Interview: Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love

"Few of us eat just because we are hungry."                                                                      -Katherine Appleton                                                  

These words feed my mind, as each bite meet my lips.

Not just about food, Simran's nourishing journey over six continents in five years held me captive page to page. With the occasional strange coincidence to my own life (if you know anyone else fascinated by octopus, who has enjoyed cena solo en Lima,  and gone on a cleanse while interviewing chocolate makers, please send them my way), it is no coincidence that I find myself constantly re-assessing my relationships with food, with others, with life. What may first seem exotic and out of reach is in-fact ours. Speaking with her one on one only convinces me more so. Her latest book, Bread Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, shows us we have much more to sink our teeth into.   XO Heather

Name: Simran Sethi

Hometown: Born in Munich, Germany, raised in North Carolina, U.S.A.

Hobbies: I walk and read—a lot.

Words to live by: “Feast on your life.” –Derek Walcott, Love After Love; More and more, I think, what does that mean to savor everything? To find the sweet in the bitter? The bitter in the sweet? To just get in there, and live the juiciest, most present, embodied life I can?

As a world renowned journalist and author, what lead you into writing?

You know, writing found me.  All praise goes to the senior editor at HarperOne (which is imprint of HarperCollins Publishing) Gideon Weil. He reached out to me, now going on almost 8 years ago, and said, “We’d love for you to write a book.” At the time I was involved in broadcast journalism and was just entering into academia.  I had written stuff, but I didn’t have a track record as a print journalist or anything like that. He just really appreciated the ways I told stories about the environment and invited me to submit a book proposal—which I did for a completely different subject. HarperCollins bought it overnight, which was the biggest blessing but, for many years, felt like a curse because I had this book deal, you know? It was like there was never a day where my job was done. Every day, I’d think, “I still haven’t written that book.” Going on now over 6 years ago I had a tenured assistant professorship at the University of Kansas. In essence I couldn’t get fired; I was in a stable job in a lovely place but I knew I needed to write this book on the loss of agricultural biodiversity. The subject—like, the book deal—found me. I resigned from academia, sold my house, gave away my car, and embarked on this five year journey across six continents to understand what had changed in our food system and why it mattered, and what we could do to make it better.

We are in a global agricultural crisis. In what order from greatest to least, would you say the foods you have researched are threatened to disappear?  Is there really an order?

The loss of agricultural biodiversity, that genetic erosion, is something that we’re experiencing across the board. I tell the story through bread, wine, coffee, chocolate, and beer because I wanted to talk about the loss in terms I thought people would have an emotional connection to, as they have for me. Coffee sets the tone of every day of my adult life, and chocolate has been my lifelong companion from birthday cakes, to my wedding cake, to the substance that got me through my divorce, to writing every page of my book, to what I was eating when we first started this interview. I could’ve told the story through corn, rice, and potatoes—and I did include the staple crop wheat through the bread chapter—but everything is under threat. Every food is compromised by a system that emphasizes growing crops and raising livestock in monocultures, and reducing the numbers of the foods we eat and the varieties within that handful of foods. We’ve shrunken down what used to be a pretty diverse global diet.

People get kind of confused when they hear me say this, because they will go to their local grocery store and they’ll see mangoes out of season, obviously not even grown in the continental United States. Or they’ll see aisles floor-to-ceiling of what seems like a lot of choice, but really tends to be—if you look just a little bit closer—one variety, one brand, one type. More and more that’s what we’re seeing, certainly within conventional grocery stores. The alternative is to look at farmers’ markets and independent markets emphasizing what’s grown locally.

I’ll add, when you see that odd mango and think, “We have more diversity than ever,” on a local level we do. But the global trend is toward just a handful of crops that are increasingly grown in monoculture, increasingly emanating from one or just a handful of varieties. You just wouldn’t ever do this with any other kind of investment in something you need. Like, if you had any sort of money to save you wouldn’t say, “Put it all in two stocks and I’ll be okay.” You would diversify. Yet, with food, we’re doing the exact opposite.

