Lots of stories today strung together somewhat loosely by the nature of place. The places people are from, the places crop plants are from, the places different people understand in different ways. I remain grateful for the many ways in which foods and people transcend place, for what would an Italian heatwave be without luscious tomatoes and refreshing watermelon.
Deep insights from Oyunga Pala, a Kenyan currently in the Netherlands, prompted by how Covid is encouraging many Kenyans to return from the cities to small rural land holdings where they hope to create a basis for food security. Pala contrasts what he knows of small-scale agriculture in Kenya with what he is learning and what he sees all around him in the Netherlands.
Small-scale farming in Kenya accounts for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output and meets 70 per cent of the national food demand, so I know I am part of an important constituency. The challenge of my generation, those with access to land under 3 ha in size, is to craft a new farming philosophy that is built on progressive ideas through investigation, dialogue and exposure to alternative sources of knowledge grounded in the African experience. We need more philosophers and fewer technical experts to redefine what we call sustainable farming. Africa’s own knowledge systems and philosophy in agriculture are held in the memory of a generation that is dying out and dismissed as backward. Yet my grandmother’s practices resonate with those of emerging natural farming systems around the world that espouse new ideas grounded in the environmental, social and historical realities of the non-western world.
Seems to me to echo what other people are saying about AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
Well worth your time, as are the articles Pala links to. I know nothing about Elephant, the online publication, but it looks like a good source of interesting news.
Perhaps you didn’t read the New York Times’ disastrous article about fruit in Thailand, and maybe you aren’t aware of the furious backlash it provoked among people upset and angered by its ignorant, solipsistic, condescending tone. In which case, let me point you to an article from ABC Arts: Australian food writers call for greater diversity of voices in wake of New York Times durian debacle.
The article neatly sums up the problems with the original article and the responses to it from many spots around the world. It points to some of the ways in which the diversity of food cultures deserves, and is getting, greater diversity in the voices who share it. This is not about authenticity in any of its guises. It is about respect for food cultures and the people who actually take the trouble to understand them. It is not about appropriation either; you don’t have to be born into a culture to learn about and appreciate its depth and nuances.
If Hannah Beech’s durian debacle promotes greater depth and diversity in food writing, it will have done us all a favour.
Truly, how seriously should we take Australia’s desire to develop its own staple grain? The authors of the article point out that Africa has sorghum, Asia rice, the Americas maize and potatoes, and Europe wheat and barley. Australia has nothing and, they say, it should have.
The staples they have in mind — Mitchell grasses — form large perennial grasslands across arid and semi-arid parts of northern Australia. In times past, Aboriginal people managed the grasslands with fire and harvested and stored the seeds, possibly becoming the first bread bakers.
Australia already grows peta-bushels of wheat (I made that up), which I suppose could be argued is the birthright staple of the people who grow it. Mitchell grasses (and other species) could replace some of that, would probably be more climate resilient, would need less in the way of inputs and would provide additional ecosystem services that wheat never will. But there’s a wide gap between admiring the potential of an indigenous grain and turning it into a staple.
I’m not saying they shouldn’t try. But in my opinion they should do so in order to produce a crop for the future, which will require breeding, agronomy, food processing and all the rest of it. Having your “own” staple is not the point. No arguing, though, with this conclusion:
Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.
p.s. The Australians might be following a path set out by The Land Institute, with its dream of productive perennial polyculture prairies. That took another step forward this past week with the official release of the first food-grade intermediate wheatgrass variety of Kernza®.
A long article in Rawi describes many of the foods at risk of extinction in Egypt. Some have been taken up by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, which may or may not guarantee them a future. While the article certainly contains some interesting descriptions of fascinating foods and the elaborate methods of preparing them, I do have a couple of complaints.
As usual, the main bee in my bonnet is about naming. There are no scientific names in the entire piece which, when you are talking about disappearing species, almost by definition unknown to most people, makes no sense. I happen to know what tiger nuts are (Cyperus esculentus) but mention of “nabq (Christ-thorn fruit), and guimayz (sycamore figs)” sent me scurrying to Wikipedia. Ziziphus spina-christi is a kind of jujube tree, possibly “too brittle to be bent into a crown”. Ficus sycomorus is even more interesting, as a name, and, I realise, way too much of a digression here. The point, though, is that scientific names are the only way to ensure that we all can agree what we’re talking about.
Then there’s the difficult question that attends all attempts to conserve traditional ways of doing things. Is it really worth it? For example, the process of making “kishk, kashk, or keşk (and many other names)” is incredibly involved and is very clearly a clever way of preserving milk (in most versions) and grain to make a nutritious, long-lived product that can be easily transported. The article notes:
Although kishk continues to be present in many places, what has been lost are the local practices and micro-organisms, that would make kishk reflect the terroir and thus vary from one region to another, in the same way products such as cheese and wine vary by geography in Italy and France.
I’d like to know more about kishk connoisseurship before fretting too much about the loss of potential kishk terroir. Even more, I’d like to suggest that instead of worrying about the loss of an archaic means of production, kishk lovers (and producers) in Egypt take a look at one of the most interesting papers from this year’s Dublin Gastronomy Symposium.
Tarhana: An Anatolian Food Concept as a Promising Idea for the Future, by Nilhan Aras and Aylin Öney Tan, examined in depth the past and future of tarhana, a fermented food originally made of yoghurt and wheat berries, which sounds to me a whole lot like kishk. Rather than lamenting the loss of “traditional” tarhana, they point out its potential as an exciting, innovative and climate-friendly food for the future. Bring it on.
This year, for obvious reasons, we could not enjoy one of my absolute favourite summertime treats: a giant bucket of blue crabs with a cooler full of beer and a handy outdoor shower for cleaning up afterwards. The crabs are liberally coated with Old Bay Seasoning, and for years I had no idea there was any alternative, so it was a treat to read Fish Peppers in Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
The gist of the story is that the fish pepper arose, probably around Baltimore, Maryland, some time around the 1870s as a mutant of a serrano pepper. Its leaves are splotched with white patches, and the immature seed pod is usually white. “Harvested at this mild, early stage,” the article explains, “it added an invisible kick to cream-based seafood sauces and soup — the ultimate secret ingredient.”
Fish pepper was originally rediscovered by William Woys Weaver, who found the seeds in his grandfather’s freezer. (The article explains how they came to be there.) That means that I must, in fact, have known about fish peppers all along, because it’s right there in Weaver’s book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, which I read from cover to cover when it came out. Like so many endangered foods, though, out of sight is out of mind. Next year, dv, I’ll make an effort to taste it.
As ever, always happy to hear what you think.
Ficus sycomorus photo by Bernard Dupont (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Fish pepper photos from Smithsonian Magazine