Come to the Table: Exploring Agrobiodiversity, Relationships, and Taste with Simran Sethi
Cara Strickland

This morning I made a small pot of tea, heating water and mixing it with dried loose leaf to create something energizing. Earlier this week, I sipped a glass of wine with friends while we ate homemade soup accompanied by fresh bread. In those moments, I didn’t wonder about the places that nurtured the grapes, the leaves, the grains. I didn’t ponder the hands that tended and plucked, crushed and poured. In fact, although I’ve written about food professionally for the last five years, it’s amazing how often I forget to think about the people and places that produce my food. I pay attention to the way it tastes and how it blends with the other things on my plate or in my glass, but I don’t always pause to wonder what country my tea is from, who made my bread, or what all goes into the microbrew I’m sipping on a Friday night.

It was pondering questions just like these that launched Simran Sethi on a journey to explore the origins and stories of her food and drink staples: bread, wine, chocolate, beer, and coffee. In the summer of 2012, Sethi quit her academic job at the University of Kansas, sold her house and her car, and set off on a worldwide quest to learn where her food comes from, and from whom. While this was a delightful adventure in many ways, it was undergirded by a sinister truth: the foods and flavors we love are slowly disappearing.

teaSethi chronicles her journey in her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, released in paperback in October. The idea for the book was born in Italy, where Sethi was on a fellowship to study genetically engineered food. As part of her research, she spoke with Stephano Padulosi, senior scientist with Biodiversity International. He understood her concerns about GMOs, but for him, the dwindling variety of foods was the larger issue. It was a story she hadn’t heard before, and it captured her. “The topic was so compelling,” she told me recently. “It was almost like it chose me. This wasn’t just about biodiversity, this was about identity, this was about deliciousness, this was about solving problems in a way that brought everyone to the table.”

Modern food writing has tended to do just the opposite. From the celebrity chefs on the Food Network to glossy cookbooks and food memoirs from people who open restaurants or forage their own clams, it’s clear that there are limitations about who belongs in the gastronomic community.

Not so long ago, the table seemed bigger. Julia Child brought French cooking to American cooks, largely for the first time. Through her books and television shows, cooking became fun and within reach. Ruth Reichl, the food critic for the New York Times in the 1990s, wrote in her memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, that she was writing reviews both for the people who could afford to go to fancy New York restaurants and for those who would never be able to, but wanted to have the experience vicariously anyway.

Sethi approaches her project professionally, but also makes it clear that she isn’t part of an elite group. I got the feeling that she eats dried pasta and has never slaughtered her own chicken or made fois gras. In other words, she sounded a lot like me.

When Sethi started her research, she discovered some unsettling statistics, which she shares in her book:

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 95 percent of the world’s calories now come from 30 species. Of 30,000 edible plant species, we cultivate about 150. And of the more than 30 birds and mammals we’ve domesticated for food, only 14 animals provide 90 percent of the food we get from livestock. The loss is staggering: Three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.

If this seems a little abstract, consider the humble banana, found in nearly every grocery store in America. Early in her book, Sethi identifies the variety at her local supermarket as the Cavendish. More than 1,000 varieties of banana are grown in the world, but if you’ve spent most of your time in the United States it’s likely that you have only had one or two varieties, chosen because they keep well and have been resistant to disease. “A reduction in agrobiodiversity places us in an increasingly vulnerable position, where warming temperatures or a single pest or disease could severely compromise what we grow, raise and eat,” writes Sethi. “It’s why plant geneticists are working around the clock to replace the Cavendish, a variety that was introduced when the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum, in the 1950s, wiped out the Gros Michel—the banana that US grocery stores used to sell. Those Cavendishes are now succumbing to Tropical Race 4, a strain of the same fungus that decimated the Gros Michel.”

It may be tempting at this point to stop reading, run to the store, and buy bananas to freeze. To a certain extent, this was Sethi’s response to learning about the ways that we have put all of our food supply eggs into one basket. Her journey was a quest to find out how to save the flavors she loves. In the process, she takes her readers to coffee forests of Ethiopia, cacao plantations in Ecuador, vineyards in California, and a yeast cultures lab in Britain.

