An exchange between urban tables and rural contexts.

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

Last week, in our discussion with Monica Kisic, we touched upon food preservation as an economic, cultural, and ecological practice to prevent seasonal food waste and scarcity. In contrast to this, we pointed out the divergent path of the canning process: from preserving method to mass production commodity. Along with this conversation, we detected that canned products are engraved in our urban food consumption as a result of industrialized Food Systems and our detachment from the agricultural origin of what we eat. “Food has become invisible in our cities” with this quote from the architect and food urbanist Carolyn Steel, Monica opened up another necessary conversation which is the topic of this week.

But… What part of Food has become invisible? The question is not what, but rather who and where. Both community and context are crucial elements to address the value of food production labor and culture, or in other words agriculture. Where can we find active connections to the rural provenance of food in our urban context? Different from other urban foodscapes, the spaces related to the Gastronomic Industry like Food markets, street food trucks, and -especially- restaurants can take a stand or turn a blind eye to this urban-rural connection and the series of social inequalities along the food production chain. 

From sourcing their ingredients in ethical ways -such as fairtrade or sustainable farmers– to the menu that reads out the origin of the flavors related to the multiculturality of cuisines. All the actors involved in a gastronomic experience -suppliers, chefs, and customers- share the responsibility to make visible that our urban tables are linked to this ‘remote’ network of places and people of Food agricultural systems. Now the question is, why should we care about these common roots? Why is this awareness ecologically relevant?

Wochenmarkt at Markthalle Neun, Berlin. Photo by Doris Spiekermann-Klaas

According to the writer and designer John Thackara, in his article “Bioregioning: Pathways to Urban-Rural Reconnection” he relates the shift into sharing-economies business models in cities to the enabling of ecological thinking in urban communities. “The new rural economy reveals its greatest potential when we revisit history for inspiration. (…) The sharing economy, for example, has been greeted in the Global North as a novelty in recent times—but solidarity systems have existed for centuries. (…) living sustainably is second nature for people who cannot depend on the high entropy support systems of the industrial world. Their survival practices have enormous potential today. We need to ask: who has answered a similar question in the past? How might we learn from—and improve—what worked before?”

To venture some answers to these questions, allow me to set a parallel between the German and Peruvian Food Agricultural systems. For this, we invited the Peruvian anthropologist and researcher Francesco D’Angelo for a conversation with Monica Kisic and me, about urban-rural reconnection through food. While working between chefs in Lima (urban) and agricultural communities in Cuzco (rural), the one experience that “changed his chip” happened while living with agricultural potato communities in Cusco. This was part of a collaboration with Mil restaurant and research-lab Mater from the chef Virgilio Martinez. 

Anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo, left, and community leader Santiago Pillco in the fields outside Mil. Photo By Jake Lindeman

He sums up this experience with the phrase “hoy por ti mañana por mi” (today for you, tomorrow for me) which is the core of the Peruvian rural economy and relies on the values of reciprocity and redistribution. These values come from the Inca’s Ayny (holistic community labor) as a socio-economical heritage that is carried through agricultural generations in various rural communities of Perú. Nevertheless, the anthropologist shared with us that these values and communities are mostly invisible for urban eaters in Lima, the capital, which is recognized globally as a gastronomic destination. Francesco commented:

“My approach to [peruvian] gastronomy allowed me to evidence how today we favor quantitative values of food rather than socio-cultural ones. For example, one of the key points of the Peruvian national discourse is taking pride in having more than 4 million varieties of potatoes … but in this case, the scientific approach to the product (nutritional and biological properties) is more important than the indigenous social practices of the potato production. This is why the visibilization of agricultural communities inside ‘the capital’ [Lima] it’s often misleading. It is either a marketing strategy, that romanticizes the rural landscape rather than a commitment to fair retribution for farming labor. Or a behind the scenes practice of restaurant owners that fails to come through their gastronomical proposal.”

Both Monica and I saw a common link in this statement. Whereas you are in Lima or Berlin, in our everyday life in the cities we have disassociated the food products from the agricultural labor required to be produced. Although, among this pandemic context, we’re perceiving a desire to rethink the role of urban ‘foodies’ and the gastronomy industry –even in takeaway formats– to raise awareness about rural communities. Also, Francesco explained that instead of ‘farm to table’, he prefers to talk about ‘from context to table’, and in this sense includes the value of every actor and stage of the agricultural process. Hence, we avoid the trendy-drift of this effort, which could lead to the prevalence of social hierarchies inequalities. Beyond visibilization, we should aim for a rural community identification, which implies naming the family provenance, specifying its socio-cultural context and its connection to a consumption threat to the city (either a restaurant or a market).

RootsRadicals_SPRK.global buffet @WeWork ‘Lunch & Learn’ (April 4, 2019)

“There are so many variables to take into account while working for and within an urban-rural reconnection of the Food Agricultural Systems, that one can get lost when trying to communicate findings. In this sense, my anthropological background has helped me to identify the whole socio-cultural system behind agricultural production and the amount of human effort of this labor. I understood that I needed to communicate these two aspects to restaurants, so they transmitted this value through taste to their clients, who could also spread curiosity about agriculture with their familiar circle. We need to impulse a new type of ‘boca a boca’ (word-of-mouth) one that not only raises awareness but recovers value.”

We were thrilled to hear this sentence because it is exactly what the Roots Radicals project is doing. From crafting their tastefull zero-waste food preserves, to their active participation in events like The Flow of Food, from the Circular Berlin community. Although the agricultural systems of Germany and Perú are different through geographical morphology, heritage practices, and national regulations, we are still linked. We share a renovated stewardship of urban communities through self-organized initiatives and circular economy business around food that identify and recover the value of rural communities. “It is important to disturb the normalized ignorance of our food rural origin”, shared Francesco while he introduced us his project “La papa nunca fue tan moderna” (the potato is not even modern) which is an interdisciplinary and artistic approach to his anthropological fieldwork with a potato-farmer family Ylla Mesa in Pisac, Cuzco.

“La papa nunca fue tan moderna” (the potato is not even modern, 2020) exhibition in the Open Artworkshops in Chorrillos, Lima. Photos from Francesco D’Angelo

“Nobody knows how much one potato is worth (monetary and workload) till we pay its true value or experienced its labor. Hence in this installation called ‘la primera cosecha’ (the first harvest), I presented a series of prints arranged like a ‘chacra’ (farmland) together with 100 kg of potatoes. Whenever I sold a print, I would ask each buyer to put a potato in the place where the print used to be. In the city, we are often just spectators of rural dynamics, and with this project, I wanted to actively engage with agricultural communities and their practices. Hopefully, now we know how much one or 100 kg of potato is worth.”

We truly appreciated this exchange with Francesco, which showed us that if we begin to care -or at least show curiosity- we can take small but meaningful actions towards an urban-rural reconnection. These actions will depend, among other variables, on choosing a working area inside the Food Systems, as well as the individual or community craft, resources, and context. As productive and consumption related actions, we could learn from Germany about urban gardening projects and regenerative agriculture. As complementing actions around socio-cultural aspects, we can learn from Perú about indigenous food culture and gastronomy research. Overall, despite the different geographies and culture, we that live and eat in the city could learn from the rural sharing-economy, integrating ecological and cultural values of food production in our local communities. 

Hope to have triggered your appetite -not only for potatoes- to look underneath our urban tables for the common roots with agricultural systems.

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