Monday, October 10, 2011

The origins of food OR you are what you eat

Thanks to today’s technology, I have been able to keep in touch with friends and family.  I am often asked what the food is like here.  Therefore, the focus of this blog entry will be observations on aliments.  Europeans eat a lot of fresh fruit and produce, much of it picked from trees or grown on their land.  There’s also a lot of public demand to know where the food comes from. 

Food’s always been of utmost importance to me.  Growing up as a child, eating recipes passed down from my mom’s grandmother, I remember not a Sunday would pass without Frank Sinatra on the radio and some garlicky sauté scenting the kitchen. 
Living in Baltimore, I was befriended by Quincy, a personal chef (  He talked a lot about eating local.  After watching some documentaries (Food Inc.) and reading some books (most recently Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”),  I started to understand how easy it is to lose touch with the reality of food.  Unfortunately, this is all the more true in large supermarkets, where the “mystery meat” is wrapped in sterile containers, sanitizing away almost every characteristic that links dinner with an animal, once living. 

A major difference, from my perspective, between Americans and Europeans is Europeans are still very in touch with the life of their food. 
Today, at my school, the teacher brought in an edible Chestnut taken during a hike in the woods and contrasted it with another, inedible Chestnut.  Apparently, in German, there are two different names for Chestnuts- Marone (edible) and Kastanie (inedible). In English, I believe we only have the word Chestnut.  As young as first grade, these children are learning to distinguish food from non-food in nature. 

This past weekend I visited my cousin who lives just north of Budapest on a small parcel of land.  On her property she has a walnut tree and many fruit trees.  Unfortunately, it’s too late in the year to taste the fruit trees’ harvest but I was able to eat some walnuts.  She’s offering her daughter 2 cents for every walnut she gathers.  Before this weekend, I would have said walnuts are not my favorite.  When, in the Trader Joe’s nut aisle, I often choose almonds or peanuts.  Dried, bagged walnuts are so flavorless.  These walnuts, picked from the ground under her tree, were fantastic!  They had a real earthy flavor: smoky, rich, and a little sweet.  Instead of being dry and flaky, these walnuts were moist and tasty.  Waking up on Sunday morning before the rest of the house and feeling a bit peckish, these walnuts really satiated my hunger. 
For me, some of my earliest memories of Europe are visiting family and being amazed by the fruit trees on their property.  I stood in amazement at the thought they could wake up, step outside, and pick some fruit to accompany breakfast.  It conjures images of Thoreau's "Walden" where he subsided on the fruits and bounty of the land.
Food, good food, has a connection to the land.  In the bright lights and sanitized world of the supermarket, sometimes this idea gets obfuscated. 

What about European supermarkets?
Anyone who has traveled or lived in Europe knows that supermarkets here are much smaller than in the US with a more limited selection.  This is true!
On the other hand, Europeans demand to know where their food comes from.  I was watching a news show in which an interviewer asked callers' questions to the equivalent of the European Union's Secretary of Agriculture.  One caller wanted to know how long until processed foods would have labels itemizing the ingredients' origins.  That is to say, here, they already denote where produce and meat comes from.  Similar to seeing a Dole or Chiquita banana sticker on bananas in US supermarkets, the country of origin is written here.  On a small black sign in front of the oranges, you might see either "South Africa" written as the origin or sometimes they put the country's flag instead.  For meat, this information is usually added to the label on the outer wrapping. 
Although one can often find a "Product of ________" label on fruit and veggies in the States, I cannot recall seeing such a label on meats. 

I have no doubt, as more Americans care about where their food comes from, these labeling practices will be adopted in the States too!

If you're interested in knowing more about what you eat, I can recommend the following resources:
Pollan, Michael "Omnivore's Dilemma" -- a good read although I didn't really enjoy the last chapter about his do it yourself meal.  
Food, Inc. is an interesting documentary on the industrialization of food production. 
If you live in the greater Baltimore area, for locally sourced food you should check out the following:
1. Bison meat
2. I've never been to this Food Coop but it just opened so might be worth a visit:

3.  A good destination for cheap but good produce is the International Food Market located off of Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore. 

No comments:

Post a Comment