A book review and reflection on how we consume, by Julia Kendal. Julia is a social justice advocate for the international development agency, Tearfund. She is also a writer, a regular contributor to Clarity Magazine and a blogger.
Add in coffee – which the book does – and you basically have my ideal diet (if health wasn’t a consideration. Which it is). Simran Sethi’s book journeys through the origins, production and threats to some of the world’s favourite foods in this time of monoculture, habitat loss and climate change. She teaches us – with the help of experts – to find the story in every taste, focusing on five foods: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer and bread. But her message is broader than these particular items; by understanding what we’re losing, we can start to claim it back.
The book is rich in detail and history and story, most of which my brain has not retained; what I wanted to imbibe was the essence of Sethi’s words. Not necessarily the facts, but the feeling of deep hunger for good food and for better ways of creating it – for the people involved, the earth and the species that populate it.
And there’s one message in particular that I find myself telling others about around the dinner table: when the system is unjust and unsustainable, everybody loses.
Our world is both more connected and more fragmented than it has every been. Our daily meals bring us into contact with people across the globe (“we feed each other”) yet we know less and less about where and who it comes from. Our supermarket shelves are paradoxical: burgeoning with variety and choice, but formed of homogenous ingredients. Three quarters of the world’s food comes from just 17 species. This puts our food system at risk in the face of disease and a changing climate. And it deprives us, the consumers, too. Our desire for a consistent, favourite tipple wherever we are in the world might bring us comfort but, as Sethi puts it, “it’s also like going nowhere.” We have lost an appreciation for terroir – the taste of a place. And we’re missing out because of that.
We miss out too, when the people who make our food can’t appreciate it themselves. As Carl Martin, Harvard University lecturer on chocolate and food politics, says to Sethi “When you work on a [chocolate] farm in Ghana making 30 cents a day, why care if the cacao is fermented well or dried properly? It’s hard to connect with a crop that’s so abusive to you.”
This might mean a less good cup of coffee for me, but I don’t lose out in the same way as the estimated eighteen people involved in bringing that favoured morning beverage into my home. Or the women who put the most work into our food system but are least represented in it. Sethi herself wrestles with the inequality reflected in her book: women are the backbone of her five foods but most of the expert voices that she amplifies are male.
So what does Sethi suggest we do about it? We save our food and drink by savouring it. This is about how we consume. No longer think of food as fuel. Starting to appreciate what’s in our cup or on our fork. How can we expect others to care what we consume if we don’t?
And by thinking about what we consume – choosing better, more carefully, to consider all those hands involved in their journey. Because the story of our food is all our stories. We cannot disconnect ourselves from the chain.
Partway through the book, I realised that I was making the same mistake with it as with food: I was trying to consume it. Racing through the very paragraphs that were trying to teach me to slow down. To stop. To savour. And to see what might be saved by it. This, I saw, was how consumptive I had become. So I challenged myself to take more time over it. And I try, sometimes fail, to remember that whether it is an hour, a book, a beer, they should not be squandered.
They should be savoured, and saved.