In a book which touches not only on the importance and diversity of our historical food culture, Simran Sethi also takes us on a culinary journey through the intense, often nostalgic relationships we have with food.
The declining biodiversity of agricultural crops is costing us not just the security of our food supply and the number of foods available to eat, but also taste and flavour. We are eating more narrowly than ever – evidenced most shockingly by the Food and Agriculture Organization statistic that 95% of our calories globally derive from just 30 species. This fact is highlighted when Sethi details how some three quarters of our food comes from 12 plants and 5 animals. That’s in marked contrast to the 30,000 species of plants and 30 domesticated birds and animals available to eat.
The commercial world of food production strives toward uniformity, replicating the same things that people like. That’s where success lies. But as this uniformity in taste, texture and other aspects of food predominates, what is lost is the unusual, unique and uncommon traits. We have the power to help limit this decline in genetic diversity by committing to eating a wider range of foods, but also by demanding both quality and distinction.
The tragedy for Sethi is not just in the loss of biodiversity and resilience, it’s also in the lost tastes and the declining quality of our food. Bread, Wine, Chocolate reflects on foods that inspire our devotion, and describes in intimate and personal ways why what we’re losing matters. “This is a book about food,” she writes, “but it’s really a book about love.” Then later, “This is a book about love, but it’s really a book about taste.” And finally, “This is a book about taste, but it’s really a book about joy.” And what is food without joy? This is the permeating question Sethi asks us to consider.
David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé
Microbes are the most abundant organisms on the planet. Invisible to the naked eye, they make up half the weight of life on Earth. Yet despite being so widespread, we understand little about them. But these hidden organisms are an integral part of all the Earth’s ecosystems. Microbes exist on every natural surface of the earth, in every raindrop and grain of sand, and they play a critical role in the health of our soils and our own bodies.
In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in the mysterious world of microbial life, which lead author David Montgomery describes as a scientific revolution as illuminating as the discovery that Earth orbits the sun.
Montgomery recounts the story of how, within a few years, he and his wife transformed their garden from a barren backyard into an abundant vegetable plot using copious amounts of organic matter such as mulch, worm compost and soil soup. In order to bring life above ground, he needed to feed the life below it. Unique and highly specialised communities of microorganisms live around the roots of plants in a complex symbiotic relationship with them – the plant feeds the microbial community and in turn, the microbes make available essential nutrients the plant could not otherwise access and guards the plant against disease.
Like plants, humans also live with a huge number of microbes. It is becoming increasingly evident that we rely on a balance of beneficial microbes in our bodies for the health and the strength of our immune systems. The second half of the book follows the cancer recovery journey of author Anne Biklé, and the role of food in recovering her health. As with soil, what we feed the microorganisms in our bodies can support our overall health. Montgomery and Biklé’s analogy reflects SFT director Patrick Holden’s assertion that soil is the stomach of the plant. We don’t just feed ourselves, but also the diverse community of microorganisms which support our health. Understanding this fascinating microbial world and its role in health has the potential to change the way we manage land, practice farming, eat food and treat disease.
The Waste Free Kitchen Handbook goes way beyond the basics of food waste reduction. The book is a true and thorough education in how to waste less and Gunders, a kind of food-waste messiah, saving us all from our profligate, wasteful ways.
Gunders takes a systemic look at how we can tackle our individual food waste. She starts by considering why we throw out food – whether we don’t get around to eating it because we are too busy, or when we do, we cook too much; our sometimes over zealous love of the ‘use by’ date; and the loss of simple (once everyday) techniques like how to preserve, pickle and freeze. She goes on to detail the extensive resources that go into producing food and how many – 803 million – people don’t have enough to eat. Finally, she makes sure that you know absolutely everything about cutting down your food waste.
This includes: how to shop more effectively (i.e. plan, plan, plan); how to store and save food, down to the detail of explaining how to use your fridge and freezer effectively and the value of canning, pickling and drying; making sure you cook the right amount of food and use up what’s in your fridge and pantry, which extends to a section on what to do when you ruin your dinner, offering suggestions for how to salvage things you’ve burned, over salted, overcooked, or generally, not done your best with; how to tell when things are off and what you can and cannot risk eating, along with explaining what all those dates may or may not mean. She concludes with a chapter on food scraps and a focus on composting, wrapping it all up with recipes for using up leftovers and a comprehensive directory of the optimum ways to store food properly.
