At dinnertime, we can choose whatever we fancy. Korean take-out, chicken soup or maybe even avocado salad? Perhaps, however, it’d be better to look around and reach for something grown and produced locally, rather than across the globe.
By nature, humans are omnivorous. They’ll eat anything. They’ll make a pancake of ground cereal grains, ferment seal intestines, pick papayas, currants and hop shoots, press olives, dry seaweed. They’ll milk sheep, turn the milk into cheese, shape the cheese, and even smoke it. Wherever they go, they’ll find produce to process into sustenance. They must process; they must modify. This is, apparently, human nature: “A grape seed I will bury in the warm soil, And will kiss a vine, and pluck a ripe bunch,” wrote the poet Bulat Okudzhava. This great practice leads to many unique culinary inventions, such as Parmesan cheese, Bordeaux wine, miso paste, and proziaki (soda flatbreads from the Subcarpathia region in Poland). It also leads to a growing appetite.
Baguette in lieu of a passport?
Culinary invention knows no limits, but why do we want to eat miso in Rzeszów and parmesan in Tokyo? The answer appears simple: humans are not only omnivorous, but also inquisitive. I first ate sushi as an adult. Born in the 1970s, as soon as the borders opened in 1989, I went to Europe – mainly in search of taste. Once I left the plain People’s Republic of Poland, I wanted to eat like the natives (that is, the inhabitants of the West). Eating on the road was my strategy for blending in; to avoid ‘sightseeing’ and the vacuous ticking off of ‘must see’ tourist sites. Of course, culinary tourism can also be considered a new form of colonialism; a consumer invasion. Getting to know local cuisine is, after all, a tourist gesture. For me, as a student from a post-communist country, tasting new flavours was meant to be a way of reaching ‘authenticity’, an initiation into an area of culture to which I had no access earlier. I wanted to access this lifestyle – its intellectual and everyday aspects – via a bowl of lettuce with vinaigrette and a glass of Beaujolais. At first, the most desirable seemed to me to be a baguette and coffee in a Parisian café, then cheeses, sweets and wine turned me into a citizen of Europe. What I wanted the most was to be able to travel and have that experience there, with the locals. I wanted to drink retsina and eat squid in Greece; to eat lobster in San Francisco. If there’s a need, there’s a solution.
I have been writing about gastronomy since 1999, and have been not only invited to press trips in search of various products, but have also participated in the introduction of new imported products to the Polish market. All of this fascinated me. Our native beetroots were not as attractive as mangoes and passion fruit, or Spanish olives and Cinta Senese pork. Yes, I am part of the reason that, a dozen or so years later, you can find lemongrass in almost every Polish greengrocers, buy mozzarella and halloumi in all supermarkets, and enjoy Joselito ham and Kobe beef in Poland today. Both luxury and everyday foreign items are easily available. Kiwis from Australia in a Polish cow’s milk yoghurt, Chilean dried plums in health food stores (which do not stock Polish suska sechlońska or dried Szydłów plums), new potatoes from Morocco in February – all of this is available in a corner shop in Żyrardów or Szczecin. Today, I am asking myself whether that’s a good thing. And now, I know that the answer is no, not necessarily.
The logic of nature
It has come to a point where, at dinnertime, we can choose between seemingly infinite options. Korean take-out, chicken soup, or maybe an avocado salad? The latter is becoming more and more popular, while activists warn that we (we, the inhabitants of the Global North) have overdone it with our consumption of the tasty fruit. In order to grow one avocado, on average (on a global scale) 237 litres of underground or surface water supplied by irrigation systems (and additionally 849 litres of rainwater) are needed. When we buy avocados from Chile, we use as much as 320 litres of water per fruit (!). By comparison, an average of one litre of water (plus 424 litres of rainwater) is needed to produce one kilogram of apples in Poland. Moreover, water in Poland is a common good. In Chile, it has been privatized and is in the hands of tycoons. Increased demand for avocado production also results in deforestation (more than 70% of tropical forests have been destroyed to make way for food production). And this is just one example of the effect of the global market, boundless consumption and a lack of moderation. These are the facts, and you don’t have to be an eco-freak to see it this way. In fact, this alone should be enough to make the solemn decision to stop buying imported food.
