dinsdag 31 december 2013

John McPhee talks about structure

Do you know John Mcphee, Dostoyevsky in the age of Discovery Channel? He is only one of the greatest stylist in contemporary non-fiction. But 'style' is the wrong word, he is more a strategist, someone who follows a system that works so perfectly and that is set up so frictionless that it disappears behind the story. It's all system and no personal glory. Sometimes the system gives him a little time, when he gives the reader a breath of space to catch up and then he will make an 'action' like a football player will submit himself to a positional system and only when he has some time waiting for other players to take their positions he will show he can play with an unexpected arty move. 

McPhee is a strategist, and looking for a snooker equivalent he is like Mark Selby: a player who pots like the best but will never forget to lock up a yellow or a brown near the cushion just in case. Watching Selby can sometimes be a bit boring and so is reading McPhee, but that is always down to a failure on the side of the spectator/reader to enter in the right frame of mind. McPhee doesn't do quick fixes, he is all arches across arches, roundabouts hidden in roundabouts.

Currently I am reading his book about the chad. It is about fishing. I like it: that is how good he is.

John McPhee on Structure. Here are the final paragraphs they show you exactly what I mean.
Where to end a piece? As noted above, I usually know from the outset what the last line will be. In 1982, I was walking around in the Alps with a patrol of Swiss soldiers. We had been together three weeks and were plenty compatible. Straying off limits, not for the first time, we went into a restaurant called Restaurant. Military exercises were going on involving mortars and artillery up and down the Rhone Valley, above which the cantilevered Restaurant was fourteen hundred feet high. The soldiers had a two-way radio with which to receive orders, be given information, or report intelligence to the Command Post. They stirred their fondue with its antenna. They sent coded messages to the Command Post: “A PEASANT IN OBERWALD HAS SEEN FOUR ARMORED CARS COMING OUT OF ST. NIKLAUS AND HEADING FOR THE VALLEY.” More fondue, then this: “TWO COMPANIES OF ENEMY MOTORIZED FUSILIERS HAVE REACHED RARON. ABOUT FIFTEEN ARMORED VEHICLES HAVE BEEN DESTROYED.” And later this: “AN ATOMIC BOMB OF PETITE SIZE HAS BEEN DROPPED ON SIERRE. OUR BARRICADES AT VISP STILL HOLD. THE BRIDGES OF GRENGIOLS ARE SECURE. WE ARE IN CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY.” 

Setting down a pencil and returning to the fondue, I said to myself, “There is my ending.” The petite A-bomb was a gift to structure. Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
After running aground, the river pilot Mel Adams said, “When you write all this down, my name is Tom Armstrong.”

William Shawn once told me that my pieces were a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings. That surely is a result of preoccupation with structure. In any case, it may have led to an experience I have sometimes had in the struggle for satisfaction at the end.
Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were. 

People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.

maandag 30 december 2013

Who grows what? new web page

Map your recipe can tell you where some of the ingredients were first domesticated, but it won't tell you where they are grown today. Using data from the FAO I have added the top 3 producing countries for those crops for which data was available. A link will point you to this new webpage that shows on a map all producers given by the FAO for a number of crops. 

The reason for adding/making this is partly to show another face of a globalized food market, but I was even more interested in the geographical spread of crops. Why do we eat potatoes in the West instead of taro or cassava? Maybe climate is to blame.

maandag 23 december 2013

The humble literature of complex civilizations

Cookbooks, which usually belong to the humble literature of complex civilizations, tell unusual cultural tales. They combine the sturdy pragmatic virtues of all manuals with the vicarious pleasures of the literature of the senses. They reflect shifts in the boundaries of edibility, the proprieties of the culinary process, the logic of meals, the exigencies of the household budget, the vagaries of the market, and the structure of domestic ideologies. The existence of cookbooks presupposes not only some degree of literacy, but often an effort on the part of some variety of specialist to standardize the regime of the kitchen, to transmit culinary lore, and to publicize particular traditions guiding the journey of food from marketplace to kitchen to table. Insofar as cookbooks reflect the kind of technical and cultural elaboration we grace with the term cuisine, they are likely, as Jack Goody has recently argued, to be representations not only of structures of production and distribution and of social and cosmological schemes, but of class and hierarchy (1982).

From "How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India" by Arjun Appadurai. The paper itself deals with class in India but this first paragraph is good to quote here for the clarity of the way it states the anthropological angle on cookbook research.

Maps of Vavilov's food hearths

Three maps freed with a little screen-shot magic from a Google Books preview of Vavilov's 'Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants'. Posted earlier were the later agricultural origin maps by Carl Sauer, now we can compare.

Click to enlarge.

zondag 15 december 2013

The NOMA ready-mades

Etnobotanica brings together papers on European wild plant use in places that I would consider obscure (ohh that Dutch self-centredness). There is much on Albania and Macedonia for instance. It's a fantastic resource and I have pointed to another paper earlier

"Wild food plant use in 21st century Europe: the disappearance of old traditions and the search for new cuisines involving wild edibles" by Łukasz Łuczaj and others gives a broad overview on the current status of foraging. It notes that one hand the traditional knowledge of wild food is disappearing while at the same time it is reinvented (not reintroduced as the paper argues) in avant-garde cooking. 

