Editor’s note: The following is a guest essay written by acclaimed chef, author, and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver. Seaver is on a mission to restore our relationship with the ocean, the land, and with each other—through dinner. You can learn more about his work and his upcoming book on Twitter and Facebook.
To find out how you can make a difference this Earth Day and to get recipes from renowned chefs like Barton Seaver, Mario Batali and Alice Waters visit earthday.nature.org.
Food is far more than just nourishment. To me, it’s a lens of exploration. This was something I discovered early on. Growing up in Washington, D.C., dinner meant constant exposure to new and exciting meals: stews, curries, stir-fries, fresh fish. Mom would prepare the slow dishes, and Dad was the short-order cook in the family. My brother and I used to watch our father make tacos from scratch, gently pressing out the moistened masa harina dough to form tortillas. Imagine two little towheads enthralled by something that represented both eons of history, and the culture of many people who lived in our neighborhood.
I didn’t realize it then, but my parents were using the time we spent cooking and eating together to instill in us the idea that every meal has a story to tell. From the source of the ingredients to the recipe to the cooking style, each dish taught me something new about the extent to which food is deeply connected to people and places on our planet. This lesson had quite an impact on me, and led me to realize that dinner could be a way for us to begin restoring our relationship with the oceans, the land and with each other.
Unfortunately, in our quest for flavor and value today, it’s easy to take for granted the people, places and resources that make our meals possible. We too often forget that our decisions about what to eat for dinner have ripple effects around the globe — for better or for worse.
While I believe that our planet can provide for our needs, the world’s food supply can’t keep pace with our current consumption and practices forever. If we re-examine what we actually value in our lives, we will find that community, employment and health should be more important to us than being able to continuously serve up large portions of cheap protein. Sustainability is not about finding more food, it’s about doing a better job nourishing people with the food we have. And we can do this without sacrificing flavor.
Take the Peruvian anchovy (anchoveta), which is the world’s largest fishery. Every year, tens of millions of tons of these small fish are scooped from the ocean off the coast of Peru, primarily destined to be turned into fishmeal and used to feed livestock and farmed fish species. However, as my friend Dr. Patricia Majluf attests, this healthy and abundant fishery could instead be used to feed humans directly, alleviating the rampant poverty and hunger afflicting countless people right in Peru where the fish are caught. Doing this however, would require a shift in our perception of resources.
The oyster provides another example of a more sustainable way of eating. Oysters naturally filter water, removing large volumes of excess nutrients from waterways at an impressive rate. Wild oyster populations have been decimated in recent years (it is estimated that 90 percent of natural oyster reefs are gone), having been harvested or ravaged by pollution and disease. Despite this grim figure, farmed oysters offer us a chance to restore these systems. In the absence of wild oysters, planted ones perform essential ecosystem functions and breed freely to help revive native populations. When we eat a farmed oyster, we can enjoy our food knowing that our choice is making a positive impact on the health of our oceans.
In Blues, John Hersey’s book about fishing for Bluefish in Cape Cod, a fisherman talks to a stranger about life. The stranger tells the fisherman, “I remember that on that first day, in trying to get me to soften my bias against fishing, you urged me to bear in mind that in the act of foraging for food, we’d really be trying to find our appropriate place in the systems of life on earth.”
By choosing to eat sustainably whenever possible, we recognize that we have the power to benefit not only ourselves, but also the people and the planet that provide us with so much. This is the lesson we must continue learning, teaching our children and sharing with our dinner companions.
(Image: Barton Seaver. Image credit: ©Katie Stoops)