The food world is abuzz with catchphrases these days: locavore, food justice, food security, sustainability. Most are pronounced as though they were high moral concepts, but how can morality be measured in carbon units and shipping miles? The other day I was rereading “Oysters,” one of Anton Chekhov’s early stories. Perhaps the greatest observer of the human condition, Chekhov unfailingly focuses on the individual. In “Oysters” he uses the point of view of an eight-year-old boy to describe the desperation of the boy’s father, unable to find work in Moscow. The father is reduced to begging, and yet he is unable to ask any passersby for money, so great is his shame. Through this picture of a boy and his father Chekhov decries capitalist society, in which some people will inevitably be out of work and hungry, without any safety net.
Society’s obligation to provide a dignified way for the hungry to be fed was something that Russian peasants, in their tight-knit communities, knew all about. For them, hunger was always a specter, due to failed harvests or drought. They found various ways to cope, most obviously by observing a strict cycle of fasting, in which they avoided all meat and dairy products for nearly two hundred days every year—a practice that made them feel spiritually better off than their wealthy countrymen, who did not follow the letter of religious law. The enforced opportunity to practice virtue brought them closer to God—and also spared them such conditions as obesity and gout.