In all it is a bit scattershot, but that is only to be expected for such a huge and complex field in which every country has its own history and where generally there little overlap between separate traditions exists. Good piece to get you talking. I am happy in the meanwhile with the different plant lists like this this stocking-list from a South Swedish wild food firm that also supplies Noma. It is a list that contains so many plants that are growing between the cracks of the pavements or in neglected gardens that it once again shows how much of Michelin-starred wild food cooking resembles the experiments of Surrealism to create extraordinary sensations by rearranging ordinary and/or discarded material like bus cards and cut-outs from newspapers. 

dinsdag 10 december 2013

Reading Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou


The six months or so before his book Scarp (2012) was published deep topographer Nick Papadimitriou was the talk of the psychogeographers ghost town (see, see). The radio show he did with John Rogers was a real highlight and together they discussed the upcoming book extensively. I intended to purchase it on the day it would come out but I never did. Only last month I scooped up a remaindered copy on Ebay. 

Why did it take so long? Fear of disappointment. 

I was afraid that after so much pre-excitement the book could only fail. That it seem to get awfully quiet around Papadimitriou after Scarp's publication only reinforced that feeling.

Now I have read it and I did so with great pleasure. It is much funnier than I thought it would be and his 'proximity flights', when he takes on the persona of other people or animals (the chapter that is eyeing scarp from the perspective of the eternal rook is extremely memorable) work very well. Much of what Papadimitriou makes a fascinating figure has to do with his resolute uniqueness. He is the arsonist that set fire to his school twice, he is also the psychogeographer who rejected the term and created for himself his own system of knowing and internalizing space. The proximity flight is a good example. That he still considers himself to live in long abandoned Middlesex is another. 

A different element of my prospected disappointment originates from this stubbornness. 

Papadimitriou comes across as someone who has used his walking and studies to sublimate an underlying insecurity and irrationality without 100% success. And this instability comes through in the book and it might have derailed it. But it didn't, instead it adds to the flavour that here is speaking a man who knows how to appreciate things that very few others people can. It is the claim of gurus and saints. The genre this book falls in may be well established but here is a writer who walks out of possession, not one who walks to write. But even then Papadimitriou combines opposites. In his introduction he states with equal weight that Scarp was his object of study long before he identified it as one zone. At the same time the book describes a number of walks made in 2011 with the exact purpose to write about it. Papadimitriou's emotional pendulum seems to swing between a desire for class war and jealously for the security of the middle class, between a need for loliness and a need for love and compassion. Struggles never to be resolved.

Papadimitriou himself connects his deep topology with his underlying psychology. A fair bit of prose is devoted to his account of his troubled youth, his crimes and the resulting brush with the law. Strangely his autobiography never gets beyond him checking into prison and it strongly suggests that the original manuscript was cut in two(or three) and that the rest will only be published when Scarp does well enough. 

I rate Scarp very highly, it is not really a book about a place or a person but a shamanic probe into the fundamental matter of desire.  

It has the effect on me that I want to go out and walk, it makes me want to buy a plane ticket to go visit Scarp myself. If only Papadimitriou would be my guide.

maandag 9 december 2013

Charting the geographical and numerical spread of ingredients from 29 historic cookbooks

From various places (Gutenberg, Archive, Bit-Torrent) I have collected the full text of 29 cookbooks published between 1390 and 2010.

I will not bother you here with the full list, but the earliest is the Forme of Cury (1390) and the latest is the Paleo Diet cookbook (2010). In between there are classics like The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Beeton (1859), A guide to modern cookery by Auguste Escoffier (1907) and the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver (1999). I have tried to find books evenly spaced through the years and have cleared them as best as I could from non-intentional ingredients. Book by book I fed all of them into Map you Recipe and collected the raw numbers that are used to make the graph above.

It maps the number of ingredients (vertical axis) for 29 books identified by year of publication (horizontal axis). The green top line tracks total number of ingredients recognized, two lines track how many of those are from the old or the new world and one line indicated from how many of the 15 food categories Map your Recipe uses ingredients are drawn from. 

Here are some observations that I think are fascinating. 

- Over time cookbooks have an increasing list of potential ingredients.  

- The big change comes about 1600 when the number of ingredients sharply rises. 

- It takes to about 1650 when produce from the Americas start to be seriously introduced to the larder.
- The food stuffs from the Americas on there own or not enough to explain the sudden increase in 17th century.

- From 1700 onwards the total use of ingredients goes up (130 max) and down (61 min) but it never goes down enough to come near the level of 1658 (41 ingredients) which at that time is the record.  

- The first cookbook with more than a hundred ingredients dates from 1851, but this remains an exceptional number for a long time.

- The Paleo-diet cookbook has the highest total number of ingredients. It is ironic that a so-called 'caveman diet' seems intent on using as much agricultural crops at it can.