One of my favorite parts of your journey is when you pursue your goal to respect beer, beginning your research at the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in Norwich England. How did your relationship with beer change?

I considered beer while growing up in the South in the seventies and eighties, and kind of thought of it as a pedestrian drink. My first beer was in high school. It was like a Bud Light from a keg or something, not a terribly sophisticated drink. Nor were the wine or chocolate or any of that I wad consuming, but there was something about beer that made me say, “It’s not for me. It’s not who I am, it’s not who I want to be in the world.” So I just completely abandoned it. And then there I was—decades later—learning how incredibly long and democratic our history with beer is. How it can be made from any grain, how many researchers contend we developed agriculture and cultivated grain not for bread, but for beer—or that kind of soupy beer substance our ancestors used to consume.

I started to recognize how humble it was, but also how complex it was. There’s so much microbiology that goes into every glass, every can. It’s absolutely fascinating to rediscover this beverage. Of course you know I was born in Munich, in Bavaria in Germany. One can say that beer is my birthright! It’s the home of Oktoberfest when beer is cheaper than water! But it just wasn’t anything I had a connection to. It’s something I’m still learning to appreciate, but that respect is straight up there. I’m in awe what can be done with just grain, water, a microbe, and hops … that four ingredients can become something so extraordinary. And that the exploration of agricultural biodiversity could be experienced from something so humble.

When people first look at the book, they’re like, “Oh you’re saying to buy expensive chocolate and fancy coffee.” And I’m like, “I’m suggesting you pivot in the grocery store. I’m suggesting you turn toward the craft beer.” And then they respond, “Oh! I can do that.” It’s a nice equalizing factor for anyone who thinks that the pursuit of savoring food to save them is something that only belongs to fancy people. Nope. It belongs to all of us.

What lesson from the "Yeastie Boys" surprised you most?

Everything. Oh, my gosh, is that the cheesiest reference ever? I love the Beastie Boys and coined my favorite yeast microbiologists the Yeastie Boys. They taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about microbes. Yeast is magic. Not to be too whatever, but yeast turns the wort and the juice into beer and wine, respectively. Yeast is what makes the bread rise. Yeast is what gives chocolate its flavor.  But it’s this thing I knew nothing about. I vaguely knew, “Oh yeah there’s this microbe, and something happens, and it ferments…” but I hadn’t given enough credence to what it meant. Twenty percent of human disease genes are swappable with yeast. Yeast teaches us who we are. The first organism with a cell that was genetically sequenced was Baker’s and Brewer’s Yeast, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. It’s so cool. The story of yeast is really the story of us.

But, to me, they were so abstract because we can’t see it. Yeast is airborne. Yeast is on all surfaces, on every continent. I hadn’t thought much of anything about microbes, and then here I’m meeting these guys enchanted by yeast—and it just transformed me. The Yeastie Boys made me love yeast.

Do you have any personal favorite moments or excerpts from your book?

The moment that really stands out for me is when I went to the Ethiopian forest for the coffee chapter. I took photographs of farmers’ hands. They thought I was so crazy to do so, to take photos of their hands in addition to their faces. But I wanted to remember.

It was so humbling for me to learn how hard it was for them to get a cup of coffee into my hands every day. And I hadn’t ever considered it. I mean, I thought it was hard enough reaching into the cabinet in the wee hours of the morning. I never considered their work, that their hopes and dreams—continents away—were bound up in my decisions. Do I reach for the coffee from Kenya or the coffee from Ethiopia? Do I buy coffee from Colombia? Do I get it from Dunkin’ Donuts or my local roaster? And what do these decisions mean? All of the sudden, I felt, the answer was right there—in the hands of these farmers. It changed me.

 Hands of Mike Mammao. Ethiopian Coffee Exporter, Addis Exports, Photo by Simran Sethi

Hands of Mike Mammao. Ethiopian Coffee Exporter, Addis Exports, Photo by Simran Sethi

 

There’s no joy for me when I see something super cheap, like a $1.99 or 99-cent bottomless cup of coffee. How do you think that’s possible? Who do you think gets paid? And who doesn’t? I want to pay the full price. I want to frequent places where they care about those relationships with famers, where coffee, or cacao, or wheat aren’t just commodities—things—but representations of people and places. I’m not rich, but I can afford to do that with what nourishes me.

These crops, they’re living breathing diverse materials that have been cultivated by human hands. For me, that was most powerful. To be in Ethiopia, experiencing how hard it was for me to get to my destinations, being in awe of how much effort it took them, too. The challenges aren’t genetics or a lack of great coffee, it‘s machinery, roads, infrastructure. The things we take for granted.

Hands of Telahun Atara,  Coffee Farmer, Yirgacheffe Farmer's Cooperative Union, Photo by Simran Sethi                         

 


What is your favorite kind of bread? Wine? Beer? Chocolate? Coffee?

My favorite bread is heirloom grit, made lovingly by David Bauer at Farm and Sparrow Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina.

Wine? I hate to sound like a billboard for my book, but it’s gonna be Scott’s wine. It’s gonna be Jolie-Laide’s Trousseau Gris. I haven’t had this harvest. It’s not ready yet but I’m excited to see if it continues to be my favorite.

My latest chocolate loves are the chocolate-covered cacao seeds from Momotombo, sold exclusively by The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto. They are from Nicaragua. If you heard me crunching on something at the start of this conversation, it was those seeds. If I had to pick one thing to consume every day for the rest of my life it would be those. Please don’t take them away from me. Ever.

Coffee? Any coffee from Ethiopia. As Peter Giuliano, director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America said to me, “Every taste that you want to find in coffee, you can find in coffees from Ethiopia.”  My preference is still coffee from Yirgachaffe. I visited the Yirgacheffe Farmers Cooperative Union and met those farmers. That coffee will always be my first love. And I had a similar experience being with sensory expert Maryuxi Espinosa at Transmar in Guayaquil. I have tasted so many samples from Ecuador with her but this was this one moment when she passed me this jar of cocoa liquor (ground nibs) and I tasted it. I tasted Ecuador: this rush of violets and stems and cocoa. It was incredible. It was like nothing I ever tasted. I had no idea these flavors could exist. So, generally speaking around chocolate, Ecuadorian chocolate will always be my first love because that was where I understood its terroir. Before these journeys, chocolate was just chocolate. A thing, not a place.

How and which of these do you enjoy pairing together?

I’m a purist because I’m still learning. I think of experts like Darin Sukha, Clay Gordon and Sunita De Tourreil. They’re the champions and handle pairings effortlessly. I prefer to eat chocolates by themselves. Or drink coffee, wine, beer by themselves. I mean, I don’t do this all the time. Every moment I eat chocolate or drink coffee isn’t a sacred moment of hyperfocus and intentionality, but when I’m really trying to taste them, I’m not eating chocolate and bourbon, or chocolate and beer, or wine and cheese. For me, I’m really trying to experience the full flavor of what’s in front of me. Once I feel like I have a better understanding of that, I definitely want to move toward more pairings. Wine and cheese? Slam dunk. Chocolate and beer? Spectacular. They bring out the best qualities in each, and really help me appreciate beer (which I’m still learning to love). Bread? One thing I’ve learned is you can’t pair good bread with some commercial stick of butter from the grocery store. That’s a mistake I made once and will never do again. The bread is too good. You can really taste the difference between the two.

Is there any one food or flavor you personally find incompatible with chocolate? (Bacon for example)

I’m probably going to stand alone in this, but I find coffee and chocolate are both so strong that to pair those things together means you’re really not experiencing either one. They’re like a double positive—rather than a double negative!—and cancel each other out. They’re so intense in their aromas and tastes, or so subtle in some instances, such as with Chuao. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want that aroma to get lost in coffee.

I’ve done informal tastings with my book readings, in no way presenting myself as an expert but so people can have an embodied experience of the book. The one thing I always ask if we’re having chocolate is, please do not drink any coffee. I feel like, anything else we can manage. We can nibble a cracker and have a little water and be okay, but if your palate is already overwhelmed with coffee, at least for me, it’s very difficult.

You also spent time in the TCHO Chocolate factory and amidst cacao forests. Both whimsical and mysterious, where did you find yourself most captivated?

The forest. No question. It was unlike anything I could have imagined. A chocolate factory? I mean, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve been to the Hershey, Pennsylvania. I had some sense of what a factory would be like. Of course it was magic (especially since I was on a cleanse), but the forest was something else. I couldn’t have conjured cacao pods. I couldn’t have told you what that experience would be like, being slowly eaten to death by midges, contrasted with eating the most glorious fruit I’d ever had, knowing some day they were going to become this glorious substance that had always been a part of my life.  Like wow, I’m in so much discomfort here. Go away midge! But, also, let me stay here forever. It was something about the intensity. Every sense was aroused in the forest. Touch: being bitten. Scent: when he cut open the pods, that aroma, those tastes, my God. Sight: the colors are so bright, the fruits so fantastical.  And flowers the size of your pinky finger. All of it seemed inconceivable to me as being the source of what becomes chocolate. That was by far my most magical experience.  I knew what grain was like. I kind of envisioned what baby coffee plants looked like. But cacao was like, what? How is that possible? Really?

Most rewarding part of what you do?

Whatever role I get to play in democratizing food, in helping people own and love their own experiences of food and drink and have enough information to make decisions that makes sense for their pocketbooks, for their family, for their communities. The tip version is, “Eat organic.” Or, “Don’t Eat GMOs.” Or, “Do eat GMOs.” Do this. Do that. But there’s no context. It seems like there’s one answer to every question, whereas I think the truth is multiple. My job as a journalist is to provide enough information to enable people to make sensible decisions. And in this case, also delicious decisions, which is awesome.

I don’t think we need to only look at Yelp, Michelin stars, or experts for guidance. With the whole Mast debacle we saw the same people who were writing about how awesome Mast was now taking them down. They were also swept up in the hype. We are all vulnerable to packaging. We are all vulnerable to buzz. We are all trying to seek out knowledge from experts. But I think somewhere along the way, we gave up our own knowledge. We gave up our own power.

When I tasted that smoke bar from Mast, I didn’t care for it. It was only because I’d done so much sensory research at that point that I was willing to own that decision. I sat with so many sensory experts and what they all ultimately taught is, we can own our own experiences. I can hold firm in what I care for and what I don’t care for. I can like something or appreciate it because it’s interesting and teaches me something. It doesn’t mean I have to think it tastes good. We’re allowed to build our own experience around food and drink. That’s why there are tasting guides in every chapter, to democratize the experience. To say to people, “Eat bio-diversely,” and give no map? No indication of how to do it? No language? It’s completely unfair.  

If your point of orientation is a Twix bar like mine was, or a wine cooler, how do you get to the Trousseau Gris? There’re steps there. Again, I do not claim to be an expert in any of these things. I’m somebody who has sat with experts and learned from them. I wanted to provide enough information that people would be empowered. That they could read this book and realize, with guidance, they could become their own expert, too.

Most challenging?

I would say two things. One thing is the people whose knee jerk response is, “We can’t afford this.” One in five people in America is hungry. That’s a real, horrible thing. Yet we throw 40% of our food away and one in three is overweight or obese. This is a public health crisis. To simply say, “This is all people can afford” obscures the bigger question of why people are paid so little that they can’t eat well.

I’m also sometimes frustrated by the state of journalism. I want to go out and tell stories of the world. In order to do that, I need to actually pay for airline tickets and hotels and food. “Exposure” on a website doesn’t pay the rent. So much media is available for free that it is increasingly difficult to find someone who wants to pay for that in-depth, on the ground reporting.