From a more personal perspective, we can say that we are better served by what grows locally, because the logic of nature is such that it creates beings adapted to their environment. “Contemporary science says that humans are one with their environment. This means that the area where we live can feed us in the best way possible. We are one with what grows close, as a child and their mother. In the time of climate change, this is another argument for a diet based on local produce. Choosing local food reduces our carbon footprint and thus prevents global warming. So, let’s eat locally – in harmony with ourselves and with the Earth,” says Ryszard Kulik, an environmental activist, psychologist, Buddhist, and privately my friend of over 30 years. He and his family only eat produce grown in the Lesser Poland and Silesia regions (he divides his time between houses in Siemianowice and Łękawica near Wadowice). When I come to him, there is vegan bean and walnut pâté, rapeseed oil, home-made bread, home-made pickled cucumbers and other preserves set out on the table. There is no meat, fish, cheese, eggs, but also no tofu, rice, bananas, cocoa or chocolate. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s no fridge in their house either, so the food is eaten quickly. Even slightly fermented soups are turned into the cult żurek, the traditional Polish sour rye soup.
Kulik’s innovative recipes include sandwich spreads such as soaked and strained sunflower blended with wild garlic leaves, salt, unrefined rapeseed oil and apple vinegar, or soaked beans cooked with baking soda (thanks to which the cooking process is faster, and less gas is used), blended with fried onions and apple, rapeseed oil, salt, pepper, herbs and marjoram. The sandwiches are decorated with garlic flowers and herbs from the nearby meadow: nettle, yarrow, dandelion, gout wort and mayflower. Rather than being out of denial, this choice of diet is based on a true love for the surrounding nature, and a consistent care for oneself, local farmers and the planet – after all, this care is about our own future, and not some abstract concept. We don’t have a planet B.
New, the old-fashioned way
In 2007, Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon described the ‘100-mile diet’ in their book, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, referring to the practice of exclusively eating whatever was produced in a 100 mile-radius from their home. The economic benefits of such a diet include, above all, lower costs of transporting food, which results in lower carbon emissions. Local products are fresh and local businesses receive solid support. Moreover, the search for local food leads to greater consumer awareness – people start eating seasonally and in accordance with the local climate and rhythm of nature. You could say that this is food as it used to be, only with the addition of a new ideology.
In his latest book, Food, Professor of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University Fabio Parasecoli points out that rather than making locality our new religion and dogma, we should take a more thorough look at the issue. He writes: “The notion that buying locally is inherently better than accessing far-reaching networks has been gaining ground. Such a point of view has its most evident manifestation in the phenomenon of locavorism, which is the preference for or exclusive consumption of food produced geographically close to consumers. We can also observe growing preoccupation with food miles, the distance over which products are transported from their origin to the final consumer. Such distance has obvious implications in terms of the amount of fuel used to move the merchandise and, therefore, in terms of carbon footprint, overall environmental impact, and, down the line, climate change. Importing water in plastic bottles from Fiji does not seem efficient [...] However, one should avoid what urban planners Branden Born and Mark Purcell have defined as the local trap: the uncritical embrace of small-scale food networks as automatically more sustainable, more democratic, or more socially fair than far-reaching arrangements.” Born and Purcell argue that the balance of power between the parties in a dispute, their priorities and the negotiation processes are more important in determining the overall nature of supply networks than their scale. And, from an environmental point of view, sometimes it makes more sense to obtain something from a more distant region, where it is produced more efficiently and with the use of fewer resources.
“In other words, in New Mexico, lamb from New Zealand may overall carry a smaller carbon footprint, despite the long-distance transportation and the use of large amounts of fossil fuels (food miles), than lamb raised in a nearby dry area, where huge amounts of water – a scarce input – must be used to provide good pastures for the animals. Of course, we could renounce all products that come from faraway locations; such choices, however, would be easier in temperate or Mediterranean climates than, say, in Scandinavia or Patagonia. Sustainability needs to be evaluated from economic and social points of view. Many factors determine what the best decision may be. If the Global North suddenly stopped importing bananas, coffee, and cocoa, among other products, to shift exclusively toward local crops, the economies of whole developing countries with incomes tied to agriculture would collapse.” Prioritizing locality as a dogma may turn out to be another example of the herding behaviour of ‘first world’ consumers.