- Nigella Lawson in 2007 uses 29 more ingredients than J. Oliver in 1999.
There are a few caveats. In an earlier post I did the same for 15 books searching only for those fruits and vegs that Vavilov was able to trace to a specific food hearth. In the mean time I have also added many other food stuffs that are known to originate from the old or the new world but without the specificness of the Vavilov list. The problem with the additional list is that it is in potential infinite. This is even true when you exclude meat and fish as Map you Recipe does. So you don't know what is missing even though I expect it to pick up 99% of the most common ingredients. 

This graph is not intended to be the final word nor does it make claims for extreme precision. It is meant as an illustration for general trends in food over time and I think it is very revealing. 

zondag 8 december 2013

A 1917 wild food book

For 75UK Pounds 'The wild foods of Great Britain' can book can be yours today on Ebay: that's a bit much for me but these three pictures make up the deficit. It was published in 1917 so that is nice and early.

vrijdag 6 december 2013

Cryptoforestry: Psychogeography in the Anthropocene

“It has been suggested that nature is hostile, violent and unpredictable, and that the Indians try to bring order into this confusion by categorising it. This may be so in some cases and some societies, but from what we have learned from the Indians, it is man and his basic impulses: food, sex, power, security, which are chaotic and must be controlled, while nature, far from being disordered offers many practical models for human behaviour and adaptation.” - Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff[1]

Setting the Stage: A Walk

“Ladies and Gentleman, I welcome you all to today’s cryptoforestry walk. We have assembled here at a place on the edge of the city of Amsterdam. In the vicinity are three large tower blocks, all offices, a hotel, there are mass-parking facilities, tram and metro stations. There are also plenty of motorway junctions. A place like this is the utility area of a city, it provides the infrastructure that transport oxygen to the heart, i.e. the centre, of the city. It is an the uncelebrated landscape but for cryptoforestry this place is not just the essence of the city, its true grit, its face behind the mask, but it is also the place where the dirt is swept under the magic carpet.

‘Crypto’ from Greek meaning hidden or secret, related to ‘cryptic’, of unsure or obscure meaning. A cryptoforest incorporates both: they may be forests that are hidden or it may refer to forests of unsure pedigree, because no other words suffices. Cryptoforests are a feeble category within the psychogeographic classification of landscapes. You do find cryptoforests in the centre but the chance of finding one increases as you move outward and cracks will appear in the urban armour as you move further and further in the perimeter. I invite you to think of the cryptoforest not as a disturbance of urban hegemony, but as the place where the division between city and nature becomes meaningless.

After a detour along the parapets of the motorway we will appear in front of fence. We climb this and enter a terrain that formerly belonged to a petrol distribution point but which has now been reclaimed by the spontaneous vegetation of opportunistic weeds. Perhaps you are familiar with Richard Jefferies late-romantic novel ‘After London, or Wild England’ first published in 1885. In the opening chapters Jefferies paints a picture of the great metropolis conquered by wild plants after a sudden and unexplained removal of man[2]. But the catastrophe imaged by Jefferies only writes in Bold and Italics what is happening all the time. Once the weeding stops the pavement will soon wobble. Plants from all over the world have found a place in our city, what they share is hardiness and a gung-ho ability to make-do. The city is vulnerable to this constant floral attack. What killed the Martians in HG Wells’ War of the World? The Bacteria. What is forever eating the city? Its phythosphere. The cryptoforest is the forest-outsider from where floral takeover is commencing. Now let’s walk and I will explain more as we continue.”[3]   

The Vinland Sagas

The anthropocene is the proposed name for the geological age that began, according to provisional consensus, in 1776 when James Watt’s first steam engine went into production. It is not at present a scientifically recognized name but it is under consideration by the body that governs the naming table of geological history, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London. That the anthropocene has been taken in consideration at all indicates that many serious people find merit in the idea as the SCGSL is by necessity a conservative organization whose line of work does not demand speedy decisions. The history of the dinosaur, the history of the donkey, the history of the mosquito, no matter how fascinating by themselves, never entered the story of geology. But man has become a geologic force: by levelling mountains, digging holes, sucking stuff from the ground and putting stuff in the air and the sheer number of us has intertwined human history with the history of the earth. That much seems self-evident but to make it scientific it needs to be shown that also uninhabited places like the Sahara are amassing enough anthropogenic change that it will show up in sediment a million years from now.

The Vinland Sagas tell the tale of the Norse discovery of Greenland, Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador) and Vinland (Gulf of St. Lawrence/New Foundland) around 1000AD. They are a record of a people at drift trying to make a living in distant and isolated lands[4]. Limited population and absence of reliable communication with the motherland allowed for seasonal presence in the Americas but not expansion. The Greenland colony petered out after approximately 450 years. Many reasons are given for the unsustainability of the Norse presence in Greenland, from demographic factors to soil degradation, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Norse presence could only ever sustain itself within the conditions of the Medieval Warm Period. The end of which brought a colder climate and closed the window of opportunity for Norse patterns of subsistence. The Norse presence left little physical impact. It took a long time before actual archaeological evidence confirmed the reliability of the Vinland sagas as a historic account. The first hard archaeological evidence was the remains of a Norse long house discovered in New Foundland (L'Anse aux Meadows, 1960). The migration of the Inuit across the breath of the American-Arctic, from the Being Strait to Eastern Canada, is attributed to the pull of goods taken to the continent by the Norse. In their expansion East they invaded the lands of their erstwhile trading partners, the Tuniit. These are a still largely obscure people who also kept longstanding trade relations with the Norse. The Tuniit (also knows as the Dorset Culture) couldn’t withstand the pressure of the more aggressive newcomers and were either assimilated or eradicated[5].

