What do we mean when we say food? In English, in the twenty-first century, we mean a non-poisonous or negligibly poisonous substance that we consume for the purpose of nourishment. We don’t mean intravenous glucose, which is also a form of nourishment. We don’t mean nutritional supplements, a vague category that refers to various proteins and minerals, also present in food, that we ingest in prepared mixtures for reasons that may have nothing to do with nourishment. We don’t mean alcoholic beverages either, though fermented starches have traditionally been an important source of calories. We don’t mean drugs.
What about the word bread? In one sense it means a wheat cake raised with yeast, but it can also refer to food made from other cereal crops, leavened with yeast or baking powder or not leavened at all. It can also be used more generally to mean food itself, as phrases like “break bread” and “our daily bread” and “breadwinner” suggest. “Companion” derives from a Latin word meaning the person with whom you eat bread.
So bread is food and “to break bread” means “to eat.” There are equivalent idioms in many other languages. Significantly, though, the literal sense of those idioms varies according to the caloric staple particular to each culture. Thus in Malay/Indonesian, makan nasi means to eat a meal as well as to eat rice. This is not simply an artifact of language. Language is culture, after all.
In a 1939 monograph about a Bemba-speaking people in southern Africa, Audrey Richards described a food called ubwali. This was a sticky millet porridge that could be rolled into balls and dipped in something called umunani, a term Richards translates as “relish.” Umunani referred in a general way to stews made from meat, vegetables, caterpillars, groundnuts, ants, fish, mushrooms, or whatever else came to hand. The people Richards studied were reluctant to eat ubwali without umunani, but only one kind of umunani was eaten with each meal; ubwali was the central element of their cuisine. And it wasn’t simply that the word ubwali could refer to food in a general sense, either, as “bread” does in English. Ubwali was in fact the only thing that qualified as food at all. People who had been eating roasted maize all day claimed to be starving because they hadn’t yet eaten ubwali. Umunani, which must have contributed tastes and textures we would recognize as the definitive markers of a regional cuisine, was not food. People told Richards that it simply made the ubwali easier to swallow.
So here is another way of thinking about food: Depending on whom you ask, food is bread, food is rice, food is ubwali. Food is the starch, and everything else, so to speak, is just gravy.
A significant portion of people alive on earth at this moment still live in a settled agricultural society based on the cultivation of one or more caloric staples. Those of us who live in the United States and other affluent globalized societies are familiar with a larger variety of staples than we might have been in the past—most Americans are comfortable with wheat, oats, potatoes, maize, and rice—but to some extent our dietary preferences still reflect ancient orientations. I live in Florida and I try to eat local green bananas, mashed or boiled or fried, instead of the caloric staples I’m used to. But I still eat oatmeal every morning and I still make wheat bread a few times a week, and this despite the fact that neither crop is commonly grown in Florida and I have very strong political, ecological, and ideological motivations to change. Oatmeal and bread are, to me, deep down, food.
Eating local fruits and vegetables is nice, but it is not very meaningful if the staple food, the foundation of the diet, has to be shipped thousands of miles. It is notoriously hard, however, to change our preferences. Cornmeal replaced millet throughout much of Africa, and peasants in Europe and China learned to live on potatoes and sweet potatoes, respectively, but these changes have to do with essential matters of food security and not with preference. Given the luxury of choice, people tend to continue eating what they’re used to eating. It took centuries for wealthy Europeans to begin eating potatoes. As late as 1733, two hundred years after conquistadors encountered the potato in the Andes, an English writer was informing his readers that potatoes were “not only for the vulgar, but also for the Tables of the Curious… And that which was heretofore reckon’d a food fit only for Irishmen, and Clowns, is now become the Diet of the most luxuriously Polite.”
A sustainable food system means cornmeal across much of the United States, green bananas and cassava in south Florida, millet and sorghum in the arid southwest. It means, for many of us, giving up wheat bread. But most of all it means changing our minds. It means—for me, today—frying some green bananas and eating them and telling myself that’s good enough. I’ve had my food. I’ve eaten my ubwali.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in 2016.