“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” —John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Even though I have had to make significant changes in my lifestyle because of my disease, I do try to maintain my social and intellectual circles as best I can. One of the ways I do this is through my book club. We just finished reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for our book club. Whoa was that book heavy. There were many messages in this novel, but as I was reading it, I noticed that my foodie feelers perked up each time Steinbeck discussed food or the lack of food. I empathized with the characters’ sustenance situations, and I also made connections to my own current diet. During the Great Depression, people ate whatever was in front of them. I would have had to do that too expect it most likely would have caused disastrous inflammation to my system. Prior to starvation, the migrant workers in the novel relied on flour and cornmeal (gluten and grains) to make it to the next day. I wouldn’t have lasted long.
I don’t recall GoW being one of the books I read in high school although I know a number of people who say that’s when they read it. However, none of our book club members (all English majors) had read it. The book was a commentary on the plight of the tenant farmers (the story focuses on the Joad family who come from Oklahoma) who left the drought stricken and bank owned farms in the midwest to look for work in the orchards of California. Steinbeck’s novel is one of misery and hardship. Thousands of people came to California ready to work. However, they found very little work due to the oversaturated workforce. Steinbeck brought to light vignettes from his own experience as a reporter in California. He told stories of farmers who would pay very little to starving families for their work. There was a story of a migrant farm laborer who didn’t care about money. He was willing to work for food to feed his starving children; he never got that opportunity because his wife and children died of starvation. Even though the story was very depressing, I am very glad that I read it. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to continue on—the story was so bleak and hopeless. But it is a story that so many need to hear, to try and digest.
During our book club discussion, one of my friends said the book reminded her of how hard Americans fought for workers’ rights and unions and how those rights are still only reserved for certain people. Californians and Arizonans in the the novel referred to Oklahomans as “Okies” with much disdain—“Okies” was used as a derogatory term to mean dirty ignorant scum. One of the characters in the novel even says that Okies aren’t even human. This labeling made it easier for the land owners to treat the migrant workers as less than human, less than animals. Steinbeck writes how even horses are kept alive in between ploughing seasons. However, humans are not given the same consideration. I am sure our book club is not the first to see the comparisons of the Joad family’s plight and treatment to that of today’s Jaras and Garcias who migrate from the south to work in the fields looking for basic shelter and food for their families. Are they afforded the same rights and pay for the same work despite their documented status? Or are they dirty ignorant scum? It’s hard to read. It’s hard to think about. Steinbeck meant it to be hard.
I couldn’t help but be grateful for my meal on the night that I finished the novel. I ate slowly and thought of the starving families in the novel. How did they do it on fried dough and potatoes? So many people died from lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of medical care. How would those with disease, let alone autoimmune disease (like me), have survived? Here’s the thing. They didn’t. Steinbeck makes reference to pellagra and identifies it as the mode but not the culprit to some of the deaths: “And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must be forced to rot.”
I was in the middle of reading the book over the holidays. I warned my social media friends not to read it if they were feeling depressed. I said, “If you are feeling the tiniest bit blue, don’t read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It will catapult you into a deep sea blue.” To which my friend aptly commented, “And then it will run you over with its boat while it dumps chum in the water and calls the sharks.”
I made the mistake of watching John Ford’s adaptation of the novel. I should have known something was off when the movie opened with cheery, and what I think was mid-western, music. I enjoyed the acting and most of the movie except when it got to the end. The movie’s ending was completely botched. I was gravely disappointed. The book’s ending, however, was poetry. My dh said no one would have gone to see the movie if it didn’t have its Hollywood ending. But that was in 1940. I am happy to hear that Steven Spielberg is said to be producing a remake of the movie. I hope Spielberg will stay more true to Steinbeck’s message and ending.
Here’s the thing. I can’t do GoW justice here on my humble site. Steinbeck is a beautiful writer—his language entices you to wander down its road and breath it all in. The messages in the novel are important ones. There are so many lessons that are very applicable to today. I recommend that you read or revisit this piece. If you need further convincing to read the novel, please visit Lindsay Dahl’s lovely review of the novel.
The cloud of GoW hung over me as I planned for our book club meeting, so I wanted to keep our meal simple. I usually look to the book we read for inspiration for our menus. Not everyone in our club finished the book, but I wanted to honor the characters’ experiences so I shared some of their stories, especially those relating to food or lack thereof, with the group prior to sharing our meal. I also saw it as a time for thanksgiving and gratitude. The story had an impact on me.
Our book club’s paleo Grapes of Wrath menu follows. For those interested in making this menu, we found that the soup and biscuits complimented each other quite nicely. The soups tangy-ness went well with the subtle sweetness of the biscuits. It was a simple yet flavorful and satisfying meal.
Grapes of Wrath Inspired Menu
Simple Mixed Greens Salad from whatever was in the fridge
I know that salads weren’t mentioned in the book, but I knew our club needed the fresh veggies. So, I kept ours simple with just greens, a cut up apple, and a vinaigrette dressing.
Roasted Potato Leek Soup adapted from Barefoot Contessa
Potatoes, flour, lard, and cornmeal seemed to be the only things that kept the Joad family going. So, I decided to focus on the potatoes and make them the main course of our meal. The paleo-friendly recipe follows.
Biscuits from Danielle Walker’s Meals Made Simple
- 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
- 4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned of all sand (4 leeks)
- 1/4 cup good olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups baby arugula, lightly packed
- 1/3 cup rice vinegar
- 6 to 7 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 3/4 cup full fat coconut milk
- ¼ cup almond milk
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Spread the potatoes on a sheet pan in a single layer. Add the olive oil (keep about 1 tablespoon in the measuring cup), 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and toss to coat the potatoes evenly. Roast for about 30 minutes, turning them with a spatula a few times during cooking, until very tender. Add the leeks and toss with remaining olive oil. Roast for about 15 minutes more. Add the arugula and toss to combine. Roast for 4 to 5 more minutes, until the arugula is wilted. Remove the pan from the oven and stir in the vinegar and 1/2 cup of the chicken stock, scraping up any crispy roasted bits sticking to the pan.
- Transfer the roasted vegetables to a dutch oven, adding the pan liquid and about 5 cups of the chicken stock to make a puree. Blend with an emulsifier. Add enough of the remaining 1 to 2 cups of stock to make a thick soup. Add the coconut milk, almond milk, 1 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and check the seasonings.
- Serve hot with crispy shallots, if using.
- Crispy shallot recipe is available through recipe adaptation link.