Eirik the Red was driven onto the sea by events: ‘some killings’. We too are driven into a new age: by extinctions at rates exceeding background rates by 100 to 1000 times. For Eirik the Red the overbearing sentiment that brought him to Vinland was one of loss. This is no different for our journey into the anthropocene. Landscapes are forever altered, plant and animal species are at drift causing problems at unforeseen places (Nile perch in lake Victoria, Cane toads in Australia, pythons in the Everglades, etc), new diseases create global havoc when airborne. Forests are cleared, seas are acidified, soils salinized, drink water reserves are shrinking and average temperatures are up. A jeremiad of change that influences agricultural cycles and creates freak weather patterns. It is a world at drift. But it is also a NEW world. The chance to bear witness to a new geological age is extremely rare, they usually last a while, but we are in that unique position. The anthropocene is our Vinland. And yes: the melting of the polar ice again makes the Inuit the ghosts at the background of the story too.
The Vinland Sagas offer parallels to our own condition. There are differences too. Eirik the Red travelled with a small group of family and clan from Norway to Iceland and reached new shore in Greenland. We are not travelling in isolation, we are legion. We have no solitude but crowds. The anthropocene has no places of departure or arrival, it does not travel from A to B, it’s global, it’s illogical, messy and is coming at us from all directions. In that it is entirely suitable for an age that takes not the clock or the grid but the network as its dominant model.

The Vinland Saga is a tale. The Anthropocene is a grand narrative.

The City in the Anthropocene

One of four authors of ‘The New World of the Anthropocene’ (2010) is Paul Crutzen, the Nobel awarded atmospheric chemist who first suggested the term. In this paper the authors reveal themselves as intuitive followers of Richard Jefferies’ vision of the future. After noticing that the world’s great cities are indeed capable of magnitudal increases in erosion and sedimentation they notice that:

 “If construction stops or slows, for whatever reason, then natural geomorphologic processes will rapidly re-establish themselves, as shown by the fate of ‘lost’ cities such as Angkor in Cambodia.”

The passage is illustrated by a photographic image of a gigantic Kapok tree growing straight through the Kmer temple of Ta Prohm. Published alongside it is a picture of Shanghai skyscrapers: it is a coolly made observation that the inevitable cryptoforest lurks behind the facades of empire like match-fixing in football.

The forest, not the metropolis, is the climax state. Nothing shows this better than the excavated garden cities of the Xingu in central Amazon and the many geoglyphs found across southwest Amazon. All reveal the former presence of large scale urban populations organized in complex societies. Even while evidence for the lost cities of the Amazon was available, the overall picture was fragmented at best and deemed unreliable by most. Gaspar de Carvahal’s account of Fransciso de Orellena’s Amazonian journey from the Andes to the Atlantic in 1542 mentions encounters with several busy, conflicting urban polities. Local myths like the Kuikuru story of Viti-Viti as collected by the Boaz Brothers in the Xingu explain the origin of large scale earthworks of unknown pedigree[6]. Colonel Fawcett’s search for the City of Z was informed by evidence gathered during many years of dealing with local inhabitants[7]. Fawcett already gauged what Levi-Strauss and Clastres would later deduce from fieldwork: the small, ‘primitive’ semi-sedentary structures we associate with human presence in the Amazon today are the methods developed after the crash by traumatized survivors. So successful was the forest’s reclamation that numerous ditches and fences were kept hidden underneath the canopy until deforestation and aerial reconnaissance made them impossible to deny. Academic persistence that environmental conditions made swidden agriculture the only viable practise within the constraints of tropical environmental conditions, the counterfeit paradise as Betty Meggers had it, did not help either[8]. But you should not second-guess the natives. The discovery of the extant of Terra Preta (dark earth), anthropogenic soils enriched with charcoal, bone and manure added was the first hard evidence that the forest had once been busier and much more humanized. Estimates vary but it is reckoned that 10% of soil in the Amazon is anthropogenic, an area the size of France[9]. Ample evidence that the city is transient but that the ground retains the memory, exactly as the paper of Crutzen et al suggests.

Globalization creates Forest

Pioneer vegetation, secondary forest, climax-adverting processes. Feral vegetations find a place where the urban centres unravels and the centrifugal powers fail to put asphalt. This is as true locally and it is true globally. With young people leaving their native villages for the city and with agro-industry and supermarket standards undercutting prices and desirability of vernacular, small farm produce, the forest is allowed to overrun uneconomic agricultural lands. Political ecologist Susanna Hecht writes about El Salvadorian farmers receiving enough money from siblings working in the US to minimize their farming. Land with at least 30% forest coverage went up with 22% between 1990-2000.[10] Afforestation is also happening in East and Central Europe with remarkable consequences. The returning forest has allowed the wolf population to boom. In Germany the wolf re-established itself in 2000 after an absence of a century. The forest is returning, even in some of world’s most populous areas but it is not ‘native’, it will never become ‘pristine’ and it certainly isn’t a ‘wilderness’ in any meaningful sense of that often too loosely applied word. They are gardens left to themselves.

