food A WRITER'S PLEA TO SAVE THE FOODS WE LOVE
It was on page 103, midway through a chapter focusing on chocolate, that I placed the bookmark in Simran Sethi's Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love and headed to the natural-foods store down the street from my apartment to buy a chocolate bar. What prompted the 10 p.m. decision was a description Sethi wrote of consuming a $13 bar from Massachusetts-based Rogue Chocolate: "It smelled like honey, but tasted sweet but earthy, rich with spicy flowers. I didn't know it was humanly possible to eat chocolate slowly, but I learned that when it's complex, it's the only way—akin to reading a rich novel over skimming the morning paper."
I'm no stranger to complex chocolate, but, after a few weeks of gnawing on a gigantic Hershey's bar I'd been keeping in the freezer since Christmas (thanks, Mom), I wanted to be reminded of it again. What really fueled my sense of urgency, though, was that, according to Sethi, that complexity is in danger. At the store, I picked up a Madécasse 70% Cocoa bar, unwrapping it as soon as the $6 transaction was complete. Biting into it with all the care and delicacy of a young Charlie Bucket, I appreciated more than I usually do its slight bitterness, the subtle hint of black cherry, and something akin to espresso.
Sethi's book is a call to arms: a warning of the dire consequences of what she sees as a disturbing lack of diversity in the foods we eat. Sure, it seems like we have more choices than ever these days. A trip to the grocery reveals a dizzying array of options in the yogurt, ice cream, cheese, and meat aisles. What Sethi is trying to explain to us is that, despite all of this, three-quarters of the food we eat comes from just 12 plants and five species of animal. For example, while there might be a hundred flavors of yogurt out there, around 90% of it comes from just one breed of cow. This is largely because of industrial agriculture, which dictates the foods we eat in its ongoing search for the most resilient, disease-resistant, and, yes, profitable crops and livestock. Add to that deforestation and climate change, which threaten to limit the biodiversity of our foods even further—including our beloved chocolate.
Chocolate has been in trouble for a while now, according to Sethi. In Ecuador, a fungus called witches' broom is devastating the native "Nacional" cacao trees, which yield especially flavorful chocolate, as well as trees in other South and Central American countries such as Brazil, where it has decreased yields by around 80%. A resistant tree, dubbed CCN-51 and created by an agronomist named Homero Castro in the 1980s, is helping matters, but the stuff tastes, according to a recent National Public Radio report, "like rusty nails." (Over the years, Sethi says, chocolate makers have adjusted their processing techniques, adding more milk fat, sugar, and other ingredients to make the lesser chocolate taste better.)
Meanwhile, in Africa, where the lion's share of the world's cocoa supply is grown, other diseases, such as swollen shoot virus, are blighting cacao trees. A moth called the cacao pod borer is doing the same in Southeast Asia. Climate change is only making things worse. Far worse. According to a June 2015 article in Scientific American, "a 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that 'by 2020 yields in Africa from rain-fed crops—which make up the vast majority of African crops, including cacao—could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some countries.'"
Growers and scientists are racing to develop disease- and extreme weather–resistant cacao trees, but that's a risky prospect. The new varieties could take over the market, leaving less robust trees—the ones unable to combat the ravages of rising temperatures; the ones that produce cocoa with unique profiles and flavors—behind in favor of monoculture, which isn't really a solution. "One pest, one disease, can wipe out everything," Sethi reminds us.
Of course, chocolate isn't the only food in danger. Sethi also laments the loss of unique wine grapes that only a handful of die-hard producers care about anymore—the vines many farmers have ripped out, since they don't bring in the money that more popular grapes do. She also discusses the hundreds of coffee bean varieties that have fallen out of favor (or never found favor) because they strike some as too "muddy," or are too susceptible to disease to continue growing; the American hops that are too unpredictable for brewers to take a chance on. This is why Sethi spent five years traveling six continents, trying to tell the origin stories of the foods she loves best—including chocolate, bread, wine, coffee, and beer. She wanted people to understand what's happening to them, the difficulties farmers face producing them in light of industrial demands, changing weather, and changing tastes.
"We are now suffering the loss of every component that enables food to become food," Sethi told me on the phone. "We are suffering the loss of agricultural biodiversity, the loss of diversity from the soil and the microbes in the soil, from the...crops we grow, to the animals we eat and the aquatic life we consume....These changes have happened recently, too. Industrialization and the expansion of globalization in the last 50 years means that 98% of the world basically eats just five foods: wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and palm oil. So eating anything outside of that becomes a revolutionary act. Even using olive oil is a revolutionary act."
In her book, Sethi points to how things like corporate commoditization, deforestation, and climate change are slowly depriving us of, as the subtitle says, "the foods we love." But love itself is also a topic of this book: Sethi, as political and academic as she sometimes is, doesn't shy away from including personal details about how these foods have sustained her throughout her life. "This is a story about food and love and relationships," she told me. "Some of the longest relationships I have had are with these things that I put into my body. The chocolate birthday cakes I've eaten throughout my life; my chocolate wedding cake—the chocolate I ate that got me through my divorce. Then there's coffee! Coffee has set the tone of every day of my adult life. It has been more constant than any job, any lover, anything. It has always been there for me. But what have I done for it?" She hopes this book is the answer.
Full disclosure: I know Simran Sethi. I've known her for more than two decades now. Long before her book landed on my desk courtesy of her publisher, we met, in 1992, when we were studying abroad in Urbino, a medieval fortress town in Italy's Marche region. She was the hyperintelligent and hyper-politically-correct Smith student among us, the person who taught me to refer to women as women and not as girls. I was a state-schooler from Ohio, more concerned with meeting Italian women and binge-drinking Peroni than absorbing the Italian culture. I wasn't a rube, exactly, but I still had a lot to learn, and Simran—I guess it's okay if I call her Simran now—became sort of a big sister to me. I followed her around town, sipping cappuccinos with her in the morning and sharing bottles of wine at night. She was funny. She was smart. From the first day I met her, I wanted us to become friends. And, eventually, we did.
