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A Radical Conversation on Food-Preserving

Hello Roots Radicals Community! 

This week I would like to “Blogging [On] the Roots” and put on the table the topic of Food Preservation -with a different perspective.  I was always curious about food preserves as a home-made practice, in contrast of the endless options of “canned goods” in the supermarket, although I couldn’t grasp the extendion Food Preserving knowledge. When talking about this, maybe we could immediately link it to processes such as fermentation, pickling, and canning. All of the previous are historically related to concepts such as seasonality, food-security, and food-waste. In a nutshell, food preservation is “any of a number of methods by which food is kept from spoilage after harvest or slaughter”. Now that we have this concept clear, it’s logical to ask who takes care of this preservation process, even better how and why. Since most of our knowledge around canned goods or food preserves is provided by our local market and–if lucky–by our grandmother’s pantry.

To understand the who, the how and the why of food preservation I invited Monica Kisic, our co-founder and expert on the subject. I was very excited to frame this exchange as a conversation to overcome the fear of asking questions around a subject unknown to me and that requires, as Monica puts it, “method and patience”. Although we intended to discuss the process of pickling and dehidratation of the Roots Radicals Preserves, the conversation took unexpected turns. As she shared her understanding of food preservation both as a scientific method and a sustainable action, she also described it as a way to safeguard food cultural-roots. I couldn’t have said it better. Thus I would elaborate on this preserving root through Monica’s path from Ph.D. in Molecular Biology to circular cooking Chef of Roots Radicals.

Hand drawing jars with pickled vegetables and fruits. By the Czech artist Canicula

As a Peruvian living in Spain, she dedicated 12 years to scientific research in Biology, or as she calls it “the study of life”, before giving her all into cooking. “Life is not about doing one thing, it is about exploration”, she recalls while telling me about her blog Monitouille which was a starting point to register her methodological shift from laboratory to kitchen. Even when she tested the recipes a week before publishing them on the blog, she shared her findings, as truthful as she could. Along this research process, a friend invited her to a sourdough bread workshop that she describes as a life-changing experience. A moment that reunited her science self with her cooking craft.

“The process of bread-making was a lesson of value. Of understanding food and its connection to artisan cooking. It suddenly tells you what you need to know about food preservation. Bread showed me the way to artisanry value and culture, whereas at the same time it joined me with my scientist-self, with researching, and my understanding of fermentation. And this is heavily related to the history of food preservation. Together with wine, bread was one of the first things made in Mesopotamia related to a fermentation process–to a transformation through bacteria.”

Fermentation has been part of human cooking history since forever. But there is a difference between this bacteria-preservation process and the practice of canning that emerged in history while facing food-scarcity related to seasons or even geopolitical events such as migration or war. Examples of this are the Food-saving and Canning propaganda of the USA Administration around 1918’s, or the Weck Jars Preserves advertisement for the winter season of 1940’s . Then, during industrialization, canning-goods acquired a different value, for they related to food consumption impulsed by massive production and “pre-made food”.

“When I think about food preservation (canning, pickling, dehydration, or anything that relates to preserving methods) I think it’s going back to emotion and health, it’s going back to the farm. I think of one English farmer trying to preserve apples from getting spoiled by making an apple-pie filling. Or a German sailor traveling through the ocean and realizing that the fermentation of the cabbage made him survive from a Vitamin C deficiency disease… which actually is the story of Sauerkraut. And, like this, every culture has its history around products and preserves which make each country’s food-culture what it is today. ”

Listening to Monica’s transition from laboratory to the kitchen and how both of these spaces sparked her curiosity and understanding of food preservation, I became aware of something. Today, was it necessary to have a sourdough life-changing experience to become interested in food preservation? It is clear that in our current urban Food Systems, where fast preparation and consumption is the kitchen’s detriment, this subject is not of common knowledge. Or at least it wasn’t until COVID-19 put everyone in their homes that we had to take upon the whole task of feeding ourselves every day.

