Monday 29 February 2016

Trivial Liberation? Shrubs and Fermentation, part 1 of 2

I have often wondered about the role food stories play in organizing people's food behaviors. I'm particularly interested in the intersection between exploratory experiments with food -- prone to being consumed by detail oriented foodie enthusiasm -- and more social justice motivated food actions. It seems that storytelling habits that reinforce trivial aspects of improvement along the food chain can risk undermining more liberatory efforts. At the same time, though, fun food enthusiasms can provide venues for practicing comfort with the significant challenges of liberating food production from the considerable oppression currently found in food production, harvesting, processing,  preparing, serving, and associated clean-up.

I have been considering how to engage those tensions recently as I have learned about a foodie trend that may be particularly characteristic of the current moment in our food culture: shrubs. 

Shrubs have many layers of taste and story. As I've discovered with pies, shrubs can be considered at a basic level to be something to do with fruits that might not otherwise be usable, which is how I discovered them. I returned home from my first visit to Georgia recently with the remnants of an impulse buy of strawberries: they weren't very good, but the amount of labor and resources that go into strawberries meant I didn't want to waste them. I realized that this was a moment to look into those delicious flavors I'd seen popping up at what appear to be a new manifestation of soda fountains bubbling up in hip neighborhoods. And this turned out to be a fruitful insight! Steeped with sugar and apple cider vinegar, which itself continues to ferment the sugar and fruit sugar along with whatever herbs and spices one adds, this process provides a potent flavoring, a spoonful of which can replace a whole can of soda in terms of flavor.

But it takes sugar! Here's where I find myself jumping on the schoolyard seesaw of food justifications. Sugar is such a high impact food, both for the people involved in growing and processing it, and on the ecologies it affects -- as the historical Wedgewood pattern pictured reminds us, from an era when sugar was recognized to be a significant driver of the Atlantic "triangle" trade that enslaved people (in part to create the sugar for tea to drive industrial workers, too). But processes like this kind of fermentation, although they may be making me buy more sugar at the outset, may use so much less over time, if I can replace sugar additions with smaller amounts of this more flavorful creation.  It's also more complex -- possibly even more DIFFICULT -- in flavor, so it's something one might appreciate in smaller servings anyways. But even if it also gives me an added use for citrus peels I would have otherwise discovered, still, it's SUGAR. This tendency to get stuck on a seesaw is a dialectical narrative structure I find instructive when thinking about the food movement. 

One of the things it helps highlight is how even if these foodie rabbit holes help familiarize people with many dynamics of food production they might otherwise not have noticed, no amount of personal choice is likely to create adequate change unless it is organized into collective movements to actually improve the conditions of food production and build supportive regulations. The plates with these Wedgewood patterns above supported Abolitionists as they both organized mass boycotts of sugar produced through slavery (involving both alternative sources in contexts where people were consuming what sounds like remarkably high amounts of sugar and also going without sugar at all in many cases) at the same time that they shaped the legislation that eventually abolished slavery in the U.K. and eventually the U.S

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