Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Tale of Three Diets

Throughout this study I have shifted my belief about the significance of traditional diets several times, from assuming that traditional diets were a necessity, to reconsidering and assigning them an “aww shucks” level of nostalgia. Then in the last week of readings I have found an essay that verifies the co-evolution of desert dwellers with their foods. This was the evidence that I had expected to find throughout the research. I now consider a traditional diet significant due to the health benefits people can assume by subsisting on a diet of locally-available foods and for the cultural experience food provides and the informing of who the consumer has become.

The Luiseño Indians are comprised of seven bands from Southern California. Their native land stretched from the coast into the inland mountains and valleys. The Indians accessed different areas depending on seasonal food availability. Upon being displaced from their land and reassigned to an area of poor agricultural viability they were then supplied highly processed commodified food-like products by the U.S. government. This process has destroyed much of the Luiseño food tradition, contributing to widespread degradation of health. The agricultural tradition that does exist consists of large swaths of citrus and avocado trees that thrive on the rocky slopes of the area.

At the conclusion of this un-scientific research project, I believe that the Luiseño Indians have the most incentive to retain their traditional diets. Gary Paul Nabhan, a food anthropologist, has compiled compelling evidence that desert dwellers, as the Luiseño are, from Arizona, New Mexico and Australia have co-evolved with their native foods. This co-evolution allows for greater bioavailability of the nutrients contained within the plants. These peoples have eaten low-glycemic, complex carbohydrate, foods throughout their existence until the introduction of highly processed commodified food-like products. These products, made up of simple carbohydrates, are rapidly metabolized and stored as adipose tissue, causing diet-related diseases that have ravaged native communities. The Rincon Fiesta was an opportunity for the Band to celebrate their cultural heritage and build social capital within their community. I hope that the Luiseño Indians continue to celebrate their food culture in similar ways.

My experience with the Somali Bantus was the most extensive of the three groups and the most fulfilling. The Somali Bantus, having relocated to San Diego four to five years ago, maintain a strong connection to their traditional foods. Agricultural people in Africa; the Somali Bantus are continuing their tradition in their new home. Many of them are farming small plots at New Roots Community Farm in City Heights, San Diego. This farm is being used as an incubation program to find farmers who are interested and skilled enough to begin farming larger plots at Tierra Miguel Farm before moving onto land of their own. A group of 12 men and women recently visited Tierra Miguel to prepare for the training program.

I visited New Roots most recently during the Grand Opening celebration. At that time, I was shown the crops that are being grown by the farmers, beaming with pride. I was then introduced to some of the dishes that were prepared for the occasion. Sambusas stuffed with amaranth leaves and onion then lightly fried, were amazing. Amaranth was also steamed and served like spinach. Amaranth is a huge part of the Bantu diet and is believed to relieve arthritis pain that affects the joints of the lifelong farmers. The last dish I tried was a corn meal cake that is dipped in stewed okra and lima beans. This is regularly consumed as a midday meal and gives strength to the consumer. Okra is also thought to increase male virility. Many young members of the group have widened their food spectrum and now enjoy foods that were abstract when they first arrived, such as pizza. Cheese is uncommon in their native region, leading to its tentative introduction into their present diet, if at all.

Most cultures use festivals, holidays and celebrations to experience culture through food. In a culture that celebrates over 200 holidays, food traditions are celebrated daily. Jews who observe Shabbat have a weekly food ritual that involves preparing all the food on Friday afternoon that will be consumed between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday. There are also prescribed days of the week when Jews will enjoy fleishig (flesh) or milchig (milk) meals. Meat and dairy are never to be combined by observant Jews. This curiosity is due to the representation of life and death that milk and flesh respectively represent. Kosher food is that produced in accord with Jewish law. All fruits and vegetables are Kosher. Slaughtered animals, never pigs though, must be done so by the method known as shechitah to be considered Kosher. This method is supposedly painless to the animal.

The Seder meal, observed the first or second night of Passover, is the most commonly observed traditional meal for Jews. Each part of the menu is representative of their cultural history; four cups of wine, God’s liberation had four stages; at least three matzot, to remind of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; karpas, a green vegetable such as parsley symbolizing spring and rebirth; haroset, a sweet mixture of dried fruit, nuts, apples and spices symbolizing the mortar that the slaves made for bricks in Egypt; maror, bitter herbs such as horseradish, representing the bitterness of slavery and beitzah, a roasted egg symbolizing a festival sacrifice brought in the days of the Temple (Blech 164).

Following the Judaic Diaspora, food continues to connect the people. Their traditional diet has undoubtedly been affected by their present locality but traditions shine through. I admire the pride and joy that their food history elicits. The few opportunities I have had to experience a traditional Jewish meal remain some of my favorite.

One of my readings this quarter, The Future of Food by Warren Belasco is a summary of theorized food and agricultural future states that have been written over the past two hundred years. Whether from the Cornucopian or Malthusian school, not one writer has theorized a future state that has come to fruition more than incidentally, such as approximate global population. Malthusians, doomsayers to some, believe that without dramatic population checks we will starve or be eating analogs made of wood chips or algae.

