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The Food of Our Diaspora

May 27, 2009


Morning smoothie. Strawberries and honey from the farmer’s market, and homemade kefir made with milk from the farm I visit.

This is local food at its sweetest and simplest. No top dollar price tag or lovely tableware. Just a few lovely ingredients, in season and bursting with flavor, that happen to come from within a forty-mile radius of my little urban home. It didn’t even occur to me until I’d been drinking this smoothie every morning for several days straight.

I am not a strict locavore, by any stretch of the imagination. Beans and grains are the staples of my diet. I refuse to live without lemons. But I try to buy as much local produce as I possibly can, and I get a little thrill when I realize that something I’m eating is one hundred percent local. I love the knowledge that this food, or the source of this food, and I went through the same seasons together. We weathered the same snowy winter this year. The calcium that will settle in my bones was metabolized from Oregon soil.

But most of us—human, animal, and plant—most of us who are from here are not really from here. And neither is our food. Even the most local food is, with very few exceptions, the food of the human Diaspora.

I share an ancestral home with the Jersey cows who made the milk for my breakfast: the British Isles, my point of origin on my mother’s mother’s side. Somewhere in the haze of history, we evolved together, changed together, became who we are together, the chemistry of human guts changing to accommodate the digestion of lactose, our immune systems adjusting to animal-borne diseases, while the cows grew smaller, gentler, learned to rely on humans. Became domesticated. We have been together for so long, and here we are now, far from where we began, nourished by the photosynthesis of Oregonian sunlight, not English.

The bees that made the golden honey that made my smoothie sweet—they followed us from Europe, or rather, were brought, and now they swarm here, live and breed and die here, collect their nectar from Oregon wildflowers.

The grains that I used to turn the cows’ milk into kefir mysteriously sprang into being in the Caucasus—did they cross paths with my great-grandmother, as she made her way through Turkey from Russia with my newborn grandfather in tow, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, to New York, to become American? Or did they take a different circuitous route over the world to meet me in Oregon City, handed over in a canning jar from another young mother with a baby in tow, these ninety years later?

The strawberries’ tale of domestication begins in the latrines of the earliest human encampments, where new plants sprouted from the seeds of the juiciest, best fruits that people had selected, eaten, digested.

The cows, the bees, the strawberry plants, even the mysterious glistening kefir grains with their primordial, bacterial beauty. The farmers, the fruit-pickers, the merchants, and me. We come from far-flung places, but we are planted here now. We are made of each other, and it is good.

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