Simran Preeti Sethi is an Indian American journalist.
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Thank you guys SO much for all of these incredible questions. I am so grateful you took the time. Please find me at simransethi.com or on social media at @simransethi anytime. Let's save foods by eating them! xo
My short bio: I am an author and activist who is interested (some would say obsessed) in the stories and histories behind bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer. I have spent the last five years on six continents, trying to learn more about the deep origins of foods and drinks, living in no one place for longer than five months. I write about it in my new book (Bread, Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love) but would love to share what I've learned here because it's fantastically interesting. Ask me anything.
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What was the most interesting place you visited?
Ethiopia, the place where coffee was born. I had no idea that every sip of coffee I take is because of Africa. I went to the place that is considered the birthplace of coffee (Kaffa) and the place that has all the diversity we will need to keep the crop going. AND I got infested by fleas (me, a human). AND the got infected (gross). AND it was the most humbling, incredible place of all my journeys.
What is your favorite of the shitty beers?
LOL. FANTASTIC. Corona. With lots and lots and lots and lots of lime.
Are you gonna ask what is my fave of the good stuff, too? :-)
What was the most emotional food experience you encountered? Did anything surprise you about your own reactions?
What a beautiful question, PennyPenny1010. This was actually the most surprising part of my journey. I found myself in Lima, Peru about a year ago crying over a plate of octopus. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was that good. It had been cooked over fire and I could taste both the wood and sea.
And I realized then how much of what we love about food is about the story we bring to the table. How we show up - and what the context is.
You mentioned in another comment that the way we produce food leads to a loss in diversity, perhaps risking the disappearance of some products.
Can you give examples of types/varieties/brands/etc of the products in the title that have begun to disappear, but you believe deserve to be better known ?
Absolutely and so sorry I am so slow! I am a lousy typer. Look, with wine, get out of the box of varieties you are familiar with - break the Merlot/ Chardonnay mold and try a grape that is unfamiliar. With chocolate, look for bars that actually bother to list an origin - I love chocolate sourced in Madagascar which has this nice fruity acidity and from Venezuela which is insanely smooth and inherently caramelly. Beer - look for and support beers using diverse hops. Bread, wow. There is this super-cool place in Washington called the Bread Lab breeding great local stuff. Ditto in NC. I suggest taking a look at what chef Dan Barber's up to, as well. The gist is, go to your local farmers markets and ask what is in season. A curious mind and palate are the very first steps.
Hey don't apologise ! You give such detailed answers, and you really make the effort to fully answer everyone that's fantastic :)
Wow, turns out I'm in the right tracks, I still live with my parents so I don't buy the food, but that's what we do for the most part (especially the wine part, I'm French and my family is nearly a cult to fine wine!!).
I have another question about food and national identity, for example us French people are very proud of our gastronomy, and sometimes would like to think that it is a major defining trait for us as a people (see: the part about wine in my comment !), but I can't help but feel that it is actually something felt throughout the world, as you have travelled a lot, is it something you have observed ?
I know this is after the AMA but I had missed this question Eibi and wanted to answer. The incredible answer is YES. My heart swells with gratitude and joy seeing how people steward and care for diverse foods because it is part of who they are. Part of who we are.
Did you find any worker coops growing coffee that were building democracy as well as increasing the earnings of their members?
What a terrific question. I wish I could say yes but the scope of my work was focused on biodiversity and I don't speak Amharic and did not pose those questions so wouldn't want to lead you astray. I know Technoserve in Jima has been working to increase farmers' capacity around economics and agronomy so I am not saying no, but I did not ask.
I wanna know. I feel you on the Corona part too....probably not as much lime as you like though. One lime is good enough for me. Favorite beer?
Lime hides a multitude of things! :-) My fave is Tripel Karmeliet a Tripel style, golden beer brewed by Brouwerij Bosteels in Buggenhout, Belgium with high alcohol content (though not why I like it). I am also a sucker for REAL Lambics which I learned a lot about while writing my book.
Solidarity! I'll also take a Red Stripe if you load me up with jerk chicken.
So what about coffee? You said you visited Ethiopia ... I can't imagine the best coffee you've ever tasted. Can you tell us about it?
It's interesting. I thought coffee was just coffee. I mean, I knew of all those fancy spots where you could find the tastes of fill-in-the-blank but it wasn't my thing. I knew I preferred a latte to a cappuccino and left it at that. And then I spent time with roasters in Melbourne, Australia.
