Food Recovery in Granero Central: Gleaning in Santa Marta Colombia

By brotgerApril 14th, 2020in Academics, Courses, Students

Students in Steve Finn's spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month's blog posts. Today's post is from James Lysons.

The hungry men were seen, followed by their valets, roaming the quais and guards' quarters; gleaning from their outside friends all the dinners they could find; for, according to Aramis, in prosperity one should sow meals right and left, in order to harvest some in adversity.

~ Alexandre Dumas

On vacation in Santa Marta, Colombia, a coastal city east of Cartagena of around a half million people, I took an afternoon, accompanied by a guide, to visit an example of locals gleaning in the Granero Central, the public market of the city.  Sebastian (my guide) was proud of his city and assured me that the locals waste little food at the market.

Knowing that I was a Caucasian tourist (a “gringo”) there for the single purpose of observing locals and taking pictures, Sebastian suggested just driving by to observe, within the security of tinted automobile windows.

The market was bustling, with vendors selling fish, produce, textiles, and general goods on tables that lined the streets. Driving in what seemed like circles, Sebastian slowly positioned our car to enable observation of the spectacle he was so proud of. To the left side of the car were large dumpsters, each with several men rummaging through what appeared to be trash bags and food scraps. On the outside of the dumpsters were people instructing what the men should look for.  We passed them twice and, on the last lap, I saw a cardboard box newly positioned on a cart containing salvaged celery. It appeared perfectly fine and edible.

Sebastian explained that these rummagers (technically, gleaners) salvage the reusable goods and sell them in the stalls a few meters from the dumpsters at a fraction of the cost of the same items found in the market next door. Their customers are a “lower-class” group of people. Although neither governed nor regulated the system of salvaging works -- it is simple. It provides an ample supply of food for this group of people struggling with limited income and resources. When contrasted with the gleaning that is popularized in Vancouver, Canada, this system is relatively profitable and has created a community. I felt it was the sense of community that largely made the process function and so my inclination was to accept it.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as outlined by the UN, are missing a kind of mortar that might bind all the SDG initiatives as one: a mortar which earlier incarnations of UN development work took more into account when dealing with what it termed “the informal sector.” There are lessons we can learn from the rummagers and vendors in Santa Marta. The community appeared to be the mortar at the Granero General, offering an additional dimension to the issue of food waste while also creating an informal sector community alongside the “official” food market.  How can such a “community” become a priority, on a global scale, while outside of the “normal” corporate and government channels, regulations, and controls? After all, in much of the “developing world” significant percentages of the population work, live, and exist throughout their lives in the so-called informal sector.  How can we not only accept but find ways to support such a sector while important corporate and government entities deny (or at least fail to act on) the matter of climate change; while powerful religious organizations promote an anti-vaccination agenda; and other industries insist, still, on their right to reduce fish to the brink of extinction?

The perfect answer or solution remains to be seen. Still, these challenges inspire creativity to foster a sense of community that may oppose such denial and/or “anti-this and that.”

We watch the world come together, slowly, amid the zombie-like apocalypse called COVID-19. Must we wait for a food shortage for the world to come together to solve the food-waste problem? The signs are everywhere, and the writing is on the wall.

My experience in Santa Marta, although short, was inspiring.

The Fine Line Between Generosity and Waste

Students in Steve Finn's spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month's blog posts. Today's post is from Anne Howard.

Doesn’t this look like a feast? At this Chicago Korean barbecue restaurant, grilling your own food is only part of the draw. (That’s marinated octopus cooking on the tabletop grill in the center.) It’s when the server brings out the banchan, small side dishes, that the fun begins—and keeps going and going. The dishes just keep coming:  kimchi, of course; salads of cucumbers, broccoli, and potato; and preparations of vegetables like lotus root, bean sprouts, radish, and eggplant. Diners don’t order banchan; they are chosen and provided by the restaurant. Our party of five, including two children (whose faces are covered in the photo), received thirty-one small dishes of banchan.

This was impressive, and certainly made it feel like a celebratory meal. But seeing more dishes than could fit in a single layer on the table also triggered my food waste radar. It caused me to consider how subjective the idea of waste can be. What looks like wasteful behavior to some might look like generosity to others. I wanted to think through my own subjective, culturally-based view of what constitutes food waste and reflect on how my thinking and actions contribute to the problem.

