Pristine Produce, Property and Pride

For most people, being a foodie involves having the money to eat optionally. Even if you take the positive connotations of the word, the true pursuit of food, its origins and an understanding of its importance, requires travel, study and tasting. All of these things cost money, particularly if you live far away from the sources of the goods you wish to investigate. It’s this dynamic — the tension between food being an affordable, accessible point of pride and a patrician pursuit — that I want to investigate.

There is always an interplay between location and desire. The grass is always greener on the other side, and in the case of some climates and locales, so are the limes, the vineyards and herbs. We seem to always want what we can’t have. As a lifelong denizen of the city, one individual might long for artisanal breads and ‘rustic’, ‘homey’ goods; the countryside dwelling individual may seek out the bizarre in an attempt to counter the steady routines of the table at home. Viewing food as a pursuit of understanding the other, this chase becomes unsurprising; eating becomes the most delicious form of empathy available. In the modern era, this chase has taken on an additional dimension, with a cultural alienation from farming, cooking and food production spinning off into an obsession with authenticity and food in its ‘original form’. Eating farm-to-table foods is as much a mark of ethics as location. The pursuit of pristine produce says as much about the direction we’d like the food system to go as it does about whether we think it has gone too far.

At its heart this near-fetishization of ‘simplicity’ is reducible to the feeling of pride. It is no longer enough, in a world saturated with knowledge about and overflowing with interest in eating, to be aware of something. Being on the cusp of the next food movement means knowing about the origins of our edibles. The human desire to invent things and claim primacy is a near universal, from the prized blue ribbon at a county fair for “best of” a dish, to international contention over the invention of pasta. First is not in fact the worst, as the adage would suggest.

This desire for recognition is even more important for communities that have historically been erased or ignored. A new interest in an old, local dish can be a moment of reclamation as much as it can be one of introduction. Precisely these ideas fuel the work of Michael Twitty and his Afroculinaria project. Twitty’s work is an attempt to retell the story of slavery not just as one of victimhood, but also of immense creativity and contribution despite obstacles. While he never flinches at explaining the conditions that slavery placed on black Americans throughout the years, he seeks to educate the public about the ways in which unknowable, unnamed slaves created the legacy of hearty, home-cooked fare that the American South is famous for. Aside from simply reclaiming American culture, particularly in the South where its ownership and invention is a site of struggle, as belonging to and being made by black Americans and their ancestors, Twitty also disrupts the idea that we encounter the most delicious food when we have the option to choose. For him, food is about the things we can choose to do now. “In sharing their stories, they become part of my story,” he explained. “They may not be able to embrace everything that I am, and that’s OK, but it shows that they’re starting to get it, and that’s just enough to get the ball rolling,” was Twitty’s recent comment in an interview with VICE News.

The issue is not simple. One conclusion we can draw however, is that when it comes to food, there is very clear evidence that we are interdependent. Human history is littered with negative experiences borne out due to our unique capacity to use each other and take advantage of others; slavery is a prime example. The distinction we draw from being able to access Southern comfort food at all is a statement about our social location relative to those who gifted us its flavours. We exist in a position of incredible privilege relative to the unknown inventors whose labours we enjoy. In this context then, it becomes even more important to be honest and to educate ourselves about origins, but also about the way our most basic bodily desires, for more salt or more sweet even, affect other people. In the world of interdependent eating, your shrimp obsession fuels whole industries (not only crustaceans are killed for your pleasure), and the bliss of a buttermilk biscuit could not have occurred without centuries of uncompensated labour and unlauded invention. Perhaps the most frightening part of thinking about what we eat is the realization that in a former colony like Canada or the US in particular, the broken eggs in the proverbial omelettes are a metaphor for the broken bodies of seasoned chefs never given the choice about cooking that dish.

I can afford to eat out for dinner this evening, and I benefit from a wide range of options. “What will I eat tonight?” could easily be rephrased as “Whose story will I consume?” This is the reason I read about my ramen, and carefully consider cassava’s place in my heritage. The distinction we draw from consuming and creating these foods is quite different. Creation has often gone uncredited. All the more reason then, that consumption should be done with respect — for what we cannot do, for what we cannot do without, and for those without whom it could not have been done.

Originally published under the same title on my previous blog on 11 August 2015.

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