Arising before the sun, we trudged across the plowed earth, sowing seeds in the furrows. As months passed on those southern African hills, they began to sprout and bear life. At harvest, teams of women gathered the sun-soaked corn. Agile thumbs popped corn from cobs. Girls balanced bundles of firewood on their heads and began to build cooking fires. Most of the maize would be trekked to the local mill to create flour, some stashed for the chickens, some remained on the cob for roasting, and some boiled. The villager's relationship with their food was daily and rich.
Traversing the globe to our backyards, most of us, unlike the African villagers, haven't any idea what our foods look like before we unwrap the plastic. With choices galore, we have little idea about things we put in our mouths. We can't picture the exact sources of guar gum or cream of tartar, much less the stuff right off regular plants. As the National Wildlife Federation says, "As a society, we are raising the first generation of Americans to grow up disconnected from nature."
Working with sustainable African agriculture in the Peace Corps, school gardening on the California coast, and operating an environmental center, I believe that people should learn about the delights of eating broccoli off the plant. My 4-year-old knows that eggs come from "chicken bums" while emphatically announcing that pickles come from "Sam's Club." I make my own granola and pizza dough and can identify kohlrabi, buckwheat, artichoke, cashews and nutmeg, but I've a sneaking feeling that there's a lot I don't know.
Peeking into my pantry, I'm clueless. I don't know what a sesame seed plant looks like. Tree, bush, flower, or vine? And then there are lentils. Do they grow in patty fields or on a desert floor? Chocolate is an American staple. Most of us can barely spell cacao, let alone recognize its plant brethren. I can't recognize a clove, curry or tea plant.
While most of us would have trouble identifying the everyday soybean plant, we know what edamame looks like in a bamboo bowl, salted and steaming with green goodness but not what it looks like in the first place. I wondered about the difference between seeds and nuts and was given several wrong answers until I looked it up myself. Seeds are extracted from fruit and are coded to reproduce. As a flower's mature ovaries, nuts are seeds and fruit combined. The surprise: peanuts are legumes.
It's pretty easy to figure out vinegar's origins in the apple cider, rice and red wine, but the origins of balsamic are a mystery.
Standing in the forest of staples in our pantries, most of us would wither, yearning for an oasis of hotdog trees and maple-flavored oatmeal packets. My Tucsonan brothers are a rare yet knowledgeable breed of "desert harvesters." They claim that the natural landscape is packed with edibles, even in the desert. Mesquite pods, saguaro fruits, hackberries, and cholla buds could sustain us if we only knew how to recognize and utilize them. In today's society, sustainability's no longer a trivial question.
A deeper understanding of what we put into our mouths helps us understand ourselves and our community. For example, an average serving of spaghetti begins with a farmer planting, growing, watering, protecting, and harvesting the wheat. Then it's taken to a processing plant where the wheat berries are ground into flour, added to other ingredients, pushed through specialized noodle forms, and finally dried and packaged. Trucks haul the boxes across the nation. Grocers price the noodles, stock them, and hope someone will buy them.
The sauce is another story. Oregano originated in the Mediterranean, olive trees in Asia, tomatoes in the Andres and garlic in Siberia. China and the United States are the top salt producers.
Understanding and respecting what we put into our bodies means that we not only read labels carefully, it creates a sense of awe for the process by which our food is grown. The act of eating is transformed into a journey of discovery, wonder and appreciation. Bon voyage et bon appétit.
Local gardener and gardening author, Julie Lancaster's Web site is www.julielancaster.webs.com. Dana Prom Smith is coordinating editor for this column and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, call coordinator Hattie Braun at 774-1868, Ext. 17 or visit highelevationgardening.arizona.edu.