I told a friend recently that I identify as a “foodie.” She laughed and pointed out that I’m vegan and gluten-free. When my friends tease me about being vegan and gluten-free, I often tell them that I’m proud to be on a low-carbon diet. I feel good about my choice not to eat animal products and I try whenever possible to eat locally. I continue to identify as a “foodie” and often have friends ask me to make them dinner. I’m bringing vegan pumpkin-cheese cake to Thanksgiving this year.
Being a Californian, I am blessed to have witnessed the cultivation of a wide-variety of crops and have seen a number of different native and wild plants that grow in the moderate and friendly California climate. I grew up near the San Joaquin valley and have seen fields of corn, tomatoes, basil, asparagus, artichokes and more. Still, I will occasionally find myself thinking, “I really have no idea what I’m eating.” As we encroach upon our nation’s eating holiday, Thanksgiving, a holiday that, on its surface, celebrates the breaking of bread between communities, but underneath tends to lean towards being a terrible salute to industrialized agriculture, I want to take this space to highlight food that we commonly encounter but are often ignorant of its origins: sesame, cinnamon, and cashews.
Sesame, found in abundance in Asian cuisine and on bagels, is mostly an Asian import, native to Africa and Asia. Its seeds are edible and pressed for oil. The plant resembles a less-leafy, slightly darker sage and grows to 3 feet in height, brandishing little white flowers. The term “open sesame” was made famous by “Arabian Nights” as it referenced the sesame pod, which bursts open with seeds at maturity. 96% of the world’s sesame crop is grown in Asia or Africa. A very small percentage is grown “locally,” and by locally, I mean Texas and Mexico. According to the “Food, Industrial, Nutraceutical, and Pharmaceutical Uses of Sesame Genetic Resources,” a full third of Mexico’s sesame crop is bought and used by the McDonald’s corporation for its sesame seen buns.
Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark of trees from the genus known as cinnamomum. The trees are native to South East Asia. The trees are grown for two years before harvested using the woodland management technique known as coppicing, which takes advantage of a tree that will grow shoots from a stump if cut down. According to the International Herald Tribune, in 2006, Sri Lanka produced 90% of the world’s cinnamon, followed by China, India, and Vietnam. Cinnamon is used as a spice, especially in preparation of desserts and chocolate. Its essential oils are used to help aid digestion and is often taken a preventative for the common cold. According to a 2003 article on trade and sustainable forest management, Mexico is cinnamon’s number one importer.
The cashew nut is from a tree native to Brazil. The tree was exported to India in the early 1500’s which is where it is primarily cultivated today. The nut is actually a seed from the cashew apple which is an edible fruit but highly perishable so not exported. The fruit is about the size of an apple and resembles an upside-down orange bell pepper. Obtaining the seed from the cashew apple is a complicated process as the nut is incased in a shell which contains toxic oils. Where is it grown locally in India and Brazil, the fruit is used to make wine and liqueur. The first country to import the cashew was the United States in 1905.
I highlighted sesame, cinnamon and cashews in this piece because they are three of my favorites. Sadly, I know that the kind of fossil fuel it takes for me to enjoy these flavors is taxing to the earth and its inhabitants. There have been several attempts at a food revolution through education. I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the documentary film, “Food, Inc.” We cannot continue to eat the way we have been eating in the United States of America. Not just because the fast-food diet and frankenfood warehouses (known as supermarkets) are utterly disgusting, but because our relationship with food is completely unsustainable.
When we sit down to a meal with our friends, families or by ourselves this Thanksgiving, I implore each of us to think about the food in front of us, where it came from, how it’s grown and who is affected by its import and export. Happy Thanksgiving.