Cornucopians are technicists to the core, believing that science will always supply an answer. Scientific breakthroughs, increased yields, decreased labor, have allowed population to grow unchecked without generating total global hunger. Arguments against population control center around the need to continuously refill the population pool. By slowing population growth we will be decreasing the pool size from where the next generation of scientists will come. Food and agriculture have resisted the attempt by technicists to apply theoretical developmental models. As much as Americans love technicism, they do not want fully synthetic foods. Algae burgers and sawdust steaks are not as appealing to the palette as they are to the economics of production.

I consider myself a hybrid of the two. I believe that we, as a world community, will experience cornucopian amounts of food by harshly checking the population. I believe that the global carrying capacity is not more than half of our current rate. By increasing global education levels we can learn to enact responsible development practices through which regenerative ecosystems can flourish. Even without drastic population reduction, regenerative food systems will supply more food than can be consumed while improving ecosystem health whereby future populations will not want for delicious, healthful food.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Discovering the Sweet Green Ball

The Luiseño diet is the one closest to me, physically. The Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians owns the property where I live and work. They have inhabited Pauma Valley and the surrounding areas forever. Of the three cultural groups that I am studying, co-evolution should be most prominent within their diet. Just a few miles from the farm are two other Luiseño reservations, Pala and Rincon. The annual Rincon Fiesta was held recently and I visited to see what types of food were being offered. In many cultures, festivals and holidays elicit traditional foods being prepared en masse that may have lost their place in the every day diet. At the Fiesta I found chicken, popcorn, watermelon and Mexican food; tamales, tacos, burritos. Nowhere did I see wiiwish, the sweetened acorn mash that had been a staple for California Indians nor wood rat that had been considered a delicacy.

Many of the reservations in the area are home to Mexican immigrants, so the introduction of Mexican food into the Luiseño diet is not unexpected. The Luiseño are an agricultural people, maintaining large swaths of citrus and avocado orchards to this day. Maize was one of the earliest South and Central American foods that spread north into present-day USA. Native peoples were the original bio-technicians, of course, cultivating teosinte and selecting to produce something far more reminiscent of today’s maize. In just 2,000 years, teosinte the size of a fingernail evolved into present-day maize. For that reason, popcorn does not strike me as being an odd food either.

Whites introduced watermelon when they settled in California. The story of acceptance into the Luiseño diet asserts that an old Indian woman with a keen sense of smell had went out in search of an unfamiliar sweet scent that floated in on a breeze. She returned with a large green ball and volunteered to eat it first. If it was poisonous and she was to die, it would not matter because of her old age. She broke it open with a nearby stone and scooped the soft pink flesh into her mouth. She fell to ground, shaking and the others assumed she had died. But she opened her eyes and exclaimed it to be delicious and they all ate. The Indians saved the seeds and began to cultivate their own watermelons in Southern CA. The original “green ball” was believed to have grown from a seed that floated downstream from a field that a white man had planted.

Popcorn and watermelon are not foods that I think about in reference to traditional Indian diets, but they are part of the Luiseño past and Mexican food is prominently part of their present, as it is for most Southern Californians. These three foods were all introduced in distinct ways; popcorn through domestication of a wild plant and subsequent trade, watermelon, literally by chance, floated in on a stream and Mexican food was introduced through mass migration. Of these, watermelon represents the only food that was introduced by a single event.

Perhaps, time was the only limiting factor before whites, in need of supplemental protein, traded watermelon for wood rat. I will never know, but I do know that watermelon has persevered where wood rat has not. And likely, time remains the only barrier before watermelon is phased out in favor of another exotic food that thrives in the sandy soil of Pauma Valley. Evolution is a traditional aspect of all diets, be it through domestication (teosinte into maize), introduction (tamales and tacos) or chance (watermelon). The day will come when people long for the past when watermelon was the stereotypical summer food, before turning their attention back to whatever has taken its place.

Monday, September 7, 2009

No More Maize and Tomatoes!

As I approached this study, I expected to learn about co-evolution between plants and people and why specific diets have become prominent in certain areas. Maize is consumed nearly globally, but an entire diet, it does not make. If maize is not supplemented with other crops, the health of the consumer will quickly deteriorate. Rice and beans, peanut butter and jelly on wheat, these simple foods provide all the essential amino acids needed for a human to thrive. I wanted to learn what the Jewish and Somali Bantu versions of PB&J were.

I retain that co-evolution is important. It tells a story, but maybe it’s no longer the most significant aspect of traditional diets. The tradition itself, the tying of the present to the past is the most significant aspect. Our past has shaped who we are. Globalization has encouraged us to expand our dietary repertoire. Food, knowledge and people rapidly move around the globe, affecting all that they come in contact with. While I know not what the equivalent of a Somali PB&J is, I will continue to look until I achieve the satisfaction of tasting it.

In regards to promoting re-adoption of ones traditional diet, doing so may be irrelevant. A diet fit the needs of a specific set of circumstances, be it availability of goods or trade partners. The tomato was not widely accepted into Southern Italian cuisine until the 19th century. What would become of their traditional diet if I advocated for a reversion to pre-tomato days? That would surely be seen as a loss of tradition. The changing of diets is not evil; it is natural, not just among cultures but individuals as well. I retain concern when the change is so rapid that the physiology of a people is not able to evolve with the prominent foodstuffs in their diet. This is when diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity run rampant. We must look to the past as we move forward, in life and in our food choices to avoid exposing ourselves to unintentional consequences that certain food choices elicit.