“More people than ever before in history have absolutely no involvement in producing the foods that sustain them” writes Gary Paul Nabhan in the introduction to Coming Home to Eat: The pleasures and politics of local food. Consequently, local specialities and varieties are lost. We forget what good food is and we settle for processed and pre-packaged stuff. And since that’s always a little suspect, we end up as “a nation of food worriers more than food savorers”.
Dismayed by the state of a food culture where food travels “an average of 1,300 miles from where it is produced and changes hands six times along the way”, Nabhan decides to eat local. He draws a 200 mile circle around his home, and aims to source four out of five meals within it. He resolves to live each season as it comes.
He calls this food philosophy ‘coming home to eat’, and the book chronicles his adventures. As Nabhan lives in the Arizona desert, it’s a very different set of foods. We’re talking agaves and cactus fruits, mesquite, things I have not had the pleasure of sampling. Nabhan also pushes the boat out a little, bringing home roadkill rattlesnakes to his long-suffering loved ones, sampling caterpillars and liberally experimenting with whatever he finds.
Most interestingly, he draws on his experiences as a seed-saver and ethnobotanist to explore traditional and heritage foods. Among the elders of the native tribes are those who remember preparing all kinds of desert foods that are no longer eaten. The author seeks them out, learns from them and tracks down the food. There are some wonderful stories of feasts and foraging walks, and many mysterious foodstuffs. How about swamp potatoes, which are picked by wading out into a swamp and plucking them loose from the bottom with your feet so that they float to the surface? Or the ellusive ‘sand food’? Learning from native American cuisine, Nabhan concludes that “thousands of plants animals were historically esteemed as foods across the continent”.
The book touches on biodiversity issues, the problems of GM corn, pesticides and chemical additives, and on the prevalence of adult-onset diabetes among some of the local tribes. But this isn’t a book about what’s wrong with our food – it’s about what we’re missing, a celebration of all that’s out there to be discovered. Nabhan writes with great enthusiasm about what he finds, describing the cooking rituals and the tastes of the desert, and the colourful characters that show him the ropes. It is rich and poetic, and as someone who enjoys food I can’t help but share his joy in meals “one step removed from sunlight.”
Naturally the Arizona desert is a long way from my own context, but the book has inspired me to look more closely at local food. I know a couple of foods that were historically grown and have fallen out of favour, but I don’t know the local specialities. Are there any endangered Bedfordshire delicacies that I should know about? What might I find within a 200 mile circle? After a week in desert in the company of Gary Paul, I’m intrigued to find out.