most satisfying thing to me is to have people come to our house, and we feed them this food that we are invested in, that we care about, to people we love. And, you know, some of them are people who we've met through this enterprise, but then we introduce them to our other friends, and the people who have taught us to fish and to hunt are there--even when they're not--because their expertise is manifest in the pizza with the venison sausage on it.
And, it's sort of this antidote to bowling alone. And, this idea that we've become, you know, ensiled[?ensiloed?] in our own little in our communities or sometimes we just spend too much damn time in front of the phone. And this is a way to recapture some of what modernity I think has robbed us.
Russ Roberts: We talked earlier about how this--it's not an experiment--but this lifestyle change you tried to adopt into your life as much as possible of firsthand food is something of a luxury.
And, one of the senses in which it's a luxury is that you live on two acres of wooded land on a pond in Cape Cod, which almost by definition, 335 million people can't do--
Russ Roberts: Most of us have chosen to live in urban areas where--eh, you could grab a pigeon, or rat, but generally hunting is out. Fishing is pretty far away. Gardening is limited to your rooftop, maybe, or a co-op nearby. And, I wonder: I don't think we should romanticize agriculture. life in 1900 when 40% of Americans were in farming, it's a very hard life. It's at least 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week.
It's a hard life. It's a dangerous life physically. There's hard parts to it. It's not that fun.
We romanticize it when it's a little bit of your life. When it's all of your life, it can be a brutal or tough life, whether it can take a terrible toll--pests, etc.
And, you know, we've moved away from most of that.
And, most of that moving away I would say has been good in many dimensions of the human experience. We live longer; we have a higher standard of living. We have 3% of Americans or less now--about two-something on the farm in agriculture and that's a tribute to human creativity, technology and so on.
But we've also lost something. And, you know, given that it's unrealistic for most people to live on two acres, what are your thoughts on both the rural, urban issue that this is part of in some way? And also how a person who does live in a city can tap into some of the things you're talking about?
Tamar Haspel: Yeah. So, first, living in a city--which I did until the last 12 years. And, when it was actually when we lived in New York, that the light sort of went on about this. Because we did put a garden on our rooftop. We had whiskey barrels and we grew tomatoes and the building had skylights with these grates over it. So, we used them as cucumber trellises, and we grew some food there.
But obviously, if you live in a city, you're very limited to what you can do either indoors, community gardens, balconies, rooftops, or getting out of the city. And of course, in New York, there's fishing right outside your door. We lived on the Upper West Side, and there were piers where there were fishermen there all the time.
And so, obviously, your options are going to be limited by where you live but also, what kind of financial resources you have, what kind of time you have, what your geography and your climate are going to give you.
And, I guess one of the important things about this is that it isn't about the bulk of calories that you get--whether you get 10% or 30% or 50%. You can get 0.0, 0.3%, but that basal can really speak to you.
And so, it's not about quantity. It's about--it's the nature of the experience. And, you know, and a thing about modernity--because, and I've said it before and I will say it again and again and again, I do not want to turn the clock back on on modern agriculture. I mean, Kevin and I have had an oyster farm for 10 years, and I know what it's like to grow food for money. I know about the risk; I know about the loss; I know about the backbreaking labor, because I have done all of that. And, I don't wish that on anyone who doesn't choose to do it.
And we did choose to do it. But, again, that's a first-world choice.
And so, what I think I'd like to leave people with is the idea that: Yeah, modern agriculture has been great as far as freeing up the rest of us to do things that we want to do. It has made food affordable, it has made variety be variety accessible.
But it's also had a downside in terms of what our diets have become.
And, first-hand food is about reintroducing some aspects of that connection that people had to food up until, you know, the last hundred years without giving up on, you know, modern agriculture that feeds us. So, I guess I do want us to have the best of both worlds.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Tamar Haspel, her book is To Boldly Grow. Tamar, Thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Tamar Haspel: Thanks for having me, Russ.