Learning from History

As a food historian, I read a lot about the past–not just where our foods come from, but also how the whole process of obtaining food works. There are a lot of things we can learn from the past that might actually help with our own survival.

Most of the history of the world has focused on getting enough to eat. Avoiding starvation is remarkably hard work. Things that worked well didn’t always work for long. For example, ancient Rome. As the city of Rome grew, more and more food was needed—more food than could be supplied by the surrounding farms. So Rome started conquering everyone around them, to get more farms and, as conquered people were enslaved, to get cheaper food. They set up fabulous trade routes, and food poured into Rome. Unfortunately, the cheap food coming in from distant lands dropped food prices to where farmers near Rome couldn’t compete. They left their farms and moved into the city. So more food was needed, but now most of it had to come from far away. That was great–until the pirates became a problem. When pirates cut off all food coming by sea, Rome was in danger of starving. That’s when they decided that, to guarantee their food security, they’d turn almost limitless power over to Pompey. And thus, the republic finally disintegrated.

So it sounds as though eating local is the answer, right? Well, one historian spoke of the “tyranny of the local.” Local food is wonderful until there is a drought or an especially long winter or locusts come through. Then, eating local means dying of starvation.

Sound hopeless? I don’t think so. I think the key concept is balance. Eat local when you can. Support local farmers. You want to make sure they don’t go broke and move to the city. Go to farmers’ market or shop at stores that buy at least some of their produce locally.

But don’t abandon the imports. If local isn’t available, usually because of climate, don’t stop eating. However, try at least to buy things that you could get from somewhere reached by truck or train, as opposed to something that needs an airplane or ocean voyage. Garlic from California vs. from China, for example, at least if you live in North America. Support the people who will be able to feed you if transportation is disrupted. (Remember how long planes didn’t fly after 9/11?)

Feel free to enjoy exotica–things that simply don’t grow where you live. But don’t rely on it. It’s great that we can get food from everywhere, and it’s great that we don’t starve every time there’s a tough winter, but we need balance. And, whatever else happens, we need to make sure we take care of our farmers.

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Thoughts

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