Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Food Culture

“Eat food or die,” a guy I know once said. This seems beyond obvious, but history has shown us many instances where people, both collectively and individually, have chosen to die rather than to eat. It would be easy to dismiss these instances as proof that the gene-pool is self-chlorinating, but I think that to do so is to ignore a valuable lesson.

A good example of this phenomenon – of people choosing to die rather than to eat – can be found in the Viking culture of Greenland. The Vikings settled in Greenland during an uncharacteristically warm climatic period which enabled them to bring with them the agricultural and culinary practices of their homeland. Eventually, the climate swung back to normal and their agricultural and culinary practices could no longer be maintained. The Viking culture of Greenland waned to virtual non-existence, with a dramatic increase in deaths due to mal-nutrition, and an emigration of Vikings back to their homelands.

One of the curious aspects of the Greenland Viking culture to anthropologists and historians is that they didn’t eat fish. I don’t like fish either, but then I don’t live in Greenland. The Inuit people – the closest thing Greenland has to a native people – survived the same period that did the Vikings in by subsisting on fish and other marine life as they have for millennia. Food, perfectly normal and acceptable food, was literally swimming all around the Vikings, but rather than change their diets they instead chose to starve and leave. No one is really sure why the Greenland Vikings refused to eat fish. It seems an odd thing for a sea-faring people, especially when their Nordic parent culture includes sea food. Whatever the reason though, for several generations, they simply refused to acknowledge that fish were food, and this led to their demise.

The point of this brief history lesson is that what we consider to be food isn’t solely dependent on what’s available, on edibility, nutrition, or anything scientific. As members of a culture, we subscribe to a particular set of rules that informs us what is ‘food’ and what isn’t. This is something I touched on in my last post dealing with weeds – perfectly edible and nutritious foods are growing wild in our yards and green spaces, but most people not only refuse to eat them, but are completely oblivious to the fact they are actually food. Furthermore, those brave souls who are willing to buck tradition and harvest this bounty and thought of as strange.

This is the difference between food and food culture. ‘Food’ is merely an edible substance. ‘Food Culture’ is a set of rules, generally tied to a place and a group of people, which specify food as acceptable, how food is gathered or produced, the proper methods of preparation, when to eat, how to eat, and how much to eat. Traditional food culture is tied to a place and to a people and is thus a local or regional phenomenon as well as an ethnic one. It is in fact a part of how ethnicity and regionality are determined. Even in our modern world, there is a food culture, in spite of the fact that in its current state, it is focused on eliminating regional and ethnic variations to develop a kind of culinary hegemony.

The verbalized principle of modern food culture is that anyone should be able to eat whatever they want whenever they want it, so long as they can afford it. This is accomplished through market economics – producing foodstuffs where it is cheap to do so, and transporting them to a place where they can fetch the best prices, thereby enriching the producers as the window of season shifts around the world, and theoretically at least, ensuring that everyone has a rich and varied diet. This is a laudable goal, but ultimately rests on flawed assumptions about the nature of food, productivity, economics, culture, and human nature.

Obviously, as the case of the Greenland Vikings illustrates, traditional food cultures can fail, although one could make the argument that it was a failure on the part of the Vikings to realize that food culture is tied to a place as well as a people. The sum total of food culture however, is meant to educate the people in a particular place on how to best, most effectively, and safely utilize the food resources of their area in a sustainable manner. In a similar way, the modern food culture has potential flaws in that it see that food culture is tied to either a people or a place. This creates a systemic vulnerability and a dependence which represents a danger to everyone.

Danger? Yes, Danger! If you’re like most people in this country, your food comes from somewhere other than where you live. Chances are that you actually eat very little that comes from where you live. Implicitly this means that your life depends on someone delivering one of the basic requirements for life. What happens if they stop doing it? What are YOU going to eat, and where are YOU going to get it from, and how are YOU going to get it?

These questions are neither rhetorical nor trivial. They aren’t necessarily even meant to prompt you into trying to grow and produce all of your own food. The point of asking them is point out that food has to come from somewhere, and if it isn’t coming from somewhere else, it has to come from where you are. There’s a pretty good chance that food is growing and being produced somewhere pretty close to you, but if you don’t know where that is, or what forms it takes, it isn’t going to do you much good.

That, ultimately, is what this post is about. It’s a question I’ve started asking myself, my friends, and my neighbors. How is your food culture defined? What are you doing to ensure that your food culture is sustainable and viable? If all external inputs were removed, would you eat food or die?

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