By Lucy Wormald
Lifestyle & Culture Editor
| Illustration by @dmitrymoi
I was ten and sitting at the dining room table the first time my father taught me to honour the food that I was putting in my mouth. It was a roast dinner. My plate was a-jumble with baked vegetables and a slice of chicken was graciously sponging up gravy. I speared a carrot with my fork and as I chewed my father told me to imagine back along the carrot’s timeline to its beginnings as a seed. I pictured the carrot snug in soil, leaves photosynthesising the sunlight, roots drawing in water. Being ever-romantic, I visualised it being plucked from the ground and tossed into the back of an old ute, journeyed up a highway by a whistling farmer to arrive at the supermarket and eventually on my plate.
“A remembrance of where your food has come from, a feeling of gratitude for the land that created it and the nutrients that it gives your body, is important,” said my father. Though the ‘why’ behind the importance remained ambiguous to me, I gave a small mental thank you to the land for providing the carrot.
In a time of swelling anxiety over our exploitation of the earth, this teaching returns to me. I realise the easiest connection we can make to the natural world is through the food we eat. Turning to the past we can see that our food knowledge has played a central role in how we perceive our place in the broader context of the living world. Two hundred years ago we knew a lot more about what we ate and where it came from. Most understood what it took to grow food, how the climate and the rains set the menu. This formed a note of moderation and subsistence to chime through farming and consumption. Human labour worked in tandem with the land to achieve production. We were in an intimate relationship with the land and this made it easier to locate our place within the greater cycles of life.
Industrialised and globalised eating is undeniably convenient. It offers us limitless and bountiful access to ingredients and foods from all over the world. As we developed into a society of city-dwelling workers, access to food shifted and supermarkets and factory-farmed produce became the locus of the food system. This new intermediary between land and humans has led many of us to become ignorant to how our food is made and where it has come from. Over the course of a few generations we have gone from knowing the places and stories behind our provisions' origins to knowing very little about an overproducing and capitalist food system. Author and environmental activist Wendell Berry says: “For most, food is pretty much an abstract idea—something they do not know or imagine—until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.”
Two hundred years ago we knew a lot more about what we ate and where it came from. Most understood what it took to grow food, how the climate and the rains set the menu.
Now an industrial product, food is packaged and marketed to seduce us rather than inform us. The anonymity and lack of traceability of our ingredients render food sanitised from any previous identity as a living thing. This inhibits any recognition that our edibles came from soil or were produced by land and labour. “Eater and eaten are divorced from biological reality,” Berry says.
Yet each time we eat a spoonful of rice or a chunk of salmon we are dependent on the land, participating in a food chain that links us to ecosystems and landscapes. Understanding our dissonance with this concept, and indeed this relationship, is increasingly crucial as our environmental situation unravels.I remember eating a crayfish my boyfriend dove for over the summer. I spent time at the bay it had lived in. I swum in the same waters in which it grew and I knew it had been ethically caught. I felt a sense of connection to the crayfish and to the bay that fostered it. As we cooked it up in butter and garlic I felt an unfamiliar delight; the remembrance of where the lobster had come from ignited a gratitude.
Whilst a way to know your nosh is of course buying local, this isn’t always possible in a food system where ingredients come from all corners of the world. Acknowledging the relationship between food and self, like my father taught, threads an important connection to the land and to the food traditions that have sustained life since the beginning. What we eat touches every part of life and serves as a small reminder that we are part of a connected, living world.