We've heard about animals and insects that are endangered or near-disappearing, but it turns out some of our favorite foods could be endangered too. When journalist and University of Melbourne associate Simran Sethi first learned about the staggering loss of agricultural biodiversity we're facing, she quit a job she couldn't get fired from, sold her house and gave away her car to spend five years researching the subject.
Why? "While we debate GMOs and the merits of Paleo, while we count calories and queue for Cronuts, we're losing the foundations of food," Sethi writes in her new book, "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love." She details exactly how that is happening — and how we can all be involved in saving beloved foods, even as we savor them.
Sethi spoke with more than 200 scientists — many of whom are working to make our food supply more secure — as well as farmers, bakers, brewers, coffee roasters, conservationists and religious leaders to get at the deep cultural stories about food. We can utilize those narratives to save foods on the edge of extinction, Sethi says. "The solutions are in ... 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," writes Sethi. Her book is part travelogue, as she visits the places where the cacao or the grapes are grown, and meets the people who grow them.
Sethi spends some time covering the specifics of biodiversity crisis in food, as she summed up for The Splendid Table: "We're losing the diversity in every element that makes food and agriculture possible, from diversity in the soil and the diversity of and the existence of pollinators, to the seeds that we sow, the fruits and vegetables that we grow, and even the animals that we raise for livestock." But the book isn't wholly about that — it's more of an exploration into specific foods most of us can relate to, from the sources who really know them.
And Sethi, who certainly loves and appreciates food, does something in this book that's a little different from other nonfiction: For each of the foods she writes about, she includes tasting guides at the end of each chapter. There are also flavor guides at the end of the book to help you find the words for what you're experiencing.
Which brings us to the positive side of this sometimes-distressing topic: Turns out, you can (and should!) eat the foods you want to save because it will help protect them. How amazing is that?
In case you think your own dietary preferences or limitations will limit what you can learn, Sethi makes it clear this information is transferable: "Through this journey — through wine, chocolate, coffee, beer and bread ... You'll deepen your pleasure and understanding of what you eat and drink, even if you're a gluten-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, vegan teetotaler. Because everything I learned about my culinary staples can be mapped onto yours."
I spoke with Sethi about the book and why she chose to present it the way she did.
MNN: How did you choose what foods to focus on in your book?
Simran Sethi: When I started learning about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, I was surprised I didn’t know more. I thought, "I have to tell this story." So I quit my job and went on a journey that originally was going to be through staple crops: rice, wheat, corn. But I really wanted to tell the story through foods I had a deeper relationship with; so I chose foods that were celebratory, and set the tone of my life, and that I had long relationships with. Chocolate, for example, was both my wedding cake and what I ate during my divorce.
You include a section at the end of each chapter on how to taste each of the foods or beverages you cover. Why?
I was tired of prescriptive books that tell us to do things but don’t provide any guidance. Like, "If you want to save the planet, roast a pig yourself from scratch." This is an audacious request. I wanted to know: "How do we actually save biodiversity?"
One of my bottom-line goals is the democratization of flavor or taste. What is delicious to you, matters. I wanted more people to own this experience. After five years of working with sensory experts, I feel more confident about my taste, but in the past I have felt shame about that. I wanted to give people a way in. So even though I wrote about wine, I'm not writing a wine guide, but giving people tools.
How do you get people to try new flavors? What's the best way to explore food?
It's not enough to say to someone: "Try something else." Change is hard. It doesn’t happen immediately. It’s not an easy journey to just switch out the coffee you have been drinking for years. I give guidance so people feel more comfortable with trying something new — that's why I included flavor wheels in the back of the book to give you words and language for what you are experiencing. It starts with having comfort in tasting a new food and talking about it. Now you can go do it with other foods.
How can you know what's really good?
If we’re going to talk about the deliciousness of a tomato, how do we decide what deliciousness is? You have to use all five senses. But really, it's a personal construct. If we are trying to advance the food narrative, we have to get juicy with it. I feel like the juicy conversation about food has been one thing and the scientific and political is another. I'm trying to marry those.
Is the solution just to eat as locally as possible?
One of the driving parts of the narrative is in the idea that a taste of place is in everything. Cauliflower grown in one place should taste different than when it's grown elsewhere. Terroir is in everything if we let it be — and can we expand on that idea? When we talk about place for a beer, we say it comes from a particular brewery. But is the yeast local? Where is the water from? Where were the hops grown? How local is local?
At the end of the day, there's a deeper consideration for what it means to come from a place. That chocolate didn't come from Belgium and the coffee from your local coffee shop — where was the cacao or coffee grown? There's no way we can save agricultural biodiversity if we think our local coffee starts at a roaster in our hometown.