The latest culinary fad: famine food

Middle-class foodies are paying a fortune to eat what peasants once lived on.

In her discussion of the recently published cookbooks of super chefs René Redzepi of NOMA (Copenhagen) and Daniel Patterson of Coi (San Francisco), science journalist Emma Marris describes how they, and a few other jet-setting local foragers, have taken SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) food to a ‘wilder, weirder and more tech-savvy’ level.

As she points out, Redzepi and Patterson have not only built their oeuvre on such delicacies as sea buckthorn, lichen and live ants, harvested ‘straight from the forest or high-tide line’; they have also amplified their ‘wild essences’ through the use of pacojets (which blends frozen food stuffs), thermomixes (which heats and purees food simultaneously), commercial-grade food dehydrators and other modern marvels.

Sticking to their recipes, however, also requires a little planning. For instance, to prepare Patterson’s lichen powder, one needs ‘to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees’. Once this is done, the sophisticated foodie must then ‘clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it’.

Marris describes most of Redzepi’s recipes as similarly ‘exotic, oceanic, deep-woodsy, and uncookable’. Serving something as simple as ‘silken fresh cheese and crispy beech leaves’ requires pickling beech leaves in a vacuum pack with apple balsamic vinegar for at least a month.

Needless to say, Redzepi and Patterson are nothing short of ‘heroes’ to (usually highly educated and affluent) activists and writers who advocate a carbon-fuel and processed-food detoxification diet, along with the development of self-reliant communities that will break the industrial ‘food chains’ which shackle the consumer.

Yet one wonders what our remote ancestors would think of this culinary fad. Of course, like most of us, they wouldn’t be able to afford what Marris describes as the ‘stratospheric prices’ charged by the likes of Redzepi and Patterson. Although wild ingredients might be free, the attendant foraging and preparation costs are significant. What they would probably find most amazing, however, is that what they typically knew as ‘famine foods’ are now commanding a significant premium over plentiful and convenient things that actually taste good rather than ‘wild’.

Unfortunately, for many of our remote ancestors, the absence of effective transportation, such as railroads and container ships, meant that they had no choice but to survive on a local diet and, in the process, put all their agricultural eggs into one geographical basket. This was always a recipe for disaster. The Roman poet Virgil in his Georgics described how, in bad years, weeds invaded the land, voles and mice spoiled the threshing floor, cranes and geese attacked the crops, goats ate the young vines, and moles, toads and ants each feasted on or undermined the farmer’s work. (Virgil could also have discussed fungus, insect pests and other problems.) Of course, whatever survived these pests could be damaged or wiped out by summer droughts and winter windstorms, as well as snow, hail or heavy rain. Even in good years, Virgil observed, a field might be accidentally set on fire.

No matter the location or agricultural system, local food for local people not only meant that most people struggled with famine and malnutrition – it also meant many were well aware of the undomesticated local plants they could use as either supplementary or emergency food sources. In the words of economic historian Peter Garnsey: ‘Peasants have always been systematic foragers on uncultivated land [including fallow fields], in woods, marshes and rivers.’ (1) Indeed, for the average European peasant, with the exception of poisonous or very bitter plants, ‘anything that grew went into the pot, even primrose and strawberry leaves’ (2). According to a recent survey, despite their absence from official statistics and the ‘routine underestimation’ of their importance, many ‘wild foods’ are still ‘actively managed’ by nearly one billion people whose annual income would probably not pay for one evening’s dining at NOMA or Coi.

As the ‘visionary’ haute cuisine of Redzepi and Patterson reminds us, wild foods typically display one or a combination of flaws when compared to cultivated ones, be it lower yields or nutritional value, less interesting taste or greater difficulty to harvest, store, process and preserve the produce. ‘Famine foods’ traditionally included various grasses, leaves, bark, clay and dirt that, because pacojets and thermomixes had yet to be invented, were typically consumed in the form of cake, paste, soup or ashes. (Of course, one could add leather belts and human flesh to this list, but it is doubtful they will soon find their way to Michelin-star caliber restaurants.) For instance, in Ireland, traditional famine foods included fungi, seaweed, nettles, frogs and rats; in Hawaii, weeds, ferns and roots; and in Sweden, the inner bark of birch and straw (3).

Not surprisingly, as soon as they could do it, our ancestors tried to supplement their local fare with imports from distant places. In time, non-perishable commodities like wheat, wine, olive oil, cod, sugar, coffee, coffee, cocoa, tea, spices, frozen meat and canned vegetables, produced in the most suitable agricultural locations rather than in close vicinity to final consumers, became increasingly plentiful and affordable. More recently, ‘dry-good’ stores gave way to the ‘permanent-summertime’ produce sections of ever larger supermarkets.

The fact that food snobs now need to revert back to the famine foods of old should not be viewed as an indictment of our modern food production system, but rather as astounding proof that, today, that system feeds middle-class consumers better than most kings in history. Far from wearing sustainable adornments, all the emperors of SOLE food really offer us in the end is an unaffordable witch brew that caters to the palates of people with too much time and money on their hands.

Pierre Desrochers is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He is the author of The Locovore’s Dilemma.

Footnotes:

(1) Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis, by Peter Garnsey, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p53

(2) Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies, Harper & Row, 1990, p96

(3) The premier online resource on the topic is the anthropologist Robert Freedman’s Famine Foods website, which lists nearly 1,400 species of plants which could be fallen back on during hard times.

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