"It seems as if anything I like is either illegal or immoral or fattening," said a hapless dieter in the 1930s, according to New Yorker magazine writer Alexander Woollcott. Today, food journalist Simran Sethi might add "endangered" to that list. In "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love," Sethi describes how, in recent years, environmental and economic forces have decreased biodiversity and threatened the existence of some of our favorite foods and beverages.
Walking through supermarket aisles stuffed with a dizzying array of cereals, soups, and salad dressings, we may not feel that our diets are monotonous. But, Sethi points out, the variety of processed food available masks a crisis of homogeneity. "Three-fourths of our food comes from just 12 plants and five animals," she said, in a recent phone interview. Plus, most Americans don't realize that we eat only one type of banana (the Cavendish), that 90 percent of our milk comes from one breed of cow (the Holstein-Friesian) or that our coffee, wine, chocolate, and wheat originate from an increasingly limited number of sources.
Why does it matter if we all eat the same kind of banana or drink coffee made from just a few types of beans?
For one thing, lack of diversity puts our food supply at risk. If the fungus that's started infecting Cavendish bananas can't be controlled, there will be no more bananas.
Moreover, foods that are cheap, can be produced quickly, and are easy to transport are crowding out other comestibles, often at the expense of quality, the health of workers, and the environment.
Sethi was so concerned about this trend that five years ago she left a tenured university position at the University of Kansas, sold her house and car, and set out across six continents, interviewing coffee growers in Ethiopia, cacao farmers in Ecuador, brewers in Brooklyn, N.Y., and many others. She devotes chapters to wine, chocolate, beer, bread, and octopus, highlighting efforts to preserve biodiversity.
Sethi includes, in each chapter, detailed notes on how to savor the foods and drinks she covers, and colorful guides at the end of the book dissect flavors within flavors: the six subtypes of bitterness in beer, for example. She warns that a dwindling variety of foods limits the numbers of flavors we can experience.
Sethi doesn't think taste is the only important thing about food, but it may help engage people in food politics. "There are so many polemics that say: 'Care about the farmers. Care about the land.' But they're so far away," she said. "For me, the way to make the concept of agricultural biodiversity intimate was to talk about the experience through the mouth."