Joan Dye Gussow

September 11, 2011

This week it could be “Peach Patch” in deference to another luscious fruit that came too late in Michigan this year, then disappeared much too quickly. But if you click back to last week’s blog, you’ll see we’re doing mini-icons this month, and you’ll also learn why there’s no anniversary theme to this week’s entry.

Here’s a person who is a genuine hero to me. I first became aware of Joan’s work through her book The Feeding Web, published way back in 1978. Joan was  campaigning then for a more holistic view of food issues, by which she meant that it was important to think about the way that food was being produced, processed and distributed, and get away from the idea that you can answer the question “What makes food good?” just by looking at a list of its chemical constituents. Joan was already a well-known voice in nutrition at that time, having conducted pathbreaking studies on early childhood diets and subsequent lifetime health. Since her retirement from Columbia University she has produced several books on gardening and eating well. She maintains a website that you can find here.

I met Joan pretty early in my professional career, sometime between 1984 and 1990. She’s a nurturing person who helped a number of us who were trying to craft out-of-the-mainstream careers survive in that soul-consuming monster we know as the American university system. Heck, we did more than survive. Joan was the icebreaker steaming resolutely ahead of us, challenging assumptions that desperately needed challenging in the 1980s and opening up a path for research and scholarship that could take a more balanced look at what people were growing, trading and eating. To use the language I was using in last week’s blog on food bloggers, Joan is reflective rather than reflexive. I credit Joan as one of a very few who made it possible for the Kellogg Foundation to think about setting up endowed chairs dedicated to diverse scholarship on food and agriculture some thirty years later.

The specific message I remember was to focus on eating whole foods. What Joan meant by that is to minimize the processed and prepared foods one is eating, which is pretty much equivalent to the rule of shopping around the edges of the supermarket, rather than down the frozen, packaged and canned aisles in the middle. It’s a simple rule that fits well with the CSA philosophy, too.

Joan saw this as contributing to a healthy diet, for sure, but she also saw it as a way to get people more connected to their food, and through that connection, becoming more aware of their relationship to and reliance on a broader natural world. She thought that this could be integrated with questions of fairness and justice to other people, as her early work had focused on the needs of particularly vulnerable children.

Joan has a new book entitled Growing Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables. According to the blurb, it’s about how she moved on after the death of her husband Alan in 1997. I met Alan once, but I didn’t really know him. He was a well-known artist, author and environmentalist, and I have enjoyed one of his books: A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land. I’m loathe to recommend a book I haven’t read, and in frankness I may not get around to Joan’s new one for some time. But for those Thornapple members who are willing to take a flyer, Everybody Reads does do special orders.

There’s a quote from Michael Pollan on Joan’s webpage: “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought, then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.” That could probably go for me as well. All of which should suggest that Joan does not belong in my sub-iconic month of heroes and villains. By all the lights listed above, Joan counts as a full-fledged food icon.

Well, maybe so, but she doesn’t seem to need the limelight, and that’s just one more reason I admire her. My sense is that if you’re deep into social nutrition, you’ve probably been influenced by Joan Dye Gussow, but otherwise you may not have heard of her. I also think she was better known thirty years ago than she is in the 4G world of electronic media.

I hope I’m wrong about that.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



One thought on “Joan Dye Gussow

  1. When it come to fish, I think the Pike is the best tasting. I’m not a big fan of eating frozen food from far away. If it’s delicious, I’ll eat it anyways! Fishing is the number one sport, and worth every second of it!


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