Although I’ve been happily consuming chocolate for most of my life, I couldn’t picture a cacao tree or pod. My main understanding about chocolate stemmed from a fact that I picked up long ago—that chocolate was a fruit. I liked to share that fact with people—mainly my parents—so that I could make the case for eating it at all hours. It turns out I was only partially right. Chocolate is made with the seeds from a cacao pod (the pod is technically the fruit). I had no idea that these seeds went through several processes before they came anywhere near a bar or the cocoa powder you might sift into cake batter. In the book, Sethi describes her first experience tasting the fruit of the chocolate plant in its natural habitat:

I tilted my head back slightly and dropped the fleshy seeds, one by one, into my mouth. The group watched as my eyes widened and my mouth burst into a smile. It was… astonishing. I had expected something that tasted like chocolate. Not this: not lemonade and honeydew, not custard apple and peanut brittle. Greedily, I reached for more and more. Each pod was different: some puckeringly tart, some sugar-sweet, some tart and sweet simultaneously. There were so many tastes, I doubted I’d ever be sated. These were the tastes of biodiversity.

Sethi’s story explains why chocolate can vary so much in taste and notes, rather like wine or coffee. In fact, chocolate has even more complexity. “Cocoa has 800 flavor compounds. No other food has as many,” said Brad Kintzer, chief chocolate maker at TCHO, in an interview with Sethi.

cacaoHer actual experiences with chocolate and the people who make and grow it removed all abstraction for Sethi. “I had read so many books on chocolate, and not one of them got juicy, not one of them talked about how steamy the forest is, how the midges that pollinate cacao are totally relentless, and it’s really uncomfortable,” she told me. “That’s what I wanted to do more than anything else: describe to people what it feels like to be in those places, what it feels like to meet those people. The constant feelings I had were gratitude and humility.”

The collection of varieties of cacao that Sethi ate in the forest are known as Nacional, which is dwindling in the face of disease and low margins. The Nacional varieties might produce better tasting chocolate, but it requires much more care than the easily grown CCN-51 hybrid, bred for large pods and resistance to disease. Still, in spite of marked flavor differences, Nacional and CCN-51 are often sold at the same price. For many farmers, the choice to plant a clone or hybrid variety is an easy one. In Sethi’s travels, she met Alberto, a farmer who is keeping his Nacional plants alive, even when the cost is significant. “This cacao,” he says, “is the blood of the earth.” A bar of chocolate made with Alberto’s beans connects us with a part of the world most of us will never visit and people we will never meet. Our taste buds allow us to experience a hint of another place. Alberto’s chocolate will be different from that made with cacao beans grown just a mile away from him. “If we start to recognize the diverse aromas and tastes in chocolate, then we’ll understand why they’re worth saving,” writes Sethi.

One year I hosted a wine tasting party on International Grenache Day, the third Friday in September. I was working in a winery at the time and had read about this celebration in a wine magazine. I felt sorry for the overlooked variety, known as a good wine to blend, a workhorse red. I had friends bring different bottles of Grenache wine, which is named for the grape, like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. One or two people brought Garnacha, which is its moniker in Spain. We tasted the varieties blind.

Before that night, I’m not sure any of us had tasted Grenache, but by the end, we were noting all sorts of differences between the bottles, and pouring full glasses of our favorites. I fell in love with Grenache that night, but more than that, I fell in love with trying things outside my comfort zone, with being adventurous about how I ate and drank.

 How do we save the diversity of foods we love? We do it one decision at a time. “I want to support an agricultural system, a social system, that cares for people and that reflects the way I want to live my life,” Sethi said. “Sometimes it feels so symbolic, but just to hold on to these few things, to say: ‘this fuels my day, this mends my heart, this brings me joy.’ I can’t do this with everything I eat. But if I know I’ll only purchase meat from farms and people with whom I’m familiar, and I do the same with my eggs, then there’s a handful of things where I know these stories deeply, I know these people, and I am accountable.”

As I was reading this book, I found myself gaping in front of a stall at my local farmer’s market as a vendor began to tell me about the huge number of garlic varieties in the world. “The ones in the grocery store are just one kind,” she told me. “They just chose them because they have a better shelf life. There are hundreds of others.” It was hard to know where to begin, so I had her make me up an assortment. She ran a commentary of each type as she wrote the name on the long stalk and popped it into a brown paper bag. That night, I chopped some Georgian Fire garlic and added it to my salsa as she had suggested. The next day, I minced another type and added it to sautéing vegetables, small steps toward preserving biodiversity, but steps nonetheless. 

