Laura Killingbeck, Porvenir Design's Food System Designer
The Human Diet as An Ecological System
Cuisine is diet that's unique to a physical place and a human cultural group. We can taste the patterns of modern cuisine in the melding of characteristic ingredients into characteristic forms. Wheat noodles with tomato sauce points us in the direction of Italy. Fermented spiced cabbage leads us to Korean kimchi. Even amid tremendous variation, and even as these cultural foods are exported, appropriated, and evolve in different ways in different places, we are still able in many cases to recognize a cultural and geographical narrative embedded within relational patterns of flavors and forms.
Across the span of human agricultural history, cuisine sprung from ecological relationships—people ate what grew well in their area, and they grew what nourished them. Humans shaped the morphology of plant, animal, and microbial species by selective breeding; in turn, these foods changed the physiology of the human body. Cultural groups vary widely in their tolerance and desire for certain foods—these are genetic adaptations to their peoples' long history of evolution with specific cuisine. The co-transformation of people and food species was exquisitely mediated by the opportunities and limitations of the ecological niche of the place where they lived. Growth was balanced and calibrated within an ecological feedback loop of regenerating resources.
But in recent human history, globalization expanded our access to place and people, while simultaneously breaking this ecological feedback loop. We travel, and food travels; neither is linked, necessarily, in place. People are still connected with the world, but now we are connected differently. This shift is transforming the evolution of cuisine in unprecedented ways.
If you imagine the path of human ecology as a train traveling down a railroad track, globalization is the conductor turning the train onto a new track. Human relationships with food are now evolving in a different direction than they did before. The foundation for cuisine is no longer an ecological relationship between people and place; it is an economic relationship between people and business. Businesses grow or produce food and ship it around the world, where chains of distributors buy it and warehouse it in grocery stores. Surely this is not the only way that food works, and local food cultures still thrive in many areas. But it is a style of human-food interaction that is growing and replacing such local cultures. As we become increasingly separate from our direct relationship with the ecological patterns that once mediated food and diet, we become more deeply fused with a new, abstract, relationship with global commerce. The foods we like to eat often have less to do with healthy ecology, and more to do with macroeconomics and marketing.
We know there are a lot of problems with this. The Western Diet (aka, global cuisine) is correlated to chronic disease and poor health. Mass agriculture depletes soil and species diversity. Industrial pesticides and fertilizers damage ecosystems. There is a lot more to say but I don't have to say it—on some level we know, all the time, that this is bad. And even as we know, we still eat global-industrial foods, because we're hungry, its what we know, and its what's there.
Post-Harvest Permaculture Design
Permaculture design is essentially applied ecology for human development. It studies and teaches how life relates to place, with the object of sustaining that life and that place. A lot of the literature within Permaculture Design centers on the infrastructure development of building, landscape, and agricultural systems. It most often highlights the agricultural side, with ideas and methods of learning how to integrate human agricultural systems with the larger ecology of life on earth.
But interestingly, the focus on agricultural systems within Permaculture Design methodologies often only lightly brushes post-harvest food handling and cuisine development. The general thinking is that once people understand food production as a functional part of ecological systems, they will be able to grow more food. This has been very successful for many people, with one caveat—growing plants, animals, or microbial species that are edible does not mean you are growing food that is ready to eat. A a plot of wheat and a chicken pecking bugs can be wonderful parts of an agricultural ecosystem, but if you want a chicken sandwich there is still a lot of work to do.
Over the last nine years I've worked with two farms and education centers who dedicated themselves to the process of farm-to-table food production—one in temperate Massachusetts, and the other in tropical Costa Rica. This allowed me to study and practice food preservation and processing across climates, and see the similarities and differences that unfolded.
At Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica, even very common foods, like malanga, tiquisque, cuadrados, pejibaye, and chaya were all new to us. And what do you do with a sudden hundred pounds of ripe bananas? At Round the Bend Farm in Massachusetts, we needed to preserve large quantities of food seasonally to last the winter, in a way that was totally different than in the tropics. We also transitioned from a home-scale cooking facility to one which could serve hundreds, and had to scale our systems up to meet new demands. At both organizations, it took us a lot of time, and a lot of trial and error, to acquire the skills, tools, and labor to do these things. And to do these things efficiently, it took structured seasonal planning. The teaspoon of ginger you need now in your recipe had to be grown a year ago, then harvested, dried, powdered, and stored. We had to learn how to organize ourselves in relation to local food, in ways that were intrinsically different from how we used to organize ourselves in relation to globalized foods.