According to Food Cultures of the World, “the Korean table is communal; all side dishes are shared. Koreans are very social eaters and love eating with family, friends or coworkers.” (Albala 2011, 141) Though meals at my home are also served family-style, the dishes are fewer, which made this spread feel excessive. Experiences at other restaurants conditioned me to expect eight to twelve different banchan (even fewer are common at in-home meals (Cwiertka 2003)), so I was surprised by the number of dishes the first time I dined at this particular restaurant.

Cecelia Hae-Jin Lee, quoted in HuffPost, notes that when it comes to banchan at home, “whatever isn’t used is saved for the next meal—so it’s not a waste.” (Bratskeir 2017) This would not meet health codes in a restaurant, however, and as banchan can be difficult to take home as leftovers, more is discarded. As Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), points out, American restaurants serve ever-increasing portions, and that “chefs want what they serve to appear generous.” (Bloom 2010, 133) Americans seem to believe that quantity equals value. The more on offer, however, the more opportunity for waste. In this case, even though the serving of each banchan was small, they added up to a large volume.

However, restaurant owners are always looking for ways to trim costs. Decreasing plate waste saves money on ingredients, labor, utilities and disposal. Even in a cultural setting where multiple small dishes are an important part of the meal, restaurant owners can look for ways to cut back on waste. Our table was served multiple dishes of the same item, for instance, which is unnecessary if the restaurant has a policy of allowing free refills on banchan, as many do. Noting this policy on the menu informs first-time patrons and might also encourage returning customers to ask the server not to bring any banchan the customer doesn’t want to eat, knowing they can have more of the ones they like.

So, is this a picture of waste or of hospitality? It is fair to say we over-ordered because, as first-time patrons, we weren’t prepared for the serving sizes or number of side dishes. It is also possible to argue that, while generous, the restaurant is providing too much banchan for a party of five. We took home most of the banchan remaining at the end of the meal, as well as the grilled meat and the cauldron of seafood stew at the bottom of the photo, which made four more meals. I think this picture shows opportunity—to be more cognizant, as eaters or restaurateurs, of what we can be doing to save food from going to waste.

References

Albala, Ken, ed. 2011. Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia – Asia and Oceania: Volume 3. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC. Accessed March 20, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Bloom, Jonathan. 2010. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). Da Capo Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bratskeir, Kate. 2017. “A Guide to Banchan, Those Delicious Side Dishes Served at Korean Restaurants.” HuffPost, December 6, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/korean-bbq-banchan_n_6146600?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMGQt4ulaXmaX9KbKAfKjxrNosA2mvkYol3mBto1lvCfquylwKXJQS0EK2EGiIrMxSyiftYAWPe65q9fs7BnpC3JEDoQIr15ezo6lHuYMN311xz4NUxqNA702Gwc0pTb3rU_dCl7YpaIaQCKJFA0JWTIeluZ8HBIQNO9zFV7Sjtf.

Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. "Korea." In Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, edited by Solomon H. Katz, 336-341. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. Gale In Context: U.S. History (accessed March 20, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3403400370/GPS?u=mlin_b_bumml&sid=GPS&xid=8892c340.

Food Obsession and Overconsumption

By brotgerApril 9th, 2020in Academics, Courses, Students

Students in Steve Finn's spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month's blog posts. Today's post is from Wiley McCarthy.


Food waste discussions generally focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3: “By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” (www.champions123.org).  Recommended solutions include gleaning unharvested crops, redistributing surplus prepared meals from restaurants and schools, and transporting manufacturers’ and retailers’ surplus stock to food banks.  BUT, what about considering individual overconsumption as a form of food waste? Let me be clear that I am not attacking the visibly overweight: a veteran myself of myriad forms of disordered eating, I confidently assert that those ranging from seriously underweight to morbidly obese can experience malnourishment and serious health issues when they find themselves sucked into a pattern of overconsumption. The attendant physical and mental illnesses fall under the aegis of SDG 3.4 “By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being” (www.who.int).

In Obsession, (Weinstein Books, 2013), by Mika Brzezinski and Dianne Smith, the authors discuss their personal food histories. Mika’s story involved food restriction, periodic “binge-ing,” and exercise bulimia, while Diane’s encompassed yo-yo dieting, regular overeating, lack of exercise, and health issues.  Despite vastly different behaviors, their food obsession shared a focus on shame, willpower, and hunger. Public opinion would blame each for weakness, lack of discipline (or conversely, OCD), or poor personal accountability; yet, environmental factors contributed to their food issues.

