Mrs. Cargill

What do they look like – the people behind a corporate juggernaut devouring small-town Alberta? Much like you and me.

by Dianne Bersea

Artwork by © Dianne Bersea

I have a confession to make. I have a Cargill connection. It’s a bit tenuous, but closer than I suspected. And it’s put a face to the corporate giant called Cargill, that pervasive transport and “agricultural” monolith which has swept across our Canadian (and world) landscape, changing what and how we eat.

Let’s step back a few years… almost forty years, to 1983. At that time I was working as a publishing consultant and food stylist on a cookbook project, a collection of recipes and reminiscences from Jean Hoare and her famous Canadian prairie restaurant, The Flying N.

This renowned “home-cookin’” restaurant inhabited several locations over the years, beginning on the edge of the Porcupine Hills with a few tables in the author’s southern Alberta home. When it came time for the food photo shoot, the reality of grassland prairie could not be reproduced in the cold confines of a big city studio.

Thus I spent a week perched above an aspen-filled coulee in a wild rose-surrounded, two storey, screen-doored, weather-worn, well-lived-in farmhouse… forerunner of the Flying N.

For an intense week in a hot July, the production crew and a team of local cooks laboured in Jean’s kitchen, anchored by the crackle of a wood-burning cook stove. All in all we created some remarkably evocative food photos with a plethora of farm-raised corn, zucchini, potatoes, squash, poultry, a side of beef and more.

With the addition of a wagon-wheel table, an old sideboard, wire egg baskets, collectible plates and serving trays, checkered tablecloths, canning jars from the cold room, and a cheese wheel secured from a neighbouring cheese factory, the setting created the epitome of farmhouse nostalgia. Barn-board walls and a window view of dry grass and southern Alberta sky provided additional ambiance for a cornucopia of mouth-watering ranch food. Yes – we ate it all.

Late each day, when the hothouse atmosphere of location shooting had subsided and all was quiet in the house, Jean and I would spend the evening chatting and looking at her photo albums. Curated as they were by a devotee of all things food-related, Jean’s albums were filled with pictures of food and the people who enjoyed it. Lively scenes spilled from overflowing albums. Weddings, birthdays, holiday celebrations, and community events filled colourful, happy people photos… local folks from town, area ranchers, friends, celebrities from near and far – including, as I was often reminded, John Wayne and Bing Crosby – all chowing down on Jean’s legendary home-style menu.

Several albums documented Jean’s annual trip with an international gourmet club, each photo accompanied by a commentary on the who’s-who of the culinary world… chefs communing and dinner guests seated before plates of sumptuous food served in extraordinary settings – here castles in Spain, there sun-burnt palazzos in Italy.

Pointing at a photo, Jean might say, “Here’s Prince Vladimir of _____ with Paul Bocuse at Paul’s restaurant in Paris. And this is Lord and Lady _____. They were so funny! Oh, and here’s Mrs. Cargill at a dinner party on the SS France.”

Mrs. Cargill? Of the Alberta Cargills? “Yes, Mrs. Cargill, you know, the grain people.”

I leaned closer to peer at this startling image. What I knew of Cargill, “the grain people,” was of a monstrous corporation devouring small town Alberta. The centralization of grain collection and distribution in the ‘80s, and the large Cargill granaries (three and four times the size of garden-variety grain elevators) reducing once-viable towns and farms to dust.

Artwork by © Dianne Bersea

I looked down at the small photo, a patch of bright colours against the album page. I wanted to know what people look like who are building an agricultural and marketing monopoly, and in the process, altering our relationship with our food and its production. How do such people look? Much like you and me. Here I saw a prim, well dressed, grey-haired woman who looked a lot like my mother, if my mother were to be found dining with European royalty on a luxury liner in the mid-Atlantic.

Fascination bound me to the page. I asked Jean to point out Mrs. Cargill in a series of opulent shipboard dining photos. Despite the wealth and array of exotic food, Mrs. Cargill continued to look very much like you or me. And why not? She was someone’s mother and grandmother, a wife. Still and all, it was difficult to reconcile this proper older woman with the wreckage of lives and rail lines that I knew to be occurring.

Only a few weeks prior to finding myself perusing photo albums in an Alberta farmhouse, I had visited an artist friend in north central Saskatchewan. Velma had hopes of creating an artists’ colony in the remnants of a small town decimated by the Cargill juggernaut. She bought a church for a pittance, and another friend picked up the community hall, complete with sprung dance floor, for a similar investment.

Despite the depopulation, my visit to Velma coincided with a community reunion. By the afternoon of the second day, the nearby playing field had filled with people. Long tables sagged with potato salads, meat loaves, buns and biscuits and breads, juices and jams and jellies, hot dogs and cold cuts. Over three hundred people had come home on a summer afternoon to eat and talk and play ball… just plain folks sitting around on lawn chairs telling tales and remembering. I noticed eyes drifting now and then to the derelict elevator and the line of tall grass where the tracks had run.

When I stopped in at Velma’s some years later, all evidence of grain storage and transport had disappeared. Velma had the town to herself. She struggled to make ends meet with a couple dozen sheep, a small wheat field swamped by nearby agribusiness over-spray, and a museum of how it used to be.

It’s easy to feel nostalgic for the demise of a small town in the vast Canadian prairies, for a way of life that kept people in touch with the land. But there are even larger issues at stake, issues that are far-reaching and frightening because Cargill and like-minded corporate interests were, and are, reaching far beyond a monopoly in transportation.

Artwork by © Dianne Bersea

In 1998 I came across a news release published in The Ram’s Horn, a sadly now defunct but then lively and firmly-positioned food security magazine. I found the release to be a clarion call for attention to eroding food safety and control. It trumpeted the intent of Cargill and Monsanto to form a worldwide joint venture to create “a system that links biotechnology research and development from seeds through processing to the customer … with plans to explore future opportunities to expand the partnership into agriculture and food.”

As we know, these pronouncements have largely come to pass with more centralization of transport, terminator seeds, cattle cloning, and genetic engineering – processes that violate species and organism boundaries.

My mind flashes back to Jean’s photo album and pictures of her gourmet dinner companions. I see Mrs. Cargill lifting a fork to her mouth, glancing mildly at the camera. Granted, this Mrs. Cargill may have had little to do with the decisions being made to dramatically and violently manipulate our food. Somehow I envision the people behind such threatening science and such mono-focused, bottom-line thinking as dark-suited power brokers with leering grins. What intrigued me then and intrigues me now is a frightening suspicion that the people of the Cargill steamroller are real people, who travel and eat, just like you and me.

The only difference is not superficial. It’s not in the clothes they wear or the trips they take. It’s deep inside where different values about our independence, food safety, and nutritional needs reside. Where money and a willingness to use any means to change our technology and food future is uppermost… where profit dominates the environment.

Addendum: The Cargill juggernaut rolls on with a look at “greener technologies,” but the looming role of Cargill and what is now Monsanto/Bayer maintain concern. In another unexpected discovery, Ram’s Horn analyst Brewster Kneen identified the anxiety. “Monsanto, on the other hand, seems to take the same approach everywhere as it does in genetic engineering, engaging in very aggressive behaviour to force others, from organisms to government regulatory agencies, to accept its interpretations of reality.” (The Ram’s Horn, July 5, 1998.) Meanwhile, as recently as last summer, the Community Museum in Jean Hoare’s old neighbourhood celebrated Jean’s down-home food legacy with recipe posts for her Sunday Brunch.

Dianne has been a professional artist for more than 35 years with creative beginnings in the wild places of Canada’s westernmost province. She lives in Penticton, BC.

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