“Relationship creates a level of accountability, and I think people have shied away from that because they don’t want to hear about the moral imperatives,” Sethi said. “We’ve tried the economic imperatives, we’ve tried to push the science, but at the end of the day we should do this because it reflects our care for each other and it reflects our care for the world, and because it’s the right thing to do. Then, let me just throw on top of all that, it’s also delicious. If I haven’t convinced you already, there’s a hedonistic kind of imperative as well.”

 Sethi told me that some people find her book inaccessible. Their primary critique, she said, is that they think she wants them to spend more money on food.  She denies that charge, but acknowledges that money is a powerful tool for change. “I’m not buying the most expensive versions of tons of stuff all the time, but I would say if something is super cheap, someone isn’t getting paid.” She points to subsidies, tariffs, and global trade agreements that have significantly distorted prices.

 “We should pay for the real price of the foods that we consume. [Currently] people think, ‘Of course a hamburger should cost a dollar.’ But you can’t even get that thing across town [for that price]. Someone paid to slaughter the animal, someone paid to put it together, someone just rang you up, so how could this possibly be so cheap? We don’t ask those questions.”

In her book Sethi writes that Americans spend just 6.7 percent of our income on food, but the latest data shows that the percentage has dropped to 6.4 percent, and that the United States now holds the distinction of being the country that spends the least amount of our income on food.

grapes“I don’t want a bargain here,” Sethi said. “I want to pay so people can live. I want to pay the right amount to the farmer so his or her kids can go to school. I want the cook who’s slinging something at whatever retail outlet [for me] to be able to feed him or herself as well. It’s a sacred relationship, and it’s one that I don’t wish to compromise on or in any way take advantage of.”

 Sometimes I cringe a little as I hand over money for farm fresh eggs or ground beef. Growing up, I learned to shop on sale, to look for ways to stretch money. It goes against my grain to willingly spend extra. I try not to allow my inner turmoil to show as I hand over a card or cash. I place my payment into the hands of a woman who collects the eggs herself, who tends the cows that become my hamburgers. Sometimes she brings her daughters along to help sell bacon, ground lamb, and sausage, and I have a glimpse at what I am helping to fund. It doesn’t hurt that when I go home and make scrambled eggs, the yolks are the yellowest I’ve ever seen. I pierce them with a fork and beat hard until they swirl into sunshine. The first time I ate an egg fresh from a friend’s backyard chicken coop, I had to stop and pay attention. After years of conventional eggs, the intensity of flavor caught me by surprise.

It might seem impossible to completely change the way you buy food, but Sethi believes everyone can do something. “I don’t think this is a pursuit for one socio-economic group or one political group,” she said. When people say, “I can’t afford that,” Sethi sees that as a cop-out. Instead, she said, simple movements create change—starting with a pivot in the grocery store away from the canola and palm oil and toward the olive oil, or finding out where your food was made. “There’s always going to be someone on the far edge of the continuum raising her own goats and cooking everything from scratch. But I think it’s important to say everyone has a seat at this table because a serious weakness of the food movement and the environmental movement has been the idea that it’s only for rich or progressive people.”

While many good things have come out of the flourishing food movement, it has also promoted a certain snobbishness. But food is not for the select few—food is a gift for everyone. We all deserve delicious and nutritious food, regardless of whether we can make out flavor notes in our green beans. Sethi manages to cut through the snobbery and communicate that point. “I don’t cook; I don’t grow stuff. I eat and I obsess about food,” Sethi said. “I can look at Michael Pollan and [say] ‘Well, that dude roasts pigs and bakes his own bread and has his own mini farm in his backyard, of course he can do it. That Nigella Lawson, she can whip up a feast out of anything, of course she can do it.’ I want people to know that I’m struggling and figuring it out just like they are—that if I can do it, surely they can try.”

I frequently kill hardy potted herbs and have had terrible luck with baking, but Sethi’s words encourage me not to give up on eating ethically, even if my progress seems slow, my steps too small. Even knowing and supporting one story, one farmer, is better than none at all.