The potentially available species that may take root on fallowed lands are coming from across the world. Disturbance of soil often suits migrant plants and there is a pleasant irony to it. In answering the question why the Europeans settled in America, Australia, New Zealand and not in the Amazon and Tropical Africa, Alfred W. Crosby pointed to climatic and biotic similarities. Disturbances to the land created the opportunities for European fodder plants (grasses and plants like dandelion, sorrel and plantain) to prosper in unfamiliar lands[11]. Their presence in turn created grazing fields with exactly the plants European animals like pigs, sheep and horses needed for food. This spread was possible also because North-America offers roughly the same environmental conditions as found in Atlantic Europe, and the list of plants partaking in a reverse colonization is impressive. For instance plants like Yellow Primrose, Canadian horseweed and Virginia pepperweed have become stable presences across the old world.

The Norse presence in America and Greenland shows the same pattern. Field weeds like sorrel, plantains and flax were introduced. As Stephen J. Pyne writes: “Half of the beetles on Iceland and Greenland are introduced species, probably from early Norse times”.[12]     

Ecological orthodoxy usually has little patience for what Crosby called ‘port-manteau biotas’. Also in this respect the cryptoforest hides its beauty behind a poker-face. But a coalition of ecologists, biologists and geographers are working to reassess the “trash-ecosystems” orthodoxy associated with the anthropogenic landscapes. They instead point to the viability, species richness, ecosystems services and sheer resilience of these ‘novel ecosystems’. There are precedents but the publication ‘Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order’ (2006) is the closest thing available to a manifesto creating a starting point for a concentrated effort to rewrite ecological understanding[13]. It cites human impact on biogeographical distribution, abiotic environments, decrease of species pools and the existence of predominantly urban, cultivated or degraded landscapes creating dispersal barriers for many species as the prominent reasons for the existence of novel or emergent ecosystems. It states that:

“These types of ecosystem can be thought of as occupying a zone somewhere in the middle of the gradient between ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ ecosystems, on one hand, and intensively managed systems on the other hand”.

The paper gained much credence by in-depth coverage in Nature[14]. Emma Harris, writer for Nature and author of the first book on the novel ecosystem debate for a general audience calls the world of the anthropocene a ‘rambunctious garden’[15]. To make explicit what was implicit: nature is no longer the nature we knew. All nature is now directly (logged rainforests) or indirectly (shrinking icecaps) manmade. It is still natural, we are part of nature too after all, it can still be wild but it will never again be wilderness. If the new world of the Anthropocene is a good or bad thing overall is, under debate, to put it mildly. However nobody can really argue with the statement geographer Erle Ellis made in his New York Timed Op-Ed (2013):

“The planet will never be the same. It is time for all of us to wake up to the limits we really face: the social and technological systems that sustain us need improvement”.[16]

Researchers arguing for fair, fact-base appraisal of novel ecosystems instead of outright condemnation are opening themselves to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misunderstood. It’s a position that can easily be read as fatalist: ‘science says that nothing can be done against loss of biodiversity, so why bother?’. It is also a position easily misused: ‘if biodiversity of a second growth forest is not quantitatively different from an old growth forest it is no problem to log the last remaining forests of Indonesia for the paper industry’. This is not what the novel ecosystems says. It does call for the need to take care of intact ecosystems with the meticulousness that is also used to conserve art and irreplaceable artefacts. In those places that are changed, globalized, invaded, anthropogenic and near impossible to restore to original conditions it wants to look at it as a new permanent reality.
The Cryptoforest is the City

Nature conservation reflects the civilization doing the conserving. The stand-of between city and forest, the balance between urbanization and forestry is a judo-match where strength, strategy and patience are all equally important while the referee (agriculture) is biased but even in that untrustworthy. The city may think that it can control the forest, that its management is fully explicit in codes and rules. But the forest is laying low, it knows that in the long haul of attrition the city can’t win. The forest is the fate of all cities. The distinction everybody (one shouldn’t generalize, but here it is warranted) instinctively makes between nature and city is based on false, outdated categorising. All forests are now part of the city, it is from the city that orders for its management are coming. Even when it orders say to leave it alone or when no orders are coming at all. But the other side of the continuum is equally valid but in a separate timeframe: all cities are temporary covers for a forest in disguise. The cryptoforest, the contemporary half-baked self-willed forest of the city is what reveals it.

