“Mēl,” by Amy Wright, appears in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of Kenyon Review
Halfway through her essay “Mēl,” Amy Wright sits down to a freshly prepared bowl of cricket risotto. She lifts a leg to her mouth like “a miniature frog leg. The taste is similar, meaning mild and easily dominated by salt and white wine, but the texture is much lighter. It conjures a flake of rainbow trout or butter bean that melts like an ice sliver away from its skin, disappearing faster than a crystal on a sorbet spoon.” The cricket’s delicacy, the way it invokes both the familiar and unfamiliar, reflects the essay as a whole. This meal, like the essay, is an adventure, full of surprises and delights.
This is the essay’s turning point, the moment everything has been working toward, although I didn’t realize it until later. I was still waiting for Mikey to reappear, Mikey, the Black Angus calf, who appears at the beginning of the essay, bottle-fed by a ten-year-old Wright on the family farm. But this isn’t an essay about Mikey or life on the farm. Instead, the essay wends its way through the history of modern agriculture and farming to a new world in food production and consumption. To put it like this, however, doesn’t do justice to the beauty of Wright’s language and the subtlety of her argument.
A sweet anecdote like this might, in the hands of another writer, lead to an exercise in nostalgia, a grieving for a pastoral paradise that probably never existed. But Wright is interested in something bigger than her family history. When the world shifted from the hunter-gatherer way of life to an agrarian one, it was in response to both new technology and pressure of a growing population. Put simply, farming became an efficient way to support more people on less land. By the time Wright meets Mikey, however, that efficiency is a thing of the past. The family farm is no longer productive enough to sustain Wright’s parents as it did her grandparents, and so the routine labor of farming happens at the beginning and the end of the day, framing the paid work for which they both must leave the farm.
The urgency of the essay lies in its form. The short paragraphs and white space give the reader time to reflect on the urgency of Wright’s message: the needs of the world’s population will soon outpace current farming practices. “My grandfather was the fifth generation owner of a Virginia Century Farm. Counting from him, I am the seventh generation, and the choices being left to an abstract future are fast redounding to me.” Quoting archaeologists and other experts, Wright moves the reader further away from Mikey. Once “meal” meant “the quantity of milk given by a cow at any one milking,” but words and their meanings evolve, as do cultures and their values, food sources, and agricultural practices.
The question of what happens to Mikey, that “inefficient converter of feed,” haunts the essay. By the time he reappears, late in the essay, Wright has undercut our nostalgia completely. She suggests that eating insects early in life might protect us from allergies; who wouldn’t want this? She writes about “the sculptural forms of the crickets” that “glisten like truffles.” Is it really a surprise to learn that Mikey is sold for slaughter, the money used to start Wright’s first savings account, “an initiation into the grownup economy”? There’s no room for nostalgia in this economy—just as there is no room for nostalgia in our current situation, the world’s population “slated to reach nine or ten billion by 2050. (Huis, ix).” What we eat is a choice, affected by both cultural preferences and modes of production; when these modes of production are no longer sustainable, agriculture has to adapt. We have to adapt.
Wright never lectures, never rants. Yet her argument is convincing, the writing so gently persuasive that weeks after reading it, I stopped to consider a cricket on the sidewalk and wonder if its leg really does taste like butter beans.