A new American food culture

Here is an article I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine last year, about food and culture. I was going to post about something similar, but realised I'd already said it in a succinct a way as possible here. Also, if you're remotely interested in herbal medicine and feral foods, PHM is the way to go. Check it out.

A New American Food Culture 

I have a little jar on my kitchen counter. On the front is scrawled “Herbes de Californie” and inside is a mixture of dried and ground herbs: white sage, black sage, rose petals and sugarbush berries. I use it on lamb, chicken and duck. I put it in pate, sprinkle it on salads, and use it to brew teas. It tastes aromatic- similar to Herbes de Provence (hence the name) but completely different too. Where Herbes de Provence tastes of the French countryside, my herb mix tastes of the mountains I roam and the air I breathe. It tastes of Southern California.

I think there’s something magical about eating foods from our immediate area. Think of a world before globalisation. Before planes and cars and steam engines, where traders walked a silk road and spices from elsewhere were exotic. Where people healed themselves with herbs from their immediate areas, and where food and medicine were intimately connected.

I think that culture arises from the land it’s born on. That those plants that people use for medicine start to become infused into foods, and that our societies, and our art, and the way we live are built around these foods. People in most progressive societies today are big on ‘knowing their farmers’ or even ‘being their own farmers’ and living in a slightly more traditional fashion than the average Kraft foods devotee. People are becoming obsessed with ‘local’-- indeed, ‘local’ is the new ‘organic’, springing up all over the place. We are fighting the homogenization of food tooth and nail. But I’d argue that it’s not enough. Herbalism is becoming homogenized too.

America is a melting pot. We learn this in American history 101-- we have a country full of people from all different cultures. And each group comes here, and brings their memories of home, and goes to tremendous lengths to recreate that here. And while America does have a strong culture, our cultural roots are not connected to our land. American culture, for the most part, has become a reflection of this lack of roots: television, movies, fast food, big bouncy boobs on big busy beaches, plastic. A disposable culture. And while these things are fun, and can be found everywhere, they are not the things we associate with the cultures of other countries. The things I remember from my travels are fleeting moments-- the mood of a place, the associations that come along with it: A cup of chai before sunrise, while the sound of monks chanting carry through the gloaming. The coral-coloured light as the sun sets over a beach cafe, with my toes pressing into the sand and a jug of sangria shared between friends. Cajeta-sweetened coffee on a rooftop patio looking out over terra cotta and blue buildings, while bougainvillea wave around in the breeze of a warm afternoon. And more than that, even. Name a country, and you can name its flavour:

Mexico: cilantro and jalapeno. France: lavender and thyme. Italy: basil and oregano. Thailand: chili and basil. Greece: oregano and lemon. America: hamburgers and milkshakes and some delicious French, Italian and Thai food.

Of course these borders are false: bioregions don’t end where a border stops and neither does a food culture. Each area of a country has its own unique flavours. And the same goes for America. My herbs in Southern California are very different to those in Maine. A new American food culture would incorporate these flavours and these medicines into practice, so that a trip around the country would provide a variety of flavours, all marked by the differences in our bioregions.

This melting pot of ours has essentially cut us off from our roots, and I don’t think that usng locally grown Italian herbs is enough.  There was a culture here before us, and food traditions here before us, and while I’m not suggesting we start appropriating Native American cultures (that would be somewhat absurd), we do need to understand that this is now OUR geographic history, and that to grow roots we need to look to the land we live on. This is easy for all of us to do. Libraries are fantastic resources for ethnobotanical information. Take a walk with a local plant guide in hand and taste things that are not poisonous. In my area, buying garden sage is pointless- we have so many different species, all with slightly different flavours. Some pair nicely with savoury things, and some with sweet. Local medicinal plants can be incorporated into all kinds of dishes. These new flavours can be a source of wonder, but even more than that they create a richness- a connection to the land we live on.

For too long we have been looking outside ourselves for the answers. The plants in our areas deal with the same pathogens and environmental stresses that we do- the knowledge they hold is much more valuable than something shipped from halfway around the world. During a brief stint at Chinese medical school I was dismayed to have a teacher insist that Chinese herbs were better and more powerful. I’d argue the complete opposite: we are intimately connected to where we live, whether we are aware of it or not. All the tools we need are right in front of us, under our feet.