15 October 2007

Foodways: An Environmental Post for Blog Action Day

I've decided to participate in Blog Action Day, an opportunity for online authors to unite by posting their thoughts focused on one particular issue. The issue chosen this year is the environment. All I need do is write something relating to this topic and the environment is the topic on which I harbor deep-rooted beliefs and opinions. I have considered myself an environmentalist since sixth grade, the year I began some serious study on solar energy.

Solar energy isn't the topic I'm writing about today, but all life, and therefore, all food comes ultimately from the sun's energy. Back on August 31st I posted about my first foray into cooking fresh and local food. Today's entry continues on a similar theme, with the added information I have learned in the past five weeks.

Foodways is a fairly new word in common usage. Foodways of Austin, Texas website provides a useful definition of this rather academic term:

The term foodways refers to the culinary practices of a people and land, historical and popular. Food plays a defining role in local and national cultures. What people eat and how they eat it reflects numerous factors, such as landscape, societal, spiritual, artistic, psychological, political, economic, and other conditions.

I first heard this term in several cultural history courses back in the early 1990s. Now foodways is becoming a very important branch of humanities scholarship. Today (October 15, 2007) I attended a foodways lecture by culinary scholar Michael Twitty who has been exploring the intersection of West African cooking traditions of his ancestors with Chesapeake cooking techniques favored by enslaved peoples living in Maryland and Virginia. The program I attended at Historic London Town and Gardens was an opportunity for educators and living history interpreters to learn about hearth-cooking practices of African Americans from their earliest arrival as slaves in the British colonies in North America.

You may be asking at this point, how do foodways relate to my topic: the environment? The practices of acquiring, storing, and preparing food and of preserving foodways traditions relates directly to the land and to local practices of agriculture. One of the most fascinating parts of Mr. Twitty's presentation was his summary of the agricultural cycle that followed the seasons. He said that enslaved African Americans kept a "calendar of food dates" in their head, so that they might supplement the meager diet provided by their British masters. They also learned to use their wisdom of hunting, fishing, and gardening as well as their culinary traditions memorized by generations of West Africans. He argues that seasonal food preparation, foraging and cooking were necessities for enslaved peoples to survive the rigors of the oppression underwhich they lived.

Mr. Twitty also responded to a question about daily foodways practices. Again, he has taught himself the wisdom of people who labored hard and long hours by listening to the stories of his grandparents and of their generation and by reading diaries that survive from former slaves. He sees the carry-over of certain foodways from West Africa, such as the men's tradition of roasting and frying. Another West African tradition he observes in Enslaved Maryland culture is the tradition of the elder women preparing stew and hoecakes to be served to farm laborers for lunch and cooking one-pot meals for family dinners when the field hands have returned for the night.

What I find most fascinating about these ideas is their practicality and common sense. It reminds me that even people with Northern European ancestry have forgotten the ways living with the land and with the cycles of nature understood by their ancestors. As someone of likely all Northern European descent, I am on a journey of my own to discover the foodways known by the ancestors who emigrated to the New World.

I'm doing my best to seek as many local and organic foods as possible. I am also learning more about seasonal cooking and food preparation. Does this mean I'm going to start cooking with lard and molasses? No! My clean bill of health from my doctor just proves that cooking with olive oil and watching my sugar and carb intake is the best possible thing for me to be doing if I want to stay healthy long-term. But the point is, that local and organic foods are just better for you and better for the health of our planet as well.

My friend N. shared a news article about the 100-mile diet with me after my August post. I don't think I'm going to go giving up coffee, imported teas, chocolate, etc. and be quite that extreme, but I do believe that patronizing farmer's markets and local farm stands is a great thing to do for the environment. Buying local produce and limiting transportation costs or driving where possible is also something that everyone in the U.S.A. should consider doing more often. I have a good friend who is a member of a farm co-op that harvests local fruits and veggies and splits the harvest share among its investors.

All and all it's been a tough year for farmers and gardeners in much of Maryland. We don't feel the drought as our ancestors might have done who ate only local food, but the drought will have an impact on availability of local produce we like. The more we eat from the land where we live, the more we appreciate the impact we have on our environment through choices we make every single day.

As I tasted Michael Twitty's Cowhorn Okra Soup today, I remembered the goodness of eating foods grown right here in Maryland. {By the way, I'm normally disgusted by okra. But Mr's Twitty's home-grown okra is of an heirloom variety and not the slimy stuff I have come to associate with a nasty, stomach-turning "Ick!"} Mr. Twitty's personal stories and his emphasis on the importance of ancestral cooking traditions reminded me of the culture that surrounds the foods my family always likes to eat at harvest time.

I am in the beginning stages of a project to learn about my own Scots-Irish ancestry and my ancestors who came from the Old World, perhaps sometime back in the mid-18th century. I think that learning about what they ate is almost as important is reading what they wrote. So much of culture is transmitted through the preparation of food. We remember well the home-cooked foods of our families, don't we?

Below are several resources that are helping me to begin the process, and I hope to add more to this list as I continue my research.

What can you do to preserve your own foodways and culinary traditions? Cook a feast for friends or family with local foods. Dig out and prepare your grandmother's or grandfather's best recipes. Or share your thoughts and memories in comments to this post.

Slainte! ("To your health!" in Scottish Gaidhlig)

A Few Resources

Culinary scholar, Michael Twitty's Afro Foodways website.

Kentucky Foodways: Traditional and Modern by Elizabeth Mosby Adler

Our Immigrant and Native Ancestors:Southern food evolved from many ethnic influences, from The Culture of Southern Food website.

There appears to be a new book about Renewing America's Food Traditions that is available for download online. A sustainable living organization is using it to promote it's efforts to preserve heirloom plants and native animal breeds for Americans.


  1. Hi, I just heard about “Blog Action Day” as the day is coming to a close, so I threw together a short post that features a video on alternative wind power beyond windmills that I happened to stumble upon earlier in the day. Not much of a post, but I have been trying to find ways to get more involved with environmental issues and help my church community do the same.

    Thanks for the recourses on food and the enviroment you provided on your blog.



  2. Thank you for your comment on Blog Action Day, James. Nice to hear from a fellow Marylander who cares about the environment and alternative energy. I hope you enjoy the links on foodways.

    Peace and Namaste,