J. Peder Zane

Finding our touchstones inside a cultural tsunami

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My eyes still glaze over like a honey-baked ham at the end of a fine meal. But now they also do it even before the appetizer, when the cheerful server provides the now standard discourse on each course.

The achingly earnest spiel almost always includes something about local farms with patrician names, the handcrafted magic behind house-cured meats, the royal lineage of the pork chops and the birthplace of various and sundry beans (including green, cocoa and coffee).

As this waterfall of words washes over me, I feel both lost at sea and absolved. I may not know what the servers are saying, but I know what they mean: The food I am about to receive is real; it is not just authentic but an antidote to crushing modernity. In a plastic world of dizzying change driven by anonymous global forces, my kale salad and coq au vin are manifestations of deeper truths that I can feel, taste and know. Prepared for me – me! – by caring people, they are touchstones of abiding things: my local community and the bounteous earth.

That’s what I’m hearing anyway.

I see this same grand spirit in what’s being dubbed the hottest trend this holiday season: handmade presents. Although plenty of Xboxes and iPhones will be exchanged this month, a recent story in The N&O noted that “when it comes to this season’s hippest gifts, it’s all about handmade jewelry, scarves, home furnishings, all-natural soaps, beard balms and, well, you name it.”

The article reports that millennials (often defined as 18- to 34-year-olds) are driving this trend. As the first generation reared in our modern high-tech world, these contemporary Holden Caulfields are rebelling against the phoniness of mass consumer society even as their eyes remain glued to their cell phones: “They like things that have been recycled or re-purposed. They like local products. They like products that are made in small batches.”

In fairness, studies show that millennials shop at Wal-Mart more than any other store. And the ranks of young people creating handmade items for local shops and large online retailers such as Etsy may be swelling because many can’t find decent jobs.

But it also seems clear that they are driving a very modern movement seeking answers to ancient questions: Who am I? What am I? Where do I fit in? They – and even older folks like me – are trying to lay down roots, to find wellsprings of meaning and identity in a fast-changing country increasingly unmoored from the traditional anchors of family, faith, ethnicity and nationality.

Seeking shelter in homespun comforts

As these foundations fray, the globalization of trade, culture, immigration, climate and so much more provides daily reminders of how our lives are shifted and shaped by forces that are not just distant but obscure. We don’t see the butterfly, but we sure feel the storm.

Amid these surging changes, it is not surprising that many Americans are seeking shelter in homespun comforts. I came across a microcosm of this in an article about the Southern Season food shops in Our State magazine. When it opened in 1975, the article reported, Southern Season was a coffee roaster that specialized in “tough-to-find ethnic ingredients.” Now, as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, “international has lost its luster, and local gleams. What distinguishes the company today is a devotion to neighborhood producers, like Raleigh’s ABC Pie Company, Chapel Hill Toffee, and Durham’s Big Spoon Roasters.”

Make no mistake, Americans still love sushi, burritos and hummus – especially if they are made fresh, with local ingredients.

This movement – which also makes the idea of solar and wind energy so appealing – is, of course, just one response among many around a planet whose inhabitants are struggling to adapt to modernity’s creative destruction. The civil war raging through much of the Muslim world, for example, is one doomed effort to reassert older forms of meaning and identity. So, too, are the nativist sentiments rising in Europe and the United States.

In this context, the embrace of artisan, handmade, small-batch craft products is a sweet and joyous response to a cultural tsunami. Searching for meaning and expressing values through what we eat, wear and buy might seem shallow, a testament to the inescapable power of consumer society. But to my mind there is nothing deeper than the urge to connect with others and the world around us.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.