Meanwhile, a farmer is someone who has to get up at dawn and take care of the whole farm; do hard physical labour. Our urban expectation that they will provide a product that can compete with the effects of industrial production is a manifestation of conceit and misunderstanding. A team of researchers from the Institutes of Sociology and Philosophy at the Nicolaus Copernicus University studied social practices related to the involvement of individuals in alternative food networks (AFN). AFN cover such diverse activities as: direct food distribution, consumer cooperatives, producer groups, green markets, urban gardening and community-supported agriculture, but also allotment gardens and fairs. The research shows, among other things, that one of the most important reasons for choosing this kind of shopping is a belief in the higher quality of products manufactured by farmers and small producers. “[…] quality is related to the character of the network (the simpler the network, the greater the guarantee of quality), which in turn links AFN involvement with various quality verification practices and taking care of direct contact between producer and consumer,” as Wojciech Goszczyński, Michał Wróblewski and Anna Wójtewicz write in their book, Quality in Polish Alternative Food Chains – An Analysis of Social Practices. According to these scientists, this quality is also related to the fact that we imagine rural life as idyllic, and the practice of food production as rooted in tradition.
In my personal search for a rural Arcadia, I found myself at an agricultural tourism farmstead called Latosowo, based in Kosów Lackie in Mazovia. Bartek and Kasia Latos fled Warsaw, bought a house and land, and moved a beautiful wooden cottage onto the grounds where they now welcome guests. They grow fruit and vegetables for themselves and their guests, and breed horses, goats, rabbits and hens. In addition to their own products, they serve cow’s milk cheeses from their neighbour, sausage from a butcher’s shop in Kosów Lackie, and bread from the village bakery. In addition, they harvest wild edible plants, and in spring serve their guests hop shoots, starwort, wood sorrel, gout wort, and dandelion; they also make borscht and syrup from springtime pine shoots. As a guest at the farm, I drink an infusion of oxidized forsythia in the morning, eat a fried duck egg, marinated green tomatoes, home-made goat’s cheese and roasted pork neck.
While I look out at the blooming pears, I may not notice Bartek getting up at 6.00am, starting a fire and beginning the daily ‘ritual’ – letting the hens out, giving them water and grain, then feeding and letting out horses, milking goats twice a day, harvesting dandelion and grass for rabbits with a sickle. As I listen to the buzzing insects and birdsong, I am not bothered by the fact that someone has to go to the barn and bring a bale of straw, first sow vegetables and then weed the beds, turn over the compost, clean the chimney, cut down the trees, chop the wood into smaller pieces and then leave it out to dry for the heating season. I eat a spoonful of currant jam and blissfully close my eyes. In order for these preserves to reach the table, someone has to pick the fruit – from the Kamchatka berry at the end of May to the grapes in late autumn. In Latosowo, fruit but also flowers, entire plants, leaves, shoots and vegetables are processed.
“This is not idyllic, but it is our choice,” Bartek Latos explains. “We use a lot of primitive methods, we use a hoe and sickle, and we preserve everything we can. In the house we have an old heating system, a bread oven, a wood-burning stove with cast iron lids. In winter you can warm up by the tiled stove in the dining room. We combine old with new, we use natural resources wherever possible.”
Such a lifestyle requires constant, continuous labour, knowledge, vigilance against weather changes, the health of plants and animals, wood and tools. It requires one to co-exist with the environment. It would be good for the urban locavores to be aware of this when they grumble over a bunch of kale or shoo away mosquitoes. Traditional food production is a concern for the entire ecosystem, and it is good for us in the city to respect and support it with gratitude. Of course, it would be best to also refrain from further, thoughtless exploitation of seas, lakes, forests and the entire planet, so that we can finish our conquest. In this vicious circle, moderation is necessary. If we don’t stop ourselves, we’ll eat our own tail. After all, we are omnivorous.
Translated by Joanna Figiel