SGT Book Club Recap: Joel Salatin's 'Folks, This Ain't Normal'

As an increasing number of people are questioning the health of our current US food system, as well as those that consume from within it, more and more eaters are paying attention to the foods they eat. Hungry not only for the, “who, where, and how” of their food, consumers are questioning the integrity and effectiveness of the systems weʼve put in place to regulate, control, and protect our food supply as a whole.


Contemplating an effective alternative to our current system can be painstaking, for while itʼs taken years to arrive at this position, it only seems rational that an equal amount of time may be necessary to create a new one. But some would argue the solution is simple. If ecology is a balancing act, weʼve disrupted the balance. By supporting practices that allow for the restoration of some of our ecological balance, we can reverse the effects of many of our current food systemʼs problems, meanwhile encouraging a more promising future for our food.


The latest gathering of the SGT Book Club, held bi-monthly at the Linden Hills Coop, met recently to discuss such a perspective. In his latest book, Folks, This Ainʼt Normal, farmer and author Joel Salatin highlights what he believes to be the problems with our food system, and also provides some possible solutions.


Salatin, perhaps most well-known for his appearance in Michael Pollanʼs book, The Omnivoreʼs Dillema, is an old-school farmer who prides himself on thinking outside the box of todayʼs societal norms in hopes of preserving an older form of normal. According to Salatin, weʼve allowed for the creation of a food system that historically speaking, “just ainʼt normal.” He believes our current, highly regulatory food system, founded with the intention of protecting our nationʼs food supply, has in effect, prevented it from achieving a sustainable model for our future; one that ensures for the good stewardship of our lands and a more efficient supply of nutritious food to more people.


Salatin calls upon his readers to initiate change, stating, “...I am struck by the sheer abnormality of our situation…Iʼd like us to think broadly and deeply about how to restore normalcy, to reincorporate those foundations that sustain cultures…By identifying and restoring historical normalcy, we present a loving legacy to those that have gone before…Let normalcy begin.”


Throughout the book clubʼs discussion, participants took the time to share memories from their own histories, as well as exploring alternative ideas inspired by the book. Readers highlighted examples of local farming models popping up around us and brainstormed ways in which we might be successful in forging a new model for the future of our food system. What models have we witnessed that appear to be working? What methods would we like to see explored more? What roles do consumers play in the successful formation of a more healthful food system? The consensus of the book club was that in many ways, Salatinʼs model provided hope that progress could be made towards a more healthful food system for our future, but that its success relies heavily on the need for continuing education concerning the benefits of eating more whole, less processed foods.


The book is broken into chapters relating to specific issues within our food system, and Salatin concludes each chapter with a short list of actionable items aimed at assisting the average consumer in creating change within their daily lives. One might argue that in certain instances he allows his passion to interfere with the issues, as it becomes evident early on in the book that one of Salatinʼs major motivations was convincing readers to fuel his mission. Still, overall his recommendations appear cohesive and well-intentioned.

In a chapter titled, “Disodium Ethylenediaminetetraacetate - Yum!,” Salatin dissects the ongoing issue of food labeling and calls for a more transparent system of identifying ingredients within food. “People need to be able to talk 
about these things…A specialty language reduces conversations, stratifying the community into a hierarchy of those who know the language and those who donʼt…How can the average person discuss the relative merits of one food over another when half the items on the label are a scientific-speak mishmash of unpronounceable lab concoctions?”


In the book club discussion, we agreed with Salatinʼs point, voicing our appreciation for grocers who embraced the role of supplying foods whose origins were more easily identifiable. As important as food is to our everyday health, readers recognized the struggles that we all have in engaging more directly with our food, even as we attempt to support producers and suppliers who place a priority on maintaining the health of not only their consumers, but of the greater environment that surrounds us.


Salatin relies on a wily sense of humor to bring his points home, giving his readers an often much-needed rest from what could be considered an overwhelmingly passionate stance on the issues. Drawing on his own struggles in farming, he details the burden of abiding by regulation designed more towards farming aligned with the goal of larger scale of production.


In the end, Salatin states, “Historical normalcy, I argue, is labeled different today. Itʼs even considered heresy by many. Long after weʼve experimented with the final bizarre thing to feed cows, they will still do best eating grass. After weʼve exhausted the drugs, vaccines, and transgenic modification, our animals will still want to express their distinctives, live historically normal habits, and fill their traditional role.” Indeed, Salatin implore consumers to do the same, to return to what he would consider to be a truer sense of normalcy from our past in order to achieve a brighter future.

Peter Cusic has spent the last 15+ years working in MN restaurants after graduating from St. Olaf College and LCB Culinary School. He strives to enjoy the process of creating food equally to the bites that wind up on his plate. Heʼs travelled the world in search of the tastiest foods and is happy to report that many of them can be found right here in the Twin Cities. He and his family are proud residents of S. Mpls, and when heʼs not in his kitchen, youʼre likely to find him on his bike, strolling the isles of our co-ops and farmers markets, spreading compost in his garden or contemplating the future of farming -- his familyʼs farm has been in the family for over 175 years. He also contributes to his own website, The Humble Palate.