City Bites

FOOD BUZZ: Meet food culture advocate Jeannie Marshall at Stella Luna on Thursday Apr. 19, 7:30 p.m.

Author Jeannie Marshall has ignited a conversation about the importance of food cultures — old and new.

Full disclosure: Jeannie Marshall is my friend. She is also the author of a fascinating new book that deals with a topic that is very near and dear to my heart: Italian food and food culture. She is a journalist from Toronto and we have mutual friends who connected us when I found myself in Rome — where she now lives — during my sabbatical year in 2009.

When I found out Jeannie was coming to Canada to promote her new book, Outside the Box, I quickly convinced her to make a stop in Ottawa. I knew she would feel right at home at Stella Luna Gelateria, where the owners hail from Rome and have dedicated their lives to transporting an aspect of Italian food culture to the nation’s capital.

Outside the Box is Jeannie’s personal investigation into why diets around the world are converging. Why are they becoming more alike? Why are diet-related illnesses increasing around the world, especially among children? The short answer is that this is happening because of the breakdown of local food systems and food cultures.

I asked her a few basic questions to get the conversation started with City Bites readers. I invite you all to come out on Thursday evening to meet Jeannie and join in an important discussion about our ability to help shape the future of eating, starting with nourishing our children. She says parents, not corporations, know what’s best for kids.

What is a food culture?
It’s the way a group of people eat. It’s the food they eat, the recipes they have built up collectively over time, but it’s also the rules and rituals around eating in a particular community.

Why is a food culture important?
It protects our health in ways we don’t consciously recognize. People who have lived in one place for a long time adapt the food they find around them in ways that give them pleasure and keep them healthy. This is as true of the way the Inuit once ate with their diet of blubber and raw meat as it is of the Italians in central Italy who collected wild, bitter greens in the countryside and turned them into a delicious and healthy base for a varied diet. The people who live within a functioning food culture don’t talk about protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. They eat the food around them by following the rules of their culture and their health takes care of itself.

What has happened to the world’s food cultures?
They are being eroded in much the same way that our Canadian food culture has been eroded by processed and fast foods aimed at children. The Polynesian islands of Micronesia were once among the most diverse regions in the world with the healthiest population. Now they have one of the most obese populations on the planet. The same is true of Italy where children now eat differently from their parents’ generation, consuming far more fast foods and processed snack foods and the childhood obesity rate is now 1 in 3. Then we can look at Canada where this process of industrializing our food culture began long ago.

What can we do?
The American chef and food activist Alice Waters told me that Europeans just need to be reminded of their food traditions, to recognize their importance and their value. But, we North Americans have to reinvent a food culture based on real foods.

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