Using food to explore all manner of topics, from agriculture to zoology. In Eat This Podcast, Jeremy Cherfas tries to go beyond the obvious to see how the food we eat influences and is influenced by history, archaeology, trade, chemistry, economics, geography, evolution, religion -- you get the picture. We don't do recipes, except when we do, or restaurant reviews, ditto. We do offer an eclectic smorgasbord of tasty topics. Twice nominated for a James Beard Award.
Italian coffee: a temporary triangle
Tomoca Coffee House in Addis Ababa is a lasting reminder of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. When I visited, almost 10 years ago, a somewhat ancient machine was producing terrific cups of espresso for a huge crowd, and they were doing a roaring trade in beans too. Tomoca is in some ways a symbol not just of Ethiopian coffee, but also of the Italian connection and, at one remove, of the way that coffee ties Italy and Ethiopia to Brazil.
Diana Garvin, an historian, recently published a paper that examines what she calls the Italian coffee triangle. She explains how Italy’s belated land grab in Africa sought to transform the colonos of Brazil, the 2.7 million immigrant Italian labourers who effectively tripled Brazilian production in a decade, into respectable colonialisti in Ethiopia, Italians who owned and oversaw coffee plantations in Ethiopia. Although their Fascist-inspired duplication of Brazilian methods utterly failed, still, Africa had a powerful hold on the Italian imagination.
* Diana Garvin’s paper The Italian coffee triangle: From Brazilian colonos to Ethiopian colonialisti was published in Modern Italy, doi:10.1017/mit.2021.26. Follow her on Twitter @DianaEGarvin.
* Chewing the Fat is one of Karima Moyer-Nocchi’s two published books. She’s on Twitter @MoyerNocchi, but not often. Better go to her website.
* When the transcript is ready, it will be here.
* Banner photo of Italian plantation overseer and Ethiopian workers, someone else snagged from the Archivio Luce.
Food in post-independence India
India, like most places on Earth, suffered its fair share of famines over the centuries. From the horrendous Bengal famine of 1769, when a third of the population perished under the gaze of the East India Company, to the awful famine of 1943, this time under British imperial rule. Indian politicians gained independence in 1947, promising that they would do better for their citizens. Although they coped well with the refugees after partition, they were ill-prepared for crop failures across much of northern India in the early 1950s. Campaigns urging Indians to skip a meal seem, now, to have been misguided at best and tone deaf at worst.
Benjamin Siegel, who teaches history at Boston University, has written a terrific book on food in post-independence India. Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India explores the often contradictory and confusing history of Indian food policy with clarity and compassion.
* Benjamin Siegel’s book Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.
* A paper ‘Self-help which ennobles a nation’: development, citizenship, and the obligations of eating in India’s austerity years is available online thanks to Boston University Libraries.
* Transcript will be here.
* Banner picture was all over the place in November 2020, uncredited as far as I could tell.
The original global food system
The idea of planetary boundaries, within which human life can “develop and thrive for generations to come”, was launched in 2009. Even then, we had crossed three boundaries, all intimately tied up with food production. But the process of “using up” resources, rather than simply making use of them, to supply our food is a much older pattern. In his book Diet for a Large Planet, Chris Otter, professor of history at Ohio State University, makes a powerful case that it was the British Empire that set the pattern, outsourcing the production of its food around the world. If food could be produced more cheaply elsewhere, then it made sense to do so, as long as the reckoning did not have to account for the wider costs.
By the 1880s, almost all the meat and wheat consumed in the United Kingdom was traveling vast distances to get there. Globalisation required mechanisation and turned food into an industrial commodity. The consequences of that original global outsourcing are still with us today, and still exceeding planetary boundaries. And the trade deals being struck in the aftermath of Brexit may well repeat that history.
* Diet for a Large Planet is published by University of Chicago Press.
* An article by Chris Otter — Scale, Evolution and Emergence in Food Systems — is a good introduction to his thesis.
* This rebuttal of some misconceptions is probably a good place to start finding out about planetary boundaries.
* Transcript available here for download.
* Banner and cover images from Fortune magazine, thanks to the exceptional VTS.
Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?
Food systems have been in the news lately, not least because the United Nations will be convening a food systems summit some time in September or October. The lead-up to the summit has drawn a lot of attention to the notion of food systems, which roughly means everything about food, from how it is produced to how we eat it.
If you’re looking for a guide through the tangled thickets of global food systems, you can do no better than Jess Fanzo’s book Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?
Jess Fanzo started her academic life as what she calls “a lab rat,” studying nutrition at the molecular level. She didn’t stay there. Moving further and further away from the laboratory, she went into the field, studying public health, diets and nutrition in many different countries. Not surprisingly, her experiences made her more and more interested in food systems. She’s now a globally-recognized thinker on food systems. Her book illuminates her thoughts on the big picture with her experiences in the field, and is a terrific introduction to the food system, what’s wrong with it, and how putting it right will require everyone, everywhere, to get stuck in and do the work.
* Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? is available for pre-order from Johns Hopkins University Press.
* I refuse to get into the pros and cons of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. It’ll go on whatever happens, it’ll cost a lot of money, and I have no idea whether it will result in any changes. But, as Jess Fanzo said, it is about time.
* The transcript is here.
A very modern spice merchant
Midleton, in County Cork in Ireland, is not the kind of place where you would expect to find the headquarters of a growing global spice merchant. The farmers market in nearby Cork is where Arun Kapil and his wife Olive first started selling spices. Since then the company Green Saffron has grown steadily, drawing on Arun’s love of spices and family connections in India. It is still selling at farmers markets. But it is also shipping containers of carefully sourced spices to a European hub in Holland. And Arun told me that he has not compromised on quality along the way.
* As promised, a link to the Green Saffron website.
* Here's the transcript.
* Arun referred to “the very unfortunate cumin incident”. I knew nothing about that, and am investigating. Later: see Digging into contaminated cumin
* A few other episodes from Ireland:
* Eating Alone
* A sweet sour story
* A cheese place
* An experiment in sound and taste
* Banner photograph of cumin seeds by Ajay Suresh on flickr. Black cardamom by Kurman Communications on flickr.
Coffea stenophylla tastes terrific
A little less than a year ago I talked to Professor Jeremy Haggar about his search for a forgotten coffee of Sierra Leone. It was a species called Coffea stenophylla, named for its narrower than usual leaves, which had an extremely good reputation a hundred years ago. Unfortunately it was not very productive and so, despite its excellent flavour, it was shoved out by much more productive robusta coffee. After quite a search, Haggar and his colleagues found a few plants, probably not more than 100 in total. Although they were delighted to have rediscovered stenophylla, they were disappointed that there were no coffee berries on the bushes.
In early 2020, a colleague returned to the rediscovered bushes and gathered a handful, literally, of fruits. Then came covid, and efforts to taste the coffee stalled. In the meantime, prompted by the rediscovery, the French agricultural organisation CIRAD decided to take a closer look at the C. stenophylla on its research station on the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. They gathered a slightly bigger handful, maybe half a kilogram, and both sets of coffee beans have now been appraised by experts. Just last week the researchers published their conclusion: “we are able to corroborate historical reports of a superior taste”.
For this episode I spoke to Jeremy Haggar again to catch up on the story and what it means for the future of coffee and the future of Sierra Leone.
* The original episode with Jeremy Haggar is It’s coffee, but not as we know it.
* If you are in the UK and interested in good coffee, the outfit that micro-roasted beans from the Sierra Leone is Union Hand-Roasted Coffee
* Here is the transcript.
* Banner photo by CIRAD, others by RBG Kew.