Given that it is my last full day here in Buenos Aires I decided to treat myself to a gourmet lunch at my favorite San Telmo restaurant, Caseros. (The restaurant is on Caseros Avenue, hence the name, but caseros also conveniently means “homemade” which is an apt description for everything on the menu.) To begin with, I asked for a glass of water straight from the tap. Clean, cool, fresh, and absolutely free, municipal water is one of the miracles of the modern era; a miracle I try to take advantage of as frequently as possible. I also ordered a glass of Malbec from a Mendoza winery and its domesticated vines of vitis vinifera. Unlike the Malbec grapes of France, the Argentine grapes tend to be smaller in size. One would think that the smaller the grape, the less water, the more robust its flavor, but according to Wikipedia, high yields and excessive irrigation led to wines which were, until recently, “more simplistic and lacking in flavor.” Maybe that’s true, but I’m no wine snob and this particular glass on an overcast wintery afternoon hit the right spot.
In Argentina bread comes with every meal, but it is almost always eaten plain and without butter. Bread is an incredible invention, both in its diversity (leavened and unleavened, flat and spongy, flaky and fluffy) and in its simplicity (flour and water – and, optionally, yeast or baking soda). In its simplest form bread is nothing more than dried ground wheat, water, and saccharomyces cerevisiae, a microscopic fungus floating all around us. Throw the right proportion of those three ingredients into any enclosed source of heat – an oven – and you’ve got bread.
Next came my first plate: roasted vegetables (sweet white onions, red peppers, and squash) over a bed of spinach. The vegetables were roasted in olive oil (likely imported from the Mediterranean region), but the only other ingredient added to the salad was a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar – aged and fermented white grape juice, probably introduced during the wave of Italian immigration to Argentina in the early 20th century. Whereas the packaged salads I would often buy from Trader Joes while in the US probably had over 30 different ingredients (the majority derivatives of corn), most salads in Argentina have no more than four vegetables, olive oil, and vinegar. At first these salads seem comparatively flavorless, but in their simplicity we can more easily appreciate the individual flavors of lettuce, carrots, onions, and tomatoes, and the various strategies each species has adopted to transform soil, water, and sunlight into carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. (The goal of fruits and vegetables, Pollan reminds us, is to become appealing enough to animals who eat their seeds and – a few hours and cups of espresso later – create a rich natural fertilizer so that the species can spread.)
The salad was delicious, quite possibly the best I’ve ever had, though the half-finished glass of Malbec could have influenced that judgement. Now time for my main course, a cut of bife de chorizo cooked slowly over an open flame. (I ordered mine “a punto”, rare.) A bife de chorizo (“sirloin strip steak”), is a thick cut of muscle and fat from the top rear of the cow:
Cows have have one stomach with four compartments, including the “rumen“, which enables cows and other ruminants to eat and digest basic field grasses that humans cannot. Through photosynthesis grasses transform sunlight into carbohydrates; cows then turn grass into protein; and I then (ahem, any time now) turn cow into fertilizer which helps the grasses efficiently turn more sunlight into more carbohydrates; and the cycle continues.
At least that is how the human food cycle worked for the entire history of our species – and continues, for the most part, here in Argentina – until relatively recently when an oversupply of corn and a shortage of grazing land in the United States led to giant feedlots which truck in corn-based feed from Kansas and Illinois to fatten up the tens of thousands of cows as quickly as possible. Because cows have not traditionally eaten corn throughout their evolutionary history, they are given anti-biotics in order to stay healthy.
My grass-fed steak was delicious. Meaty but not chewy, pink but not bloody. It was sprinkled with pepper and parsley (and perhaps a hint of garlic and olive oil), but otherwise my main course was nothing other than the meat of a cow made more digestible thanks to the flame it was cooked on. Piece by piece, with a swig of Malbec in between, I cleared my entire plate.
These three are part of a new wave of liberal arts students who are heading to farms as interns this summer, in search of both work, even if it might pay next to nothing, and social change.
They come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which takes a dim view of industrial agriculture.
“Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic“, New York Times, May 23, ’09
Finally came my single shot of espresso – steam pushed through finely ground coffee, probably grown in Colombia. How much did this meal cost me, you ask? 30 pesos, including tip. About $8.
As I sipped slowly on the steaming hot espresso, remembering the coffee farmers I visited in Mexico and Colombia, their hands rough and permanently stained with soil, I reached over for my own worn-out, dog-eared copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Very few other books have given me so much reason to re-think my own beliefs, outlooks, and behaviors.
But let me first apologize, recant, retract, and hang my head in embarrassment. I apologize for my previous (and mostly kept-to-myself) characterization of foodies as mere privileged members of the self-indulgent class, eager to show off their esoteric knowledge of kitchen arcana. Though that particular incarnation of the foodie does certainly exist, I’ve come to realize that most of my food-obsessing friends and acquaintances are actually ecologists and historians. They have long been doing what has only just now kicked in for me: thinking about where their food comes from, how it got to their table, and what they are now able to do with it thanks to the vast cultural collection of recipes, and our ability to build upon it.
