It is hard to write about food in a time of catastrophe, when the market presses our bodies and imaginations into service. Around any sentence we might write in praise of the fragrant dishes on our table lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned seas, the lost soils, the vast herds of creatures living and dying unheard in dark sheds. Our own appetites are held captive within a global industry that operates like an invisible machine, devouring the world’s resources, rendering its products into discrete units, making it almost impossible to comprehend the whole of its workings. The delivery trucks thunder down the roads of everywhere, container ships roar across oceans. The tills are forever ringing.
In the last decade many books and documentaries have deconstructed this industrial machine, but so comfortless and unsavoury are their findings, it is easy to lose sight of the very thing under discussion, the nature of food itself: its origins rooted in plants and soil, its essential relationship with our physical forms, its sweet memories and tastes. The living leaves and animals, the hands of the people who grow the food, recede from view. Our everyday actions are creating a wasteland out of paradise, but the absolute control of this system seems overwhelming.
Meanwhile cookbooks and television shows offer solace and entertainment and take no account of how the dishes arrive at our table. Feasts from all lands appear before our eyes, presenters smile glamorously in shiny kitchens and immaculate gardens, the hostess bakes cakes, the chef performs miraculous feats. Everyone holds an oversize glass of wine in their hands. Still we feel excluded, mute before their show. It somehow does not seem to be the world we are living in.
Outside these utopias and dystopias is the real earth where plants still grow, pots simmer on stoves, soil regenerates, spring arrives, rain falls, and people speak to each other and work the land.
Outside these utopias and dystopias is the real earth where plants still grow, pots simmer on stoves, soil regenerates, spring arrives, rain falls, and people speak to each other and work the land. How to write a book then to connect with this vital reality, where the urgent issues of climate breakdown and the limits of economic growth have already entered the dialogue around the table? Once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?
Dark Kitchen began four years ago as an online series to foster and document regenerative acts of resistance that are happening every day in kitchens and fields around the world. We set out to find the stories beyond our industrial civilisation, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter-gatherer bodies, thousands of years of living in wheat and barley-fed societies, in nomadic milk-herding geographies. We were in search of food’s deep time memory, how we could become kin again with creatures, plants, watersheds and cooking fires and regain an imaginative and practical relationship with the lands and seas that feed us.
What is food without a story? The talking heads stare into the ravening abyss of human consumption, at the billions of livestock trampling forests and rivers, and tell us we need more control and management. On each side of the ecological debate, politician and environmentalist, policy maker and scientist, all compete for the control button of a matrix whose interconnected fabric has been ripped apart by global industrial agriculture. The proposed ‘solutions’ to ‘feeding the world’ demand more mechanical intervention, more chemical inputs, factory-grown meat from stem cells, genetically modified seeds, higher energy use. These foods do not root us in a regenerative story but lead only to the dead end of the laboratory, to the boardrooms of Cargill, Tyson and other corporate monoliths.
The storyteller’s response is to find the foods where the story of life is still held and stand by it. To reweave and repair the broken threads with the tools at hand: our words and our art.
The storyteller’s response is to find the foods where the story of life is still held and stand by it. To reweave and repair the broken threads with the tools at hand: our words and our art. The stories we discovered were all growing in the margins: sovereign seed collectors, agroforestry projects, urban gardens, community ‘waste’ kitchens, Indigenous practices, thriving partnerships in cities and rural districts that mirror the mycelia present within healthy soil. An approach to food growing and eating that is restorative rather than entropic, diverse rather than monocultural; where experience and communication and, most of all, imagination matter.
Thus we began to chronicle a culture that in spite of the odds keeps planting, preserving, cooking and meeting around the kitchen table. We foraged for chestnuts in France and nettles on the Sussex Downs, followed the ancient tracks of dairy herds into the Alps and a Native American Hoop of wildtenders into the Oregon desert, learned how to make kefir and khobeizeh, and listened to how a Syrian refugee carried, in a perilous journey across Europe, her most treasured possession: a falafal press. With that press she began to cook and nurture a new life in Aberdeenshire.
‘We live in a very unpredictable, unsettling, violent reality, and yet within this violent reality we’re trying to find some consistency, some peace of mind, some life and some way to somehow love ourselves, because we’ve been so trained to think that we can’t produce anything, that we’re not good enough. Our grandparents didn’t leave us concrete, they left us a live seed. There’s nothing more powerful than this message.’ Vivian Sansour, creator of the Palestinian Seed Library, takes this message and her fold-up Travelling Kitchen around the villages and towns, collecting seeds and stories of vegetables and fruits that have thrived in some of the harshest conditions.