The human element of how we interacted with food based on our personal and cultural backgrounds was another huge piece of the puzzle for local eating, especially in Costa Rica. We craved western-style bread products; people didn't always like Costa Rican cuisine; some people were afraid of new foods like fermented bananas. Eating locally meant coming to terms with the cultural references for desirability of foods we had brought with us, in relation to the ecological and cultural backdrop of a new country and climate. We had to adapt ourselves to new styles of cuisine, and adapt that cuisine to ourselves as newcomers.
Most of my work in Costa Rica and Massachusetts was to create, systematize, and implement post-harvest food processing and preservation strategies based on farm foods. I also worked with numerous farm owners, communities, and homesteaders who were and are in the process of divesting from their dependence on global-market food supplies. It is through these relationships and experiences that I began to notice consistent patterns in the challenges people faced in transforming their farms into food. I started comparing patterns of limitations and successes that people were reporting, with those of the organizations I was working with. I used permaculture design to organize these patterns into a systematic format that I could use to consult with people about how to achieve more efficient and accelerated farm-to-table food system success.
I call this consultation service the Basic Pantry Analysis. The title and process drew inspiration from many collaborators in the fields of permaculture design and farm-to-table cuisine; in particular the work of Costa Rican ethnobotonist Rafael Ocampo, as well as that of the Sat Yoga Institute. A similar process focused on family nutrition has also been promoted by the Instituto de Nutrición de Centroamérica y Panamá (INCAP). My version of this process is based on my experience working with farms and communities, and is an adaptation of a wonderful wealth of collaboration among many individuals and organizations.
The Basic Pantry Analysis
The Basic Pantry Analysis matches the ecological needs of your land, with your cultural and personal frames of reference, your dietary needs and desires, and your resource capacity, to form a “basic pantry” of ingredients, whole and value added, that you will use to develop your own dynamic cuisine—that is, the meals you eat every day to sustain yourself in the place you live. This process is useful for anyone who wants to accelerate their ability to grow, process, and eat local foods.
Your Basic Pantry will be designed through a combination of personal decisions and desires, which inform a multitude of what are often very simple tasks. Those big ideas and those little tasks are what build the complex whole. The consultation service is divided into four primary parts: Vision, Layout, Basic Pantry, and Adaptation. The scope of service varies depending on the client's needs and desires.
Sample Outline of Basic Pantry Service
Please note this varies based on client needs.
This is the overall concept of your cuisine. Exploration of goals and values, and how those relate to your capacity. Make decisions about priorities for ecological, cultural, dietary, financial, factors.
What the client receives:
- A one paragraph vision statement for your cuisine.
- A one page analysis of the factors and values that contribute to that vision.
- A sample set of meals you could expect to eat over the course of the year.
This is the architectural layout of your plan—it shows clearly how different food elements and tasks fit into your cuisine over time.
What the client receives:
- Daily, weekly, monthly, and/or annual list of post-harvest food tasks for your mature food system.
- Analysis of tools and infrastructure.
- Analysis of skills and labor needed.
- Basic five year analysis of how your food system transitions through time.
You need lots of ingredients to make meals—this is the list of those ingredients, whole and value-added. I work closely with the agricultural team to make recommendations about food species.
What the client receives:
- Sourcing and Growing list
- Processed and Preserved foods list
Your Basic Pantry Analysis is a starting point, not an end. It will grow and shift and evolve as you and your land do. This section is a structured feedback loop to help you grow and shift your cuisine based on your priorities.
What the client receives:
- Design concept follow up questions
- Blank harvest, processing, and/or other charts for feedback
- Supporting appendix—contains client-specific documents on further skills and strategies, and/or other supplementary documentation as needed.
For more information on costs and deliverables of this service please write our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.