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.

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