Behind the Plate: 18 Questions for Simran Sethi, Author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate
Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability and social change. Her latest book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, is a story of changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer. And her expertise in food and agriculture goes far beyond.
Q: What is the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love about?
A: The book is about the extraordinary changes that are underway in food and agriculture, specifically, the loss of agricultural biodiversity. It’s what I call the most important issue in food and farming I’d never heard of.
Agricultural biodiversity (or agrobiodiversity) is the loss of diversity in every component that makes food food. From microorganisms in the soil, to pollinators, such as bees, to the industrialization and genetic erosion of seeds, all the way up the food chain to plants, animals and marine life.
Coffee, chocolate, bread, wine — every food we care about — is under threat. While we debate GMOs and the merits of Paleo, while we count calories and queue for Cronuts, we’re losing the foundations of food. — Tweet this
That’s what I learned when I traveled to Rome, Italy, to research challenges in modern agriculture.
Embedded in every conversation about feeding people, conserving natural resources and ensuring a healthy diet — both now and in the future — is the threat of the loss of agricultural biodiversity. This reduction of diversity in everything that makes food and agriculture possible is the direct result of our relationship with the world around us. We are part of the problem — and the solution.
The revolution starts with us, on our plates, by looking at the pillars of our own diets and by making simple changes. The way to take back this power for ourselves is to understand why we eat what we eat. And to understand what we’re losing — so we know what to reclaim.
Q: What can we do to save food diversity?
A: It’s important to remember this loss isn’t limited to apples and bananas or coffee and chocolate. Every food is at risk.
Conservationists highlight three main ways of saving agricultural biodiversity. Ex situ—“out of place”—conservation is the collection of plants and animals saved in places like seed banks or gene banks. The range of genetic materials collected can include animal sperm, embryos and microorganisms.
In situ—“in place”—conservation has two main methods—to save and protect what’s already growing in the wild (“in situ conservation in the wild”) and to sustain a plant or an animal by actively growing or raising it (“in situ conservation on-farm”). In the book, I introduce another form of conservation I call in vivo—“in living”—conservation, meaning saving diverse foods and drinks by consuming them. Conservationists haven’t considered us as part of this solution, but we are. We all have a vested interest in sustaining foods and drinks.
The only way farmers can keep growing diverse varieties is if they have a market in which to sell them. That’s where we, the eaters and drinkers, come in. The only way to ensure a world with good wine, for example, is to diversify—an impossible task without support from the drinking masses.
Q: How exactly do we save it by eating it?
A: “Eating is an agricultural act,” author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry — one of my literary heroes — says. “Eating with the fullest pleasure … is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” This is the inspiration for my suggestion of in vivo conservation. We save these foods by savoring them, transforming what’s grown and sold through our tastes and our choices.
The solutions are in the places I take you in the book: the Ethiopian coffee forest, the British yeast cultures lab, the vineyards of California, the cacao plantations of Ecuador, the brewery, the bakery and the temple. And they are in us. “Taste” is a noun and a verb: We all have it and we all do it. But we don’t all have a language or system for understanding and expressing that experience.
In my book, I journey to the deep origins of food but also explain how we experience the foods and drinks we consume. How our senses work, how the stories we bring to the table as well as the environments in which we consume shape the experience we have in our mouths and bellies. And I include tasting guides and descriptor wheels so you can deconstruct these experiences on your own. This book isn’t just for so-called “foodies.” It’s for everyone who eats — a way to embrace what we love and understand why we love it.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
A: How much power we have. I have been working as an environmental journalist for over a decade. Most “saving the planet” solutions feel hard and scarce: Use less, put on a sweater, walk. I actually love walking but my point is, this solution is fantastic. Eat more of the good stuff, enjoy, pay attention and be grateful. Feast on your life.
I write that this is a book about food but it’s really a book about love. I truly mean it. These are some of the most enduring relationships we have. They are full of memory; they are our story. Whether you choose a bottomless 99-cent cup of coffee or an artisanal pour-over, I want you to know what goes into that process and to own your experience. I’m not trying to dictate what anyone should do, but I am trying to share information that will help people make better decisions for their families and their lives.
Q: Tell us what you’re working on right now.
A: I’m working on a piece on the definition of craft chocolate and how consumers can be empowered to truly understand and source the chocolate they love. And I’m doing research for an upcoming book proposal on yeast. Microbes are magic!
Q: Who is your food inspiration?
A: My grandmother.
Q: What was your biggest #foodfail?
A: I don’t view any effort at cooking as a mistake. I typically don’t use recipes. If it tastes weird, I fix it.
Q: How do you define good food?
A: Food that has been grown and prepared by people who have been treated well and paid a fair wage, coming from land that has been sustainably managed. And cooked by people who are also treated equitably and love what they do. Delicious food isn’t delicious if people or natural resources are harmed in the process.
Q: What’s always in your fridge?
A: Milk, eggs, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Q: Where do you typically grocery shop?
A: Farmers’ markets, independent grocers like Let It Grow Produce in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In short, places that value the origins of food and are proud to share where the food came from.
Q: Your good food wish?
A: That global and domestic policies around food and farming reflected and emphasized the centrality of smallholder farmers (who feed over half the world), the need for biodiversity and the importance of indigenous cultivation and culinary traditions.
Q: Who is one famous person, dead or alive, that you want to share a meal with? And where?
A: Michelle Obama at the White House.
Q: Food issues have not quite made it into the presidential debates. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
A: There should be a lot more scrutiny around the Trans-Pacific Partnership and implications for domestic farmers, preservation of heirloom seeds and transparency around what consumers know about their food sources.
Q: If you were a food, what you be and why?
A: Pomegranate. It’s tart and sweet, and you have to work to get to the good stuff.
Q: Food related pet peeve?
A: Anything turned into foam.
Q: If you could get the general population to change ONE aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
A: Stop supersizing everything. Let’s recognize how precious food is and stop wasting 40 percent of it (here in the U.S.).
Q: What’s your favorite indulgent treat?
A: I indulge in anything I want; chocolate tops the list.
Q: If you had to make (or are making) a food resolution this year, what would it be?
A: Eat better chocolate, drink better coffee, learn how to bake bread.
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