October 5, 2012

Eating Where You Live

“Mother Nature is an edible food basket,” Hopi farmer Max Taylor told me. “There’s a surge of interest in collecting native plants. Everyone is going organic.”

You see, Taylor doesn’t just farm the traditional foodscorn, squash, beans—he also collects them. As a boy, he learned from his mother about the local plants, and then later, he built on that knowledge using guidebooks. Regularly, he heads out to the desert lands near the Painted Desert and scavenges for wild onions, field mint, wild oregano, greens, and edible flowers.

This is the way the Hopi people fed themselves for generations, he explains, by picking wild foods and farming. Both activities took a lot of energy and effort. Hopi were slim athletes known for their long distance running abilities.

But that changed when Anglos came, according to the Natwani Coalition, a group dedicated to helping future generations return to their traditions and traditional foods. Hopi began to eat non-Hopi foods like fry bread and, later, bacon double cheeseburgers washed down with a sugary soda. Obesity rates shot through roof, and the incidences of diabetes skyrocketed. Health is one of the biggest issues facing the Hopi.

At stake is more than the health issues, though. “If we give up farming, we give up our way of life,” explains Hopi anthropologist Micah Lomaomvaya. “It is part of our identity. We earn the right to live here by taking care of the land.”

This illustrates several points that can be applied to any culture. First, nature is usually the best source of food for its inhabitants. Over the years, the Hopi adapted to the foods that they could farm and scavenge. When they added new foods, their bodies couldn’t process them, resulting in diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet-related maladies.

Second, working the land, finding your own food, and even preparing your own meals takes energy. That energy is fueled by calories. In other words, by working for your meal, you actually stay trimmer and fitter. It’s when you sit at a desk all day and order pizza for dinner that you start packing on the pounds, which in turn causes health problems.

Finally, by not working the land, you lose your connection with the land and, quite possibly, your identity. For the Hopi, everything revolves around corn. It is connected to everything they do. They use it as a food source; they use it in religious ceremonies; and they believe they strengthen their faith by the very act of farming. Take that away, their ability to farm corn, and you’ve taken away their culture.

How does this relate to geography? We have become—to quote the song—a small world after all. I can eat the crab caught off the Atlantic Coast this morning for dinner in Phoenix tonight. Our distinctive cultures are becoming muddled. Just walk the streets of any major metropolitan area in the world. You’ll likely find a McDonalds, a Thai restaurant and maybe even an Indian food market.

That’s both good and bad: it’s good that we are open to the cultures of other nations, but if we don’t remain true to our local foods, I think we lose a bit of ourselves.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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