Some students say food is the political movement of their time.
I won’t attempt to summarize the brilliant structure of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; I would only cause harm to the perfect recipe of writing that Pollan has managed to fit into a single book. His personable style and his ability to tell a good story (often from a plant’s perspective) is probably just as responsible as the issues it raises for the book’s success. And the book’s success, no doubt, is largely responsible for what has unmistakably become a movement. (For the current status of that movement, I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s talk at the Long Now Foundation.)
And it’s not just the United States where college kids and computer programmers are giving up the 9 – 5 office life for the 6 – 6 days of manual labor on the farm. Via my cousin from another dozen, Tomami Sasaki, and her partner in crime, Scilla Alecci, I learned that a renaissance agricultural movement is also beginning to take hold in Japan. But this isn’t the same back-to-the-land luddite rhetoric of the 1960’s; these young Japanese farmers are using the internet to make agriculture more profitable. From The Japan Times:
Shinichi Soga of Niigata Prefecture may be one of the most successful farmers so far. His tomatoes are selling like hot cakes thanks partly to his popular Web log, which he started in 2006.
Soga, 31, initially began blogging as a way to connect with customers and other farmers. The blog, titled Furyo Nomin (the Delinquent Farmer), depicts his life in rural Niigata and is viewed more than 10,000 times a month.
“I started blogging because I also felt lonely, surrounded by much older farmers,” said Soga, who traveled to the United States, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and France over five years to learn the trade.
In a recent entry, he used photos to explain that after harvesting asparagus, some of the stalks need to be left in the ground to grow like bushes so their roots will accumulate nutrition for the next year.
It was a cold day in Santa Lucía, Uruguay where we were giving a workshop last week on blogging to teachers from the local primary school. Walking back to the classroom after lunch in a local eatery (homemade spinach ravioli) Pablo and I were talking about the difference between technical appropriation and technical adoption, and how Uruguay’s young students will need to learn programming from the ground up in order to develop products and solutions that aren’t just re-engineered versions of what is produced in the developed world.
“You know what technology all the cool kids in the United States want to learn now?” I asked him.
He smiled, unsure if I was joking, but then I went on to explain further how the first human technology has made its comeback. I think there are a few reasons to explain the success of the today’s new agricultural movement in advanced capitalist societies like Japan and the United States. For one thing, the economies of both countries are hurting, and for many who have just been laid off, this is a perfect time to consider a new career for the next 30 years. Also, the local organic food movement encompasses several other movements: environment, health, and the fair treatment of animals. Then there’s the fact that agriculture keeps you rooted to a particular community and ecosystem, something which my generation has lacked due to its constant nomadism. Finally, over-saturated with information, conversation, and online to-do lists, I believe that there is a strong desire to return to working with our hands.
This blog post is written in English, a form of communication which belongs to the Anglo–Frisian, West Germanic, Germanic, and finally Indo-European families of languages. The Indo-European languages, in fact, cover more of the globe than any other group:
The success of the Indo-European language in propagating itself across Europe and Asia Minor, scientists now believe, is largely due to the invention of dairy farming by the Kurgans, and their eventual ability to digest lactose in adulthood. (The lesser evolved of us still have difficulty digesting lactose.) As a review in Seed Magazine put it, “with a mobile food source, those milk-drinking warriors would have been able to terrorize and conquer their plant-tending neighbors.” And conquer they did, spreading their language across the continent, where it merged and fused with other local languages, giving rise to the 500 or so languages which today descend to this one common group.
Much of what Pollan complains about in The Omnivore’s Dilemma are food systems which are not “natural”, for example, feeding cows corn rather than grass. He also warns against genetically modified foods, arguing that carbohydrates which result from sunlight and photosynthesis are superior to those which come from chemicals and biological techniques. But then, there was nothing “natural” about humans drinking cow milk either. In fact, the Kurgans probably suffered some pretty bad stomach aches until the genes best suited for digesting lactose won the game of natural selection.
Pollan is, in many ways, an unapologetic food conservative who is quick to dismiss the millions of otherwise malnourished mouths that have been fed over the past 65 years thanks to the Green Revolution. On the other hand, he is right to point out that industrial agriculture is largely dependent on cheap oil, and that it has harmed animals, our environment, water supplies, biodiversity, and our own health.
So, what is the future of food? Is the fashionable pastoral landscape of organic farming that has attracted thousands of college students to work for free this summer a signal what’s to come? Or will scientists in laboratories develop new genetic techniques that enable both industrial agricultural and small farmers to decentralize and break their dependence on oil and chemical fertilizers? Michael Pollan hopes for the former. Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak argue that the latter is inevitable. Only the future will tell.