This review was originally published in Orion Magazine, January 2016.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love By Simran Sethi
Review by Megan Kimble
If agriculture represents a series of decisions reflecting what we value—greater yield, bigger seeds, or sweeter fruit—then what we have decided to value over the past half century is efficiency and uniformity. Today, agriculture is predictable. There are no uncertain outcomes: no crops of varying size, shape, or flavor.
In Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, Simran Sethi sets out to discover diversity—to find the corners of the world where the foods we cherish are thriving in multiplicity instead of surviving in monoculture. Sethi travels across six continents to talk to farmers, brewers, bakers, and winemakers working to foment more delicious food and drink and, in so doing, build resilience in agriculture.
Why do we turn to chocolate for comfort? How does wine create culture? Why does bread evoke home? The answers are varied and personal, but they all involve taste. “Taste is the gateway through which we will transform food,” she writes. “By savoring foods like we never have before—by demanding what’s delicious—we can transform what is grown and sold.”
Ninety-five percent of the world’s calories come from only 30 species. The “global standard diet” relies on only five: corn, wheat, rice, palm oil, and soybeans. To grow these crops, we clear-cut fields and eradicate wildness. But what agriculture needs to survive is just that—diversity and wildness, plants with unexpected solutions embedded in their genetic code. In the 1950s, when Panama disease wiped out most of the world’s banana trees—planted —growers were able to replant with a disease-resistant variety, the Cavendish. Today, most of the bananas produced worldwide are Cavendish varietals; propagated by vegetative reproduction, they are genetically identical, unable to adapt and evolve to new environmental threats.
We still don’t know how global warming will change agriculture—we only know that it will change, and rapidly. Without options, without the ability to make new decisions, our food system becomes stagnant and vulnerable. “Diversity enables us to respond to whatever circumstances arise; it makes us more resilient,” writes Sethi.
In addition to what we taste, Sethi also considers how we taste. Taste is not one-dimensional—it involves all of our senses, from sight to smell, touch to sound. Taste emerges from the intersection of people, culture, and soil. It is a relationship. To taste deeply, writes Sethi, pay attention and be present. The tasting guides at the end of each chapter avoid jargon and pretense, offering instead advice that is generous, patient, and practical.
Care follows attention, writes Sethi. “If we start to recognize the diverse aromas and tastes in chocolate, then we’ll understand why it’s worth saving.” And diversity in taste creates diversity in agriculture, infrastructure, and the very people growing that food. “We reshape the system through in vivo conservation—saving chocolate by eating—transforming what’s grown through our tastes and our choices,” she writes. Conservation follows consumption.
In the face of such a staggering loss of biodiversity in agriculture, what space is there for pleasure? Plenty, writes Sethi. “We aren’t on this planet to merely survive; we’re here to take it all in and thrive … If we’re lucky enough to have any choice in what we’re able to eat—to be able to eat at all—then we should honor this privilege by eating less of the bad stuff and more of the good, celebrating the fact that the solutions to the loss of agricultural biodiversity aren’t difficult; they’re delicious.”
On Monday, May 2, Simran Sethi will join Edible Baja Arizona editor Megan Kimble, Barrio Bread’s Don Guerra, and local winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock to talk about taste, conservation, and how to protect the foods we love. A guided tasting of local bread and wine will follow the discussion. Tickets are available online in advance or at the door:
Monday, May 2, 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Join award-winning author Simran Sethi, Edible Baja Arizona, Barrio Bread, and Dos Cabezas Wineworks at The Carriage House to talk about taste, conservation, and how to protect the foods we love.
Cost: $15 per person