How did a pattern of constant, non-nutritious eating develop in the United States?  First, a misguided emphasis on low-fat foods since the 1970s prompted food manufacturers to increase the carbohydrate (read SUGAR) content of their products. After all, if tasty fat is removed, something must be added to make the foods palatable.  As we prioritized convenience, ease of preparation, and shelf-stable food storage, whole foods were increasingly processed, destroying nutrients and reducing fiber content.  Food manufacturers opted for inexpensive high fructose corn syrup to save money, trans fats to extend shelf life, artificial flavorings and colors to increase products’ “curb appeal,” chemical preservatives and stabilizers to retard spoilage, and physical manipulation of whole foods (grinding, pulping, mashing) to form identical easily-packaged shapes.  Many of these foods, in handy packages with shiny pictures and eye-catching logos, were geared for convenient (read CONSTANT) snack or other non-mealtime consumption.

Then we arrive at what I consider the single most important factor—the ubiquity of food in American society.  In an observable change in social mores during the last 35 years, we now eat in our cars, in libraries, on the street, in our beds, at our desks, at sporting events, during movies, in class, on the subway, on the couch, and–well, you probably recognize yourself in one of these situations. Food, particularly the highly processed (and thus infinitely palatable) substances, is everywhere. For those subject to carbohydrate or sugar addiction, it’s like an alcoholic walking through a pub all day. Both foodies and dieters are allowed to obsess and make wildly random or restrictive food choices, however. Food is an acceptable drug.

How can we continue weight-shaming our neighbors and ourselves when we suffer a 24/7 barrage of enticing non-foods? We face gum and cookies at the grocery checkout; pretzels and candy at the Staples checkout; chocolate bars at the department store lingerie counter (!)—all legitimizing consumption of carbohydrate, sugar, and fat concoctions anytime, anywhere. Most will face willpower fatigue at some point and give in to these foods that contribute nothing but the classic “empty calories” to our diets. If we do not recognize the dangerous role ubiquitous food plays in our modern lives, we will continue to waste food by making it less nutritious and by overconsuming it to the detriment of our health.

We face a public health crisis of proliferating diet- and weight-related diseases, particularly diabetes, heart disease, weight-related orthopedic issues, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and a range of mental health issues accompanying body dysmorphia and food obsessions. As these run rampant— often invisibly—in the United States, the increase is being replicated abroad as more nations adopt the SAD (standard American diet). The SDG 12.3 framework encompasses the waste of foods being processed into non-nutritive substances and the waste (in decreased availability to others) of overconsumption on an individual basis. Under SDG 3.4, diet-related illnesses qualify as chronic non-communicable diseases. Let’s put a stop to both.

Shopping for a Pandemic

Students in Karen Metheny's Anthropology of Food (MET ML641) class are contributing posts this month. Today's post is by David Ginivisian.

This photo was taken shortly after I left the store that day. Check out line extending all the way around to the back of the store. Photo credit goes to Nicole Cassetta via Twitter.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 and the resulting human response is cause for the end of the world as we knew it.  Without being alarmist, my point is this:  this pandemic will represent a crossroads in history, dividing how the world was before the outbreak and how the world will reconfigure in the years that follow. Both individual and collective reactions to this crisis will have far-reaching consequences causing sweeping changes in our ways of life.

Coronavirus first began to impact my lifestyle March 12. The school system in which I teach High School Culinary Arts had been ordered shut down for two days for ‘deep cleaning’. This was the beginning of an evolving response to the growing concern. These bonus days off allowed me to catch up on errands while my wife and daughter were working and attending their respective schools.  It was quickly evident that my routine trip to the grocery store would be anything but.

It was Wednesday morning and the store was unusually full with customers. Upon entering, mindful customers lined up for what was now an obligatory sanitizing wipe for their cart and hands.  Some shoppers donned gloves to avoid direct contact with potential germs. Foreshadowing the weeks to come, the high volume of customers crowded the aisles with overflowing shopping carts. While large crowds shopping with fervor are nothing new to those who frequent Market Basket, on this day the scene was strangely different.

