An Impossible Mango

I spoke at the Just Food CSA conference yesterday, sharing a discussion on being a locavore with Colin Beavan (No Impact Man). One woman asked us an interesting question about food and immigration: with thousands arriving in the U.S. from South America and the Caribbean, is it fair to ask them to give up their food culture just because many of the ingredients can’t be grown locally?

I don’t pretend to have a solution to all the implications of that question, but I do have a few thoughts on why this current migration is different agriculturally from those of the past.

Perennial plants can travel in either direction east-west, but not south-north. Apple trees from Europe, for example, did just fine when planted in New York because the climate is similar. Mango trees traveled easily from their origin in Southeast Asia to South America. But mango trees can never travel north because eventually they’d be killed when they reached a latitude with cold winters.

Crops grown as annuals are a different story. Tomatoes, originally from South America, do fine in the north because they are ready to harvest before winter kills the plants. But perennials such as fruit trees often need to grow for several years before they start bearing fruit–years spent outside in a climate like the one they evolved in.

There can never be a mango tree that grows in Brooklyn.

Of course food is not just a botanical reality check. It is also memories and culture and generations of cooks passing on their recipes. Someone from the Caribbean could point out that when Italian immigrants arrived here they kept eating their grapes and figs. So why shouldn’t someone from the tropics keep eating the tropical fruits that are part of their heritage?

Because grapes and figs can grow here (I have both in my garden). Tropical fruits can’t. The difference between a mango eaten in the islands and a mango eaten in New York City is the fuel it takes to get it here.

It seems harsh to say to one culture, go ahead and bring your food with you, while telling another that they are causing environmental damage by continuing to eat the foods they grew up with.

One thing that has changed in our world is that it is no longer wind in the sails of trading ships that brings us our imported food items. For people to continue their food heritage away from their country of origin, and for any humans to continue to trade items long distance as we have for centuries, we have to find ways that do not involve harming the planet that feeds us.

Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules

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7 responses to “An Impossible Mango”

  1. Miriam says:

    If my family serves as a typical example, I’d say that immigrants from Latin countries will continue to eat foods from home if they can get them, just like the myriad other immigrant groups that continue to enrich our society. I think of ethnic stores – shops that acknowledge the longings of people to eat dishes with the satisfying, familiar flavors of the old home. People will not deny themselves foods that are important to them. Consider how the craving for salt changed world trade and history – how craving black pepper did the same. And what a revolution tea and coffee created when they were introduced to Europe!

    Sitting down together over home foods also keeps group memories sharp, and promotes group identity. It would be asking too much of human beings to leave so important a part of their past and identity as their ethnic cuisine behind: they won’t do it, anyway. Ultimately, the solution is to agitate for the development of harmless fuels.

    Miriam

  2. ledameredith says:

    Yes, I think you’re right that people won’t give up their foodways, and really shouldn’t have to because they are such an important part of a culture. However, it is worth noting that when black pepper, coffee and tea first gained significance on the trade route the fuel being used was wind for the ships’ sails. That is quite different from how these and other imported items get to us nowadays. Harmless fuels are crucial to develop, but so, for some of us, is the realization that we cannot continue to do harm to the planet that supports us even if it means giving up some aspects of the lifestyle we are accustomed to.
    Leda

  3. acmeplant says:

    Food heritage is important to every ethnic group I know; we cling to our traditional comfort foods. A dedicated locavore can continue her cultural food traditions and make strategic substitutions over time, adapting dishes to the agricultural conditions of her new home. This takes time, practice, and devotion to the idea of eating locally, which may or may not outweigh a person’s desire to eat exactly the same food that reminds her of home. Why shouldn’t recipes evolve over time? They can retain the essence of tradition, yet accommodate our new principles of eating responsibility.

  4. ledameredith says:

    Well said. As someone from a Greek heritage who has found alternatives to lemons and is about to find alternatives to garlic, I can vouch for the fact that it is possible to continue cooking recipes from one’s heritage within environmentally sustainable practices. Don’t get me wrong–should a fuel as clean as the winds that filled the sails of the trading ships become the norm, I’ll be the first in line for lemons and olive oil for my Greek family recipes. But meanwhile, a little creativity in the kitchen is enabling me to make my grandmother’s recipes without all of my grandmother’s ingredients.
    Leda

  5. Miriam says:

    People are unlikely to give up traditional foods and will indeed actively assure themselves of supplies, without giving much thought to the real cost of those cans and boxes sitting so conveniently on the shelves of the neighborhood grocery.

    Throughout history, we have been famously callous towards the cost in human suffering when our imported goods are involved. Remember that when the winds failed, those cargo ships relied on the manpower of slaves to keep moving. And till this day, people – some of them only 5 or 6 years old – work under conditions of slavery to supply richer folks with luxury goods. How much less will people care about what seems to them an abstract issue: the health of the planet. (“I mean, we’re all walking around in pretty good shape, right? Eating, going to school, getting our vaccinations, driving our cars…what difference does one damn can of corn make, or even a night out with friends at a Chinese restaurant? Why should you care how I spend my money?”) I think only a protectionist, or even isolationist, legislature, imposing restrictions and high tariffs on imported goods, would make people accept changes to their cuisine. In other words, it would have to hurt folks in their pockets.

    There are a lot of fronts to work on, to restore health to the planet. Education is the key, and I mean starting at grade-school level. Enlightening adults, who earn salaries and choose how to spend them, is of course more immediately crucial. That is Leda’s laudable personal mission, which, I happily acknowledge, has influenced my own way of thinking. But to influence society, it’s necessary to start with the little ones. My 11-year-old carries waste paper and plastic containers to the bin on the street corner; she helps us shlep wine and grape-juice bottles to the supermarket for recycling too. She’s heard almost nothing to encourage these habits from her school; just a token lesson in nature class. If she argues with me about using a clean sheet of paper for doodling on (You’re sacrificing a tree, Mommy!), it’s because of home education.

    Returning to the issue of continuing to eat heritage dishes, I agree that eating foods hauled long distances is an unjustified luxury. I take this stance comfortably because, as acmeplant suggested, my family cuisine has changed over time and in our case, travel, as we’ve adjusted to new conditions each time we’ve moved to a new country. Having read and meditated on the issue, I’ve recently chosen to pass up the salmon flown in from Norway, the cans of Thai coconut milk, the Spanish olive oil, in favor of locally-produced goods. That only causes a little pang of regret. But Israel produces almost no wheat, relying on Canadian and American imports. Shall I give up baking bread?… Maybe dramatic price rises of flour will force me to say yes, but as of now, I haven’t decided.

    Miriam

  6. ledameredith says:

    Good points. As I said in the post, I don’t have an answer to all the points this issue raises. I mainly wanted to look at the difference agriculturally between previous migrations east-west and those south-north because of the difference it makes to the crop plants. I am well aware of the tug of heritage foods that cannot be locally produced and don’t pretend to be a saint about it–remember I gave myself olive oil as a “trade item”. The important thing is that we start having these conversations and do as much as each of us feels we can.

  7. Miriam says:

    Yes, it’s really a complex issue. Your last point, particularly, was well taken.

    Miriam

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