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← What foods did your ancestors love?

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Showing Revision 6 created 09/18/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Last year, I was living with
    this indigenous family in India.
  2. One afternoon,
  3. the young son was eating,
  4. and at the sight of me,
    he quickly hid his curry behind his back.
  5. It took a lot of persuasion to get him
    to show me what he was eating.
  6. It turned out to be moth larvae,
  7. a traditional delicacy
    with the Madia indigenous people.
  8. I cried,
  9. "Oh my God, you're eating these!
  10. I hope there's a little left for me!"
  11. I saw disbelief in the boy's eyes.
  12. "You ... eat these?"

  13. "I love these," I replied.

  14. I could see he did not trust me one bit.

  15. How could an urban, educated woman
    like the same food as him?
  16. Later, I broached the subject
    with his father,
  17. and it turned out to be
    a mighty touchy affair.
  18. He said things like,
  19. "Oh, only this son of mine
    likes to eat it.
  20. We tell him, 'Give it up. It's bad.'
  21. He doesn't listen, you see.
  22. We gave up eating all this ages back."
  23. "Why?" I asked.

  24. "This is your traditional food.
  25. It is available in your environment,
  26. it is nutritious,
  27. and -- I can vouch for it -- delicious.
  28. Why is it wrong to eat it?"
  29. The man fell silent.

  30. I asked,

  31. "Have you been told that your food is bad,
  32. that to eat it is backward,
  33. not civilized?"
  34. He nodded silently.

  35. This was one of the many, many times
    in my work with indigenous people in India

  36. that I witnessed shame around food,
  37. shame that the food you love to eat,
  38. the food that has been
    eaten for generations,
  39. is somehow inferior,
  40. even subhuman.
  41. And this shame is not limited
    to out-of-the-way, icky foods
  42. like insects or rats, maybe,
  43. but extends to regular foods:
  44. wild vegetables,
  45. mushrooms, flowers --
  46. basically, anything that is foraged
    rather than cultivated.
  47. In indigenous India,
    this shame is omnipresent.

  48. Anything can trigger it.
  49. One upper-caste vegetarian schoolmaster
    gets appointed in a school,
  50. within weeks, children are telling
    their parents it's yucky to eat crabs
  51. or sinful to eat meat.
  52. A government nutrition program
    serves fluffy white rice,
  53. now no one wants to eat
    red rice or millets.
  54. A nonprofit reaches this village with
    an ideal diet chart for pregnant women.
  55. There you go.
  56. All the expectant mothers are feeling sad
  57. that they cannot afford apples and grapes.
  58. And people just kind of forget the fruits
  59. that can be picked off the forest floor.
  60. Health workers,
  61. religious missionaries,
  62. random government employees
  63. and even their own educated children
  64. are literally shouting it down
    at the indigenous people
  65. that their food is not good enough,
  66. not civilized enough.
  67. And so food keeps disappearing,
  68. a little bit at a time.
  69. I'm wondering if you all
    have ever considered

  70. whether your communities would have
    a similar history around food.
  71. If you were to talk
    to your 90-year-old grandmother,
  72. would she talk about foods
    that you have never seen or heard of?
  73. Are you aware how much
    of your community's food
  74. is no longer available to you?
  75. Local experts tell me

  76. that the South African food economy
    is now entirely based on imported foods.
  77. Corn has become the staple,
  78. while the local sorghum, millets,
    bulbs and tubers are all gone.
  79. So are the wild legumes and vegetables,
  80. while people eat potatoes and onions,
    cabbages and carrots.
  81. In my country,

  82. this loss of food is colossal.
  83. Modern India is stuck with rice, wheat
  84. and diabetes.
  85. And we have totally forgotten foods
    like huge varieties of tubers,
  86. tree saps, fish, shellfish,
  87. oil seeds,
  88. mollusks, mushrooms, insects,
  89. small, nonendangered animal meats,
  90. all of which used to be available
    right within our surroundings.
  91. So where has this food gone?

  92. Why are our modern food baskets so narrow?
  93. We could talk about the complex
    political economic and ecological reasons,
  94. but I am here to talk about
    this more human phenomenon of shame,
  95. because shame is the crucial point
  96. at which food actually
    disappears off your plate.
  97. What does shame do?

  98. Shame makes you feel small,
  99. sad,
  100. not worthy,
  101. subhuman.
  102. Shame creates a cognitive dissonance.
  103. It distorts food stories.
  104. Let us take this example.

