• Ali Tadlaoui

That's the name of a relatively new book I've been reading by Tania Lewis, a professor of Media and Communication. No, the book is not about manufacturing food through 3D printing. "Digital Food - From Paddock to Platform" is a review and analysis of the impact of the digital world many of us spend an increasing amount of time in on many aspects of food and eating. It goes beyond that, actually. Sharing pictures of what you chose from of a lunch menu or what you've made for dinner shares something about you, and does something for you that goes beyond the immediate benefits of eating that particularly compelling plate of food or preparing a noteworthy meal. Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other connection points to this digital world are facilitating new and fascinating consumer behavior when it comes to food too.

For one thing, I wasn't aware how many food photos are circulating in cyberspace; how big a behavior this is. There are probably more than 200,000,000 #food posts on Instagram, projecting from what was reported in a 2017 Business.com article cited in this book. The author posits that taking and sharing food photos, as well as images of other everyday objects and occurrences, speaks to a movement towards making our mundane, post-capitalist lives more interesting. That we imbue symbols of "domestic drudgery and housewifery," like meal preparation, with creative expression, pleasure, leisure, and aesthetics.

I can see how we are looking to attach more meaning to more of what we do, especially when the tools make it effortless, and to broadcast this within our circles to help our followers help us define and redefine who we are. A picture of food can be that impactful? I guess so. Five years ago already my niece was expending time and energy curating her social media story. After celebrating a milestone birthday at a place-to-be-seen restaurant I asked her why she hadn't yet posted one of the several pictures she had taken of her plate. She had told me she was waiting for the best time to get the most likes. Food can be a key ingredient in this unrelenting popularity contest, apparently.

I see what sharing food photos does for the sender; a picture of an awesome dessert in front of a smiling, knowing, self-satisfied face showing off glowing skin, braces-free teeth, and a great hair day. But what does it do for a follower on the receiving end? Do you envy the sender for discovering and enjoying this awesome dessert? Does she reaffirm that she's an influencer when it comes to food, and beyond, and that you are truly a follower? I wonder how many of these food photos streaming on your feed spur you to seek out an awesome-looking dessert. Or to ask for the recipe for that whole foods, plant-based lasagne basking on the kitchen island. Maybe it's just more food porn, like what many get out of the impressive scale and breadth of food preparation videos thriving online. YouTube research suggests that 50% of U.S. adults watch food-related videos on YouTube, and a Chinese online cooking video show called Day Day Cook gets between 200 and 250 million views every month.

There's more to it than food porn with food videos online, though. Watching home cooking shows on TV is mostly passive. It's entertainment, whether it's marveling over a celebrity chef's handiwork, or sympathizing with an amateur struggling to reproduce a dish under time constraints. You might look up a couple of recipes and file them away for the right occasion, which may or may not arrive. If, on the other hand, you've determined to make profiteroles, say, for a real occasion, there are a hundred how-to videos online to guide you through the process. (Gordon Ramsey's tutorial has 1.7 million views at last check.) You have the luxury of choice. You can find a famous chef, a non-food celebrity, an amateur cook, or member of your "tribe" that speaks to you. There are different formats too. In addition to on-demand videos, those looking for instruction, inspiration, entertainment, or even community can choose live-streaming, interactive content. The digital world continues to deliver on this over-abundance of choice for consuming food without eating it.

I'm intrigued by a smaller, but growing behavior around meal sharing. There's an app for everything, so, no surprise that there are apps to facilitate meal sharing. At its peak (before shutting down in the pandemic) Home Cook connected home-based cooks - 40,000 of them - with some 3.5 million folks across several Chinese cities willing to pay someone else for a home-cooked meal. Eat With takes a different tack. It offers a platform for an amateur cook or up-and-coming chef to turn their home or other venue into a restaurant of sorts for discrete occasions. It's a dinner party you invite yourself to through the Eat With app. The price tag for one of these events near me is $120/person. Clearly, this is an upscale experience. Not a humble bowl of food delivered by someone in a neighboring high-rise. And then, there are an uncounted number of meal-sharing "pop-ups" enabled by social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Imagine a homemaker posting that they're making a batch of something or other over the weekend, maybe a signature lasagne, and then taking orders from folks in their network. It's happening. For a little extra cash. Or to provide meals for free to those in need.

This grey market for prepared meals seems fraught. There is always the threat of health departments cracking down on this food gig worker for not having a license. And as we move beyond the Covid-19 crisis and start adapting to social life that is framed by a heightened awareness of viruses and germs will many of us want to engage in these kinds of meal experiences? How many of us will feel comfortable trusting private cooks, maybe only somewhat more skilled than ourselves in the kitchen, in kitchens not very different from our own, to make and sell us a meal we pick up on the way to or back from work. Some of us will.

