Food connects us to the natural world like no other commodity. In Bangalore, the city where I live, alternating varieties of fruit piled atop street carts throughout the year act like a calendar, their sensory language making redundant the letters and numbers that otherwise keep time. The watermelons that took over entire footpaths and neatly packed tubs of strawberries sold in the shade are by now on their way out. Soon, it will be mango season and its many varieties will colour the carts, roadside pavements and back-of-truck selling points with vivid shades of yellow and orange; in restaurants, the fruit will find its way into lassis, and a local brewery will make beer from it. But it is when coconut water, no longer naturally cooled by the fruit’s thick and fibrous skin, is served luke-warm by the roadside vendor that you know you are right in the middle of an Indian summer.
While it is self-evident to most people that food is central to everyday life, why devote a magazine to it and what is it that The Forager has to say in a world where the conversation around food has grown so many shoots is the most pertinent question that has formed on the lips of reviewers and potential readers. There are as many answers to this as there are issues of the magazine in store but let us focus on at least some of what The Forager has been contemplating in its first year of life.
Food is a source of immense pleasure and it is not too difficult to understand why. It is excellent raw material from which to express, build and reinvent cultural identities. It is also a crucial component in the global economy and is at the core of some of the biggest sustainability challenges being experienced by countries in all parts of the world today. These incommensurables are what give the subject such a multi-dimensional form and that shape its edges into an effective prism through which to think about and understand small wonders and the larger issues of today and times past. This is what has allowed us to carry stories about what the Buddha ate for his last supper and how visual artists have used food as both a medium and subject in their work. It is what allows us in the space of the current issue to clear a patch for ‘the miracle tree’ – or Moringa Oleifera – native to the foothills of the Himalayas in north west India whose leaves contain more protein than milk and potassium than bananas alongside P. Sainath’s account of, in his words, the state’s heavy data fudging in respect of farmer suicides in India. The corrective he offers in asserting that the figures are far in excess of what the calculations of state agencies would suggest forms part of an impassioned investigation into the factors responsible for the horrifying rate at which farmers are killing themselves in states across India, especially in what are known as the Big 5.
From the outset, we have been keen not to celebrate food at the expense of ignoring the less than edifying perspectives on food systems operational in different parts of the world. Industrialised agriculture with its decidedly mixed report card is a case in point; claims made in its defense that a fast growing global population demands an increased food supply are reasonable. And yet, we are at a point in human history when there has never been more food, nor have there been so many people who regularly go hungry.
Nonetheless it is worth reminding ourselves that the increasing competition between different forms of food production – industrial, artisan, organic, subsistence, co-operative-led and so forth – makes what we eat and how much we pay for it the exercise of a political choice and a potential path to social change. Befitting then is the inclusion in this issue of a contribution that has as its backdrop the only active watermill for the production of oatmeal in the British Isles. Importantly however, and despite a creative tryst with the artisan oat, the author does not lend volume to a widespread dissing of processed food, questioning instead a relentless policing, in the west, of what people eat and feed their children.
While food has been an object of enjoyment from when humans started hunting and gathering all those millennia ago and its global trade is nothing new – the modern world acquired its contours through the routes formed for the trade and colonial exploitation of foodstuffs – the peculiarities of how food is being used today is without historical precedent. Arguably, it has never been so celebrated – the wisdom of celebrity chefs are pored over online, in newspapers and magazines, and hours that might have once been spent cooking are dedicated to watching cookery shows and reading blogs on how someone else makes the perfect Sunday roast for example. Similarly, there has been displacement of the desire to eat with that of photographing the food on one’s plate. The ability to instagram or whatsapp these photos has meant that images of food have a circulation and currency tied to the fluctuations of the market. It is a great irony that at the very same time as all this cultural capital is being earned through food related activities, policy makers and campaigners are cautioning against the alarming rise of pre-cooked food, the phenomena of eating alone and on the run. Michael Pollan has added his voice to the fray, pointing out that despite all the time spent in a mediated world of food, people are increasingly becoming deskilled in cooking.
By contrast, the art of cooking is alive in Kampala, Uganda where The Forager Collective is currently running a project called ‘Same Differences’ in collaboration with 32º East | Ugandan Arts Trust. Indian food adapted to local ingredients is being used as a key to open up cross-cultural conversations around culinary traditions, food practices and challenges facing agricultural and food sectors in the contemporary moment. In doing so, it performs similarly to how this magazine extends an invitation to readers to see the merit in thinking seriously about food as a way of understanding human experience and to make connections between that very humble thing that is part of everyone’s daily life and the bigger picture.
Aileen Blaney is faculty at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, India.
She is the Editor of The Forager.