Throughout human history the best foods have been local. Regions, cities, towns and villages would have their own specialties with differences in climate and soil creating subtleties in food, often sought after for the rare experience. The current slow food movement embraced by chefs the world over, also recognizes these subtleties and strives to preserve the culinary heritage of unique indigenous foods. In addition, the new movement toward creating local small farm suppliers for goods originally from other areas is encouraged. With globalization, people take their cultures everywhere and their food can follow them in the form of seeds and nearby craftsmanship. This is not a new story. The ancient Silk Road was the first historically notable and documented large scale exchange of goods with trade between Asia (India and China) and the Greeks and Romans. Sugar reached Europe in small quantities as a food for the elite along with spices and cooking technologies. At the same time in the Americas, corn made its way up from South to North America as well as a robust trade in shells, feathers and other sacred goods, eventually spreading throughout the Americas. The age of exploration, particularly the 15th and 16th centuries, changed local food forever.
Spices, seeds and plants crisscrossed the seas and within a few years chiles were common in India, potatoes in Europe and squash, beans and tomatoes all over. Back in the Americas, olives, pigs, horses and coriander were introduced and often adopted by force. The pace of change often moved quicker than technology could keep up. Empires invested heavily in food. It was the key to economic power. Sugarcane was planted in the West Indies, Corn in Africa and the southern hemisphere was exploited for the abundance of meat. Formerly the food of the rich, these foods became available to everyday people and changed the perceptions of diet and health. The ancient traditions of balancing the diet were based on what was local and indigenous. With the influx of these former luxury goods, popular culture adapted to include and subsequently rationalize the use. Indeed, in preserved forms, these foods frequently prevented famine from poor crops, the scourge of local economies which depended on yearly harvests and kind weather. So we have a double-edged sword. There is no “best of both worlds” in this story. It is a story of adaptation and survival, but with a dark side that is driven by the inevitable greed of economic based decisions, which has also resulted in modifying the health of a good portion of the planet.
The phenomenal advances in scientific understanding hardly offset the fact that we have created an epidemic of obesity, an alarming rise in allergic reactions and a society that is blind to what they eat. Nothing exemplifies this more than the meat industry, which is a systematic mechanism of death to innocent lives as well as a major contributor to the destruction to the environment. It is quite shocking that the concern for global warming and reduction of the carbon footprint have not addressed this significant impact. Decisions that affect the health and well being of people are made for economic reasons, instead of looking at what is best for people. But, this too is not new in our checkered history of toil and struggle. The question is whether a vision of a bigger picture will prevail. Let us step out of the darkness and look at the positive opportunities the food system has provided. More than any other time in human history, any food product one may want is available almost anywhere in the world. This is an amazing achievement, giving the ability to choose eating what is good for us, to create balance and to eat what we desire. The choice is now ours and ours alone.
With the proliferation of local farmers markets, small organic farmers and groceries that buy local, fresh high-quality food is usually right around the corner. The economic cycle has come full circle to help people realize that quantity does not necessarily equal quality. In addition, discovering the rich heritage in our culinary traditions adds depth to our food and meaning to life, creating a win-win scenario for local farms and the health of the people around them. People have also rediscovered gardening and the bounty the earth can provide.
Not since the Victory Gardens of World War II has growing vegetables and herbs been emphasized, or considered as fashionable. Putting fingers in the soil and nurturing plants to bear fruit is one of the great unsung pleasures of life and is local food at its best. I can attest to this and always plant a garden wherever I live or work. It is a simple activity which bonds us to ancestral heritage along with the life-giving energies from the earth, sun and moon. Try it, you will like it!