The growing volume of shoppers was not dissimilar to a pre-blizzard shopping frenzy; still, something was awry.  People were not moving about the store as they normally did. The flow was out of step with the usual pattern of cart traffic.  Concerned store goers were showing signs of panic evident in their altered regular habits. Shoppers were abandoning their usual routes and routines. Haphazard movements caused traffic jams at every corner.  Customers leaving carts to grab-n-go created a jaywalking effect on the line of traffic. Impromptu U-turns, backtracking, and exploring unfamiliar aisles all contributed to the slowdowns.

The Salem, MA store was populated with the usual diverse clientele, all with a shared objective:  to stockpile necessities and niceties for an extended time. Some shopped in tandem, enlisting a divide and conquer approach of grabbing goods for one or two carts.  Darting through the traffic, they would occasionally rendezvous to plan their next move.  One of the ‘Dads’ (eyes glazed like a deer in the headlights), appeared to have been dispatched to run ‘Mom’s’ errand only to find himself engulfed in the fray. Senior citizens moved cautiously, pulling over to let the faster carts by. Some parents, with a sudden need to shop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, were stocking up.  Others had to bulk up home inventory for the anticipated arrival of college students' unexpected homecoming.  Usual shopping strategies interrupted and abandoned became the norm, instead navigating as quickly as the congested aisles would allow.

As one would now realize, the sanitizing products aisle had long been cleaned out.  Most goods had been seemingly well stocked, but the relentless wave of shoppers would ultimately pick the shelves bare. The checkout line began to wrap around the store.  The logjam left many in line for over one hour.  I’m pleased to report that while there appeared to be mayhem, there was no malice. Fellow consumers collectively recognized that this was unchartered territory - extraordinary circumstances -  and everyone was in the same boat.  Examples of these shopping frenzies quickly posted to all media. Was it hoarding or simply stockpiling resources as a precaution?  Some have described these behaviors as irrational, unethical, inappropriate, even shameful. Was it socially irresponsible to take more than one’s “fair share?”  Who is to say?

The food industry, in particular, is suffering on all counts. Distribution systems have been compromised.  Restaurants are either closed or struggling to remain viable, offering takeout, curb-side pickup, and delivery.   Alarmed consumers now rely more than ever on the local supermarkets for provisions. The stores, in turn, are working tirelessly to stem the tide of overwhelming demand while addressing mounting concerns about how to keep all food and people safe.

Creativity and Collective Action amidst the COVID-19 Crisis

Students in Steve Finn's spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month's blog posts. Today's post is from Stacey Terlik.

Food Scraps Photo by Stacey Terlik

There is no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted your life these past few weeks. It is a global pandemic that is changing all aspects of our society and has the potential to impact future policy. As a Gastronomy student, focusing on food policy, I cannot help but question: how will this pandemic influence food policies and future sustainable development goals? How will it affect food waste practices of corporations, businesses, and consumers? Will it perpetuate the problem of food waste? Or will it be a wakeup call about the fragility of our world?

It is evidenced by the empty shelves in grocery stores that people are buying way more than they would ever need during this unprecedented situation. There has been a rush on supermarkets, with people stocking up on foods they consider essential: canned, prepackaged, and processed foods. This undoubtedly will lead to a higher percentage of packaging waste then if people were strictly buying fresh foods. Moreover, once this crisis passes, what will happen to this overstock? Based on current food practices, it is likely these foods will go to waste and people will revert to their typical habits. However, it is possible that our society will learn from this experience and begin to place greater value on food and the environment.

In Sara Roversi’s presentation at the COVID-19 Virtual Summit, she frames the pandemic as an opportunity to reset, reconnect, and re-understand the power of food. She cites chef, Massimo Bottura, who asserts that “This virus has the power to make visible the invisible.”[1] While of course, this situation is a forced cultural reset, it creates the time and space to encourage individuals to think differently about food. People have to be creative with what is in their pantries, and they also have the extra time to access to cookbooks/ tutorials to learn how to can, preserve, and pickle produce in order to eliminate waste and ensure future nutrition.

Food creativity can also extend beyond the consumer level during this pandemic. We have seen innovative solutions by restaurants that have moved to takeout, created family meal boxes, or have sold out their inventory in attempts to sustain revenue and prevent food waste. In this same vein, because restaurants, businesses, and schools have been forced to close their doors, we have witnessed people taking care of each other in regard to food. Many organizations are distributing lunches to children in need and delivery services are transporting meals to vulnerable populations.

