When I was a teenager thumbing rides around Mexico, I quickly realized my vegetarianism would not survive. If my friend Valente and I got in some dusty car with a family that brought us back to a tin-roofed house and gave us chicken soup, we ate that soup. The kindness of strangers humbled my big picture ideas of right and wrong.
Wherever food comes from, as soon as it touches human hands, human mouths, it transforms into an intimate thing, a thing we all need, a thing we all want. As soon as it's prepared, or shared, or savored, it carries with it something beyond itself, a new richness. A new complexity.
For thousands of years, people and the food they ate grew together in the same place. Bodies—plant, animal, microbe, earth—co-evolved together in direct relationship. Communities of people created food traditions that reminded themselves how to eat, and how to live, in the place they were a part of.
But now, generations of individuals, and entire societies, are born into places dissociated from themselves. The objects of our lives that surround us—shelter, food, clothing, stuff—come from someplace else. Industrialized, machine-scale food systems and globalized food markets (food from everywhere, transported anywhere, warehoused in grocery stores) form the foundation of our new food traditions. They remind us not of a place we are connected with, but of a world we know little about.
Increasingly, the objects of our lives we know the least about are the things we recognize as most familiar. Food, and most other objects we surround ourselves with, are familiar strangers.
Recently I began researching different types of vinegars to incorporate into my fermentation classes. The vinegars I make (pear, apple, and watermelon in Massachusetts, jackfruit, banana and pineapple in Costa Rica) are easy to ferment with whole fruits and indigenous microorganisms, and the history of this type of fermentation goes back thousands of years. But I wanted to know more about the vinegars someone might buy in a grocery store.
Culinary fermentation is a radical transformation and engagement between living things—microbes, people, plants, animals. Industrial scale production cannot really make vinegar in the way an artisan would understand vinegar—it makes a replication. Large, factory scale production simply can't manage the inherent variability of wild life, so it homogenizes, standardizes, and in doing so changes the intrinsic nature of the product.
Most of these products are replications of something that was once made by human hands, from something in nature those hands could access, an original source. But what happens when we forget what the original source was to begin with? White vinegar, for example, is not made of “white”. Sometimes its made of grains, like genetically modified corn, but often its made of petroleum. Most people who buy rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar could probably wager a guess that apple cider vinegar has something to do with apples; rice vinegar something to do with rice. But white vinegar? Would anyone guess it was made from oil? Its a familiar food that has no natural precedent.
And yet, the richness and complexity of eating still exists, and we still identify, very personally, with our strange-familiar foods. As food and objects scatter around the globe, so do people. Many of us will live in or between several places over our lives. This sudden mobility exposes us to more of the world, but in less depth, and breaks the chain of linear trans-generational traditions that once held people, food, and place together. Many food traditions now dissipate and replicate laterally, around and across the world. They travel to us wherever we are, and travel with us wherever we go.
Once, on a bike trip across Colombia, my partner Scott and I stopped in a tiny town in the Andes. We went into a little country store to get some food. The man at the counter answered our Spanish with English, and started pulling things off the shelves to show us. “Look, tuna fish!” He said, waving the can, gleeful. “Peanut butter!”
“Actually, we’re looking for Colombian foods,” we replied, smiling. We had hopes of some fresh-made cheese, vegetables, corn cakes sculpted by little old lady hands. Things from the place we were in, the people we were with.
But the man wanted us to have tuna, desperately. Later he told us why. Though technically born in Colombia, he had lived his entire life in Idaho, until that past year when he was deported back to his little Andean “home town.” But it was no longer his home, or never had been. He missed the foods of the place where he grew up—not foods from the place where he grew up, as tuna fish does not hail from Idaho—but the foods he ate when he grew up in that place. The foods that surely did not come from Idaho, or even necessarily the United States, were now the foods he identified with, the ones that made him feel the nostalgia of home.
People sometimes talk about food traditions as if they were all lost, like socks that didn’t make it back from the laundromat. And its true, countless recipes and food traditions are disappearing, never to return--and it is a loss. Yet we don’t live in an absence of food traditions. People in both industrialized and developing countries increasingly now identify with the flavors, smells, textures of global market and laboratory created foods more than the real thing from the place they live. Global market food may be a stranger, but it's a stranger that we recognize, and feel comfortable around. We relate to something we can’t relate to.
Its important to recognize our personal attachment to globalized food markets, because its real, and I think its a piece of the puzzle that sometimes goes missing in the argument for local food. Only a few generations ago people felt attached to foods embedded in social lineages of cultural heritage and co-evolution. We identified with foods that only the people of the place we lived in could produce and make. But in a globalized food system, we now get attached to pop tarts, nacho flavored frito lays, diet mountain dew—foods that no one, no single person, anywhere, could really produce or make. Most of the foods on the grocery store shelf are conglomerates of ingredients from many places, products of laboratories and mechanization. No one person could make, from start to finish, a pop tart, or chips, or industrial soda, or white vinegar, in its current form, from scratch—there are too many additives, components and processes that can only be done in a factory or laboratory.
Beyond the oft quoted statistics about the vast benefits of local food systems—that local food is more nutritious, more flavorful, better for the environment, better for people, can mitigate climate change, can regenerate local economies, and much more—eating food from the place where we live, cultivated and crafted by the people of that place; be it a home, a community, or a region--connects us deeply to something meaningful, powerful, and comforting. It connects us to a world we can relate to, that we truly are a part of, and reflects something real, and unique about us.
Since my teenage years I’ve changed my perspective on eating animals. My vegetarianism did in fact die, replaced by a combination of opportunitarianism and locavorism. (I’ll still gladly eat any soup you give me, but if I’m giving you the soup, I’ll make it with foods from the place where I live.) But the original ethical dilemmas I chewed on in those years remain. How do we match our values with our reality, in a world so vividly layered in tangled truths? How do we live sustainably in a world that is clearly no longer structured for sustainability? How do we reconcile a felt attachment to the objects of globalization that we grew up with, but don’t represent us?
Of all the complicated steps and solutions we can take, I think the first and most immediate one is simple: we need to engage with actual food from the place where we live. Somehow, some way. We need to “get to know” living things with our senses. To smell tomatoes ripe on the vine; watch living beans swell in water and sprout; listen to farmers talk about the plants and soil they care about; taste the salty crunch of fresh cucumber dills; touch soil, plants, animals—anything, anything real. We need to go to the source of food—the thing itself—and get to know it, remember it. On a farm, in the wild, in the kitchen—we need to engage with real foods, in real life. We need to forge identities and food cultures accessible on a human scale.
Food and our relationship with it is complicated, and to create sustainable food systems I think we need to do lots of complicated things. We need to re-skill ourselves and our communities; re-purpose tools and technologies to work for us in different and better ways; build new networks of tangible and intangible food infrastructures that make local economies easier than they are hard. But this one starting point—engaging with the real thing—is the place we can all begin.
Engage with Your Food: Upcoming Workshops with Laura
In Massachusetts or nearby? Take a class with Laura this Fall at Round the Bend Farm in Dartmouth: Fermentation Fervor: A Vegetable Fermentation Series.
Or travel to the Ranch this May 2017 for Laura's annual The Art and Practice of Live Culture Fermentation workshop.