[1] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. The forest within: The world-view of the tukano amazonian indians. Council Oaks Distribution, 1996.
[2] Online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13944
[3] Transcript from the introduction to a walk given by the author in October 2013.
[4] M. Magnusson, H Palsson, The Vinland Sagas, The Norse Discovery of America, 1971, Penguin Books, London.
[5] R. McGhee, The Last Imaginary Place, A Human History of the Arctic World, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
[6] Bôas, Orlando Villas, and Claudio Villas Boas. Xingu: the Indians, their myths. Souvenir Press, 1974.
[7] Fawcett, Percy. Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z. Penguin. com, 2010.
[8] Meggers, Betty Jane. Amazonia: man and culture in a counterfeit paradise. Aldine, Atherton, 1971.
[9] Mann, Charles C. 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Random House Digital, Inc., 2005.
[10] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_scientist_extols_the_value_of_forests_shaped_by_humans/2379/
[11] A.W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press, 1986
[12] Pyne, Stephen J. Vestal fire: an environmental history, told through fire, of Europe and Europe's encounter with the world. University of Washington Press, 2012.
[13] Hobbs, Richard J., et al. "Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order." Global ecology and biogeography 15.1 (2006): 1-7.
[14] http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090722/full/460450a.html
[15] Marris, Emma. Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.
[16] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html?_r=0

dinsdag 3 december 2013

Alex Atala's Amazonian recipes mapped [UPDATED with commentary from Amazonia]

Alex Atala is a Brazilian chef whose is renowned for his championing of Brazilian (read Amazonian) ingredients. He has got a book out called 'Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients' that I have not seen but which I will. 

A book on Ka'apor ethnobiology (William Balee's Footprints of the Forest) has a list containing hundreds of names of plants used for food by this one Amazonian tribe. So there is a food world to win out there and Atala's work, if anything, shows that the discovery of America is not yet over. 

Map your Recipe is undergoing some essential work at the moment. It used to recognize only those fruits and vegetables identified as belonging to a Vavilov food hearth. I have now added the categories Old world and New World to incorporate products of which the exact place of domestication is only broadly known. The potential names on these two lists are near infinite (everything that is not poisonous can after be all used by an adventurous cook) but I am trying to find those ingredients that would capture all vegetable ingredients in 99.5% of the recipes.

The five recipes of Atala that I found online (here, here, here, here, (with this included 6)) did not make it easy for me. There were a number of ingredients that I never heard of. Jambu which is from the old world but grown extensively in South America. For pimentos de cheiro I have added 'red pepper' but I do not know if that is correct. Priprioca a plant that Atala self-handedly introduced as a food plant with a scientific description.

The resulting geographical spread of the ingredients of these 5 recipes is shown above. I do not know how representative these recipes are for the full Atala menu and use of local meat and fish will also add significantly to the uniqueness of his dishes. But despite these caveats I find that from 42 ingredients recognized a 19.5% use of new world ingredients is almost a 19th century proportion. Especially as those 8 new world ingredients are from two food hearths only. 

As said it is not representative but if it will turn out to be than Mr Atala suffers from a strange kind of myopia where he will plunder the Euro-Asian larder at will while ignoring large parts of the American continent. 

Here is the challenge Mr Atala! Can you or have you created a dish with only fruits and vegs from your side of the pond? 

That would be a dish that would look different on the map.

Of course: I am being light hearted. Just because the tomato was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago does not make the pizza anything less Italian. 

UPDATE,here is a a comment worth quoting:
Actually, jambu – to which Alex Atala's recipe refers - is Acmella oleracea, whose leaves cause very peculiar sensations in the taste buds and are widely used in the cuisine of the state of Pará, in the brazilian amazon. Instead, Syzygium cumini is known in Terra Brasilis as jamelão or jambolão, never as jambu.

"Pimentas de cheiro" is a category composed of several varieties of Capsicum chinense, with varying degrees of spiciness, but all of them have accented flavor and smell as common characteristic. They're usually - but not always - yellow.
Thanks for that! The Jambu exists in two spellings, for 'red pepper' I should have used 'capsicum' for better precision.

Ant & Pineapple recipe

1) Peel the pineapple and cut it into 4 equal cubes.

2) Place a piece of pineapple on top of a serving dish and top with an ant. Serve immediately.

- Alex Atala

It's a recipe by the Brazilian chef Alex Atala. But it makes at much sense as a Fluxus piece

donderdag 28 november 2013

Food etymology

As an additional window on the history of our most basic foodstuffs I have compiled a list of etymological first-use. 

It was here but I now have placed it here where it is easier to maintain and edit.

My main interest is in the geographical origins and spread of crops and I wanted to see if pulling dates from the Online Etymology Dictionary would give insight in the historicity of everyday supermarket products. Etymology is not an exact science and dates are for modern English and especially for older dates it does not mean that the thing named was not known before that. It does allow to see the way new foods from the Americas and elsewhere are introduced to the European menu as trade networks start to span the globe from 1400 onwards and after 1500 especially.

These etymological word maps also contain much food names.

maandag 25 november 2013

The Natural History of London

R.S.R Fitter's 'London's Natural History' (1945) is what we would now call an environmental history of Greater London. It is strangely antiquated, refreshingly modern, stunningly original, and, at times, bloggerishly quirky. All at the same time.

When Fitter cites Piltdown man it is a thing of the past but when he writes about houses as a new form of habitat that by necessity have to be pioneered by plants and animals seeking living space and using adaptation to make it theirs, he opens my eyes to the evolutionary cunningness of the ants, slugs and silverfish crawling in my living room. 

