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Bread Wine and Chocolate

Over the past several years we’ve seen a surge of farm-to-table restaurants in most major U.S. cities. At the same time, many people — when they have the option — are reaching for organic produce at the grocery store. More often, a growing number of us are attempting to make educated choices when it comes to what we put on our plates and in our bodies.

And while many of us have reaped the benefits of upping our veggie intake or cutting out gluten, there’s a greater threat rumbling in the distance. ­­­For too long our cultural premium has not been ethical food production, fair wages, or environmental sustainability, but culinary consistency — a value that has made it possible for the Big Mac to taste the same at any two points on the globe.

These backward priorities have allowed our food system to become one of “inexpensive sameness built on cheap labor and cheaper inputs,” writes eco-journalist Simran Sethi in her just-released book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love (HarperOne, 2015). Our food future — rife with the challenges of global warming, a monopolized seed market, deforestation, overharvesting, and more — looks bleak indeed. How do we take steps to redefine a system that has set us up to fail, not just ourselves and our loved ones, but also every living being involved in the journey from soil to supermarket?

Sethi’s Bread, Wine, Chocolate is earnest and loving in its consideration of these and other quandaries. While the book is partly an investigation of our food-production systems, its narrative is not framed by industrialized agriculture (though the mainstays of rice, corn, and wheat account for more than two-thirds of our caloric intake). Rather, it delves deeply into the creation and cultivation of what Sethi calls “the stuff of life and love — celebrated, debated and imbued with far more than calories”: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer, and bread.

Central to Sethi’s examination of these most beloved foods is the notion of agrobiodiversity, or the variety of life in our agricultural practice. Agrobiodiversity includes the plants we harvest and the animals we eat, but it also includes the bees that helped those plants to grow. It’s the soil in which the seed was planted, the environmental conditions that surrounded its development, and the agricultural processes that brought it to market. It’s the cultural norms that influence our diets on a daily basis.

And, slowly but surely, we’re losing it: Our system has forced diverse foods out of our diets in favor of shelf-stable foodstuffs and mass advertising. It’s why the Big Mac tastes the same no matter where you are, “not necessarily because the ingredients are the same,” Sethi writes, “but because they have been modified to taste the same, year after year.”

Of course, the loss we face is bigger than the Big Mac. This is due, in large part, to our own systematic shift:

“. . . we’ve replaced the diversity of foods we used to eat with monodiets of megacrops, funneling our resources and energy into the cultivation of megafields of cereals, soy, and palm oil. As farmers from all over the world move toward growing genetically uniform, high-yielding crops, local varieties have dwindled or disappeared altogether.”

These changes have left us vulnerable, especially when viewed in the context of our warming planet: Each of these genetically uniform, high-yielding crops is one bug or infection away from extinction, one drought or handful of degrees away from being wiped away completely. And each food and drink that Sethi takes up in her book is under threat for its own unique reasons, due to our dwindling agrobiodiversity and our preference for hearty crops with high yields that offer only whispers of the flavor present in other, more unique varieties.

It’s a heavy, even heart-wrenching circumstance. But, as Sethi writes in her introduction, this is “really a book about joy,” and she manages to expand her pleasure and knowledge in taking up the banner of the book’s five foods, in looking closely and comprehensively at the foods that help her live and love.

At the heart of Sethi’s book is the frank admission that food, properly savored, can bring us delight. It can bring us ecstasy, relief, and enlightenment. “Every food has an inspiring birthplace,” Sethi writes, “and holds flavors directly connected to the places and people that make them.” It can help connect us to the people who made it possible, to the people we love, and to ourselves.

Sethi documents her travels to the dense coffee forests in Ethiopia, Northern California’s grape vineyards, a yeast-cultures lab in England, and Ecuador’s cacao fields in pursuit of a depth of flavor we have lost and are still losing. And, graciously, she meets a host of people along the way — farmers, vintners, chocolate-makers, brewers, bakers, and baristas — who share her view that preserving variety in our food and agriculture is the best way to “save — and savor — them.”

Sethi’s perspective is a vital addition to our ongoing conversations about the flaws in our food system, and her book offers a compelling treatise on what is truly at stake. Bread, Wine, Chocolate is for anyone who has ever longed for a richer understanding of the foods you love, and for greater awareness of what it takes to bring them to you. It’s for anyone who believes that the food choices you make are emblems for how you live your life. It’s for anyone who has ever sensed that preserving our planet and its agriculture is really about preserving ourselves.

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