One of my favorite authors Pico Iyer, says of travel, “it has shown me a whole other way to live, without a steady prop, not hemmed in by familiarity.” A recent trip abroad showed me a whole other way, and a chance to interact with food without being hemmed in. The comforting props of daily habit and a familiar language were largely absent. Although smart phone apps made it easy to search and get to the right groceries or restaurants, once there, the shelves and menus posed some challenges.
Travel in a foreign country can be exciting and unsettling, forcing even the most thought-bound of us to live in the moment. Usually days are spent discovering and nights dropping into bed in a state of contented exhaustion mixed with anticipation of the unexplored. One is able to truly reflect upon the experience only after returning home.
A couple of weeks after my trip, what percolated up for me is the idea that there is a collective food consciousness. It is a palpable thing, a product of identity, history, tradition, and life in a particular time, topography and climate. It lives and breathes and sets the stage for the most essential of all human activity – producing and consuming food.
A place exudes it and as an outsider looking in, you sense it everywhere you turn – from railway station kiosks to street vendors to hole-in-the wall mom and pops to fancy restaurants with stars behind their names. It is in the shop windows filled with daily baked bread, in the stands filled with fresh fruit in a busy bus stand, in the sign that beckons train weary passengers to pick up organic pasta at the railway co-op. It is in the manner food is prepared, the care over a freshly brewed cup started after you ordered it, in the time spent eating a meal, and the flowers gracing a sidewalk table.
Everyone within the folds of this ethos contributes to it by their very act of choosing – from what to grow and how to grow, harvest and transport it; how to process and package; how to stock and sell; how to buy, store, cook, serve, and consume. As a people, we create this fabric and it in turn nurtures us, our environment, and ultimately future generations.
In many countries, this consciousness is geared towards food that is produced with stewardship, with respect for the due process even if it takes time, with focus on purity of ingredients, and with minimal messing around – additives, and preservatives absent because shelf life of only a few days is a collective Ok.
Of course fast food is ubiquitous and cheap, junk food is instantly recognizable in its gaudy packaging and advertising no matter the language, and modern day ailments are impartial to place and race. But the sense I got was of an ethos that is decidedly skewed toward human good and not human greed.
Our choices may most often be driven by monetary constraints. While that is inevitable, this concern is also universal. So, what is our collective food consciousness especially to an outsider? Right where we live, in our communities….is it worth our while to ponder that? Are we doing our best and how can we choose better?
We may be well served by recognizing it isn’t just about our food, yours or mine. Our actions create and sustain this living, breathing food soul if you will. After all, our collective body, mind, and heart depend upon it.