 The first line of Bread, Wine, Chocolate is: “This is a book about food, but it’s really a book about love.” Each of the foods she chooses to seek out have meaning to her far beyond their flavors. She traces taste back to before we were born, with taste buds developing just eight weeks after conception. We are connected to our mothers through what we eat, learning to taste through their preferences, which couple with the biological responses we have to sweet and bitter tastes very early on to protect us. Later in the introduction, Sethi writes: “This is a book about love, but it’s really a book about taste.”

After each section on a food, Sethi offers tasting guides intended to walk the reader through an immersive experience. At first, it might seem strange to spend time alone with a piece or two of bread, or taking your time savoring a beer. The point of this practice is not to identify all of the present flavors or to become an expert. Rather, the idea is to pay attention, to notice what is good, and to be thankful for the nourishment for the body or soul wrapped in a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine.

Spending time tasting and savoring food, perhaps especially when alone, also communicates something important to me, and to Sethi, about our value as individuals. By choosing excellent quality food for ourselves, we are showing the same kind of care we might put into a meal where others are present. Our engagement with farmers, our families, friends, grocery store clerks, and every other person who might come into contact with our food relies on our self-worth. If we don’t feel compelled to give good things to ourselves, what argument can we make for excellent quality of life for others?

“Tasting is different from drinking or eating,” Sethi writes. “Tasting is about getting intimate with the substance we have actively chosen to put inside our bodies—the beer that makes our tongues tingle, the chocolate that melts in our mouths. It happens in the immediacy of the moment but, simultaneously reflects the long history of who we are, as well as the flavors of our collective memory.” The tasting notes encourage celebration of good things. They are an invitation to thanksgiving. Sethi closes the introduction with: “This is a book about taste, but it’s really a book about joy.” When we slow down and savor our food, we accept the gift, we honor the hours of tending and toil.

The bread and wine that Jesus took and used to represent His body and blood at the Last Supper were products of His specific place. The wine was made with Judean grapes, grown in the often unforgiving ground, certainly carefully tended. The bread was made for Passover, flat and unleavened, bearing little resemblance to the vast array of loaves found in churches on a Sunday morning in the present day. In her section on bread, Sethi writes about a visit to India and the Golden Temple, where a wheat pudding called karah prasad is made. Visitors to the Hindu and Sikh temples eat it devotionally. Food and faith are inextricably linked—sometimes, perhaps, in ways that we would rather they were not, as with the many animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, or the long parade of Jello-based salads at the potluck. Still, those sacrifices were one way that God cared for the Levites who had offered themselves to service. Those four kinds of macaroni salad represent labor, perhaps a recipe handed down through generations, a good gift given to the congregation. Even at the Passover, observant Jews consume bitter herbs as well as sweet charoset. The food of our faith can never be disentangled from sacrifice and suffering, even as it signals celebration. Jesus celebrated God’s deliverance of the Israelites with bread and wine that would convey His broken body and spilled blood. From worship to fellowship, food is a part of an active faith life. But whether or not we are acting devotionally, faith cannot truly be separated from food, either. What we choose to take into our bodies has far reaching consequences. They are physical, emotional, relational, local, and global. When we approach food with gratefulness, when we celebrate the diversity of what is created and what is made with that creation, we are en­gaging in worship. “Every bite and every sip we take are our prayer,” Sethi writes.

Bread, Wine, Chocolate is an invitation into Sethi’s experiences, but also an invitation into a new way of life. In the time since I have finished reading, I’ve found myself pausing often while in the kitchen. I’m wondering about the rice I’m measuring and mixing with water to heat, thinking about where it comes from and how many people have a hand in getting it all the way from there to my grocery store. I’m thinking about my tea while the kettle boils, and the many varieties that live within my cupboard. I’m staying present with a glass of wine, without rushing.

Our intellectual gifts help us to become informed about food, but the spirit of Sethi’s book is much more embodied than that. From an early age, we learn about God with our senses. Should it surprise us that our taste buds can help guide us toward justice, reaching our hearts more fully than internet searches or appeals to logic?

“In its best manifestation, food is love—one of the most intimate connections that exists between people. But love is hard, and improving our relationships is work,” Sethi writes. As with any important relationship, this one may require making a sacrifice or two. It may require an examination of finances, or an expenditure of time. But like all the best relationships, the quality of life that follows makes the struggle worthwhile.

Cara Strickland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.

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