On the one hand there are those who take all sorts of risks to endure or enjoy an experience. An elusive or exclusive experience. A meal and the context - the stories that complement the food - that only a few others can also claim to have consumed. Another photo op to share with those from whom they seek validation.

And then there's the struggle for too many in this country to secure their daily bread, while food goes to waste in many other households. Apps that connect those who need a meal with those who can provide one can and will create a necessary exchange platform. I see the opportunity to also connect people who want to eat healthier food but who don't have the means, time, or skills to make more nourishing food with competent cooks who can share an affordable, better-for-you meal.

There's more to the exchange of a meal you've made with someone in your physical proximity whether there's money involved or not. There's the exchange of goodwill that builds with each transaction across a community. Goodwill that makes neighbors out of strangers. I'm reminded of ethnography work we did when I worked on Banquet frozen foods. We saw how frozen and refrigerated foods are stored across several extended family homes because nobody's fridge is big enough. It's a pain, but how many extra bonding visits this creates...

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  • Ali Tadlaoui

The other day I got up a bit earlier than usual to be part of a zoom call put together by the UN Food Systems Summit. This event was open to anyone in the world with internet access. I guess 13:00 Central European Time works best to get all the time zones involved.

I'm working on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode about regenerative agriculture, an approach which implies a major disruption in the way our food system currently works, so my antennae have been up for big picture, sustainability-focused resources like this UN-sponsored event.

Top line on the UN Food Systems Summit:

* In their words "The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit. It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems."

* The summit will be held in spring of 2021

* 5 action tracks - each with a public forum and discussion starter paper

- Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all

- Shift to sustainable consumption patterns (the one I attended)

- Boost nature-postive production

- Advance equitable livelihoods

- Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress

* Dialogue sessions along the way to the summit that are open to the public

* A Champions Network anyone can join that provides a starter toolkit

What really strikes me about this campaign is not so much the scope and scale of the UN Food Systems Summit goals - the UN is always about lofty ambitions - but the strategy to directly engage as many people as possible around the world. The UN is trying to crowdsource ideas to fix or improve food systems. They are hoping to create organizers and advocates at every level of engagement who will themselves catalyze this crowdsourcing effort.

This campaign is looking for input on so many fronts. One of the work streams I made note of is focused on improving the product experience of healthy, sustainable food (taste, satiation, price/value, convenience etc.), sparking consumer motivation to eat this way, and enabling consumer capability to make more nutritious and delicious food. Clearly, there are many ways to contribute to this crowdsourcing effort based on your experience and interests.

The day after the zoom call I watched a recorded UN Food Summit Dialogue held in October. It was a four-hour affair that featured people from all walks of life weighing in on the future of food systems. Devita Davison is one example. She works with Food Lab in Detroit. She is a "connector" in this community working to improve consistent, continuous access to quality food. She bubbles with enthusiasm for the "blueprint" they've developed in Detroit.

The UN outreach effort feels genuine. I'm sure it provides a platform for companies and institutions of all stripes to boast about all the good work they're doing, and plan to do in this space. At the same time I felt fresh energy in the voices of optimistic, maybe a bit naive voices being asked to take the microphone and share their screens.

Now that I'm primed, I'm starting to see examples of this effort to more broadly share responsibility or accountability for how we feed ourselves in other places.

Unilever just announced that shareholders will vote at next year's annual meeting on the company's plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030, and to also cut in half the environmental impact of its products. Unilever sells $20 billion of food products every year.

A rancher/farmer/ag consultant I interviewed plainly called the movement to regenerative agriculture a grass-roots effort that will only succeed if each of us demands food grown and raised in this way. He said that the current Farm Bill is a barrier to change but that government policy will not be the change driver. The onus, he says, is more on the farmer and the citizen-eater.

As I think about the sustainability-focused podcasts I've produced I see that they also point to the need for us as consumers to take on more of what it takes to feed ourselves. Whether it's doing more to reduce food waste at home (and making more meals at home from scratch), shopping with reusable containers, or growing some of your own food, these all take time and effort and even a willingness to learn meal preparation skills for some of us. We have to be willing to give up some of the convenience many of us rely on. We will likely have to pay more, at least in the short term, for food that is grown and distributed in a sustainable way.

Are these individual sacrifices worth making to enjoy more nutritious, healthier, better tasting food? For everyone? Not to mention a healthier planet? We're being asked to stand up and be counted, one way or the other. I don't think we can allow ourselves to be on the sideline.

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  • Ali Tadlaoui

Kelp burger. Sounds like something I'd find in Bikini Bottom; a Krabby Patty alternative. But, no, this is not SpongeBob fare. A non-traditional seafood company called Akua is following up on the early success of its Kelp Jerky in 2020 by launching this concoction of farmed kelp (think seaweed), cremini mushrooms, black beans, quinoa, crushed tomatoes, and pea flour.

