In addition to the titular foods, Sethi explores two more edibles, beer and coffee, which connect us to the themes of fermentation and transformation. As Sethi wanders the globe sniffing and sipping, meeting hundreds of scientists, farmers, winemakers, bakers, brewers, and more, she uses these five iconic commodities to investigate what is happening to our entire food system.
Take the recent investigative pieces about the Mast Brothers chocolate empire for example. In a story first released by a Dallas blogger, the Brooklyn company was accused of subterfuge regarding the provenance of its chocolate. The crime? Buying finished chocolate, remelting it, wrapping it up in fancy paper, and passing it off as artisanal, handcrafted bars. Whether the practice has been discontinued or not, the food world clamored for the founders’ takedown. “If you’re buying cheap chocolate,” says Robbie Stout of Ritual Chocolate, “it’s a sure sign someone is getting screwed.”
As I dawdled in coffee shops, the cover of Sethi’s book — stained with wine, sprinkled with chocolate — drew people’s attention, as well as a few looks of desire. These are the foods that entice us the most, whether out of hunger or emotional need, but the qualities that make them great are slipping away. As we cultivate less from the wild, and more from hybrids developed solely for yield, a vast spectrum of flavor is being lost — one that we’ll never realize is important until it’s gone. “While some places in the world are experiencing an increase of diversity in certain parts of their diet, the general trend is the same one we see in phones and fashion: standardization. Every place looks and tastes more similar — and the country that sets this trend is America,” writes Sethi.
You might know where a portion of your food comes from: kale from the farmers’ market, an apple from a local stand; but what about that coffee you drink every day? Do you know the farmer who picked the beans, the worker who separated the husk from the cherry, the middleman who sold the raw material, the roaster who purchased the green bean, and, finally, the coffee shop that purchased the burlap bag of roasted beans? Sethi struggles to understand each of these roles, and in her journey, as she uncovers the people behind what we eat, she savors the discovery. Slowly.
Something we know how to drink slowly is wine, but early in the book Sethi describes a bottle she relishes with particular passion, a Trousseau Gris from Jolie-Laide Wines. Why do we care? Because, she tells us, it’s a “remarkable grape that almost never made it to my lips.” Wine expert Caleb Taft helps explain the story of the vine, one that was planted throughout California in the early 20th century but that by the ’80s was almost completely gone. Winemaker Peter Fanucchi rescued the grape in 1981, and you can now find it planted on 10 acres in the Russian River Valley. That’s it: 10 acres. The rest of California is devoted almost entirely to eight grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Pinot Gris. Sethi asks: “If we can grow nearly every grape in California, then why don’t we?”
With an impressive pedigree as a writer and educator in food, sustainability, and social change, Sethi simultaneously portrays herself as both innocent and expert. At the outset of each visit, she steps into the forest or the field and experiences for the first time the source of these highly traded commodities:
None of it was what I expected: not the smell of damp earth, not the sight of scentless, white blossoms the size of my fingernail or pods the length of my forearm — astonishing, grooved footballs in green, yellow, orange, red and purple growing straight out of tree trunks. Not the sound of the pods thudding to the ground with a swift jab of the palanca, a sharp blade on an extended wooden pole that stabs at the small expanse between the pod stem and trunk, or the sound of pods cracking open with the whoosh of a machete or hard strike against a tree. Not the warm, sticky flesh.
In the process of reading, we learn along with her some fascinating facts. Did you know: Scientists estimate that we can distinguish more than one trillion smells. Cocoa has 800 flavor compounds. Ten cocoa beans once bought the services of a prostitute in Nicaragua. Coffee roasters use sound to help them finish a roast. The yeast used in baking and brewing was the first organism (with a nucleus) to have its genome sequenced. Fluffy bread tastes saltier than dense bread. The most influential visual component in beer is foam. We eat more when we don’t have to invest too much energy in chewing or swallowing: chocolate melts just below the temperature of our mouths.
I can’t fault Sethi for wanting to share every ounce of what she learned while writing this book, but there were times when I wanted a tighter adherence to each topic. The author’s ticks — describing her experts by their looks alone, or repetitive reminders of her “transformative journey,” which bordered on an Eat, Pray, Love quality — are relatively easy to gloss over. “There is no one bar of chocolate that improved my life; they all have,” she muses for us all.
Sethi doesn’t solely want to teach. She also wants to deputize each and every one of us as food warriors. The things we can do? Save, store, and eat. The solutions fall under three tidy labels: ex situ, which refers to saving living things somewhere else, like in remote seed libraries and yeast collections; in situ, which means to save and protect what’s already growing in the wild; and in vivo, which is the act of saving diverse foods by consuming them.
How to be a better consumer? Know what you’re tasting. To do this, Sethi includes tasting notes along with each of her five foods, and flavor and aroma wheels that help us label what we taste and smell, like in wine, whether it be nail polish remover, cut green grass, or burnt toast. Lessons learned, tastes described, origins elucidated — the payoff of reading this book, and gleaning a more comprehensive understanding of what we put in our mouths, is boundless.
“Understanding what it takes to sustain and save that love — in farms, on our plates and in life — lies in the recognition that how we eat is a reflection of how we live,” writes Sethi. “By sustaining agricultural biodiversity, we sustain ourselves.”
That Trousseau Gris grape that Sethi swooned for? Turns out it came from a cutting from Wente Vineyards, California’s oldest continuously operating family-owned winery. Throughout my childhood my mom worked for Wente Vineyards, but this was news to me. The plant kingdom is vast, and together we can rediscover our biodiversity — one grape, one grain, one pod at a time.
Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance writer based in New York City.