Gunders may be more than a little obsessive about her food waste – with the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook offering an almost encyclopaedic guide – but we have a lot to learn from her, so what better place to start!
Is what we like to eat programmed into us, or is it learned behaviour? According to Bee Wilson the evidence is clear – it’s learned and we can learn to change it. “We have to find a way to want to eat what’s good for us,” writes Wilson. With some 70% of people overweight or obese, it is becoming imperative that we feed ourselves better. But in today’s culture, wanting to eat what’s good for us is much, much harder than it should be and we are rife with dislikes and disorders. Wilson looks at the roots of our eating habits and unravels the question of nature vs. nurture.
Wilson wants to know how we can refashion our diet and finds out some extraordinary things about eating – like how terrifically important flavour is over taste. Tastes are the building blocks of flavour but they have no nuance, no complexity. They are simple and straightforward: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umame (which might be described as full or rich). But flavour is remarkably complex, and while made up of these core tastes, it is infinitely varied. This is what we fall in love with when we eat food, and it is flavour – both good and bad – that etches itself into childhood memories and shapes a lifetime of eating.
She also considers feeding – how we were fed as children and what we learn from it about eating. And she explores what we can do to unlearn that teaching. The things that shape what and how we eat are complex and deeply personal. “Eating well,” says Wilson, “is a skill. We learn it. Or not. It’s something we can work on at any age.” Her book ends by addressing the practicalities of change – how do we change how we eat? Because we need to have a better relationship with food.
The Triumph of Seeds: How grains, nuts, kernels, pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history
Seed plants make up more than 90% of our flora. They are fundamental to life on earth, and to the existence of humanity and the way that civilisations and agriculture have evolved. Seeds are at the core of diets, economies and lifestyles around the world and provide us with food, fuels, intoxicants, oils, dyes, fibres and flavours.
Thor Hanson combines his own observations with historical anecdotes about the evolution of seeds and humanity’s interdependence on them. He claims that the knowledge we’ve gained from this long-term relationship with seeds may be our deepest reservoir of insight into the workings of nature: “Seeds give us a tangible connection from the past to the future, a reminder of human relationships as well as the natural rhythms of season and soil.”
Over time humanity has refined plants to their advantage through selecting the seeds of plants. Historically agriculture has maintained a wide variety of crop plants which have been carefully chosen for what thrives in the local climate and ecological circumstances. These have constantly evolved through seed saving. However, significant reduction in seed biodiversity caused by the industrialisation of agriculture and agribusiness monopolisation, has made seed saving a necessary practice.
The irony of the seed bank movement, is that until fairly recently local varieties were maintained and “banked” in the fields as they were replanted and refined season after season. In Hanson’s view “as impressive and necessary as seed banks have become, they are in many ways an elaborate fix to a problem of our own making.”
Lentil Underground is a tale of environmental radicalism emerging out of failed convention. A group of farmers frustrated with the methods of their predecessors and looking for a better way forward, find one another in the wilds of Montana, forming a formidable co-operative, growing green manures and lentils in the midst of the US corn belt. The book maps the evolution of Timeless Seeds, now a million-dollar business, and evidences the political might of a small group of committed organic farmers.
The producers of Timeless Seeds didn’t just transform the land they grew on, they also changed how people thought about agriculture in the state, breaking down the hegemonies of conventional farm practice. Their lobbying generated Montana’s first law defining organic agriculture and they also got the state legislature to pass a joint resolution to establish a sustainable agriculture programme at the state university. They spread the word about a new way of farming that might release farmers from the onus of chemical farming costs and offer an agroecological way forward based on the promise of the humble pulse.
100 Million Years of Food is a rambling tour of food that is eaten around the world and how we came to eat it, evolutionarily-speaking. Starting with insects and moving through fruit, meat, fish and starch, Stephen Le analyses the health impacts of our eating, considering why our ancestors ate the way they did and what that means for us today.
Le has three suggestions to remember in our eating. “Keep moving” – there are health benefits to prolonged walking and our ancestors walked between 6-9 miles per day; we now walk an average of 2.5 miles per day. “Eat less meat and dairy when you are younger”, but more when you are older and need it more; meat and dairy are important food sources but in combination with lots of sugar and fried foods, which are both abundant in global diets these days, it can be less beneficial. “Eat traditionally” because regional diets developed slowly and are based on sources of nutrition available to support health in a specific place – over time people adapted to what was good for them where they lived. Looking back in time tells us both what has worked for human evolution and where we went wrong.
Photograph: Florin Gorgan
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