Years after our time in Italy, Simran's career exploded. We kept in touch for a while, as she started producing documentaries for MTV, and I started writing zine reviews for a scrappy alternative weekly. Around the time that I became a food writer, she became an environmentalist. Several years ago, I opened up a copy of Vanity Fair and saw a full-page photograph of her under the headline "The Environmental Messenger." Not long after that, she was on Oprah. By that time, I realized we were living in entirely different worlds, that the chances of us rekindling our old friendship were becoming pretty slim. But then she turned her attention to something I knew well. She began to focus on food. Suddenly, our paths crossed again.
I received a copy of Simran's book just after I wrote a piece for Serious Eats titled "The Case for Bad Coffee." The timing couldn't have been worse. In the story, I waxed poetic about my love of cheap coffee—the kind of stuff you drink at diners and hospitals and funerals and Perkins restaurants. I received a lot of comments on that story. Many understood what I was trying to say; many said it resonated with them. But others accused me of being naive. Of not caring about the farmers who grow the coffee, the conditions in which they live; of not realizing that the coffee is cheap for a reason. I won't take back anything I said about bad coffee. I will always love it, the same way I will always love my Hershey's bars. I will say this, though: Through her book, Simran reminded me that a lot of those negative comments were right on the money. I should care more about those farmers, about those coffees that aren't produced as part of a gigantic monoculture.
In Bread, Wine, Chocolate, when Simran tells Aaron Wood, a former head roaster at Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters, that a cup of "sour" Ethiopian coffee she's sipping doesn't even taste like coffee, he answers with this: "We think it doesn't taste like coffee because 95% of what we drink comes from just a handful of coffee varieties." You've probably heard of coffea robusta and coffea arabica. Robusta is exactly what it sounds like: robust—bitter, strong, and highly caffeinated. The plant has a keen ability to fend off disease, and it's what's largely found in the so-called "bad coffee" I love so much—especially the instant stuff I stir up every day. Arabica beans, of which there are hundreds of varieties encompassing a range of flavor profiles, are used in everything from grocery store brands to high-end specialty coffees.
"Arabica is a bit precious," Simran writes. "It has a more refined flavor and greater susceptibility to temperature fluctuations and diseases. It makes up the tins of French Roast lining shelves at Trader Joe's, the espresso in a Starbucks latte and the more exotic types of coffee we find in cafes, including Caturra from Brazil, Sumatra from Indonesia, and Blue Mountain from Jamaica. Yet, despite the vast geographical range of cultivation, the number of cultivated varieties...of arabica that are grown for commercial production are limited. There are hundreds of varieties in the Arabica species, but we mainly consume Typica (the oldest variety), Bourbon (a natural mutation of Typica that occurred on the island of Bourbon), and hybrids of the two."
It's when she visits Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, that Simran explains how drastic the differences between Arabica coffees can be. For it's here that so many of those varieties originated. She rhapsodizes about her first taste of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe: "What I didn't expect were the flowers....Jasmine and honeysuckle bloomed in my cup. I wanted to start every morning with that caffeinated bouquet."
Nearly all of these delicious varieties of Arabica, though, are endangered in one way or another. Aside from disease, climate change is the number one threat. Since 1960, the average temperature in Ethiopia has increased by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit. "Drought and erratic rainfall have severely compromised coffee production in the southern part of the country," Simran writes. "As a result of a warming planet, the areas that contain the highest concentration of coffee diversity could be reduced by 65 to nearly 100% by 2080...the country that gave the world coffee [would] no longer be able to produce it." That's a real tragedy, she continues, when you consider that "globally, coffee plantations contain less than 1% of the genetic diversity found in Ethiopia's coffee forests."
And so Simran reminds me that, while it's fine for me to continue my love of diner coffee, it might be a good time to expand my horizons again, to sample all the diversity I can—while I can, whether it's a cup of Ethiopian Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, or seeking out wines made from endangered grapes (a good source for learning about them is the Wine Mosaic project), or paying a bit more money for a good chocolate bar made with Nacional beans, the more traditional and delicious beans that once dominated South and Central American chocolate, before the introduction of disease-resistant CCN-51.
By telling the stories of the farmers, chocolate makers, brewers, and winemakers she meets along her way through six continents, Simran reminds us why we shouldn't just think of them as annoyingly trendy. It is important for us, as consumers, to support them.
When I talked to Simran on the phone a few weeks ago, I realized that our relationship hadn't changed all that much; she was still teaching me things. I suppose she always will. "You knew me as the weird 'girl' who wouldn't eat what the cafeteria offered," she said. "But I couldn't just eat anything. I don't know if that makes any sense. What I ended up doing instead was going to this beautiful provision shop on the top of a very steep hill, and I would get bread, and I would get sun-dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil, and that to me was the perfect lunch. It's what fed me....I guess that, through this book, I just want to support the people who are behind the foods I love. Maybe it's because I've always used food as a way to find myself." I get this. Like Simran, I believe that food hasn't just kept me alive. It's sustained me through good times and bad, anchored my celebrations and, well, my career.
Simran told me how strange it was that I'm a food writer now. How odd it was that I was writing about her book. "Who would have thought that would happen, back when we were living in Urbino?" she asked. I thought about how our friendship, and all friendships, are a lot like the foods she writes about in her book. Like coffee and chocolate, and bread and wine, they sustain us. They feed us. And if we appreciate them—if we nurture them—they live on. Hopefully forever.