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Stemming the Extinction of Foods We Love

The standardization of the food industry may have serious consequences for human culture and health—among them, the potential loss of some of our most treasured food traditions.

| November 2015

  • Humanity’s interwoven history and connection with traditional foods—including bread—is explored in this fascinating book by environmental journalist Simran Sethi.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Simran Sethi tells the story of the loss of biodiversity from soil to plate and explores how to better save the foods we love in "Bread, Wine, Chocolate" (HarperOne, 2015).
    Cover courtesy HarperOne

Our fixation with food is at an all-time high. Yet, what is unknown to many is that the most delicious, diverse varieties of food and drink are being slowly and irrevocably lost. Simran Sethi reveals what we're losing, how we're losing it, and the inspiring individuals and organizations working to rescue the foods we revere and crave in BREAD, WINE, CHOCOLATE: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love (HarperOne, 2015). The following excerpt takes a look at how food traditions and culture is lost, and offers ways we can start taking it back for ourselves.

I grew up in a household where my mom cooked dinner almost every night. I am of Indian origin; most of our home-cooked meals consisted of rice with peas (I hate peas) plus some curry or dal (lentils), with salad and fruit for dessert. The food I ate outside of those confines was completely different. I’m from the South, where sweet tea is the beverage of choice and grits and barbecue are dietary staples. From an early age, my tongue knew the sting of chilies and the bite of masala alongside the saltiness of a perfectly baked biscuit and the cloying, but heavenly, sweetness of pecan pie. Even today, my comfort foods are bhartha (roasted eggplant) and rice (sans peas), and macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

Every person who has immigrated to the United States has a similar mash-up and story about how food was a source of solace—but also one of shame. There were many days when I didn’t want to come home to a kitchen reeking of fried onions, ginger and garlic; I wanted TV dinners, meatloaf, whatever would allow me to fit in rather than stand out. But I now realize these tastes are not only the essence of who I am but what America is: a melting pot of cultures and flavors ranging from soul food to sushi.

Yet, for many cultures, the stigma of difference has magnified and deepened. It’s what Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, head of the Convention on Biological Diversity, explains is another contributing factor to the loss of agrobiodiversity: the replacement of traditional foods deemed to have “low status” with processed foods that seem more modern. If my mother had stopped cooking Indian food, it would have become an exotic novelty, not a mainstay. I wouldn’t have a deep appreciation of those foods—my foods. I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone.

When I was 26, I moved to India. My first year there, I feasted on all the Indian foods I had missed while growing up in the United States: dhansak, bhel puri, pav bhaji. During my second and final year, the trend reversed itself, and I started to miss another set of tastes. I stockpiled arugula for salads (on the rare occasion my vegetable seller had it) and made lasagna with noodles that perpetually went limp. The meals were close-not-quite approximations to what I knew and loved. When McDonald’s opened up in my neighborhood of Bandra, I was secretly thrilled. I’d finally get decent fries and a chocolate shake. McDonald’s was also a taste of home.

Nearly 20 years later, those fries and shakes are no longer a novelty, found in 300 outlets in India, part of over 34,000 McDonald’s in 116 countries around the world. They are so ubiquitous that Big Macs are used by economists as an informal way to determine if currencies are over- or undervalued. Cheap, processed food has changed the world.

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