I’m writing this little preface while tipsy, at Deaverdura. Our friend is bartending; it’s 11:49 p.m. on Friday. I posted a small clip on my Instagram story and considered what vision of living in the tropics that I present versus others who are invested in some idea of living in the tropics. I’m rarely at the beach. Instead, you see the birds who are nesting and swooping at our dog. Rainbows, because it rains. I’m decidedly not on vacation; I’m getting frustrated at IKEA and standing in line at Costco. I don’t remember when I last put on a bathing suit. Tropical fruits, though, I have in excess.
I think about the contrast between living in and visiting the tropics when I see people receiving fruit from companies that have emerged to send tropical fruit to anyone, anywhere, at a premium, in a new bourgeois expression of an old practice: taking from the tropics to provide something new and exotic elsewhere. Would people pay a premium for fruits that don’t evoke a general idea of “vacation”? Who’s growing these fruits and what are the conditions? Who’s profiting? Could the land be used better, to feed people closer? There are infrastructures of abundance for whom?
I told our dinner companions that I’d spoken at a college class earlier in the week about the very subject a friend had raised at the table, about what we should do about our dysfunctional global capitalist food system. I’d been invited to a prestigious school to talk about regional food systems and alternative economies, but I’d been introduced as a blogger, so it wasn’t as impressive as it seemed. Because of this, though, I had a big response to the topic ready to go.
I gave a spiel to the class that was a more statistic-laced version of my essay “On Gleaning,” and the first question the professor turned on me, with irony and through the voice of a CEO, was the famous, “How do we feed 9 billion people if not with industrial agriculture?” To which I said, it’s the wrong question. We do not all, on this planet, eat the same. Think smaller. The problem is that the people making a profit off a food system that leaves 821 million people hungry every day do not want everyone thinking smaller, eating regionally. That would carve up the profits. Meanwhile, roughly 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. When a war occurs between nations that are responsible for producing one quarter of the world’s wheat exports [a correction from “supply”], farmers in the U.S. don’t find themselves more capable of selling their own product because of market complexities (which is my blogger way of saying, “These issues are beyond the scope of my understanding but seem like your run-of-the-mill capitalist gobbledygook”). The global approach doesn’t work. Regional food systems focused on biodiverse agroecological techniques are a necessity.
One fantastic book I’ve been making my way through that has been informing my thinking is called Flourishing Foodscapes: Designing City–Region Food Systems, which came out in 2018. This is especially significant in Puerto Rico, I think, where food sovereignty or at least food equity is not only or even mostly a problem of production but of infrastructure and access. In the chapter “Cultivating the City: Infrastructures of Abundance in Urban Brazil,” Jacques Abelman writes what he learns of different cities by traveling by foot, public transportation, by bike, and by car to better understand the landscapes. He writes:
Urban agriculture, if it is to become integrated into the city, needs landscape architectural thinking in order to be woven into the larger urban fabric. Thinking on the scale of ecosystems running through a city creates a framework for spatial change; thinking in assemblages of stakeholders and actors creates a framework for social investment and development. These overlapping frameworks are informed and perhaps even defined by the emergent field of landscape democracy. Landscape is understood as the relationship between people and place, both shaping each other. Landscape democracy allows one to see urban space as a field of negotiation between people, places, and power.
Power, certainly, plays an outsize role in determining a city’s landscape. Thinking about landscape use as a negotiation in an urban setting is a useful and productive framework, but then I also think about the mile-long line of cars for Chick-Fil-A I saw in Bayamón the other weekend. To whom do people wish to give power? To which places? To which modes of transport? How do these things change, and with them, how we eat? Where can our choices antagonize systems of power rather than capitulate to them? How do we incite that antagonism?
I was thinking, egotistically, of my own words about eating the bagels where they’re best when I found an avocado my mother-in-law had given me ripe and ready. How much more I appreciate avocados now that I only eat local ones, usually gigantic and more watery than the famous but desperately overproduced Hass, and understand, experience their seasonality. Like tomatoes at their peak, there is so much luxury in eating an avocado when its locality, seasonality, is appreciated, but that shouldn’t be a luxury. That it is considered such is a creation of agribusiness and governmental subsidies.
