Lately the distinction between doing good and doing well has been blurred, at least in colloquial American conversation, where the answer to “How ya doin’?” is as often “good” as it is “well.” But earlier generations were more highly aware of both the grammatical difference and the social one. To do well was to get ahead in monetary terms. To do good was to help others or to improve social conditions, to strive on behalf of a community larger than ourselves and our immediate family. The idea of community has consistently been part of the American landscape, from early sectarian and utopian communities to the latest cul-de-sac communes. America was settled not only by those who wanted to get ahead and do well for themselves. We have also had our share of do-gooders, who for varying reasons work to improve society.
Unfortunately, good intentions often require significant struggle, as I was reminded at an exhilarating conference on Food Sustainability + Food Security sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There we were treated to a screening of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden. In conversation after the showing Kennedy was nonchalant about the film’s sudden fame and its just-announced nomination for an Academy Award. What he said he really cared about were the farmers whose story the film told. Following the devastations of the 1992 Watts riots, a group of largely Latin American immigrants banded together to create a community garden in South Central Los Angeles, which, at fourteen acres, became the largest of its kind in the country. Kennedy’s film documents the transformation of a blighted industrial neighborhood into a lush haven that not only provided amazingly good food but also served as a source of local pride. When the garden fell victim to political maneuvering and was scheduled for razing, the South Central farmers banded together to form a social action group. For the next several years they engaged in political battle, and Kennedy follows their struggles. His storytelling reveals the rifts in American society, the racial tensions and class divisions. But what is ultimately most moving about The Garden is all that it reveals about the farmers’ connection to the land, which to them is life—not just in the sense of livelihood (though their gardens allow them to eat well), but in intangible ways. It is a way of life as firmly rooted in their community as in the soil, giving them a cultural identity and satisfaction beyond mere physical sustenance. It is a good life.
Thousands of miles away a very different group finds itself similarly caught up in political maneuvers. These are the Yup’ik of the Yukon River Delta, Eskimos who inhabit this poorest region of western Alaska. Theirs is a subsistence economy based on fishing (primarily salmon and seal), hunting, and gathering of berries and wild greens in season. But the Yup’ik way of life is under siege. Like the South Central Los Angeles farmers, the Yup’ik have joined forces in community action that we can recognize as doing good. But, also like the farmers, the Yup’ik’s unified voice is not always strong enough to be heard amid the din of commercial interests and money. These people rely on a decent yearly catch of salmon not only for sustenance but also for their very way of life, a culture that has for thousands of years been tied to the migration and spawning patterns of salmon. Now all this is threatened due to the enormous bycatch of salmon by Alaska’s mega pollock fishery.
Rather than abandon their way of life, this Yup’ik community has decided to take their cause on the road. To raise awareness beyond their remote region of Alaska, they presented their foods at the Boston Seafood Show. I was lucky enough to attend an all-salmon dinner featuring their catch at Hamersley’s Bistro. The menu included chum roe with aioli atop a hardboiled egg, hot smoked and cold smoked chum, roasted king salmon belly, chum salmon collar, and slow-cooked king salmon fillet. Later I nibbled on chum jerky (my new favorite snack) and chum “candy” (sweetened dried chum). Even more inspiring than these various uses of salmon, however, are the energy and initiative of this small Yup’ik cooperative that is trying to preserve a traditional, wholesome way of life.
Which brings me back to doing good. Through his film, Scott Hamilton Kennedy has brought the South Central farmers’ plight—and, by extension, the plights of other, similarly marginalized groups—to the public’s attention. In Alaska, native Pittsburgher Jack Schultheis, after learning of the Yup’ik’s endangered culture, has been working as general manager of the Kwik’Pak Fisheries cooperative and advocating for legislation to support the Yup’ik and their salmon fishery. With the help of seafood expert Jon Rowley, he is acting to bring the Yup’ik’s story to the larger world. These men could have chosen easier, and certainly more lucrative, paths. But they decided instead to do good. One hopes, in the process, they are all doing well.