Saturday, September 3, 2011

In a Mad, Mad World, Only the Mad are Sane: Reflections on Mad Food Camp


Rene Redzepi of Noma

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend MAD[1] Food Camp in Copenhagen, Denmark. Organized by NOMA’s René Redzepi, the highlight of the weekend festival was a symposium, Planting Thoughts. This was both in the literal and metaphorical sense. There was plenty talk of plant biology, environmentalism, cooking techniques, terroir and everything in between. Scientists, chefs, pundits, policy makes were all abuzz. And there were foodie rock stars. Michel Bras, Harold McGee, Ben Shewry, Andoni Aduriz, Massimo Bottura (in spirit), Hans Heren, David Chang, Gaston Acurio…the list goes on and on. But for me, the most important discussion was about ecology in its literal form: the study of our house(s).[2]
            For those of you who don’t remember your Ancient Greek, a philology lesson is in place. For the Ancient Greeks, oikos, or the house, was not merely four walls and a roof. The oikos was your physical house, your family, your farm, your animals and your slaves (this is Ancient Greece after all). In other words, a household. But in the logos, or study, of the household, it is not merely the material goods that held this concept in place. It was the relationships between the constituent members of the household that made the oikos the center of Ancient Greek life.  And for us on this earth, the oikos is our earth, our environment and the living creatures that we live with. These are our houses.
Me and Harold McGee!
            And my, what houses we live with! Starting at one end was Harold McGee at the smallest level: the molecular. In his discussion of flavors, he examined the chemical defenses that plants use to keep predators away. It also happens to be that those defenses are pretty tasty.[3]
David Chang doing some serious thinking (Photo courtesy of Katie Parla)
            David Chang was also at the small end of life, but had a big message. Science matters. In his discussion of the role and importance of microbiology in food, David Chang dropped the gauntlet: “We cooks are allergic to learning science.” For Chang, microbiology was a revelation in his kitchen and not just for kimchee. “It’s our jobs as chefs to learn more. We have to learn more.” 
            And then there were the insect people. Both Alex Atala of DOM in Brazil and Jacqueline McGlade of the European Environmental Agency dealt with the little critters in our lives, but with very different perspectives. McGlade discussed bees and urban beekeeping for the socially disadvantaged in Copenhagen and across Europe. For Atala, it was how insects become a gateway for thinking about our palates and our own selves: “To us, ants taste like lemongrass. To the Amazonians, lemongrass tastes like ants.” To prove a point, he passed out Amazonian ants encased in agar.[4] Taste is controlled by nature, not the other way around. 
Ant in agar.
            This was also the message that foraging expert Francois Couplan and master forager Miles Irving had for the symposium. Nature is all around us and food is all around us if we only know where to look. Irving gave a virtual tour of the English woods and meadows, complete with seeds and plants. As he lovingly put it: “There is treasure in the woods and the fields.” Couplan, an ethnobotanist, pointed to the vast diversity of wild edible plants and seeds across the world. Wild carrots, nettles, clover were right under our noses at MAD Food Camp. “Why do you people not know that?” Good question.
            Speaking of wild things, Tor Nørretranders questioned our understanding of wild and tame in terms of the domestication of plants. Domestication and monoculture has not been good for us – or the earth. In our need to constantly control the means of agricultural production, we have killed our palates and our environment: “Sixty-percent of human calories come from four fucking crops: corn, wheat, potatoes and rice.”
Tor Nørretranders (Photo courtesy of Katie Parla)
            What are the consequences of that sixty (fucking) percent? Dr. Hans Heren, President of the Millennium Institute, gave the sad details and a warning call. In a world where 1 billion eat too much and 1 billion eat too little, how we deal with food inequality makes all the difference in terms of future of world stability. The solution? “The solution is not to grow more food, but how to do different.” According to Heren, a 0.2% GDP investment in the green economy means “…we could produce more food, using less resources.” This means not only organic, which, according to studies done by the Millennium Institute, outperforms conventional in normal years[5], but also investment in alternative crops.
            What are those crops and how are we to grow them? Thomas Harttung, while operating a large organic farm in Jutland, Denmark, sees urban farming and organic farming as the wave of the future. Echoing Heren’s sentiments, Harttung bemoaned the low productivity of conventional farming methods. Despite the intensive use of fertilizers, fuels and land, OECD countries are third in food productivity per hectare. This begs the question of how Magnus Nilsson chef at the famed Fäviken restaurant in Sweden can grow organic produce for an entire year in the span of a 3-month growing season.[6] Answer? Advanced growing techniques, composting and a little help from the University of Stockholm’s agriculture department. The key for Nilsson was not the use of extra nitrates or other land-intensive methods. It was careful planning as well as preservation and storage. And while the methods of farming might have a new twist, the methods of food preservation are not.
Several of the chefs looked at the agricultural and culinary past as means for preserving not only local food traditions, but also ways of life. Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz[7] in Spain while known for his culinary poesie demonstrated that the magic is not an act of genius. It is the product of people preserving a way of life, whether it is the sea, land or pasture. At the other antipode, Gaston Acurio does the same in his native Peru. Food is a manifestation of the past as much as it is a motivator for the present. As he put it, “Behind the plate, there is the possibility to change someone’s life.”
Yoshihiro Narisawa’
            And sometimes we must accept change thrust upon us. Yoshihiro Narisawa’s haunting Haiku-esque description of Japan after the 2011 earthquake was a reminder of how nature is constantly destroying and renewing itself. The seas have new plankton forms due to the shifting of currents, post-earthquake. The fish must react to those changes. The chef must as well. It is the great circle of life. 
           
We have been bad housekeepers.  Climate change, natural disasters, urbanization, development, industrialization are just few of the challenges to our environment. And we caused most of them.  
            But we can change that. Planting Thoughts was about using the power of food to change food systems and the planet for good. Housekeeping was never easy – not in the Ancient Greek world nor in ours. Nature keeps its own house. It’s up to us to keep our own.


[1] “Mad” means food in Danish.
[2] This is coming from the Ancient Greek: οκος, "house" and  -λογία, "study of." Ecology is the study of our homes, earth, and our relationship to it. (And for extra credit, it is also the same root that defines economics.)
[3] Cooking tip: Do not pound the crap out of your herbs. It only increases the volatility of the oils in herbs, thus overwhelming your dish. Gently rolling or massaging them is the way to go.
[4] How did the ant taste? Well I was lucky. I got 2 agar ants (my friend didn’t want to eat hers). They were crunchy and slightly gingery, with a numbing bite. And they were big. You could see the legs and everything else. There was no doubt about it – it was an ant.
[5] I’m assuming that Heren means that “normal years” as in years in which weather cycles are average. I wouldn’t call this year “average” by any sense of the word. Both drought and flooding have made a huge difference in crop expectations in the US. And the sad part is, especially with the advent of climate change, weird is going to be the new normal.
[6] Fäviken lies in Jarpen, Sweden. It’s up there. Waaaay up there. It’s about 1000 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Just in case that doesn’t do you for scale, it’s a full day (or night) train trip from Stockholm.
[7] Aduriz is considered to be the possible inheritor of El Bulli’s kitchen. If you haven’t heard of him now, trust me, you will.
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