In the Scottish Highlands the farmer Col Gordontrials thousands of the world’s heritage landraces of barley and wheat: ‘Modern varieties are placeless and faceless; they have no history or culture to speak of, other than one of extraction and domination. Each landrace belongs to a distinct culture and place with its own traditions, stories and myths, rituals, songs and festivals. To develop healthy and beautiful cultures and agricultures in the future, we need to uncover the lessons and stories encoded in our seeds.’
The driving force of modernity shuts out all heirloom knowledge of raising crops in different territories and climates, deliberately destroying the autonomy of small farmers and landworkers, and disabling our capacity to feed ourselves. It makes farmers everywhere dependent on hybrid seeds and chemical inputs, thereby extincting thousands of plants that have enabled human beings to thrive in diversity. Against the violence of corporate control and the 24/7 manufacture of rootless fast food, Indigenous growers, soil keepers, guardians of barley and beans, and the lovers of orchards and wild rivers, keep another kind of time: the past and the future that is held in seeds passed down through generations, and in the human heart.
Indigenous growers, soil keepers, guardians of barley and beans, and the lovers of orchards and wild rivers, keep another kind of time: the past and the future that is held in seeds passed down through generations, and in the human heart.
Modern people live in an economy, as Aboriginal academic Tyson Yunkaporta once said, and not a culture. What happens when you decide to stand by culture, and your work and your attention become 90% creativity and 10% production? Dark Mountain has, like Noma, in spite of economic crises and pandemics, held on to its independence to foster innovative art and writing. We are not alone in this stand. Dark Kitchen is a testimony, as all our books are, to all those around the world who value culture above the market. Who cook, gather, glean, forage, tend to Earthly life with all its rich and aromatic flavours, knowing those who stir the pot hold the world beloved in their hands.
This issue looks into the belly of the beast: into the factories of ultra processed food; into the slaughterhouse knocker box; at starvation on the Arctic sea ice; in an elite dining room where endangered animals are on the menu. We have surveyed the ocean prisons where salmon try to liberate themselves, but cannot escape the mutation of their bodies, and shadowed the slavery of human bodies, holding sugar beet in our sights. Altogether elsewhere, radishes appear upside down in a Norwegian gallery, a golden slime mould slides down a scarlet jelly, salt dissolves on a poet’s tongue, a table is laid for wasps and foxes, acorns are gleaned for bread, people gather in conviviality, or meditate on being eaten. The taste of the last figs of summer lingers in our mouths.
Among the steam and clatter of our pans, moments of quiet attention remind us of the network of connections that cohere and nourish the living world, including ourselves: the wild salmon of the Atlantic and Pacific that feed the forests, the seaweed that creates a garden on a Hebridean island; the microbes that link the wild yeasts bubbling in jars in Montana and Colorado to the whiskered wheat of East Anglia to the sourdough loaves that feed a locked-down hill community in Australia; the feral dandelions that break the colonial hold on an English estate, the multicoloured maize that resists imported corn in the milpas of Chiapas and Chihuahua. Food that makes sense of everything, even as the civilised world falls apart.
This is a book of those mycelial moments, of those ferments in alchemical jars, of this ancestral knowledge we hold in our hands for the future, of the people who go about putting life back into the plants, into the soil, into the pot, of what Hopi farmers call navoti, the life in the seed, and Mexican cooks call chispa, the spark that fires up human beings.
Do join us for an online launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 23 this Thursday 20th April 2023 starting at 7pm (BST) to see and hear contributions from the book’s writers, artists and editors from around the world. Hope to see you there!
COVER IMAGE: David Lauer
Manos, Metate y Maíz Azul
(Hands, Mortar and Blue Maize)
Bacabureachi, Chihuahua, México
The mano and metate are used for grinding maize grains after they have been cooked with lime or wood ashes that soften the kernels and enrich them with calcium and other minerals. The dough can then be used for tortillas, tamales, sopes, huaraches and all the other ways that maize is still prepared in Meso-America. These grinding stones are still passed from one generation to the next and are a highly treasured inheritance for those who understand their value.
David Lauer lives in Chihuahua, Mexico where he has been working as a photographer since 1992 to document the vast Chihuahuan Desert, the destruction and conservation of the Sierra Madre’s forests, and numerous social movements. Since 2003, his photography has highlighted maize, the defence of biodiversity and the struggle to keep genetically modified seeds out of Mexico.