This notion of taking care of one another can be transformed from local to global food policies and systems.  As Roversi stated, moving from “design thinking” to “prosperity thinking” can impact the ways in which we think about food difference, inclusion, diplomacy, and the environment.[2] While we may have to physically distance ourselves from one another right now, we still have the capacity to build an evolved food community that can positively impact global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 12.3 states: "By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses."[3] My recommendation during this time of quarantine is to focus on the consumer aspects of this goal, as this is where advocacy and change can begin.

While we have the time and space, let’s reconnect to our roots, attempt to eat locally, experiment with new recipes, and use all the components of our food. The wild part is that with technology, we can all do this together. We can reach out to family and friends to make and eat dinner together over FaceTime or Skype. We can share recipes and cooking demonstrations over social media; it is all quite literally at our fingertips.

The biggest challenge for consumers will be the desire to return to their former food habits after this crisis. Of course, everyone is craving some semblance of normalcy, but let’s create a new normal of being intentional with our food procurement, production, and waste practices. While it may sound overly optimistic in the face of this trying time, simply modifying our food habits and taking care of one another can move us towards achieving each one of our interconnected SDGs.

[1] COVID-19 Virtual Summit - Day 2 - How Do Global Epidemics Affect the Future of Food? W/Sara Roversi. n.d. Accessed March 19, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6eyuBl25ig.

[2] COVID-19 Virtual Summit - Day 2 - How Do Global Epidemics Affect the Future of Food? W/Sara Roversi. n.d. Accessed March 19, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6eyuBl25ig.

[3] “12.3.1 Global Food Losses | Sustainable Development Goals | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.” Accessed March 20, 2020. http://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/indicators/1231/en/.

 

 

I Didn’t Order That: How Freebies are Adding on to Food Waste.

Students in Steve Finn's spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month's blog posts. The first in this series is from Christina Grace Setio. If you have ever dined out to a Korean, Mexican, or European restaurant, chances are you have gotten some type of a freebie. Specifically, the food items served free of charge as you patiently wait for your meal. This practice is now so culturally instilled that most servers don’t even ask if you actually want it, they just assume it can’t do much damage to just serve it. While it is a gesture most customers appreciate, some argue that they would rather be charged for a more palatable and better-quality product. How often are these food items left unfinished? Regardless of whether it has been touched or not, food safety regulations prohibit any food that has been placed on a customer’s table to be reused. Now, this may not be an issue if everyone takes away and finishes any leftovers at home. However, a study by Brian Wansink of Cornell University shows that 55% of leftovers at restaurants are not taken home, this just adds to the many other food waste issues that happen within a restaurant. Now you may ask, isn’t it fine if they just compost the food? While this is a better solution than landfill, think about of all the wasted natural resources used in growing food that goes to waste – water, energy, labor, occupied soil – these are additional costs to be considered.There may be several reasons as to why restaurants serve freebies; first, it is a low-cost way of keeping customers calm during a busy service. Second, it creates a good image of generosity for the restaurant, and people feel taken care of when they receive complimentary gestures. Expectations from other restaurants of the same style may also pressure other restaurants to follow the flock. If you are the only one that does not offer free food like your counterparts, people might see it as a travesty. I remembered going to a Korean restaurant and was told that I had to pay for their Banchan (small side dishes), and feeling slightly cheated since I have never had to pay in the past. Not fulfilling a customer’s expectations can damage the image of a business. But how did we start to have this culture of expectations in the first place?

When restaurants offer free food items, they generally don’t ask if a customer wants it, nor do they consider a customer’s possible intolerance, for example gluten (found in bread) or nightshade vegetables (bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants). They also often serve a significant quantity even for individual diners. How many times have you seen steakhouses serve you multiple varieties of bread for a single person? Abundance gives people sense security and pleasure, and America has a food culture that values size when food is relatively cheap and plentiful in most of its cities. Nevertheless, should we fulfill this temporary sentiment at the cost of wasting food?

In 2015, the UN created the  Sustainable Development Goals to sustainably increase the well-being of the planet and people globally, ending poverty, hunger, all while protecting our land and seas. Target 12 of the 17 SDGs calls for “Responsible Consumption and Production,” encouraging consumers to take their roles in shifting to a better diet and more responsible food consumption. A powerful report by the FAO suggests that we lose and waste one-third of food produced yearly, and in the U.S. 40%, with the majority at the retail and consumer level. So individual consumers and households have a lot of power in making a big difference to reduce those numbers.

