Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eating with a Spiritual Compass

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner in Harlem, New York of a restaurant called the Red Rooster, has lots to say about the impact of food on popular culture and values. Born in Ethiopia but raised in Sweden, Samuelsson’s background is as diverse as his cuisine. He promotes “eating with a spiritual compass, with spirituality in mind”. He explains: we need to think harder about what’s in our plates, where it came from and how what we eat affects us and our planet. Is it tomato or corn season when you eat it or has it been shipped from who knows
where? Remember when a few decades ago Sunday lunch in the US and other countries used to be the main, leisurely and big meal of the week? How about only eating meat once a week? Or a day of fasting periodically? Or going without butter for a few days? Another way of eating with a spiritual mind is learning to cook with leftovers and wasting less food. An important added benefit: eating with a spiritual compass leads to better health.

Samuelsson also maintains that food can create inclusion and conversation. It’s the easiest way, he says, to start a conversation and learn about people, customs, norms. Gathering together for food also allows more conversation, when that discussion takes place over a meal. “It’s all about sharing.” Or as he states in his book, New American Table, “Our food experiences may be diverse, but they all establish a common ground and give us a reference point from which to share in each other’s life.”

Good food is diverse food. A good meal is not just made up of natural ingredients, if at all possible; it must also be an experience, what you think and feel as you eat the food. That diversity is also what Samuelsson aims to bring to his restaurants, both in the foodstuffs and flavors he uses, and in the staff he hires. His NY restaurant employs 50 people from Harlem. There he teaches them not just how to cook and work, but how to present themselves, write a resume, shine their shoes for an interview. He employs locals and celebrates area farmers while engaging the community, offering people something good, something different, novelty and openness, yet based in the cuisine they are familiar with.

According to Samuelsson, there’s a Harlem that’s ripe for revitalization in every city. Food in these places can be used to convey the standards that a community needs to thrive. Why give candy bars to children as snacks, or potato chips rather than fruit? Because they are cheaper than the natural products? Samuelsson points out the irony: progress in an Ethiopian town is the appearance of a grocery store that stocks packaged food, while progress in an American suburb is a new farmers’ market. Revitalization means making ripe, seasonal, healthy produce available and affordable to the general public in stores everywhere and to youngsters in schools. At the same time it means introducing creativity and a melding of cuisines, ideas and customs.