Unsettling the table

As social creatures, how we cook and eat reveals a lot about what it means to be human. The fact that our food comes from the environment also grounds us in the ecosystem. Since in Sackville I can thank my local farmers personally, I often take it for granted that most food is grown, reared and prepared by strangers around the world.

This form of food production is only a recent development for our species. In fact, technical improvements in food production, including agriculture, are thought to go hand in hand with human development.

The growing distance between us and our food sources is often considered unsustainable or destructive. The cycles and rhythms of nature demand much less public attention when fresh produce can be bought year-round. While it is common to hear about environmental degradation caused by large-scale, industrialized agriculture, our removal from the food production chain has cultural effects that are also important.

Our historical dependence on land for food means that many of our social formations, including political and economic institutions, defensively responded to unpredictable environments indifferent to our survival. Only in the past few centuries have systems of markets, storage technologies and distribution networks relieved our dependence on local food industry.

Historical dependences on the land shaped day-to-day practices much more than assignment deadlines and course readings could ever determine ours today. Before the modern era, the daily necessity of food work – from procurement and cooking to storage, preservation and management – was reflected in many spiritual, civic and ecological practices.

For example, seasonal variations (from harvest time to hunting season) determined our food labour, which in turn shaped how we conceive of time. Today, our definition of a year is much more technical than ecological (referring to physical and astronomical measurements). In comparison, Old Europe’s worship-related and civic holiday calendars were highly interrelated with the growing season. In other words, the year followed a rhythm of hunting, growing and collecting, punctuated by spiritual feasts and public days of rest.

As we continue to become separated from the forests, oceans and pastures that nourish us, our cultural formations will become less and less ecologically dependent and our celebrations will refer to things other than the sun, the rain, the change of seasons and the health of the land. Perhaps this is a good thing, or perhaps not.

However, even today, it is possible to think of a few public occasions that preserve the relationship between ecology and culture. Sackville’s Fall Fair is a particularly good example. In addition, many of our oldest ceremonies, including religious observances, relate to the growing cycle in some way.

No matter how modern our food practices become, our taste for sun-ripened tomatoes, wild-caught salmon, foraged mushrooms and spring lamb will always ground us in our environment and its rhythms. The pleasures of food for our body are, after all, pleasures of this earth.

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