On Saturdays, We Buy Bok Choy: Changing Our Attitudes about Food

I married a good cook. Well, really, a great one. He has a gift for looking at something that to me seems like a shriveled cabbage completely unfit for human consumption and saying, “You know, that would work perfectly with…” and two hours later the house is filled with beautiful aromas and tastes.

If it were up to me, I would probably opt for the known fruits and vegetables, and never venture near a head of bok choy. But there is a growing movement in the food industry called “farm to table”. Farm-to-table operates on the idea that we should build menus, dinners, cooking as a whole, around what the land closest to you produces, rather than the favorite things that don’t grow in a thousand-mile radius. We can see this thinking in local farmer’s markets and CSA shares, too: each week, nearby farmers gather to sell what their land is producing, and we, the consumers, must learn greater creativity in building menus from what is available locally, rather than that which has been flown in from afar.

In terms of benefitting the environment, there is a lot right about this thinking. According to the CGIAR research group, the food industry accounts for 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Buying locally can reduce the amount of GHG emissions from the transportation industry, as well as from food waste, processing and land clearing, among other things.

But, as the Guardian pointed out in a recent article, calculating the environmental cost when it comes to the food industry is not so simple. “the focus on carbon has diverted our attention from other areas of the food system that are just as problematic for the environment. These include: biodiversity loss from mono-cropping; threats to the water supply from over-irrigation; soil fertility loss from over-cultivation..” How we eat, and what we eat, is a lot more complicated than reaching for the frozen bag of peas at the grocery store versus buying bok choy from a local farmer.

Dan Barber, renowned chef and author of the recent The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, makes this point in his book. According to the Washington Post interview with Barber, “During a stop in Washington last month, Barber explained that the [carrot and steak] dish is one example of the many he thinks should compose a new American cuisine — or several localized cuisines — based on ingredients that are part of a healthy soil-building system at the farm. He has taken on the challenge at his own restaurants, reinventing the menus to reach beyond featuring what he calls “cream crops” like asparagus, which remove nutrients from soil, and elevate rotational crops like buckwheat, which weave nutrients back into the soil.”

To think of farm-to-table or even buying locally, organically, directly from a farm, falls short because it fails to think not just about the where of what we eat but also the what. What foods will help the land replenish itself? What foods will give nutrients back to the soil?

Barber says, “What I realized after five years of researching cuisines was that all of them — all of them — are built on nitrogen-fixing crops… They were all negotiations that peasants made to eke out something from the land, to get fertility back into the soil after the crop is harvested, because we eat fertility for energy. And they built their cuisines to support that. But we in America have borrowed mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and wheat as Italian cuisine. Because we’re such a rich country — from a soil fertility perspective, we were so rich — we could ride high on the hog, literally, because we had the fertility to do it.”

This raises a question for us at the local farmer’s market. Perhaps it is one we are unlikely to consider because it is more attached to philosophy than particular policies or choices, but it is one that should get our attention: what does it mean to do justice to the land?

A philosophy of food that thinks about the land itself as the vehicle for our sustenance is a philosophy that fails in sustainability and care. It does not do justice to the land which we were given to tend and care for. It is not enough to think about how to lower transportation costs globally, or buy local to offset a carbon footprint. We must reexamine what kind of food we ask our land to produce, and where, and when.

We should be raising a demand for those humbler crops that can sustain the soil. We should be raising a demand for restaurants that work with the seasons and the local agronomy to produce food that respects what can best grow in the places we are. As consumers of food, we should be demanding more care for land on which it grows. This, beyond the carbon-centric conversation, is what is needed for long-term sustainability.

I married a great cook, and he can make bok choy better than anyone I know. But I also know that, in the conversations we have around food, we are beginning to ask ourselves how we can do more justice to the land, to what grows in a way that renews soil and helps maintain long-term sustainability for the farm. I’m guessing buckwheat might be on next on the menu.

-Hilary Yancey is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt