The upcoming Off the Menu dinner at Knead has reminded me of a connection that I think a lot of modern advocates of sustainability have overlooked: namely, the connection between sustainability and tradition. The more I mull it over, the more it strikes me as an obvious missed opportunity. Too often sustainability is depicted as the wave of the future, when in fact one of its main strengths—and promises for the future—may be its connections to the past.
Many people have some emotional or nostalgic connection to their ancestors’ food traditions, or to food traditions that they’ve discovered while traveling abroad. And many of those traditions were born of a need to engage in sustainable practices that far exceeds what most of us today encounter or imagine. When we think about how to promote sustainability, therefore, the path of least resistance might be to begin with the sustainable practices of the past.
I was struck by this point when we asked Quicho of Taco Nazo to make tamales for Rick Bayless’ visit last year. In keeping with our mission, we decided to ask him to use hormone-free, antibiotic-free Amish chicken. We were a bit nervous about how he’d respond. His reaction surprised us: without hesitation, he said, “Oh, those will be just like the chickens I used to raise in my backyard. They’ll taste really good.” (They did.) Another example was a cooking experiment with pigs’ heads (not for the squeamish) inspired by David Chang’s admonition, in his Momofuku cookbook, that a pig isn’t just a pork chop with legs, and that if one is serious about sustainability one should work to use every part of this delicious animal.
The zampone at the Knead dinner—the pig’s shank and foot, which is boned and elevated to deliciousness by being stuffed with other humbler bits and pieces and then blended with spices; a sausage, essentially, albeit one that shows its origins a little more than most—is a perfect example of this connection. Born of some measure of desperation, gradually infused with salt, pepper, clove, garlic, nutmeg, and wine, and honed by centuries of creativity and art, it now holds an honored place in Italy as a tradition to usher in the new year. Would I be excited about gnawing on a cooked pig’s foot? Not particularly. Am I excited to try a zampone? Yes, very much so.
This is precisely the sort of connection between tradition and sustainability that, it seems to me, advocates could emphasize to a much greater degree. Columbus’ own Rachel Tayse, over at Hounds in the Kitchen, does so consistently and well, with a particular focus on urban homesteading; Slow Food has the advantage of a worldwide network of food connections and food traditions at its disposal. Granted, the Ark of Taste seeks to catalog forgotten foods that are in danger of extinction, and many—the salama da sugo being one of my favorites—embody traditional and sustainable practices. But it remains the Ark of Taste: the criteria include taste quality and commercial viability but do not (necessarily) reward products that are a boon to the cause of sustainability. Changing the course of the Ark seems improbable, of course; but perhaps there might be a way to stimulate this line of thinking with a similarly salient program or focus that does emphasize sustainability and tradition.
In the short term, though, a question for those of you good enough to make it this far: Did the connection between sustainability and tradition bring any memories to mind? Any recipes or dishes from previous generations, or meals that you’ve had while traveling? I’d be interested to hear about them, especially since the coming holidays offer a welcome opportunity for reflection and reminiscing.