Last weekend, Uncle Mack hosted his annual peanut boil.
I was all-too-happy to make the trek to my hometown, Forest, Miss., to enjoy the fruits (or nuts, in this case) of his labor.
If you’ve ever sat in the bleachers on a cold Friday night and opened a thermos of boiled peanuts that sent steam skyward momentarily rendering the football field action hazy, you understand the allure of the my uncle’s event. On the other hand, if you haven’t consumed your share of the hot and salty treat, you’re probably unable to understand why I would drive four hours to sit amongst the people of my youth — steadily shelling and eating boiled peanuts.
This trip home was different. I ended up having a lot more to think about than peanuts as I drove to the cabin where my uncle had vats of boiling brine. As much as I love the place where I grew up – and the people who are still there, I couldn’t deny the sadness I felt seeing the remnants of places I remember as being so full of life. Now, many of them are dilapidated shells of their former selves. In some cases, they’re condemned buildings, uninhabitable and falling down.
The town is not, at all, what it used to be. The current mayor, my unforgettable 8th grade history teacher, and many others are doing what they can to revitalize it, but the bottom line is a simple case study in social economics. Poultry is the primary industry in the town. As anyone who’s been to a grocery store knows, chickens are cheap.
A whole chicken costs less than $5. That’s a chicken that was hatched in a hatchery by workers, transported to a chicken house where farmers fed it and took basic care of it for about eight weeks. It was then transported to another facility where workers slaughtered and packaged it. Then transported to your local grocery, which also has to make a profit on it.
All for $5.
In comparison, last summer while my family and I were in Paris, one evening my husband went shopping on his own. I don’t believe I could have paid the $22 he paid for a whole chicken. I almost fell in the floor when I learned the price. The flipside though, is that European chicken farmers and poultry workers (and the chickens themselves) live at a higher standard than they do here in the States.
Therein lies the rub for my little town. Many people pay the price for the rest of us to eat cheap chickens. When the vast majority of a town’s economy is built on the backs of uneducated – and in many cases now, illegal – labor, all making minimum wage, the town is bound to waste away.
In my hometown, the product happens to be poultry, but I’m certain Louisiana fisherman know a similar story all too well. Will America’s addiction to “cheap” kill off every small town across the land?
Something is off-kilter in American economics. I went home for nothing more than a belly full of peanuts but left with an emptiness of place that has filled my heart and mind.