Monday, September 28, 2009

Why write about food

Writing about food is pretty trivial. If food were just for sustenance, contemplating and writing about it would not be worth neither the blink of a single neuron nor the ink of the world’s smallest quill. Personally, I could eat oatmeal or lentil soup for weeks without noticing it. Why, then, do I waste my time on this blog?

Humans are opportunistic feeders and that, in part, is what makes our species ubiquitous. The ingrained ability to adjust our feeding needs and wants to our circumstance opens a channel for universal communication. As the world moves forward at the speed of globalization, this common strand of DNA programming has become even more important. Regardless of whether we (I am talking about those of us who love food and take the time to read articles like this one) trace the origin of food trough history from our armchairs, or we taste it on our travels abroad (or travels to the supermarket), we discover that the biosphere which provides food to the entire World population makes all cultures as interwoven today as were through the history.

As a Dalmatian-American, I would like my fellow Americans who share the same ethnic roots to see that their heritage is as significant to the development of modern civilization as that of other cultures that American history books refer to more often. The first step is to know your ancestors and your own ethnic heritage. One of the simplest and politically unbiased approaches is to be able to taste it, since the tongue is the mean of global communication.

Equating the tongue which is the most complex muscle used by human brain to produce vocal communication with the carrier of taste buds common to all non-speaking animals- this sounds like a miraculous escapade! Well, like it or not, the later function of the tongue may be the lowest common denominator of all humankind.

As often as it is demonstrated that taste for food is acquired and that there are insurmountable cultural difference in feeding habits among ethnic groups, we are equally often reminded that all the differences are mainly circumstantial. Through forty years of life in Dalmatia, I came to appreciate “gruda”, wild grown greens boiled and lightly seasoned with olive oil, a diet staple on the Eastern Adriatic coast. My island, Korcula, is particularly fond of this delicious green. Research into the feeding habits of the island’s population during times of shortage has shown that inhabitants used over 130 species of wild greens in their daily diet. In good times, they “substituted” wild greens with “blitva” better known in America as Suisse Chard. Unfortunately, this green or anything like it is not popular food in America, and to find it one must go to more expensive grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes.

On the other hand, I was happy to learn that “horta” (with the most praised variety being “vlita,” (amaranth) which sounds like “blitva”) in Greece and “hollow water spinach” in China, were quite common on dinner tables and were prepared in a similar way as Dalmatian “gruda”. Moreover, the gustatory pleasure they provide is the same.

The Mediterranean diet has become very popular in modern times due to assumption that it ensures a long and healthy life. Olive oil was identified as one of the sources of these purported health benefits and now it is promoted indiscriminately on TV shows for frying, braising or just seasoning food. As I remember from my childhood, olive oil was a commodity for harsh times. Most families had their own olive trees and so produced their own oil. A standard procedure involved a long season of collecting olives as they ripened and then keeping them in brine until the harvest was completed. The oil mills were few on the islands and households made sure that they completed their oil production in just one visit. By that time, most of the olives have had already fermented and all the health beneficial ingredients were gone. So, my subjective, untested hypothesis is that it was not the olive oil that kept the Mediterranean population healthy. Instead, it was the gruda, horta, blitva or vlita, and/or the chines water spinach. Olive oil it seems is the easier, more marketable answer to a world that craves miracle cures.

Chinese call water spinach “hollow” not only because of its hollow steams, but because it does not provide enough energy to replace the rice as a staple food in time of shortages. Nowadays, in the time of energy packed fast food, these “hollow” meals are a much needed break for our bodies.

Before I get lost in the labyrinth of food writing justification, let me simply conclude that it has “global cultural” merits . I will touch on this many times in the future. For the moment, let this piece be just a short glimpse into my obsession.


  1. Well first of all I like your obsession about food. Recently I started to comment on NY Times food articles to add some of my food obsession as you mentioned the Mediterranean diet lately expanding thank God the old methods are coming back in my life time.

    Thirty years living in America as you mention:
    Unfortunately, this green or anything like it is not popular food in America, and to find it one must go to more expensive grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes.

    When I tell people if they ask me what you do with this,, soup, stuffed like dolma , they look surprised and amazed. Today on TV they are recommending KALE, I stuff it too and nothing is trashed,, the good part go into soup the hard to chew go to boiling and strain for stock (freeze my own vegetable stock) who needs to buy the canned - cartooned veg stock ?

    I wish I can get fresh fish like the ones you had on your Greek blog (sorry) I don’t read the language BUT I understand the pictures. At least we share the same philosophy in eating habits not to fight who does better BAKLAVA 

  2. Having adopted a macrobiotic course for health reasons a couple of years ago, I especially cherish greens, often just sautéed in olive oil with garlic; spinach, dandelion greens, Chinese water spinach, Chinese broccoli tops, bok choy tops and rarely Swiss chard just to name a few. The stated hypothesis about olive oil is an interesting one to ponder.

  3. Water spinach is wonderful. My Chinese wife calls it "empty heart" vegetable. You'll find it listed in some seed catalogs as Water Convolvulus but you'll need an import permit from USDA if you intend to raise it. I will soon feature water spinach on my blog, The Manure Tea Report (, and other Chinese greens.