Why are Americans so quick to proclaim their country the best? It is all too frequent to hear Americans refer to their country as the “greatest in the world.” Xenophobic and racist connotations aside, that phrase, along with a whole host of others (“land of the free,” “the American dream,” “the land of opportunity”), are gross misstatements, whose utterance continues despite mass dissatisfaction with the status quo. The recent Occupy Movement has exposed the exclusivity of the American dream and the disheartening remoteness of sustainable economic opportunity for the majority of young Americans. Yet in one sense, America may still reign supreme.
America may no longer produce as many goods, possess the same caliber of public education, or command the same diplomatic respect as other superpowers, but the “great melting pot” (one hackneyed description whose accuracy is indisputable), does contain the greatest offering of ethnic cuisines in the world. Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Little Haiti, Koreatown, Little Italy, Filipinotown, Little Saigon, Mexican Town, Greektown, “Curry Hill,” Russian Hill, these are some of the neighborhoods that have historically provided the most piquant and exotic culinary delights in cities across the United States. The dishes of once distant cultures, along with their diverse ingredients and tastes, now form a cornucopia of affordable and high-end offerings, given further visibility by the Internet and television. One need only consider the ubiquity of pizza (in all of its variations), lo mein, or tacos to demonstrate the globalization of cuisine. Moreover some of the most profitable fast-food chains (Taco Bell, Yoshinori, Panda Express) and pre-made food producers are based on American interpretations of “ethnic foods.”
An oft-used proverb states that in order to tell where one is going, they must know where they came from. The globalization of cuisine over the past 150 years has undoubtedly expanded our taste buds and taught us much about disparate cultures, yet at what cost? The constant mixing, re-inventing, and mass reproducing of what were once local delicacies has no doubt produced fantastic results, but it has also obscured the specific history of certain cuisines. There is no denying the influence of haute cuisine and Italian cooking on Western Culture, but while most Americans could probably tell you that pizza came from Italy, could they also recognize its Neopolitan origins or appreciate its traditional ingredients?
Culinary globalization has also had profoundly negative environmental consequences. Delicious curry, tantalizing mole sauce, and authentic gazpacho all require ingredients from different climates, whose plastic packaging and global transport pollute our ecosystems. Furthermore, demand for exotic foods has changed the complexion of countless ecosystems. In order to maximize profits, food growers are often forced to depend on monocultures, or else clear large parcels of land to rear livestock, both of which compromise local biodiversity and ultimately, the health of global ecosystems. Twentieth century capitalism’s never-ending addiction to the “logic” of supply and demand contains little space for environmental or cultural considerations, yet for all of its destructiveness, it is impossible to unilaterally condemn globalization. Instead, it exerts both positive and negative influences with varying consequences (creating and destroying jobs, damaging the environment, giving rise to new dishes and preparations, culinarily educating, refocusing on local provisions etc.).
The local food movement of the past decade, although not universally accessible, or even viable in colder, harsher climates is an important alternative to a dependence on unsustainable food production. Local foods not only offer not a more healthful and environmentally sound alternative, but can also retain financial benefits within a smaller community, and thereby decrease dependence on imported, mass-produced foods. Yet local food production, like most cutting-edge trends, remains socially exclusive, and often more expensive than non-local food. Writing this from Los Angeles, California, a veritable Mecca of inexpensive ethnic food, I am truly grateful for the diversity that has resulted from large-scale immigration, itself a consequence of globalization. Having also worked at an organic permaculture-style farm in Kona, Hawaii for the past three months, I understand the importance of growing one’s own food and remain committed to supporting local agriculture.
Mason and I building a garden bed
Something as simple as eating, then, is made infinitely more complex by the variety of options and consequences that arise from making gustatory decisions. Unlike Michael Pollan, however, I will not advise you what to eat. I can only relate my own experiences while working on a farm – growing and consuming food 200 feet from my bed, without pesticides, fungicides, or insecticides, was the best that I’ve physically felt and among the simplest, yet most delicious food that I’ve tasted. I also realize that growing one’s own food is not always possible, yet considering the myriad hazards posed by imported, unregulated, and genetically-modified foods it will become crucial that we at least understand how to do so while shifting our resources towards local food production.
Kale, lettuce, taro, and our nursery in the mandala garden of Ginger Hill Farm