Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Heirloom Foods and The Third World

It was some sad news today that prompted this post - a very good, old friend whom I had not met in years was diagnosed with a life threatening condition. Unfortunately, these past five years, we have been quite close to each other physically speaking and I had driven past his home-town several times at my previous job before I joined university full time. As we spoke about our time at university some twenty five years ago, the one thing I could not forget was the delicious meals that his mother would cook for us whenever we visited his place. It was a curious time in India's history - "modern" style agriculture was beginning to come in and the old ways were ending. But his mother belonged to the old school and she would ask us to go to the local market and buy "nattu" or "country" vegetables, specifically tomatoes, instead of the hybrid and later genetically modified modern or city vegetables that were becoming popular. The country tomatoes were old strains brought to India by the Portuguese some five hundred years earlier from the new world along with green chillies and both had become integral parts of the Indian diet. These were small things and they would look puny and more structured with a shape like the inside of a peeled orange beside the larger and round, almost shapeless new tomatoes that were coming in to the country, grown from industrially produced seeds sold by both domestic seed suppliers and also by multinationals. Their taste was something that you didn't know until you actually started using them. Every batch was a different taste and a part of my friend's mother's skill lay in how she would match the taste of a particular batch to whatever she was cooking. The newer, industrial tomaotes, of course, were consistent in their taste. You could pick a kilo up and read a recipe out of a textbook and cook whatever you wanted to without worrying about anything other than following instructions.

Wel, it turns out that these days, there is a new craze: heirloom gardening. Quite simply, this is the growing of old fashioned, natural foods and flowers for personal consumption. People who cannot find vegetables and flowers of the kind that they enjoyed in the pre-industrial farming era now grow them themselves. But the movement is forcing some small farmers to look at growing these plants and supplying them through stores as well. Right now, these vegetables and flowers are expensive because small farms do not get the kind of agricultural subsidies that alrge ones do. As this movement continues, I do think that the authorities will have to take notice and support this kind of cooking. I also think that there would soon be good budget restaurants selling heirloom foods to people who would like to try that kind of thing. The Chipotle chain already has plans to power all of is restaurants with wind and they use non-genetically modified foods throughout their menus. I do think that this is a movement that will move ahead in the USA at least as more and more people get fed up with the junk that you get in the stores as well as in all but some boutique restaurants.

Which brings me to the third world - there are still many heirloom foods being grown and heirloom flowers being sold in India, the country that I am most familiar with. This despite the assault on these traditional farming practices that have inevitably come in thanks to "modernization." I haven't been to India in a long time. I hope that when I do visit next, I still get to eat some heirloom foods. Indian food is an obsession with me - I do trace my personal ancestry back quite back in that part of the world after all, and cannot escape what is an Indian obsession. That said, I did see the beginnings of junk food coming into India with the major western chains setting up there. I hope they never overtake the traditional food that is available in that part of the world, or indeed, anywhere else.

For anyone interested, I would just suggest doing a Google search on "Heirloom Foods" or "Heirloom Gardening." You will get swept away with the wealth of information that is available. Do take the effort - good food is too important to ignore.

Bon Appetit!

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