Historic Food as a Path to the Future

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Putting up locally grown food for the future is ubiquitous across cultures.

Photo by Julia Skinner

For the past 150 years, we’ve experienced paradigmatic shifts in how and what we eat. New food delivery options, fast-casual concepts, meal kits, and processed foods now appear frequently. For the first time in history, we expect our markets to carry a dizzying array of foods, from meat to milk to veggies — even those very much out of season.

However, the growing, packaging, and shipping of food (sometimes called the “food system,” though it’s far more than a single system) involve incredibly complex, interconnected operations and specific resources to work as they do. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the cracks in our food system’s shiny veneer, as stores struggled to restock shelves while, at the other end of the supply chain, farmers dumped milk and eggs and killed livestock because they had no alternative.

It’s interesting that in the United States, COVID-19-related food shortages began in March, which food historian Rachel Laudan has called “the hungriest of all months of the year.” Historically, late winter and early spring were notoriously difficult for people living off the land, because food stores had been depleted and spring growth hadn’t yet appeared. Even into the 1950s and 60s, finding eggs or green vegetables in March was a challenge in much of the Northern Hemisphere, and canned or frozen foods weren’t as affordable or available as they are today.

Using Old Stories to Spin New Ones

Photo by Julia Skinner

When seeking inspiration to build more personal and equitable food systems, one of the best places to look is the past. Many parts of our past food systems, such as the forced labor of enslaved people, should be condemned. However, the past also holds stories from which to draw inspiration, hope, and practical guidance. Food historian Michael W. Twitty and farmer Leah Penniman have written about the importance of the kitchen garden and regaining sovereignty over our food supply, especially for those who face racism, discrimination, and limited access to fresh food.

Soul Fire Farm, run in part by Penniman, offers Soul Fire in the City, a program to install gardens for residents in need in Albany and Troy, New York. According to the program’s website, “In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is increasingly essential that we grow our own food and medicine towards self-reliance and community resilience. Soul Fire Farm is offering materials, seedlings, soil, labor, and ongoing guidance to support folks in Albany and Troy in establishing raised-bed gardens outside of their homes, drawing on community collaboration and mutual aid. We see this work as a continuation of that legacy of a long lineage of BIPOC growers who developed alternative food systems to sustain their own communities.”

Photo by Julia Skinner

Harvesting our food, or stocking up and preserving locally grown foods in-season, has been a critical part of our food ecosystems throughout much of history. Supermarkets and their galaxy of interconnected but mysterious moving parts can often feel sterile and distant. Recent increases in seed sales and other sufficiency goods may show our interest in reforming how we eat. In our new story, we’re eager to return to our food roots and transform that lumbering galaxy into a constellation of individual and community actions, done quietly in our kitchens or together on farms or in markets. These actions promise to produce something resilient and, of equal importance, something personal.

Food is one of our most personal, connective experiences, and fermentation is one of our most ancient preservation methods, spanning the years between us and our ancestors. By practicing traditional ways of cooking and preserving food, we have a chance to have a conversation with the past while we nourish our bodies today. When we taste traditional foods, their flavor can anchor our tastebuds and cultural food memories, as we encounter and create changes in our modern foodways.

Reconnecting with Our Ancestors’ Tables

Photo by Adobe Stock/cavan

So, how do we reclaim traditional foods in our own kitchens?

Eat locally and seasonally. We already know that eating food grown locally and in-season is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of our choices. However, it’s also a great way to connect to the foods themselves: When you appreciate blackberries as having a season, rather than being a year-round treat, they taste all the sweeter when they finally arrive.

Get to know producers. Local farmers around the U.S. continued to feed their communities during pandemic lockdowns, pivoting their services to meet a rapidly changing crisis. In the Atlanta metro area, for example, Freewheel Farm and Rodgers Greens & Roots Organic Farm began offering online ordering and curbside pickup for those worried about going to a farmers market or grocery store. Similarly, chef Maricela Vega of 8ARM restaurant skipped the takeout menu and instead built a robust, locally sourced community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that supported area farmers and gave consumers quality food. In the past, our ancestors would’ve interacted with farmers and foragers (or farmed and foraged themselves), and had a deeper knowledge of how and by whom their food was grown. By buying direct from producers, we can recapture that experience today.

Think abundantly. Last year, I built an online class around shifting from thinking of a food item as a single ingredient, to perceiving it as having countless creative uses. For example, carrot peels can be made into jam (something I learned from fellow low-waste enthusiast Jessamine Starr), and carrot tops can be made into pesto. Our ancestors thought this way out of necessity, and many foods around the world came about as a result of a lack of food — oxtail stew, for instance, used a cheaper cut that needed extra finesse to be delicious.

If you have a mishmash of veggie scraps, plop them into a pot, cover them with water, and make a nourishing homemade stock. You can also store small amounts of scraps in the freezer until you’ve built up enough for a full pot of stock.

Prepare food together. Big community cooking projects have historically been one way people spread the labor of putting up large amounts of food during harvest season. Examples include sauerkraut and winemaking festivals in Europe, and large-scale kimchi-making (gimjang) in Korea. The act of keeping everyone fed through winter becomes a point of connection and togetherness in these communities.

So, gather your friends together and make a meal, or hire a fermentation or canning teacher to show you a new-to-you traditional cooking method. We can flex our creative muscles to rekindle the spirit of traditional harvest gatherings. Our ingenious, curious, and inventive ancestors would be proud.

Julia Skinner, Ph.D, is an avid forager and gardener, and the founder of Root, a food history and fermentation organization offering classes in traditional food practices at Root Kitchens. Follow her work by searching online for @RootKitchens and @BookishJulia.

Seed-Gathering Hero

Botanist Nikolay Vavilov championed seed gathering, but he died of starvation in a Soviet prison in 1943. In the years before Stalin jailed him as a scapegoat for the country’s famines, Vavilov had traveled across five continents, collecting hundreds of thousands of seeds in an effort to outline the ancient centers of agricultural diversity and guard against widespread hunger. In Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan retraces Vavilov’s path from Mexico and the Colombian Amazon to the glaciers of the Pamirs in Tajikistan. This title is available at Mother Earth News store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #6598. While supplies last.