I recently had my own approach to eating and cooking challenged when a food writer I admire and respect said that she wished I would use whole grain flours rather than relying on so much all-purpose. At first, I was hurt and offended: wheat doesn’t grow in Puerto Rico, and I also want to write recipes for vegan cakes and cookies that anyone, anywhere, can make. But this is an ecological and ethical conundrum for me, someone who thinks and says most food writers absolutely need to challenge their audience to eat less meat (at the very least). Most, of course, don’t listen and don’t care, but I fancy myself someone who listens and cares.
The weekend after this challenge occurred, I went to the farmers’ market and bought some yuca flour from a food anthropologist named Licia Garcia, who produces it through her project Mi Plantita. One cup of it, at a very fine grind I’m not sure I’d be able to attain at home myself and frankly don’t want to do, cost $7—as it should, considering the labor and expertise required. This one cup will also see me challenged to think about what I can do with it, what I can make to ensure it’s well-used, worthwhile. It will likely be something savory. I’m still going to use all-purpose (organic, unbleached, employee-owned King Arthur) flour because I still want to make cakes and cookies in the textures and flavors I’m accustomed to, but I will also be using more local gluten-free flours made from viandas that grow here in Puerto Rico.
In a piece for Wordloaf about making vegan milk bread, Gan Chin Lin—famously @tumblinbumblincrumblincookie on Instagram—writes about the globalization of European ideas of bread, the spread of wheat to places where it doesn’t even grow, and how that becomes part of our identities and stories as much as what does grow:
I’m not going to ever decry the legacy of beautiful local grain, wild yeast, brots and boules. But just as you feed your people, serve your community, I want to feed mine. Some have heritage wheat, but we don’t. Our heritage is the story of how we came to know wheat in the first place, and the exciting dynamic after, of what we did with it.
Seeking this kind of balance is what brings me back to the dinner conversation and the college class, because while I believe in regional food systems as better way of conceiving the future, I also understand there will be some things that we produce at scale, but that we need to produce them at scale in the best possible way for the land and the laborers. This would likely involve changes to expectations and supplies for things we consider staples, like wheat flour. There will be possibility for adjustment there, which needs to be seen as possibility rather than defeat, like the potential for more little luxuries of seasons—the abundance of what is available. Rather than considering “solutions,” which is a mode of thought that I think gives way to too much reliance on technology, I think we must consider new ways of living and being: How can our lives work seamlessly with the needs of our regional infrastructure and food systems? How can we build infrastructures of abundance rather than scarcity?
My friend who brought up the problems in the food system said the best produce he’d ever gotten in Puerto Rico came from a man on the side of the road in the mountains, selling his excess from the back of a pickup truck. I told the undergrads to start a garden on campus and feed each other for free from what they grow.
Last Wednesday’s podcast featured Eric Kim, author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home (out tomorrow) and New York Times “Cooking” writer. This Wednesday’s podcast will feature LinYee Yuan, co-founder and editor of MOLD, to discuss food media that doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of eating, defining “the future of food” beyond technology, and more. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will continue the pantry guide, with all the tools I rely on as a home baker. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote an oral history of raw food restaurant Pure Food & Wine for Netflix to go along with their documentary series Bad Vegan, because when I watched it, I just wanted more about the food—of course.
Chilean Poet: A Novel by Alejandra Zambra made me laugh, made me cry, was an absolute perfect expansion of the funny, endlessly observant, ceaselessly emotionally attuned voice he’s been using in all his fabulous novellas. Now working through his collection Tema Libre in Spanish, as well as reading The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas and then moving to Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso. Knausgaard, for the moment, is on the backburner.
Zaalouk, the Moroccan eggplant and tomato dip. Avocado toast. A breakfast hash with purple batata. Yuca flour discussed in the essay pictured above, along with Hawaiian plantain, purple batata, and yautia.