Should restaurants start asking customers instead of blindly offering complimentary food? Although the idea of receiving items free of charge is tempting, can we as customers be counted on to accept or refuse responsibly? Should restaurants serve at a gradual pace instead of serving once at a hefty quantity? What other dining out habits do you see contributing to avoidable food waste?

So the next time you eat out, remember that you have the power to decide where that food will end up. 

Saccharomyces Serenades, Lactobacillus Lullabies: The Soundscapes of Fermentation

By Dana Ferrante

It’s not everyday you meet a self-proclaimed ‘fermentation evangelist,’ let alone play a small part in his upcoming exhibition.

On February 1, 2020, I participated in a workshop for the members and friends of the Somerville Community Growing Center led by Joshua Rosenstock, an artist, musician, fermentation expert, and Associate Director of WPI’s Interactive Media & Game Development program.

The workshop had an eclectic mix of participants, including community garden and farm members, pickling enthusiasts, musicians, young children and their intrigued guardians. The task at hand was relatively simple: using produce from Waltham Fields Community Farm, we were to create pickle jars that would then be connected to Joshua’s living art piece, The Fermentophone.

According to Joshua’s website, the “Fermentophone is a multi-sensory installation in which an algorithmically generated musical composition is performed by living cultures of bacteria and yeast. The installation comprises a series of different vessels containing actively fermenting foodstuffs and beverages, wired with electronic sensors. Each colorful, odorous, and edible ferment has its own musical vocabulary which is expressed according to microbial activity.
”

Joshua created his first Fermentophone installation back in 2013 at a festival at MIT’s Media lab; since then, he’s exhibited his idea in an empty storefront in Wisconsin as part of the state’s Fermentation Fest, as well as a similar festival in Boston in 2016. The fruits of our labor in February 2020 were destined for a temporary installation within the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s exhibit, Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight, a “multimedia journey into [the] fascinating, invisible realm” of bacteria and microbes (HMNH website, 2020).

The Fermentophone on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s exhibit Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight. Part of the tune played by the Fermentophone is pictured bottom right.

Before we began carefully stuffing our mason jars, Joshua gave us some very important background information on the history, power, and process of fermentation. Here are the key takeaways:

1) Microbes, or the yeasts and bacteria responsible for the fermentation process, are everywhere. 

Evolutionarily speaking, microbes preceded humans, and likely exerted selective pressure on humans—which is both a humbling and somewhat terrifying concept. Humans are majority microbes, and we exist in a symbiotic relationship with them (you may have heard the term ‘microbiome’). Little is known about the gut-brain axis in the human body, which is organized around microbial activity, but scientists have established it plays a role in regulating some of our thoughts and emotions. (Hence, somewhat terrifying.)

I gathered some produce and sketched out how I wanted my jar to look. It did not go according to plan.

2) Saccharomyces, a genus of fungi, includes many types of yeasts humans have used to create food and drink for at least 12,000 years. 

From beer in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to ancient Chicha pots unearthed in the Andes, to depictions of the Greek god Dionysus with satyrs and wine glasses, strains of Saccharomyces have been harnessed throughout human history, around the world, to produce fermented, alcoholic beverages. Many have attributed the existence of bread, beer, and other fermented food and drinks to a rise in surplus grains due to the agricultural revolution (approximately 10,000 BCE).

Finished jars at the end of the event.

As Joshua pointed out, microbes not only control different physiological processes (e.g. gut-brain axis, microbiome, etc), but have the power to expand our minds. Accordingly, fermented beverages in a variety of cultural contexts have gained significance beyond pure nutrition; for example, beer was once used as a form of currency or salary, and chicha, bread, and wine are linked with spirituality in cultures across the globe. Today, yeast continues to produce delicious breads and brews, as well as some kinds of synthetic insulin and some vaccines.

3) Another microbe, lactobacillus, can survive where many microbes can’t; this often leads to spontaneous lacto-fermentation. 

When vegetables are put into a salt water brine, the salt drives out the water in the vegetables. Very few bacteria can survive in this context, with the exception of lactobacillus, which imparts that distinctly sour, tangy flavor we associate with a good yogurt or lacto-fermented pickle. Lacto-fermented foods are found in cultures around the world, from kimchi to sauerkraut, Greek yogurt to miso.