Look, I quit my job. I sold my house. I cashed out a retirement account. I had a great book advance but when you divide that great advance by eight years, plus travel to six continents over five years—I don’t regret any of it, but I probably made fifty cents an hour. Now, I think about how can I do this sustainably? How can I write about sustainability in a way that I can also sustain myself?

This isn’t limited to me. Every person I talk to who is doing this work—wine makers, chocolate makers, farmers, conservationists protecting biodiversity, people creating beautiful craft substances, so much of this work is for love. No one is getting rich of this. Well, industrialized large-scale brands are getting rich off this. But David Bauer isn’t getting rich off his bread. Colin Gasko isn’t getting rich off his chocolate. Sunita’s not getting rich off this. And I’m not getting rich off telling their stories. We’re doing this because we believe in a higher purpose. We’re doing this because we believe these stories need to be told. We’re doing this because we believe there can be another way. I couldn’t do it without people like Colin, without people like Alan McClure, or Shawn Askinosie. There would be no stories for me to tell without people of the Cocoa Research Centre, preserving cacao so we have this stuff to invest for the future.

I’m the lucky one who gets to tell these stories. But until we as a consuming public—as a chocolate eating, wine drinking, beer drinking, coffee drinking public, bread eating public, as eaters—start to recognize these things and become willing to pay for it, I don’t think we’re gonna make it.

One more thing about journalism, for every chocolate story I read where the writer has never done anything except opened a bar of chocolate—has never visited a chocolate maker, or a cacao plantation, never did any reading on any of the science around cacao or read up on cocoa production. It’s a real disservice. In any field. I couldn’t have done this book any other way. This is not to say there are not other ways to do it. You can Google, sure. But, for me, that wouldn’t have been good enough. For me, I couldn’t have told you those stories. I couldn’t have told you what the forest was like if I hadn’t been there. I couldn’t have talked to you about Tadesse’s hands if I hadn’t seen them. I couldn’t have told you about Vicente’s dreams until he shared them.

At the end of the day this is all about relationships. About relationships we have with our food, with our families, our life, with our culture. And, now I’m hoping in some small way, I have helped people to also realize the relationships embedded in the foods and drinks they love, with people who grow and make them.

If we were to lose all resources except one crop behind our adored foods, which crop would you conserve?  For yourself?  For the world?

Chocolate is my lifeblood, though it’s known in scientific parlance as an orphan crop because it doesn’t have the economic or nutritional value of other crops. So, I wouldn’t save cacao and exclude everything else! Pulses are incredibly important. Grains. What we really need to do is spend time diversifying those staple foods. The nutritional value found among grains and pulses is unparalleled.

What recommendations or advice do you have for someone who is new to the slow food movement? 

I want to clarify, the book isn’t just a slow food book. I think slow food is incredible if you think about the intentionality, but the people who are associated with slow food are perceived as a bit fancy. This belongs to all of us.

My father passed away in October. My book came out a couple weeks later in November. A week later was Thanksgiving. The place where I found the most comfort was in that Durkee green bean casserole made with the cream of mushroom soup and those dehydrated onions. It wasn’t in the free range turkey. It wasn’t in the organic stuffing. It was in the casserole. In that moment, that’s what nourished me. I think one of the biggest challenges now is that we have this that idea that some foods are good, some foods are bad. That highly processed super cheap food isn’t nutrionally-good for us. It’s been engineered for hyper-palatability. It tweaks our taste buds and makes them freak out, it’s not nourishing us. But I don’t think that means we can’t savor them on occasion. It goes back to that motto of “Feast on your life.”  What brings you joy? That is also worth something. What feeds your soul? That may not be the same thing. Those are the questions I want people to be asking themselves. If these are just calories that we’re consuming, then we can just eat bugs and drink Soylent and we’re good. But we all know that food means more to us than that.

Simran in coffee forest, Kaffa, Ethiopia, Photo by Simran Sethi