Food as a Political Act
The pictures of me as a chubby child prove how much I have always loved food, although it was only after high school I really started being interested in the topic. Everything started with a summer job at a restaurant in Rialto, a special place. The staff would eat together with the owners after the service, ordering à la carte and tasting as many wines possible, so as to know, appreciate, and propose them better. At the end of the season it was a tradition to go on a tour to the various producers, to meet the people and the stories that had highlighted our palates throughout the year. Food would function as a magical trait d’union, offering us moments of sharing, closeness and discovery. The restaurant changed management a couple of years later, but thanks to that experience my personal relation with food has not ceased to evolve, bringing me to change in unexpected ways eating habits and choices (and not only).
Recently, reading “Cooked” by Michael Pollan (2013), I was impressed by one of his reasonings present in the introduction, that is the fact that now that we are literally submerged by cookery programs, recipe books and enticing food photography, we spend less and less time in the kitchen and we are ever more distant from the production processes. To understand what Pollan defines as the paradox of food, the author undertook a culinary journey through the four elements –fire, water, air, and earth- and advanced some theories, one of which (only apparently obvious) is that men have an emotional tie with food, which brings us back at the same time to the relation with nature, culture, and sociality. Watching others cook is not new to us, on the contrary, it brings us back to pleasant childhood memories and happy moments of gathering and sharing. The act of eating –in itself, a primary human need- becomes social and emotional and helps us understand the success of this contemporary phenomenon. In addition to this, considering that only few of us have the time and ingredients necessary to replicate the gourmet dishes we see on screen- we could state that we have become not consumers of good food, but rather of its good representation. We don’t want to give up the idea of our inner link with nature, but we buy ready meals at the supermarkets…
What we put on our table has a significant environmental, economical, and social impact, and if it is true that everything is politics, food is undoubtedly a political act of major importance. Never like in the last century the food industry has modelled territories, tastes, and habits (thus, our culture) in such a drastic way, giving us the illusion of making us save time for activities more important than cooking, practice relegated to housewives. In the United States, after WW2, an important campaign was played exactly on this, contributing in making desirables lyophilised products, ready meals, and flavourings based on chemical glutamate, with an ever-growing shelf life.
In the same period, in Italy we saw the birth of the Nettista Party, better known as the Party of the Steak, founded in 1951 by Corrado Tedeschi. The purpose was ironic and the programme included, among other things, a daily 450 gr steak for every citizen. A fine food like steak, usually reserved to the richer or to special occasions, was presented almost as a gadget, so parodying the fact that something so precious could be considered of daily consumption…
From the mid of the 1940s, different areas of the world have been interested by the so-called Green Revolution, which claimed to have the goal of reducing famines and starvation through an increased food production obtained through chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and so on. This pseudo revolution started to show its limits very soon: in fact, after an initial increase of food available for the masses, the land started suffering due to the impoverishment of the soil, water pollution, and the total dependence of these countries on multinational and relative chemical products. Not to mention the amount of water needed for this sort of agricultural method. The food obtained through these processes is in the best cases nutritionally poor, in the worsts harmful for human health (suffice to think of the effect of glutamate on neurons).
Then we must consider food trends and fashions. We have stopped speaking about food and replaced the name of products with nutritional terms like carbs, fats, proteins, each of which –in different decades- became an enemy (just think of the fat or carb free diets, definitely unhealthy on the long run and unsustainable). Even those who would like to eat green are victims of such marketing campaigns, in fact we tend to idolize certain foods like, for example, salmon (who cares if its farmed and full of hormones) or avocado (the business of which is managed by cartels, like in the case of drugs), totally forgetting about biodiversity and simple grandmother’s rules based on the mottos ‘eat a little bit of everything’ or ‘eat the rainbow’.
All this makes me incredibly angry, because I believe that we all should have equal right to healthy food and potable water (I won’t speak in depth of the business of water bottles, which not only is destroying the planet, but is also making this primary good inaccessible to the poorer). Small virtuous farmers cannot compete on the market with the great distribution system, therefore healthy eating is now becoming a privilege for few. I don’t know how and if it will be possible to defeat this phenomenon, but I think that as consumers we have at least the possibility of addressing the industry towards certain choices rather than others. Also, I strongly believe that we must all –me included- accept the fact that it is a necessity to re-think our lifestyle in general (from food to travel, and more). Unfortunately we are all part of this system and we all are polluting beings, but if each of us did his own part, together we could go a long way.
In 2018 Slow Food published “With all my senses: story of a revolutionary cook”, an autobiography on and by Alice Waters, the woman behind Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden and source of inspiration for the food policies of her husband. When younger, Mrs Water was part of the Free Speech Movement, then in 1971 she opened her renowned restaurant Chez Panisse, where she has always offered organic dishes with ingredients arriving from small selected farms, a place where she could convey and share her values with a major public. The adjective revolutionary points out how much our choices can make this change happen, in a peaceful and non-violent way. What Mrs water promotes is awareness and food education, to be developed since childhood. For a more equal world where natural cycles are respected, and of which we humans are only a part. I want to quote Vandana Shiva, reminding that we should re-start thinking in cycles, where humans, animals, and environment interact and all need each other, a way of thinking that has been brutally interrupted by modern production plants that separate these three elements, creating cruel realities for animals, increasing green gases and polluting people’s health, land, and waters....
It is exactly on awareness I want to focus, because whatever decision is good, as long as we know its consequences. In my case, not having studied agricultural, environmental, nor nutritional science, I don’t feel fit in writing a list of daily tips and practices to follow to improve our world, but I do wish to share my feelings for the environment, which I see changing in questionable ways every day. Something we can all do is start from the ingredient choice, prioritizing local whenever possible (at least for fresh greens), and supporting small farmers that maintain and preserve our precious biodiversity. Thankfully, there are networks of Fair Trade and Farmers markets that bring together consumers and producers, bypassing the many intermediaries and avoid all that useless packaging. Of course, food will always cost less at the supermarket, but honestly I think that these networks are making sustainable eating affordable to all, thus we should think about it… I am not interested in discussing diets and trends, whether you are vegan or omnivorous to me it does not matter, what counts is that you know where the food you put on the table comes from, and if its production was fair for nature, animals, and farmers. I understand I may sound boring and heavy, but the juice is worth to squeeze, because we are talking about the future of our children and of the planet.
After all this talking, I will conclude this post in a more light-hearted way, sharing a simple Venetian recipe: artichoke hearts with a parsley, lemon, and garlic emulsion. Artichoke hearts are called fondi (bottoms) here in Venice, and are the final part of the plant. We accompanied them with a cannellini beans, dried tomatoes and taggiasche olives salad, but you can opt for whatever main you prefer, and –of course- a refreshing glass of white wine (possibly natural!).
So, bye for now and talk soon!
RECIPE: VENETIAN ARTICHOKE HEARTS
(Fondi di Carciofo)
Ingredients (for 2): 6 artichoke hearts (already cleaned)
a bunch of parsley
1 natural lemon
1/2 clove of garlic
1. Put the artichoke hearts in a shallow pan and cover them almost completely with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, add a pinch of sea salt, and let simmer for about 20/25 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, separate the parsley's leaves from the stems and put them in a pestle. Slice a clove of garlic in half, remove germ, chop finely and add to the pestle. Squeeze the juice of a lemon, cover in abundant olive oil and grind as if you were making pesto (if you don't fancy the idea of using a pestle, use a hand-blender, just beware the emulsion will be slightly more bitter).