There's a lot to admire about kelp and kelp farming or harvesting. Akua says that kelp is very environmentally friendly because it sequesters carbon. And kelp provides a lot of "good fats." Moreover, making kelp burgers is a low carbon process in part because it is a "zero-input" food; it just needs sea water and sunlight.

Other than the kelp, this burger seems like the kind of burger alternative you might find at a restaurant with a relatively progressive menu. Which makes this kelp burger approachable to someone like me who is looking to eat from a broader range of protein sources, and who is also interested in experimenting with different flavors. But how fishy is this farmed seaweed? I'm staring at a picture of long, yellow-green, slimy, thick stalks waving in the current. How unfamiliar is kelp's squishiness on the tongue?

The co-founder claims, in a Fast Company profile, that their kelp burger has no fishy taste. But if the main ingredient is seaweed, and most of the environmental and health benefits of the product derive from the kelp, I'm thinking this burger will be an acquired flavor and texture. This doesn't seem like the mild, salty crunch of seaweed in sushi, or the mellowed rubberiness of fried calamari.

Kelp burger and kelp jerky are just two of a growing number of products being offered up as food to address the real threat of accelerating population growth and the challenges this is creating to feed everyone. Out of necessity, we have put ourselves in a position of exploring the fringes of what the majority of us in America have deemed edible.

Out of necessity, 2 billion people around the world have been eating, no, downright enjoying insects forever. We in the U.S. are only starting to nibble at the idea of eating insects. (I explored entomophagy in my first Talk to Me About Food podcast).

Sustainability-minded chefs in this country are promoting nose-to-tail dining to both reduce food waste and to introduce, or reintroduce our finicky palates to the full range of animal cuts and parts that can be made not just palatable, but delicious.

Rotation risotto is a recipe (and a symbol in regenerative agriculture circles) created by Dan Barber, Chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants. It is an idea as much as a recipe. The idea is to approximate a rice-based risotto featuring cover crops; ALL of whatever is in season locally, not just the most precious crop. Instead of rice, this risotto uses grains like millet, barley, and buckwheat; stuff we don't value enough to eat ourselves but that are key to sustainable agriculture. Many are saying we don't have a choice but to reintroduce sustainable practices. In a virtual book club meeting the other day, Michael Pollan, who writes about the socio-cultural impact of food, stated that we've only got 60 harvests worth of soil left if we don't build up soil health and fertility. Sixty years! Out of necessity we will likely need to regularly eat more than wheat, corn, and rice.

Back to the sea. The space occupying 70% of the earth's surface.

"All the fish in the sea" is a poetic metaphor for plenty. Not so much anymore. Not for the prized fishes. You've already heard and read plenty about the plight of the oceans and most of the their inhabitants. And still, beyond the swaying kelp forests, there are many living things swimming the seven seas, or slithering about sea beds that are, and will continue to be served up as new seafood for us to consider.

The jellyfish might be one of them. It's a scourge. A shoreline pest that's multiplying all around the world as climates warm. A few months back I read an article in The Smithsonian about an intriguing effort to make jellyfish appetizing. The starting point is the preparation of the jellyfish. Chef Jozef Youssef, at Kitchen Theory in London, removes the tentacles, then cures, seasons, and cuts the jellyfish "fillet" into strips. The resulting, unique combination of crunchiness and springy chewiness is what makes this jellyfish "meat" stand out. There's more to the experience. While you chomp on it you listen to a soundscape - underwater bubbles, waves breaking, and crunching layered over dreamy synthesizer chords - while observing images of fish projected on your table. All to seduce the diner into relinquishing squeamishness.

Another thing that there's too much of is the sea urchin. Like the jellyfish, this spiny, spiky creature can also do damage, if you step on one. But more than that, it apparently mows down kelp, so you get a double whammy by harvesting sea urchins in order to harvest the seaweed. The most familiar use of sea urchin is as "uni" in sushi. I think we'll have to find other ways to prepare the sea urchin to make it a steady, tasty source of protein in our diet.

We don't love seafood - not the wide variety of possible food in the oceans anyway - the way other peoples do. If we must have our salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp, and clams, but their stocks continue to be depleted, we may at some point in the future be able to turn to seafood cultivated from cell cultures taken from these fishes. There are a handful of companies working on this right now. Finless Foods is trying to create bluefin tuna in the lab. Wild Type is attempting to do the same with salmon. This is not the stuff of science fiction anymore, but these well-funded start-ups haven't unlocked all the secrets of life yet. In the meantime, you can start adjusting your palate to plant-based seafood alternatives, like smoked salmon made from algae or carrots, or tuna derived from a special tomato species. There are quite a few companies working this space with real products on the market.

Or, you can start experimenting with what's on the fringes of what's socially desirable to eat today. Maybe a kelp burger with a side of fried jellyfish tentacles and fried urchin rings. Or, wash down a fistful of kelp jerky with a Mountain Dew to drown the fishiness.


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