Joshua was quick to point out that for much of human history, fermentation was one of the only ways humans could preserve foods. Until the advent of refrigeration beginning in the 1930s, harnessing microbes was one of the best and most common ways to save food for later.

My jar before I added the water and sealed the top.

4) Not all pickles are fermented. 

As someone who enjoys pickling any and all vegetables, this was something I knew in the back of my mind, but didn’t really want to admit, I guess. Like many impatient, city-dwelling folks living in a shared space, I am always a bit weary about letting things I plan to eat actually ferment. I love vinegar, and am pretty skeptical about the type of microbes that might be living in my apartment....

So what foods are actually fermented? Pickles that undergo spontaneous lacto-fermentation are ‘real’ pickles, according to Joshua. When vegetables are “pickled” in vinegar, their immersion in a highly acidic solution (e.g. vinegar) essentially ensures their preservation. In contrast with a salt water brine that encourages spontaneous chemical reactions, vinegar inhibits any spontaneous microbial activity. In order for the Fermentophone to work, our pickle jars needed to lacto-ferment, thereby releasing bubbles and producing the Fermentophone’s rhythm.

Ultimately, this hands-on experience has made me significantly less afraid to lacto-ferment pickles, and I cannot wait to use New England’s bounty of late summer vegetables and give it a try.

The Fermentophone on display in the museum. My jar is second from the right.

Aside from the fact that Joshua’s installation involved the community in a very hands-on way  (Harvard’s Food Literacy Project and students from a local school also contributed mason jars), I think what makes the Fermentophone so clever is that it uses live organisms to create “generative art,” as Joshua called it.

The Fermentophone translates the chemical process of fermentation into a sonoric experience, while also connecting science with visual art, the culinary arts, and questions of cultural significance. While we could curate the colors, shapes, layering, titles, and flavors of each mason jar, the Fermentophone produced “serendipitous” sounds and experiences.

As a student of gastronomy, this experience has made me reconsider the mediums and sensory experiences one can harness to explore topics in food. While I have often found myself wondering what the food in an 18th century kitchen tasted like, I now found myself thinking: what would that kitchen have sounded or felt like? What can I do as a gastronomy student to make better use of sonoric, tactile, and visual mediums in my research or presentations?

A particularly beautiful set of jars from the event. Butternut squash seems to have made for a very aesthetically pleasing pickle jar.

Lastly, a quick apology: the Fermentophone exhibit, to the best of my knowledge, has been dismantled at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. That said, a visit to the museum is certainly worth the while for gastronomy students, especially with the Peabody Museum’s Resetting the Table: Food and Our Changing Tastes exhibit happening right next door until November 28, 2021.

 

Food Waste Class tours Daily Table in Dorchester

By Christina Grace Setio

Students in Food Waste class with instructor Steven Finn

 

Students in our Special Topics in Food Waste class (MET ML 702) recently had the great opportunity to tour and observe the Daily Table store in Dorchester, Boston.

Daily Table is a not-for-profit retail store that provides healthy and affordable food while respecting their customers of diverse community. The Dorchester and Roxbury store are expecting a third location in Boston, expanding with a mission to “help communities make great choices by making it easy to choose tasty, healthy, convenient and truly affordable meals and groceries”. Founded by the former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch, the store provides fresh produce, proteins, bread, dairy, quality frozen products, grab-to-go meals (prepared daily) and dry food products within an accessible price range. The store aims to promote better eating habits alongside tackling food waste, by repurposing perfectly edible food that was overproduced or rejected due to aesthetic imperfections.

Their delicious and nutritious grab-to-go meals are prepared daily by chefs in store at the Dorchester location. These prepared meals are made with lower sodium and sugar level, also a transparent ingredients labeling. Meals that were not sold will be given out for free at the end of each day.

The class then proceeded to visit the kitchen, talked to the chefs, staffs, meet the volunteers, learn their business model and best of all, try their delicious products!

Partnering with Codman Square Health Center, free cooking classes are held regularly to educate the community on a better diet. Variety of topics offered include; Healthy cooking on a budget, Diabetes friendly cooking, Cooking with your kids, Cooking for weight management, Heart healthy cooking and more.