  105. How would you like to have
  106. a wonderful, versatile staple
  107. that is available abundantly
    in your environment?
  108. All you have to do is gather it,
  109. dry it, store it,
  110. and you have it for your whole year
  111. to cook as many different
    kinds of dishes as you want with it.
  112. India had just such a food,
    called "mahua,"
  113. this flower over there.
  114. And I have been researching this food
    for the past three years now.
  115. It is known to be highly nutritious
    in indigenous tradition
  116. and in scientific knowledge.
  117. For the indigenous,
  118. it used to be a staple
    for four to six months a year.
  119. In many ways, it is very similar
    to your local marula,
  120. except that it is a flower, not a fruit.
  121. Where the forests are rich,
  122. people can still get enough to eat
    for the whole year
  123. and enough spare to sell.
  124. I found 35 different dishes with mahua

  125. that no one cooks anymore.
  126. This food is no longer
    even recognized as a food,
  127. but as raw material for liquor.
  128. You could be arrested
    for having it in your house.
  129. Reason? Shame.
  130. I talked to indigenous people
    all over India
  131. about why mahua is no longer eaten.
  132. And I got the exact same answer.
  133. "Oh, we used to eat it
    when we were dirt-poor and starving.
  134. Why should we eat it now?
  135. We have rice or wheat."
  136. And almost in the same breath,
  137. people also tell me
    how nutritious mahua is.
  138. There are always stories of elders
    who used to eat mahua.
  139. "This grandmother of ours,
    she had 10 children,
  140. and still she used to work so hard,
    never tired, never sick."
  141. The exact same dual narrative
    every single where.
  142. How come?
  143. How does the same food
  144. get to be seen as very nutritious
    and a poverty food,
  145. almost in the same sentence?
  146. Same goes for other forest foods.

  147. I have heard story
    after heartrending story
  148. of famine and starvation,
  149. of people surviving on trash
    foraged out of the forest,
  150. because there was no food.
  151. If I dig a little deeper,
  152. it turns out the lack
    was not of food per se
  153. but of something respectable like rice.
  154. I asked them,
  155. "How did you learn
    that your so-called trash is edible?
  156. Who told you that certain
    bitter tubers can be sweetened
  157. by leaving them in a stream overnight?
  158. Or how to take the meat
    out of a snail shell?
  159. Or how to set a trap for a wild rat?"
  160. That is when they start
    scratching their heads,
  161. and they realize that they learned it
    from their own elders,
  162. that their ancestors had lived
    and thrived on these foods for centuries
  163. before rice came their way,
  164. and were way healthier
    than their own generation.
  165. So this is how food works,

  166. how shame works:
  167. making food and food traditions disappear
    from people's lives and memories
  168. without their even realizing it.
  169. So how do we undo this trend?

  170. How do we reclaim our beautiful
    and complex systems of natural food,
  171. food given to us lovingly by Mother Earth
    according to her own rhythm,
  172. food prepared by our foremothers with joy
  173. and are eaten by our forefathers
    with gratitude,
  174. food that is healthy, local, natural,
  175. varied, delicious,
  176. not requiring cultivation,
  177. not damaging our ecology,
  178. not costing a thing?
  179. We all need this food,
  180. and I don't think I have to tell you why.
  181. I don't have to tell you
    about the global health crisis,
  182. climate change, water crisis,
  183. soil fatigue,
  184. collapsing agricultural systems,
  185. all that.
  186. But for me, equally important reasons
    why we need these foods
  187. are the deeply felt ones,
  188. because food is so many things, you see.
  189. Food is nourishment, comfort,
  190. creativity, community,
  191. pleasure, safety, identity
  192. and so much more.
  193. How we connect with our food

  194. defines so much in our lives.
  195. It defines how we connect with our bodies,
  196. because our bodies are ultimately food.
  197. It defines our basic sense of connection
  198. with our existence.
  199. We need these foods most today
  200. to be able to redefine our space as humans
  201. within the natural scheme of things.
  202. And are we needing
    such a redefinition today?
  203. For me, the only real answer is love,

  204. because love is the only thing
    that counters shame.
  205. And how do we bring more of this love
    into our connections with our food?
  206. For me, love is, in a big way,
  207. about the willingness
    to slow down,
  208. to take the time to feel,
  209. sense, listen, inquire.
  210. It could be listening to our own bodies.

  211. What do they need
    beneath our food habits, beliefs
  212. and addictions?
  213. It could be taking time out
    to examine those beliefs.
  214. Where did they come from?
  215. It could be going back into our childhood.
  216. What foods did we love then,
  217. and what has changed?
  218. It could be spending
    a quiet evening with an elder,
  219. listening to their food memories,
  220. maybe even helping them
    cook something they love
  221. and sharing a meal.
  222. Love could be about remembering
  223. that humanity is vast
  224. and food choices differ.
  225. It could be about showing
    respect and curiosity
  226. instead of censure
  227. when we see somebody enjoying
    a really unfamiliar food.
  228. Love could be taking the time to inquire,
  229. to dig up information,
  230. reach out for connections.
  231. It could even be
    a quiet walk in the fynbos
  232. to see if a certain plant
    speaks up to you.
  233. That happens.
  234. They speak to me all the time.
  235. And most of all,

  236. love is to trust that
    these little exploratory steps
  237. have the potential to lead us
    to something larger,
  238. sometimes to really surprising answers.
  239. An indigenous medicine woman once told me
  240. that love is to walk on Mother Earth
  241. as her most beloved child,
  242. to trust that she values
    an honest intention
  243. and knows how to guide our steps.
  244. I hope I have inspired you

  245. to start reconnecting
    with the food of your ancestors.
  246. Thank you for listening.

  247. (Applause)