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Food Genealogy

2011 October 3
by Paul Mabrey

I wrote this post for the Shenandoah Valley Food Day blog over here,

Food Genealogy

Genealogy is commonly known and used in the context of family history, records or archival research. Individuals use genealogy to know who or where they came from. This method is now even being used in elementary schools as students are asked to draw a visual representation tracing their roots through their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and as far back as they can go. Genealogy can also be used in other contexts. In honor of Food Day, I think one of the most difficult and yet rewarding tasks is to create a version of your own food genealogy. Just like we want to know where we are from, shouldn’t we want to know about the food we eat everyday?

In the context of food, a genealogy aims to account for the entire life-cycle of your food. You might ask questions like where was your food acquired or purchased? How much transportation was required to get your food? What went into producing your food? Did your food need chemicals, pesticides, hormones or its own food to grow? What went into those chemicals, pesticides, hormones or food for your food? You might see how difficult and challenging this food genealogy can be. But is it not worth knowing the answers to all of these questions for the food you put into your body for nutrition and nourishment?

Your food genealogy may seem like an overwhelming exercise, it is! But even if you can not do all of your food or one meal, try mapping just one item you have eaten today. For example, let’s say you had an apple. Did you pick the apple from your backyard? Likely not. Maybe you purchased it from the grocery store or farmer’s market. Did you drive? You should account for the gas consumed. Were the apples brought to the store or market? There is gas there also. How were the apples grown? Any chemicals or pesticides? What went into them? Are the chemicals made of gasoline? Are the corn or soy based? Maybe made with something else? Each ingredient creates one more root or line on your food genealogy. And this is just one apple, think about the hamburger, box of macaroni and cheese or tofu that you may have had for lunch.

Why should you do a food genealogy to celebrate Food Day? If food helps to define us as individuals, communities and cultures; then the best way to know who we are is to better know our food practices. Food genealogies help us to better understand every aspect of who we are and educate us about our food practices. Our food choices can help us know what we value and believe in, from the practices that go into raising a chicken or cow to how far we are willing to travel to buy a vegetable. Food genealogies enable us to better understand what we take for granted about the food we eat and open the possibility for us to change our food habits.

Don’t let your food genealogy intimidate or scare you. You might find it difficult or even impossible to map every ingredient or aspect of one item you ate. You might be horrified to know that the red pepper or box of tofu you ate actually came from another country and traveled thousands of miles to your plate. Please remember though that even if you don’t find all of the answers or don’t like the answers you found, the process of asking the questions is worthwhile.

If food genealogies interest you, consider checking out Michael Pollan’s The Omnivores Dilemma. Pollan’s book traces entire food genealogies for four different types of meals he prepared. While Pollan is a popular, even controversial figure, his book provides an insightful and fun journey along his own food genealogies.

Please consider sharing your food genealogy with us here, your family and friends. To borrow a cliche, the journey is the destination – happy hunting. Enjoy your food genealogy!!!

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