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Posts Tagged ‘Food’

If you can fly to the moon, who cares what you eat. That must be why the only food you can purchase at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC is from McDonald’s. You can go either to the McDonald’s restaurant on the main floor, or for a refreshing change of pace, the McDonald’s cafe on the upper floor.

Of course many of us would be content there, munching a burger and fries, but enjoying a meal for a brief moment in time is not the same as caring about it. Caring is reserved for foods that have deeper meaning to us: traditional meals, recipes perfected by someone we love, or food that is specific to a certain region (think Thanksgiving dinner, grandpa’s pineapple jam, and Maine lobster).

Should you, however, find yourself wandering hungrily around the National Air and Space Museum at lunchtime, as I was last month, you may be shocked to discover that you are just a few hundred yards away from a dazzling celebration of traditional, regional, and meaningful food.

You need only step next door where you will find the Mitsitam Cafe of the Museum of the American Indian. Here, you can start your meal sipping cold cucumber soup topped with bittersweet chocolate cream. Or, you might, as my eight year old did before anyone could stop her, order an enormous slab of fry bread and top it with pickled chilies and pinto beans.

You can wander around sampling side dishes like salsify salad and black eyed peas with horseradish root and spinach. If you’re really famished you can settle in to a venison loaf with Saskatoon berries, a bison steak with wild cherry sauce, or chicken tortillas with huckleberry and pine nut mole.

With your feast you can try cool hibiscus, chipotle and lime juice or hot atole, a thick Mexican beverage made with corn flour, water, cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate. Dessert choices are equally intriguing: mesquite pinon cookies, golden yucca cake, and guava tapioca pudding.

The cafeteria is divided into five areas, each representing the cuisine of a different region: the Northern Woodlands, the Great Plains, the Northwest Coast, Meso America, and South America. Each region offers a full menu of choices from soups to desserts.

I was fascinated by the way in which the cafe echoed and reinforced the spirit of the museum. As I wandered through the galleries, reading about the different Indian tribes, I was most struck by the powerful connection of each of these groups to the specific places in which they lived. The masks, the symbols, the stories, and the way of life of each tribe, was inextricably interwoven into a very specific region of the Americas.

In the cafeteria it surely would have been simpler to create a single menu with each dish labeled according to place of origin, rather than to create five different areas each with their own complete menu. But, a major message of the museum is to highlight the importance of sense of place, of understanding and respecting where you are, and of connecting to a specific ecosystem and with the particular plants and animals that live there.

We cannot simply pull out a lovely aspect of one or another region–a scallop dish from the northwest coast or chilis from Mexico–rather, it is in the whole, taken together, that the essence of each people is realized.

As fitting as the Mitsitam Cafe is to the American Indian Museum, so is the McDonald’s to the Air and Space Museum. The history of flight, culminating in space travel, is a history of the wildest achievements of industrial society and of our breathtaking capacity for innovation and ingenuity. Yet, these brilliant achievements go hand in hand with the terrible consequences of burning fossil fuel to transport ourselves everywhere willy nilly–even to the moon. We now have to contend with the likes of climate change and off shore oil spills. We have not figured out how to harvest the benefits of our inventions without the negatives.

McDonald’s is similarly a reflection of brilliant success in using the tools of our industrial society: massive farms, cheap transportation, and global markets, to create foods that everyone, everywhere seems primally driven to enjoy. Yet again, the many nasty unintended consequences of this food, such as wreaking havoc with our health, displacing authentic local cuisines, and devastating the environment, are swept out of sight to be dealt with elsewhere.

Traditional societies did not have the luxury of sweeping too much under the rug. If they destroyed their food or water supplies, they had to live with the consequences. In the Mitsitam Cafe you eat as if the harvesting, the processing, and the eating all have consequences. You eat as if you understand how your actions are connected to everything else. You eat as if you cared.

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If you’ve been buying tomatoes at the supermarket all summer you may not have noticed that New England’s tomato and potato crop (especially the organic portion) has been utterly decimated by a fungus known as late blight.

