Thursday, March 16, 2017

Grain Intolerant

The troubling tendency to phoneticise native words has reached La Antigua. This is one step from the heinous awfulness that is Wahaca back in the UK.

Meanwhile however, this would be an appropriate place to make it absolutely clear, once and for all, that Quinoa is a Spanish word, pronounced kin-owe-ah. It derives from a Quechua original that, who knows, might be pronounced kinwah or even kinoowah, but if you pronounce it this way you will sound as big a twat as someone who habitually pronounces the English word Florence as Firenze.

There were two interesting articles in the Economist this week on global grain trends. The Africans are eating more rice, while the Asians are eating less of it, increasingly turning to wheat. 

Meanwhile in America it is ever more fashionable to consume supposedly virtuous and ‘ancient' grains such as the one the twatterati refer to as kinwa. (Of this the anonymous author of the article wryly observed: "To its fans, it is a superfood. To its detractors, it is like the erotic sci-fi murals found in Saddam Hussein’s palaces—pretentious and tasteless.")

The magazine that calls itself a newspaper believes "all this is to be celebrated, for it is a symptom of rising prosperity and expanding choice. The spread of better farming techniques has raised yields, helping humanity feed itself despite a rising population. Rapid urbanisation means that fewer people grow their own grain, and more have the cash to try new varieties. Globalisation has allowed food and farming techniques to cross borders, meaning that people on every continent can experience new flavours and textures. Migration and tourism have broadened people’s culinary horizons: Chinese visitors to France return home craving baguettes; Americans who live near Ethiopian immigrants learn to love injera (a soft teff flatbread that doubles as an edible plate)."

The sense one gets here is that it is the consumers' choice that needs to be celebrated and upheld and all the other, often more difficult choices, taken further down the chain are not really for us to get all concerned about.

Now, whilst I am generally intolerant, I am not, as far as I am aware, gluten-intolerant. It is a great shame however that Columbus, amongst all the other goofy ideas he had swimming around in this head, was not one of those self-diagnosed sufferers of said intolerance to wheat.

For the imposition of this Eurasian grain on the New World — globalisation without the concomitant expansion of choice — resulted in an environmental disaster that left most of central Mexico parched dry along with a set of social and cultural divisions that persist to this day.

Corn was not just the staple of Mesoamerican cultures, it lay at the heart of their religious worldview, so the arrival of an alternative was seen as part of the new hegemony of Haysoos.

The Spanish first tried to sow their imported seeds in the Spring, but that way there was too much rain when the wet season started in May, so they switched to Autumn; not enough rain...

Then as now, the indigenes planted two or three varieties of seed corn in a little hole so that the one best adapted to the unpredictable conditions of temperature and moisture in the months ahead might prosper. Beans and squashes were planted alongside the corn in the milpa, an ancient and complex cultivation system that generally worked in local conditions.

After the conquest the land was already being churned up and dried up by the cows, pigs, goats, sheep and burros that the Spanish had introduced. Ploughing to plant corn was the next stage in the making of the Mexican desert. Then, from the start of the seventeenth century came two hundred dry years.

The Spanish could have continued with the system of chinampas, artifcial raised fields of mud and straw in the wetlands, but instead chose to drain the lakes. And that when the cash crops they planted, sugar and wheat, actually require more water than corn.

For much of Mexican history the 'choice' between tortillas and pan, between corn and wheat, has been as one with other, at least partially self-elected identities, such as class and race.

One has to wonder if something sociologically similar is happening today in our wonderful new world of cereal inclusivity.

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