Up until this point in this column, we have discussed only the physical processes surrounding food. This part of the food discussion was primarily concerned with how our dishes look and taste, as well as where our food comes from and where it goes once we finish it. But beyond the tangible trappings of the food?cycle, there is also an entirely imperceptible realm of culture, ritual and spirituality associated with it. Food has always been an intrinsic part of cultures all around the world. Our food is infused with meaning, which permeates into its lifecycle from production to disposal.
From the way we grow our food to the way we prepare it, from the table setting on which we place it to the leftovers we save and the scraps we throw away, every step in the food?cycle possesses some type of symbolism – of nourishment, life, family, tradition and so on – that transcends the way a certain cuisine looks or a specific ingredient tastes. This visceral experience of food changes across cultures. It can be seen in the terraced agriculture on rolling Italian hills and the roaming and Spartan eating and herding style of the Maasai tribe of Africa. It is evident in the rules of Kashrut dietary laws in the Jewish tradition. The intrinsic value of food exists beyond just taste and the sensual pleasure it provides. Indeed, it exists in the unspoken superiority and comfort of a meal lovingly prepared by a mother and in the oral tradition of recipes passed down through generations. These delicate nuances continue through all stages of the food?cycle, beyond just those concepts related to the consumption and preparation of food. It is as clearly shown through the three?part harmony of the corn, beans and squash grown by earth?attuned Native Americans, and it lives in the ceramic pots that serve as containers for rice and staple foods of people around the world.
A great deal has been spoken, written, read and painted about this element of food. This element exists as the essential beauty of food. It inspires awe and evokes reverence – think of the luscious curve of a fruit?filled still life or, as Adam Gopnik so brilliantly phrases it, “The sweetness in our morning coffee [that] is at once a feeling, an idea and a memory.” These indefinable connotations of food, whether they are cultural, societal or artistic, pervade our relationship with the food we eat and are extremely significant in it. In discussing the food movement, it becomes essential to capture the importance of these aspects. Often, in its quest to solve the problems with our global food systems, the food movement fails to include descriptions of the intangible value and subtle beauty of food. While it is crucial that we strive to better the ways our food is produced, distributed, consumed and disposed of, it is just as important to realize the worth of the traditional, ritualistic and visceral features relating to food. Many of these serve as the impetus for our collective action to better our food sources and methods.
We must not lose sight of the beauty that makes the love of food possible, because the ultimate goal of the food movement should be to preserve the metaphorical, ecological and physical beauty of food through constructive actions. By making good food choices and taking into consideration all steps of the food cycle, whether they are the purely substantive or the wholly conceptual, we can achieve a food system that is all the more sustainably beautiful.
Sara Gardner is a freshman who has not yet a declared a major. She can be reached at Sara.Gardner@tufts.edu. Mae Humiston is a senior majoring in anthropology. She can be reached at Mae.Humiston@tufts.edu.