There is plenty of raw material (plant and bird lists) for Fitter to use and as a writer of guidebooks he loves that stuff. There are also many good maps and that is one reason why this book lives: it is a source of raw data that is still of interest to birdwatchers and phyto-psychogeographers. This book was written during WWII and the most original chapters are those in which Fitter documents the results of the Blitz as a great opportunity for nature to return to the surface in some of the oldest continuesly built-over parts of the City. It strikes me as both eccentric and typical of the stoic attitude that famously is said to have come over the citizens of London in response to German attacks. Bombs or not live must go on and that included scouting bombcraters for unusual flowers. 

Nice book.

woensdag 20 november 2013

Triangulate the deep past

James C. Scott on Jared Diamond. Nothing new really but it sounds better when it comes from him.
He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

In the unique case of Highland New Guinea, which was apparently isolated from coastal trade and the outside world until World War Two, Diamond might be forgiven for making this inference, though the people of New Guinea have had exactly the same amount of time to adapt and evolve as homo americanus and they managed somehow to get hold of the sweet potato, which originated in South America. The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.

We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

zondag 17 november 2013

The power to embrace and integrate entire continents

Jarod Diamond's latest book (the world until yesterday) I have not read but I have read reviews and it was trashed by almost everyone. Chris Knight, UK anthropologist and all round troublemaker is someone who I like to read. From Knight's review of Diamond's book this is I think a wonderful passage:
Excellent when he sticks to science, Diamond is less convincing when he turns to politics. Here is an example: “Large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic… ” As I read these lines, I had the funny feeling they were directly aimed at me! It would be interesting to research the extent to which anthropologists’ political beliefs correlate with those of the people they study. My closest professional colleagues study African hunter-gatherers; all of us have witnessed and participated in emphatically egalitarian social, economic and gender relationships. As a result, we have all become “anarchist” in the sense Diamond intends. We have had an excellent education - by people who make anarchy work. I should add that anyone familiar with hunter-gatherer systems of extended kinship would be surprised at Diamond’s description of them as “small-scale”: unlike truncated Western notions of kinship and family life, these extraordinary systems have the power to embrace and integrate entire continents.

Diagrams from the counterfeit paradise

Betty Meggers' book 'Amazonia: Man and culture in a counterfeit paradise' for a long time represented the Amazonian orthodoxy: environmental conditions made large-scale civilizations impossible. Things have changed. Here some diagrams.

donderdag 14 november 2013

The weeds in my Colosseum

In 1855 Richard Deakin published a study of the wild flowers growing in and on the Colosseum in Rome. It is available online. There was an earlier study and there has also been done a recent study and what it allows for is a study of place through the study of plants. Deakin's book contains a list of plants with descriptions. In the preface he writes: 

The object of the present little volume is to call the attention of the lover of the works of creation to those flocal productions which flourish, in triumph, upon the ruins of a single building. Flowers are perhaps the most graceful and most lovely objects of the creation but are not at any time, more delightful than when associated with what recalls to the memory time and place, and especially that of generations long passed away. They form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of by- gone ages : and cold indeed must be the heart that does not respond to their silent appeal ; for, though without speech, they tell of that regenerating power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness, and clothes their sad and fallen grandeur with graceful forms and curiously constructed leaves and flowers, resplendent with their gay and various colours, and perfume the air with their exquisite odours. The plants which we have found growing upon the Colosseum, and have here described, amount to no less a number than 420 species ; in this number there are examples of 258 Genera, and illustrations of 66 of the Natural Orders of plants, a number which seems almost incredible. There are 56 species of Grasses, 47 of the order Compositea or Syngenesious plants — and 41 of the Leguminous or Pea tribe.
The collection of the plants and the species noted has been made some years ; but, since that time, many of the plants have been destroyed, from the alterations and restorations that have been made in the ruins ; a circumstance that cannot but be lamented. To pre- serve a further falling of any portion is most desirable ; but to carry the restorations, and the brushing and cleaning, to the extent to which it has been subjected, instead of leaving it in its wild and solemn grandeur, is to destroy the impression and solitary lesson which so magnificent a ruin is calculated to make upon the mind.

dinsdag 12 november 2013

Carl Sauer's maps on agricultural origins

Carl Sauer, cultural geographer, author of the brilliant New Spanish Main on the Spanish landnam of America after Columbus, also wrote one the origin and spread of food crops and domesticated animals. Vavilov suggested a number of centres of origin, the so-called hearths. Sauer preferred to talk about Centres of Dispersal. Sauer came later but Vavilov is still the better known name. I have no clue what the current scientific validity is of both theories but it is certain helps that Sauer's Agricultural Origins And Dispersals (1952) is available on Archive.

