Turkey, Thrift, and Reciprocity

Everyone in this household is hungry for Thanksgiving food—turkey, cranberries, stuffing, the works. For I think the seventh holiday season, Jaxon and I are buying the bird from Callister Farms, a family of poultry farmers we met when they ran a small business at the Midtown Global Market a few years ago. Although that venture didn’t pan out, they still sell to local co-ops and do direct sales as well, via online or the farmer’s markets. Nice people, and moreover great bird. The first time I brined one of their turkeys, I made Jaxon take a picture because it looked like carved alabaster coming out of the saltwater.

Sort of a running “argument” with my parents involves the amount of money we spend on food, which should be interesting this year as they are coming to Minnesota to spend the holiday with us. Minneapolis-St. Paul is without a doubt a foodies’ destination, and we take full advantage. My mother in particular always shakes her head at the co-op prices, saying how much more they can get for their dollar at the big-box grocer/all-purpose retailer where they shop. (Last summer when we visited, I was a bit disconcerted by the large ammunition aisle, not terribly far from produce and dairy.) My pat response is that we prefer quality over quantity, I know the names of the farms where my meat came from, and I’d rather eat pasture-raised animals, eggs, and dairy than factory-farmed, processed food. She gets the point—20-30 years ago, she and my father were pasture-raising farmers in their own right, way before the Internet could have helped them. But, the issue of cost—and being able to get the best deals– always sticks with her.

As Jaxon would attest, I tend to panic over expenses, but really we both like good second hand shopping. We thrift damn near everything we acquire, including clothes, household items, and entertainment (viva cheap VHS tapes!). At the same time, I’ve really reached the conclusion that whenever possible I want my purchases to directly benefit the people who make and deliver the goods to me. The fact that it costs more forces us to be frugal, but that’s fine.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Jaxon try to build a clientele for his design business. He managed on his own for several years as a faux finisher and interior designer before the economy collapsed, and recently left his “temporary” retail job to return to the independent marketplace. I’ve always told him that he’s more artisan and craftsman than “typical” designer, and I think that’s made his work more challenging. By emphasizing relationship-building, getting to know the emotions and desires underlying people’s preferences, and focusing on how spaces feel rather than pushing the newest product lines, he harkens back to a way of doing business that I think some people understand, but others may find odd. While one of his objectives is of course to attract new business, the larger goal is to build relationships with people who appreciate the interaction that occurs between him, them, and the space they are creating or reshaping.

There’s a common thread here with my ruminations about food up above, which I can only describe as “reciprocity.” In a way it’s kind of old fashioned in that we tend to look more for reusable goods whenever possible, and prefer buying from people and places where our relationships already exist. At the same time, it reminds me of my old job working in volunteer management and fundraising for an AIDS organization. I think that with charitable giving it’s expected that the contribution will support someone’s wellbeing (directly or indirectly), and people tend to have a sense of the real-world value that their labor or cash represents when they make a donation. In this market economy however, we’ve gotten used to focusing solely on our consumption—we give money to the big box or online seller and we take something of value from it. The idea that what we give is helping to sustain someone else’s welfare (there’s a dirty word) is sort of lost in the complexity of the corporate enterprise.

It leads to a kind of paradox, doesn’t it? On the one hand, I really cherish the opportunity to engage with other locals in a city where there are ample opportunities to exchange cash for direct services and goods. At the same time—what’s especially true is that this modern (postmodern?) economy makes a lot of this possible because of the Fortune 500 companies and financial heavyweights that attract workers to cities like this, and the Internet that enables me to order fresh turkey from farmers who drive past the big boxes and factory farms to deliver it. I suppose we get used to living with contradictions like this in the 21st century—we’re light years ahead of our ancestors technologically, while culturally we’re advancing toward a more pluralistic understanding of our differences. Yet, it’s not uncommon for me to see friends and colleagues yearning for simpler exchanges in their commerce, more holistic approaches to their health and nutrition, and less chaos in their nonstop social networks. It leads me to wonder if it’s really the case that we are straddling the divide between these contradictory worlds, or if maybe we’re actually pre-figuring the arrival of an emerging, more reciprocal and pragmatic way of doing business with each other.




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