At first all I tasted was coffee. And then, over weeks, I started to find all these other flavors. It was INSANE. Coffee expert Peter Giuliano (who did an AMA not too long ago) had said to me that all the flavors you could find in coffees from all over the world could be found in Ethiopian coffees. So I started there. The first one was such a surprise I thought the milk was maybe off. There are an abundance of hidden flavors in our foods and drinks - as long as they haven't been bred out.
Of all the places you visited, are there any where you could see yourself living long-term to continue your research work? If so, which one(s)?
Hands down, bar none, Melbourne, Australia. I LOVE.
Will the craft/microbrew beer market continue to grow and weaken the huge beer giants like Miller and Anheuser-Busch? What's their move going to be in 5-10 years when young people continue to move towards more local craft beers?
As you may know, they are busy trying to acquire some of the indies. We see that all the time. But I think young people are on to it. I am not say Big = Bad but there is something that tends to shift when businesses scale (I say this having an MBA and believing in the transformative powers of business).
My hope is that in 5-10 years we see even MORE craft brewing - that local hops take off (we use very few varieties of hops, which I learned doing research for my book, and it astonished me), that we start to use more diverse grains in brewing. Beer is the coolest - water, a grain, a microbe and a flower. There is so much opportunity for creativity there.
From what you have seen what can small farmers do to compete with industrialized agriculture?
This question holds a groundbreaking answer, I think. Look, I have met farmers on 6 continents (do they farm on Antarctica?). They can only grow what is eaten. That really means the power to transform food and farming is with all of us. Wendell Berry, the farmer/philosopher says, "Eating is an agricultural act."
After five years and six continents, I know Berry is right. Farmers grow incredible, diverse crops in their home gardens but then grow the monocultures in fields because that is what the market seems to demand. My hope is that we start demanding the stuff we have never before considered - so farmers can grow it and make a living doing so.
Are you saying that drinking a lousy or so-so cup of coffee hurts us on a deeper level than, well, trying to down a lousy cup o' joe?
You nailed it, Melindamullin! Look, I am not here to tell anyone what to do. What I have learned is that these foods and drinks are precious. What we are doing to the land and farmers is what we do to ourselves. If we choose industrial coffee that is cheap, it means someone got shortchanged along the way and that someone wasn't 7-11. It was the farmer, it was the land. I don't want my joys of food to come at the expense of another. That doesn't mean you have to break the bank, it simply means you have to consider the sources - respect them. And then decide what you want to support.
I will say this, if you want coffee in the future, you gotta make sure the place that has the diversity breeders need keeps going. Right now, we are deforesting that place. No forest = no coffee. That is not a future I want! And so I will buy the good stuff - it helps farmers, it ensures I will have coffee today and tomorrow - and it is insanely good.
What was your favorite part or segment of the book? Both your favorite part of researching for it, your favorite part once it was written?
Oh! I love this question!!!
Research = cacao, Ecuador. I got to SEE the place where chocolate comes from. Can I share a bit of the book since I type so slow? "Chocolate comes from cacao (pronounced “kuh-cow,” not to be confused with coca, the shrub that becomes cocaine). The fruits are ridged, oblong or round, roughly the size of cantaloupes or American footballs. Spanning a range of colors, they can be both smooth and mottled, and are attached to tree trunks and thick branches by surprisingly thin stems less than one-fourth of an inch thick. The pods grow vertically out of wide branches and trunks of trees, and their placement looks haphazard, like a botanical game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
The pulp inside the fruit—the flesh covering the seeds—is warm, sticky and sweet. Cacao is harvested not for the flesh, however, but for the seeds that we mistakenly refer to as beans. Those seeds, once processed, are what become cocoa and chocolate. And chocolate, as we well know, is a miracle substance."
Okay now fave part once written - BREAD. Oh, how I love that chapter. I went to India, to the state where my ancestors are from, and then brought it back to NC, where I grew up. The chapter is about wheat and changes in agriculture but is really about our relationships with each other. I wrote a book about food, but it's really a book about love.
For professional cooks hoping to open their own culinary endeavours in the next few years, how can we incorporate a local approach to the global problems facing our food, and remain in a place to be financial fit to continue business? Did you see anything interesting being done with bugs in local cuisine that you thought might have sustainable impacts in western culture?