Great maps, click to enlarge.    

vrijdag 8 november 2013

Human footprints in the Amazon

Nature has a new article tracing Western perception on past population level and societal complexity in the Amazon:
Studies dating back to the 1950s suggested that small indigenous tribes merely scratched out a living in primitive villages before the arrival of Europeans. But more recently, researchers have proposed that the Amazon hosted complex societies that turned swathes of the forest into farms and orchards. Some estimates place the prehistoric population of the Amazon as high as 10 million — a huge number considering that the current population is around 30 million.
Another interesting piece on Amazonian Ecology here.

vrijdag 1 november 2013

After the war [wild flowers in Somme summer 1917]

"Never shall I forget my first sight of the Somme in summer-time. I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud—the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure—dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked "Unknown British Soldier," for the most part. (Later, all these bodies were taken up and nearly all were identified and re-buried in Army cemeteries.) Through the masses of white butterflies, blue dragon-flies darted about; high up the larks sang; higher still the aeroplanes droned. Everything shimmered in the heat. Clothes, guns, all that had been left in confusion when the war passed on, had now been baked by the sun into one wonderful combination of colour—white, pale grey and pale gold. "
From:AN ONLOOKER IN FRANCE 1917-1919, by WIlliam Orpen.

donderdag 24 oktober 2013

Weed cookbook

Found on Ebay, if the postage wasn't so prohibitive (22+dollars) I would make a bid.

dinsdag 22 oktober 2013

Vestal Fire

Am reading Stephen J. Pyne's book 'Vestal Fire, An Environmental History, Told through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World' (1997). It is what the title says: a history of fire, fire practises and the history of slash and burn as the cooking of Europe, as the way to prepare the land for colonization and agriculture. The book made me see the world in a different way, with fire at its centre. What is Pyne saying? 1) Fire is part of life, the consequence of biology 2) Everything must burn in the end.     

The first chapter is one of the best pieces of text that I have ever read. If the exact meandering through Europe's fire history seems a bit much you can zap yourself to the website of the NYT which has an excerpt from the the fist chapter. There is also a review by David Quammen who dismisses the book as long-winding but I agree more with William Cronon who calls the book a masterpiece in his foreword. Who do you agree with: the hack or the esteemed environmental historian?

Here is how it begins:
Whatever its larger mysteries, fire is a physical process. It is a chemical reaction, not an object. It has no existence apart from the fuel and oxygen that feed it, and the heat that kindles and sustains it. The story of fire is the story of how each of those elements came to be, and how it is they have combined. 

There is not one fire but many. Each has its habitat, its traits, its behavior, its ecology. To call something "fire" is like calling an organism a tree or an insect. Because fire depends on life for its existence, it shares in the diversity, complexity, and subtlety of the living world. Oxygen is a by-product of photosynthesis. Fuels are the hydrocarbon hardcopies of living or dead plants. A field guide to fire would distinguish between combustion that smolders in organic soils, flames that soar through long-needled conifers, fires that crackle through brush and stubble. So symbiotic is the alliance that many prescientific peoples considered fire as itself living. Today it might still be regarded as metaorganic. Certainly in any ecological inventory, fire remains elemental. 

Fire is exclusively a product of its environment. The history of fire--the explanation of why particular kinds of fires exist in particular places at particular times--is the history of how that environment evolved. How geologic forces created the lithic landscape. How evolution and ecology fashioned a biotic milieu. How climates organized winds, wet and dry seasons, and lightning-laden storms to prepare fuels for burning and to kindle them at appropriate times.

In all this, Europe was exceedingly complex. No single fire could claim dominion over all the habitats of the continent. Distinctive fires clustered, just as field mice and grasses did, into ecological blocs: fire provinces roughly defined by their geologically arranged hearthstones, the size and opaqueness of their climatic flues, and the density and magnitude of the biotic kindling and the available logs. Whatever cultural compositions humans might impose in recent centuries, that primordial order would endure, and would ensure that fire had a genealogy as ancient as Europe's stones, shrubs, and siroccos.

vrijdag 18 oktober 2013

Mapping Raymond Blanc with Map Your Recipe [more recepimatics]

In the last post I ran 21 recipes of BBC's James Martin through Map your Recipe and exclaimed how surprised I was with the variety of ingredients and their original source. 

This evoked the comment from a reader that UK food is not so much 'open minded' as I said but the result of an imperialist heritage which was anything but open-minded.     

I do not necessarily disagree with pointing to British colonialism as a source of current food diversity in the UK as presented on TV, but I do doubt that imperialism is the only or the most important reason. 

Instead I think that the diversity of the ingredients in Martin's set of 21 recipes is the result of contemporary food culture and its ingrained values of curiosity, experimentalism and, practically, the fact that virtually every ingredient from any place and any cuisine in the world is now for sale everywhere. 

We could argue about this until the microwave explodes but I have come up with an experiment to verify the colonialist-hypothesis. France was one of the great imperialist nations of Europe with colonies in Africa, the Americas, South-East Asia and Oceania. But French cuisine is not known for its eclecticism and the French themselves have never taken up a food habit similar to the UK's fondness for Indian food. 

So I have taken 21 recipes from Raymond Blanc, Frenchman in the UK, presenter of my favourite BBC cooking program. Surely this will show that culture (French chauvinism) not imperialism (England's dreaming) is the defining factor.

Well.... there goes my theory. I still believe that culture not landgrabbing is the key but Raymond Blanc is incorporating the produce of the world with even more enthusiasm than Martin does.

Martin uses 32 ingredients from 9 centres of origin. 

Blanc uses 37 ingredients from 11 centres.
Interestingly, ingredients from Ethiopia (sesame, barley) are entirely absent.

Needless to say this a random selection of recipes and Blanc's nor Martin's food can stand for the general cooking in their respective countries.