Sep 12, 2011

planting thoughts: session 3, sunday a.m., 8/28

stefano mancuso (director, international laboratory for plant neurobiology)
the unexpected plant: beyond the animal model
we should re-examine our preconceptions about plants as unthinking, unmoving things. stefano mancuso explained how plants are able to sense and respond to changes in their environment with more precision and sophistication than we expect. some plants (like sunflowers) appear to learn how to respond to the environment collectively, so that they may be thought to be social organisms. plants have also evolved together with the animals that live around them (including humans). they make use of animals to reproduce and protect themselves, using tasty fruit to induce animals to transport their seeds or protect them from other animals. we might, for instance, think of domesticated plants such as wheat or corn as having trained humans to protect and propagate them with enormous success. plants have also developed remarkable systems for protecting them from threats in their environment: the chemicals plants produce repel insects, warn nearby plants of imminent attacks insects, and also happen to sometimes taste good to humans.

alex atala (chef at DOM, são paulo)
insects and plants: together for life
eating insects seems unfamiliar and scary, alex atala said, but everyone who has ever eaten strawberry yogurt has eaten insects in the form of a red dye which is extracted from cochineal beetles. we seek the familiar because our experiences only make sense in terms of what we have experienced before. he distributed cubes of unflavoured agar, each containing a piece of the amazon: a single amazonian ant. many people in the audience thought it tasted of lemongrass and citrus but atala pointed out that to people who have grown up eating those ants, lemongrass and citrus taste like ants. atala's point was that we should not take for granted culturally defined rules of what should and should not be eaten. "to understand a flavour better," he said, "we must take ourselves away from the familiar." after cooking for years in european restaurants, he realized he had to go back to brazil to explore the then-unknown flavours of his country, rather than trying to cook the food of a different part of the world. his restaurant in brazil now uses the amazon as a source for new and unfamiliar ideas and ingredients that even most native brazilians have never had the opportunity to taste--raw propolis-filled rainforest honeys, spontaneously fermented sugarcane vinegars, a panoply of forest herbs and plants, and others. the enormity and diversity of the country-spanning amazon paralyzes what atala calls "the sophisticated world": in dogshead, one relatively small part of the amazon, there are 23 ethnicities, 21 languages, and over 300 varieties of domesticated plants that are not known outside that region. the amazon as a whole is "a world of flavours remaining to be discovered." atala's understanding of the region's foods comes from natives whose knowledge is anything but simple. atala increasingly believes that our efforts to preserve nature must also include plans to preserve peoples and cultures, or rich stores of local knowledge and practices will be lost.

francois couplan (ethnobotanist, author)
wild plants and culinary creativity
80,000 wild plants are known to be edible and were once eaten--a balanced, diverse, interesting, healthful diet. we've forgotten about most of these wild plants because of the rise of agriculture, and because eating wild plants used to signal low social status. couplan believes that there is a fracture of the wild and the civilised that is leading us to unbalanced, monotonous diets that depend too much on cultivated plants and which make us sick. our diets will improve if we are able to be opportunistic in combining both farmed foods and foraged foods, gathering what we can, when we can. this can only happen if more people learn about how edible wild plants can be used. this, couplan believes, is where haute cuisine comes into the picture. he has taught chefs in france and the rest of europe how to identify, gather, and use wild plants in their restaurants. "when chefs start using plants," he said, "they become stars and are not anymore despised. people begin to want to learn about them."

massimo bottura (chef at osteria francescana, modena)
never stop planting
trapped in new york by hurricane irene, bottura sent a video (subtitled version available on eater) and a statement instead. bottura believes that food should be an object of contemplation, not just one of consumption. we've turned into lazy eaters, pursuing pretty, superficially satisfying foods that are sweet, smooth, and unctuous. challenging food changes those who eat it, bottura thinks, and chefs should be helping people learn to eat challenging food again. to do this, chefs have to acknowledge that food is not only about aesthetics but also about ethics. cooking ethically means going back to the source of ingredients and influences, and acknowledging the culture and history from which the food comes. without these creation stories--stories from friends, suppliers, customers, neighbours--food loses its connection to place, time, and people. without being aware of this connection and reflecting it in, the chef's job is incomplete. "food is one of the strands of the cultural braid that binds us," bottura said "our business is not only about serving people food. that is only the final act."

søren wiuff (farmer)
all that we eat has been alive
søren wiuff changed how he farmed years ago when he realised that he couldn't make money farming industrially even though his farm was highly productive. he went back to doing things as his father did: by hand and with care, "learning what will grow in the garden, feeling your body as part of harvesting something." his close connection with the crops he grows led him to question many of the assumptions farmers usually have about what they grow and how they grow them. he gradually learned how to respond to the unpredictable, changing nature of the living things on his farm rather than trying to force them to fit into a recipe, a formula, a set of preconceptions. this has led to his accidental discovery of new crops: sowing leeks later in the season than usual (so late that wiuff thought the cold would kill them) led him discover baby leeks that sprout in april of the following year, or tasting the usually discarded aerial bulbils of mature leek plants. he credits this partly to support from working with chefs--like those at noma--who are open to trying these new and unfamiliar ingredients and making delicious things out of them. "it's like having playmates," he said, "they make me good by respecting that i'm a farmer. if someone tells me i'm doing something good, i do better next time."

molly jahn (univ. of wisconsin and commission on sustainable agriculture and climate change)
how good food can save our planet
people have to demand healthy food systems for them to take hold and become successful. when molly jahn was working as a plant breeder, she collaborated with organic farmers to develop a new variety of delicata squash that was delicious and more pest-resistant. she targeted organic farmers and chefs in her her efforts to promote the variety, and realised that the variety became successful when chefs demanded it, put it on their menus, and exposed it to consumers. much later in her career, when she had begun to work on agricultural policy in wisconsin, she helped a group of potato farmers in the state develop a stringent integrated pest management and certification program (eco-grown) to protect wildlife on and around their farms. though the program was successful in its environmental goals, she thinks that it never achieved commercial success because chefs were not as involved in its promotion. jahn's message to chefs was simple: "chefs help accelerate people's valuation of good, responsibly produced food."

other posts about planting thoughts:
planting thoughts: a symposium without dissenting views,
summariessession 1session 2, session 4

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