Gah! One more answer and then I'll have to go. Okay, the first question and, again, sorry I am so slow. GO LOCAL. Support your local economy, save on shipping costs, and really look at local suppliers for your goods. I believe in this so strongly. It's a win-win, you know? Those local ties are everything and a good hook for interested patrons. As for bugs, I have eaten them - mealworms to be precise. Not my bliss, but an excellent source of protein and I am interested to see where these new bug flours go.
Thanks for answering! Keep going along your path - it inspires my own :)
So kind. Thank you!
do we really need to fear the loss of wine and chocolate? i'm not sure life would be worth living. or does it just come down to finding more sustainable ways to harvest the ingredients needed for these products? how much of the loss has to do w/ consumption over production methods?
What a terrific question. Both/and. The meh stuff will probably be around for a long time. We'll hybridize and figure out ways to keep it going. The cacao(that becomes chocolate) that is gaining in popularity is CCN-51. It's disease-resistant and quite hearty but the taste has been described as "rusty nails." I tasted it, don't think it's that bad but really don't want us to lose the good stuff.
When it comes to the traveling aspect of a project this big, what advice would you give to someone who wants to go to a lot of these places affordably?
That ended up being one of the most rewarding aspects of the journey, Blazer1212. I didn't have a lot of money and so caught as I could. In Addis Ababa, I ended up staying with the family of a man who had driven me to my TV shoot in Berkeley, CA (was safe!). In England, I piggybacked research onto a work trip. I'd say, if you can plan ahead, you can actually get amazing deals on travel (flights are one of the pricier aspects) and couchsurfing/airbnb/bed and breakfast type places have always worked out really well for me. However, since I am a woman traveling alone, I do make sure I am sussing out places in regards to safety.
How much have these foods/ beverages evolved over time?
Significantly, Frajer. When we first started brewing coffee in the US, for example, it was clarified dried fish skins or eggshells. Cacao (that becomes chocolate) was turned into something we drank, before we ate it - and was revered for its spiritual and medicinal qualities. Beer started off as a soupy kind of beer/bread that was accidental and some scholars say is the reason we started growing grain and moved from a hunter/gather society to an agricultural one.
It sounds like a lot of the changes made in food and agriculture have been positive (moving away soupy beer/bread, etc.). Would you say that's the case, specifically with wheat and bread?
It depends on what we mean by "positive," treadsoftlyon. A lot of the bread we eat today is made efficiently, no doubt, but has been stripped of the essential nutrients that make it an actual healthy food. Think of it this way, we now create foods that are meant to stand on supermarket shelves, not for reasons of taste or health (think about those winter tomatoes that taste like mushy weird non-tomatoes). What we lose in this process of creating huge volumes of meh wheat, rice, whatever is not only value for us but the biodiversity that can keep these crops going in the future.
For example, how many apples do you see in a grocery store? There are now 7,500 varieties of apples grown all over the world, less than 100 of which are grown commercially in the United States. In fact, nearly every historic fruit and vegetable variety once found in the United States has disappeared.This matters, because that diversity is our insurance plan - if the 4 or 5 varieties we DO grow succumb to a disease or pest or are less productive due to climate change, then the diversity in those other varieties is what we fall back on. That is, as long as we have it.
when does caped crusader 14 come out on dvd?
Wish I knew!
Right, makes sense, thanks. There's anecdotal evidence for it, but I'm not sure anyone's studied it yet. Here's what I learned when covering the changes in the fair trade system for The Guardian last year... http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/14/fair-trade-equal-exchange-coffee-farmers-co-ops-cooperatives
I missed this on the chat. Great piece!
If that came off as grumpy, it might be the NoFap doing it! haha Sincere questions though! Always gets me when someone indulges in this kind of hobby. No hate! I just don't always get it =3
Definitely came off as grumpy. Just seeing it now and happy to tell you I spent 4 years researching the loss of diversity in FOOD - all food. I told the story through bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer not as an indulgent hobby but because I actually wanted to get more people interested in the subject of the loss of agricultural biodiversity - the loss of diversity in the foundations of food that put our entire food supply at risk. Think Irish Potato Famine but with all foods. This is what globalization and increased industrialization is doing - reducing the resilience and diversity we need to keep food going. I stayed on couches, got fleas, cried (a lot), made about a $1 an hour working on this book to try to get the word out. So, indulgence? I wish! All I hope is that it makes someone who maybe didn't think they cared take notice. :-)