The World on Our Plates
Peter Sellars, Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
The future of food on our planet is the most important question facing this generation, and the answer potentially holds the key to understanding the interlocking systems that link environmental conservation, social equity, human health and well-being, and even, possibly, human civility. The pleasure of sharing the tactile experience of breaking bread together, enriched by traditional wisdom, creativity, and the positive values embodied in food production (first in agricultural practice then in the combined arts of cooking and hospitality) is ultimately transmitted to human awareness. Culinary artists have the power to reach, nurture, and transform people across the broadest spectrum of humanity.
The Vilcek Foundation has chosen a particularly opportune moment to salute artists in one of the most advanced fields of human endeavor, and to confer awards on two culinary masters, one younger and one more experienced, who embody sophisticated traditions and knowledge, rarified imagination, and expert skill sets, while simultaneously embracing cutting-edge technical innovations and practices. These specialists delight in searching for essences, minutely weighing the most delicate substances, then inviting their delighted patrons to partake in a deeply memorable appointment with the past - memories that can be unlocked only by the palate - and to be carried away by tantalizing scents, gently alluring aromas of a world to come, a world we have only just begun to savor.
Their art form exists in time and space in a very specific and demanding way. It is very local. It is utterly and unforgettably of the moment. And it is a very distinct group of clients they serve: people seated at a table immediately in front of them or in a nearby room. The full inventory of their knowledge is tested every morning by decisions they must make in the moment and on the spot, in response to the food products that are available to them that day. Their individual gifts for radical improvisation join with the traditions they have absorbed across a lifetime of learning, and they begin to work, usually quickly, and under conditions of quiet, or not-so-quiet, intensity. It is a daily, electrifying act of creativity in a very local moment in a very local place, but with far-reaching implications, into areas that bear moral weight and have ecological and economic consequences. Most importantly, their work has implications for ethnic identity, cultural heritage, and the propagation of a new era of humanity that is, literally and metaphorically, being created by the food it is eating.
Along with their culinary creations, an inspired chef can offer his or her patrons every political, social, and economic issue right on their plates. The power of food today is such that every day, three times a day, our meals tell the story of the way we’re really living - of our actual values. The virtuoso chef creates harmony, a piquancy, from an array of ingredients, each of which tells its own tale about how we treat animals, plants, soil, and water systems. Each plate of food is another crucial link in a karmic chain, reminding us that how we treat our food sources is, ultimately, an indication of how we treat ourselves. The world is on our plates, and what is on our plates is a key to the state of the world. Food offers us an extraordinarily rich opportunity to meditate more deeply on the world at large. As we chew slowly, linger over tastes, scent the traces of fine and subtle ingredients, we engage in a moment of leisure, of quiet, of consideration, of thoughtful assessment and reassessment, and, sometimes, of surprise and delight. These epiphanies of the table often accompany another vital art of the table, the art of conversation. Culinary artists are the architects of these profound moments in our lives, but because they design to order for their clients, we tend to underestimate the depth of their artistry.
In the coming years we must ask ourselves to seriously reassess food in all of its aspects. Every delicious morsel that we, in the industrialized West, savor can serve to remind us that someone, in another part of the world or another part of our own community, has nothing to eat, or is eating something that will ultimately result in disease or dysfunction. Food scarcity and poor-quality food threatens future generations across our planet. Thus, the art and science of food calls upon us to address the major question facing our planet - the question of survival. After a good meal, it’s the least we can do.
But we do not eat only to survive. Food is culture. Human beings cook. It is one of the behaviors that distinguish us from other species; more, it is an important measure of our capacity to share, our ability to skillfully and fruitfully collaborate with the natural world, care for others and for the earth. Culture is the cultivation of human beings; agriculture is the cultivation of the earth. The joining of the two is the project of the ages, of this age.
Soil depletion and desertification caused by decades of bad practices, poisoning of water systems, commercialization of water rights, widespread farm failures, and famine are all clear signs that we are in the throes of a global food crisis, one that cannot be solved by top-down impositions. At the heart of this crisis are questions of land rights of indigenous peoples and of sustainable, equitable structures and practices. The hunger of so many across the planet is not just for enough to eat, but for justice, self-sufficiency, and human dignity.
The question of food, then, must be approached not just by the numbers; it is not primarily a question of bioengineering, but of ethics, reciprocity, social fabric - the essence of life itself. Science must begin to work hand-in-hand with the humanities, for the answer lies far beyond the crude constructs of “food technology” programs that have been instituted over the last generation.
Perhaps the defining condition of our human potential is the development of “taste.” What we may offer to our children is cultivated discernment, a refined sensibility, an awareness of nuance, which starts by separating good from bad, by developing a moral sense, leading to an understanding of the complex interaction between ingredients and processes. All over the world, this is the triumph of food cultures, those rich in tradition and heritage, which often originate in the poorest communities. The link between grandparents and their grandchildren is on a plate of food. We each carry with us flavors, aromas, and textures from our childhoods throughout our lifetimes, from the places where we grew up, from our grandmothers’ kitchens. Those sense memories are imbued with a host of associations, an emotional resonance, and a deep appreciation of our ancestors’ profound understanding of the nutritional properties of certain foods in certain combinations at certain seasons.
Immigrants to this country bring with them new ideas, new ambitions, and old food cultures. They leave their homelands to realize their potential as individuals, and to contribute to a greater humanity. It is the contributions of these courageous and visionary immigrants that the Vilcek Foundation honors. The future of food is charged with the same urgency these immigrants have to achieve, and has critical implications for societies, economies, and human relations. It also is charged with pleasure, with joy, with flair and beauty, and a shared, delicious purpose. Food makes the most compelling case for realizing the world of our dreams, for putting it within reach, every day.
I salute the Vilcek Foundation for recognizing the pioneering work of cooks and chefs, researchers, scholars, scientists, and activists in the culinary arts.
January 31, 2010
Always cutting-edge, sometimes controversial, Peter Sellars - opera, theater, and film director, and professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures - frequently uses classic plays as the platform from which to challenge audiences to examine charged political topics: war, poverty, and the international refugee crisis. His adaptation of Euripides’s The Children of Herakles, for example, portrayed the struggles of immigrants and refugees. Sellars is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Award and the Erasmus Prize for contributions to European culture.
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