It’s curious how easy it is to miss this event given that late blight is the very same pest that caused over one quarter of the population of Ireland to starve to death or flee for greener shores during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s.

You may have missed it because most of food items we consume are easily exchangeable for similar items, without any effect on what we are able to buy. In other words, a tomato from Mexico is the same as a tomato from California, is the same as a tomato from the farm next door.

Nevertheless there were some of us who found it impossible to miss the ravages of late blight. Our farmers, of course. The folks who shop at the farmer’s markets, them too. They’ve been shelling out more money for the few local tomatoes available.

And, there was another group of us who noticed. We’re the ones who paid for our tomatoes last winter, along with our oil bills. We had entered into a deal with our farmers called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

In this unusual bargain, community members buy a share of a farm’s produce in advance of the growing season. Farmers get needed cash to buy seeds along with a stable income in an unstable profession. In a good summer, CSA members are showered in an abundance of produce: far more than their money’s worth.

In a year in which rain smothers the sky for 6 weeks on end, the reverse occurs. In a year with biblical blight, your CSA farm might, as my farm did, lose its entire tomato crop.

Okay, I admit I was horrified when I heard it. Yes, I could still buy tomatoes from other Maine farms (or Mexico or California). Yes, we got extra heaps of glorious greens in our shares, which made up for some of the lost tomato value.

But, there is no crop that better embodies the joys of eating local seasonal produce than tomatoes; especially the ones you paid for six months ago in the dead of winter, imagining the tangy red taste of summer soil and sunshine. It’s truly hard to compensate for the loss of summer tomatoes.

Except when you consider this: supporting a CSA is profoundly different from most other purchases you make, going far beyond the contents of your weekly share.

Normally, our purchases are interactions between us and what we buy. I want a tomato; if I like the price and the quality, I buy the tomato. If I don’t, I can buy a different tomato or an eggplant, or put the money in the bank.

With a CSA, the deal we make is with a person, not a tomato, and more than that, it’s a deal with a piece of land, with our local soils, and with our water. It’s a deal with the local weather and it now appears that it’s also a deal with the global climate.

The deal goes like this: hey there, farmer, field, climate, you protect us, you feed us, and we’ll protect you in exchange. It’s an unusually honest transaction. If we don’t preserve our farmland and our farmers, they can’t feed us. We rarely have this direct a relationship with the things that matter most to our survival. What control do we have over the electricity grid? The oil markets?

A well-run farm can improve the soil and protect local water and air quality. The foods it offers are generally healthier than those available in the supermarket. Money spent on local foods supports the local economy. The Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association calculates that if every Maine family spent just $10 a week on local foods it would keep $100 million dollars circulating in our economy during the growing season.

Farmland is not in infinite supply; worldwide the competition is actually quite fierce. Last year South Korea acquired a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land (public protests overturned the deal). Wealthy nations and corporations are rapidly buying up farmland in poorer places.

Although the United States does not need to sell its farms to make ends meet, I’m frequently astounded by what does get sold when the price is right (think drinking water, mineral rights, public land, and clean air). I like the idea that communities support local ownership of their own farmland.

Surprisingly, buying local food is also one of the single most effective ways that individuals can make a difference for the environment. Getting food to our tables is responsible for a staggering one third of climate changing emissions.

On average, we use approximately 10 times more energy (mostly from burning fossil fuels) growing, processing and transporting food than is provided by the food itself. In a truly absurd example, Cornell researcher David Pimentel calculates that providing the east coast with California lettuce takes 60 times more energy than is in the lettuce (i.e., 60 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of lettuce).

Given those abysmal environmental credentials, it is somewhat preposterous that we eat lettuce from California during a Maine summer when lettuce is available locally. CSAs feed their neighbors with a mere flicker of fuel.

I might have wished that some of my investment in this year’s CSA had grown into pounds of ripe tomatoes. But no matter the crop varieties or yields, I know my dollars were plowed into open space, clean water, clean air, a vibrant local economy, and a knowledgeable farmer who will have enough to live on through the winter so he can grow food for the community again next year. It’s still a bargain.

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