Roots Radicals fermented jar of Apple Core Vinegar from localy sourced products. Photography by Becca Crawford

In and out of lockdown, during the last year we could perceived from home the  impact of the pandemic in the economical and production aspects of food, while caring about the nutritional values that sparked new cooking knowledge. There is a reason why all the market’s flour shelves were depleted, or all the kimchi online classes were booked. If anything this pandemic positioned food preservation not only as a reaction to an emergency but as a means to cultural and communal engagement. But curiosity about food preservation is just the first step. According to Monica, any of these processes required as much patience and experimentation as any craft.

“Cooking is inside of my heart, and I believe my hands are the extension of my heart. So through my hands, I’m a crafter, and so I cook with love and craft. But through my science understanding, there is also a methodology. For any recipe of the Roots Radicals products, I feel like back in the laboratory with my journal keeping track of the research process. Once I prepare them more than three times I know all the specific steps. But there is also another type of research necessary to go further with these products: research on human culture, on the history of the ingredients, on memories.”

Examples of this dual research–method and heart–can be the Bread & Butter Pickles or the instant soup ‘Sopa a la Criolla’. The first one comes from Monica’s traveling memories around the USA, for which she pursued this flavor by researching cucumber pickling history, recipes, and canning processes. The second one is definitely closer to her heart–and mine–and aims to share the flavor and feeling of eating a Peruvian “criolla” soup through a preserve made of dry tomatoes, oregano, and other spices. Both food preserving methods resulted in a product that engages the eater to a story charged with cultural identity but also ecological values. It aims to change habits not by imposing ideals, but by sharing flavors that come from a sustainable food chain, making us all activists through good food.

“When you connect the heart and the value to a process that is more methodic, then you’re talking about good food, then it is reconnecting us to what is food preservation. In a way that’s what Roots Radicals is about. If you take the heart out of the equation, and just start canning or pickling per-se in an industrial manner to just grow… then it’s very difficult to narrate the story and to have people connect to food. Tell me, if you open any processed tomato can soup, close your eyes and smell it, what do you think about it? I doubt it would be a tomato plant, but rather an industrial factory.”

So why do we can today? There is a parallel between canning for commons, either as food preservation, food safety, or food waste prevention, and canning as a commodity as a result of industrialization and mass-production. These canned goods that we–I have to honestly include myself–have in our pantries are part of a larger problem in the global Food Systems, some to a higher degree than others. It’s a matter of reading the label, as Monica suggested to me, opting for bio-canned products or taking into consideration the ingredients that are listed–if you can’t identify more than three then please don’t buy it. Why? Because each of those ridiculously cheap canned products is part of a broken Food Chain that is violating nine planetary boundaries, by destroying biodiversity and soil pollution. 

Living in the city we don’t see all of these. Monica shared with me Carolyn Steel’s quote from her first book, Hungry City: “I find super powerful to say that ‘Food has become invisible in our cities’. So people cannot see anymore where our food comes from, we are just detached. And this pushed us away not only from the land but from the community.” 

Today, both Monica and I feel in a moment of change, we are eager to eat better and find that belonging around food. Either in Germany or Perú, everyone who eats is part of this shift in the global Food Systems. We invite you to take a closer look at your food consumption and preserving choices to become part of the change and break up with the ‘canned up’ unsustainable relationship. By the end of this enriching conversation, we came up with the challenge of collaboratively create a Radical Food-Preserving Manifesto, would you like to participate? Check up the audio-talk and feel free to write in the comments your ideas for a more sustainable Food Preserving practice and Food Systems.

One comment

  1. “if you open any processed tomato can soup, close your eyes and smell it, what do you think about it? I doubt it would be a tomato plant, but rather an industrial factory” this is so important, I think we must consider that our sense of smell has been wrongly trained by the industrial food complex to consider a superficial flavor-only approach to food, where the depth of natural food preservation is lost. I think we must re-train our sense of smell to be able to distinguish and understand the difference between artificial preservatives and natural preservation ~fermentation, etc. Thank you for an inspiring conversation Gaby and Moni!

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