After attending the recent Seeds and Chips conference in Milan, I had the enviable burden of waiting a day to catch a flight back to New Zealand. Eschewing fashion for food I decided to maximise my time in Italy’s stylish capital by attending a cooking course. Run by a professional chef, we started with a visit to a local Saturday market where we talked with stall holders and sought the freshest fruit and vegetables. Our shopping done, we returned to the chef’s apartment (where she also held the course) and refrigerated produce that required it – which led to a discussion.
Apartment dwellers in Milan encounter spectacularly minimal amounts of storage (the chef’s refrigerator was the size of a small cupboard). We talked about how small refrigerators, traditions of shopping at local markets and small supermarkets, and the tendency of people to walk or cycle everywhere meant that people really focused on the food they brought home. A fortuitous result? Very little food gets wasted when meals are planned with such care. In the case of the chef’s apartment, gravity also played a role: it was on the sixth floor of an elevator-less building, meaning she had to schlep everything up six floors – and then haul waste back down.
This made me ponder refrigeration and storage around the world and its impact on food culture. In China, where city dwellers tend to live in small apartments, there is a tendency to buy fresh and in single-meal amounts. Like our chef in Milan, they shop often and waste little. The opposite is true in western countries, especially the United States, where I’ve seen home refrigerators the size of buses (well … almost). In sprawling suburbs the great majority of food shopping takes place in ever-expanding supermarkets, where large amounts are purchased at a time – with a great deal of it going to waste. Perhaps that explains the robustness of a storage container industry that never seems to falter.
On another subject, in Milan’s market I noticed strawberries being popped into mouths with gay abandon; no one obsessed about washing them first. “Aren’t you worried about contamination?” I asked the chef. “Why should I be?” she answered, shrugging her shoulders. “There is nothing on these strawberries.”
Only someone with a security borne from knowing her food supplier, from knowing she’d be back down at the market chatting to that same fruit supplier and, if necessary, being told firsthand about quality issues, could be so confident. To me, the inherent safety of the produce stemmed from more a personal relationship – it came from a confidence in knowing and understanding the production method and supply chain, knowing where the food came from and what it should look like. It was refreshing to stand in that little kitchen in Milan and talk to someone passionate and knowledgeable about food systems while immersed in a truly different food culture.
In contrast to the instinctive trust of Milan marketgoers, produce buyers in the US wash everything (with, as evidenced by the recent romaine lettuce E.coli outbreak, very good cause). My own habit of washing all produce purchased in the US stems from years of listening to food crisis after food crisis related to contaminated natural produce, i.e., food that should be safe.
Which brings us back to not only cultural practices associated with purchasing and storing of food but also food production. Seasonality and origin are important parts of Asian and European food cultures but much less so in the US, where all-foods-available-all-the-time is the mindset. This consumer expectation results in supply chains that are long, impersonal, convoluted and often involve large-scale, industrial-type production; supply chains that make the investigation of the recent romaine lettuce outbreak overly long.
The take home? If you want to guarantee the safety of the food you eat in the US, you better make sure it won’t make you sick.