 

This was our first MET ML 702 Special Topics in Food Waste class trip, a great experience learning straight from people within the industry, seeing firsthand how we can tackle social and environmental issue concurrently. Discussing some of the business’s strategy, organization, and struggles but also the ever so rewarding, expression of customers bringing home full bags of fresh produce for their families.

More information can be found on their website: www.dailytable.org

Gastronomy Program Receives Gift of John Mariani Menu Collection

By brotgerFebruary 18th, 2020in Research

Gastronomy student Laura Kitchings reports on her initial processing of John Mariani's recent gift of a collection of 20th Century menus. The finding aid she has prepared for the collection is available here.

I am always excited when my archival career intersects with my studies in the Gastronomy Program. This past month I was able to initially process a gift of approximately 300 menus, given to the program by influential food writer John Mariani, and create a finding aid using the Society of American Archivists’ content standards. More information about John Mariani and his extensive career can be found at http://johnmariani.com/.

While organizing the menus and checking the items for immediate preservation needs, I was amazed at the variety of institutions and events represented in the collection. I would see a menu for a restaurant with Michelin stars and then a menu for a restaurant serving delicious sounding barbecue a lower price point.

The menus often contain notations from John Mariani that include the dates he visited the restaurant and what he ate at the restaurant. While I was not able to spend a significant amount of time with each menu, I did find myself considering the variety of Gastronomy courses that could make use of the collection. The Food and Gender class could consider how images of women are used as restaurant advertising on the menu covers and the Food and Visual Culture class could consider how the colors used on menus have changed over time.

Some of the menus were for one-time events and show connections between restaurants while others provide a unique view of a chef at a distinct time in their career.

There are also menus for the same restaurant collected several years apart. This will allow students in the Gastronomy program a unique look into the evolution of these restaurants and consider generalized changes in the restaurant industry. This unique menu collection provides a multitude of potential research topics for both current and future Gastronomy students.

John Mariani spoke at BU on his book "How Italian Food Conquered the World" on Thursday, February 20. Slides from his talk can be viewed here.

 

Welcome New Students for Spring 2020, part 2

We hope you will enjoy getting to know some of the new students who are joining the Gastronomy and Food Studies program this spring.

Amy Johnson's childhood can best be defined by Lunchables, Pop Tarts and Velveeta Cheese. It was only after she was accepted to the BU Gastronomy Program that she would learn she's the daughter of a member of The Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an internationally-recognized Food & Wine Gastronomic Society (she now likes to joke that she joined the family business).

In addition to her love of food, Amy's passions lie in intellectual storytellings of history and culture. This interest would be the driving force for her pursuits in college, completing dual degrees in Journalism and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Never considering food as academic exploration until she spent a year in France, Amy discovered how important food studies is in understanding the complexities of culture. Upon her return to the States, a series of very fortunate events would lead her to designate food as her main focus. Living in Tucson, a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, proposed additional courses in food anthropology that she could pursue. A position as a food writer and photographer for a local publication allowed her to connect with the Mexican-American and Native American communities that surrounded her.

Knowing culture isn't just reserved to food, Amy also hopes to receive designations through the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center.

Amy lays claim to six cities, four states, and two countries, but is finally ready to plant her roots in the city of Boston. She has been eyeing the BU Gastronomy program for the past six years, and is thrilled to now be part of this captivating community of food enthusiasts.


Kris Kaktins obtained a BS in criminal justice at the University of Delaware and a MS in criminal justice at Northeastern University, selecting the field simply because she enjoyed learning about it.  She then stumbled into a career within the financial services industry where she remains sixteen years later.  Never having a “dream” occupation and facing serious burnout in her current work, in 2018 she engaged a career coach.  While the endeavor did not translate into to a new career (as of yet), a confession to the coach about her love of cheese led her to Boston University’s Cheese Studies Certificate.  Cooking food, eating food, shopping for food, and reading about food, recipes, and cookbooks have always brought Kris excitement, but this course quite possibly re-engineered her brain’s definition of bliss.  The next exploration was Wine Studies Level 1.  At the end of 2019 she applied to BU’s Certificate in Food Studies.  Kris hopes to make this study of food an opportunity that revitalizes her and perhaps even births a new journey.  Kris lives in the suburbs of Massachusetts with her husband, four-year-old son, and slightly neurotic dog.  They garden, tend to a variety of fruit trees, and in the spring are foraying into beekeeping.