Bread, wine, chocolate—three things many of us refuse to live without. But, as Simran Sethi tells us in her new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, we might have to. The situation is both exactly as dire as that sounds and not nearly so.
“Save foods through savoring them,” Sethi explained to me this week. “I’m not being glib.” She argues that by eating what we love, we are preserving the very foods we ingest.
The book launched to much praise on November 10, but for Sethi, the launch has been a mix of emotions. Her father died a little more than a month ago, which has tinged the excitement of both her book launch and her meals with “an undertow of sadness.”
“it’s been bittersweet,” she says. “I’m quite sad that my dad never got to see the book and see the kind of reception the book is getting. … He was a scientist, so the reason I was so excited about this book was that is has such a strong science spine which—I hope, if I did it right—is wrapped up in love and relationships and memoir and travel. I was rigorous in my science, and he would’ve so very much appreciate that, because we immigrated to the United States through science, through his research.”
The book is indeed a smart mix of research, personal narrative, sensuality, and awe. And her narration feels like an easy conversation. Sethi is just as likely to cop to smoking a cigarette as she is to luxuriate over a piece of chocolate or tell you the biochemical properties of yeast. BWC is thickly researched, but never weighed down by information. And after speaking with Sethi, that’s no surprise. She comes across as sincere, passionate, incredibly smart, and human, both to her subjects and her readers.
One crucial moment late in the book demonstrates this well:
It doesn’t matter if I like beer, and it doesn’t matter if you like beer. To understand it is to appreciate it—not just beer but every food and drink. This appreciation is essential. It’s the most important lesson I learned from every taste expert I met: Taste everything. Let the experiences help clarify your likes and dislikes, sure, but also let them inform the places in between. Let them teach you more about yourself.
For Sethi, food is spiritual, political, intimate—but not in that impossible ten-dollar tomato kind of way.
I spoke with Sethi about the birth of her book and the many things she learned while writing it. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
—Robyn K. Coggins
How did Bread, Wine, Chocolate come to be?
I got into it unexpectedly. I had been nominated for a fellowship in Rome, called the Rome Prize, and it’s a lovely thing to be nominated for. You have to make the case for being in Rome, for your research, you gotta be there.
I had been really trying to tease out—especially in food—the ways in which faith and politics were becoming commingled and what would become policy. And I lived in Kansas at the time where there was a lot of that. I wanted to look at genetically modified organisms, so I thought I’ll look at the moral imperatives for and against them.
The first scientist I met said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s something that’s going on in your country, but we’re really worried about this other thing: genetic erosion.” And I was like, genetic erosion? What?! He said, “You know the loss of agricultural biodiversity.” Again, what? I mean, I call myself someone who’s like food obsessed—maybe not a “foodie,” but a food-ish. It’s all about food, all the time. But what is he talking about?
I felt like it was the greatest story that wasn’t being told, and perhaps the most important one around food and agriculture.
Who do you hope gives it a read?
I fought with my publisher, who’d say “We could see this in the New Yorker!” and I was like, “No, the New York Daily News!” I did this for everyday people. I didn’t write this for effete people. I didn’t write a Mark Bittman book—no offense to Mark Bittman—but I didn’t write for that audience. I wrote for my aunt, for the people I used to live beside in Lawrence, Kansas. I wrote for soccer moms and people just trying to do the best they can and come home at the end of the day and raise a glass.
I think about a bunch of women getting together around this book saying, “Woo! Let’s take that wine tasting, ladies! Let’s have some fun!” That’s what I think is hard about some food writing—it makes me feel ashamed for what I’m doing. I want a book of encouragement to say, Now keep going.
What got you into food writing in the first place?
My background was, coming out of school, I really thought, women’s studies. I thought I was going to be like some sort of social justice advocate type. And my path kind of took a couple of turns. I did my social justice work through being a news anchor through MTV Asia and doing some documentaries at MTV News in the United States.
And at the end of that, I read an essay in a literary magazine called The Sun where Anuradha Mittal was talking about food and feeding people and hunger. And I started to understand how politicized it was in a way that I just hadn’t considered. I’ve always been someone who’s food obsessed, like walks in the door and am like, “What’s for dinner?” obsessed. But it was that essay, that piece that solidified for me the relationship of food as all these other things. Food as history, legacy, culture, politics, economics.
And when I had the opportunity later on to get some attention with the work I was doing around environmentalism, for me, it was always about bringing it back to food; whether it was professionally or not, my touchstone was food and farming. Everyone wanted top ten tips—Oprah, the green days, that whole haze. But when I wrote, to me, the place where we transform the world and the ills of the world is through what is intimate and through what we have a deep relationship with.
And that’s food. I may not know the farmer in Ethiopia that harvested that coffee. But I know his product, one that wouldn’t exist without his hands. So food is the way to bring that close. I can’t bring the tar sands in Canada, or the Keystone Pipeline, or even the energy grid close, even if I flip on the light. I don’t have any intimacy with this light.
But these are things I ingest! God. I mean, I have cried, I have eaten my feelings in the form of chocolate. This means something to me. And so I wanted to anchor into that.
I was struck by a moment early in the book where you’re talking about how, in grocery stores, it looks like there’s so much variety, but actually there’s not really at all.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s one of the tougher sells. There are two kind of perceived obstacles with the book. When you’re looking at it, you’re like, The loss? What are you talking about? Have you been to a grocery store? Trader Joe’s doesn’t seem to be losing wine, lady! Or, the question of cost, you know, which I talk about quite a bit in the book.
But really, I just want to stay with this point that you just made—that was astonishing to me, because at no point in my life—I’m 45—have I seen more gigantic grocery stores chock full of aisles and aisles of choice! So, it seems very confusing, and it really forces us to look behind that veil and find out—staggeringly—there are 1,000 varieties of apples. How many do you see here in the store? Four, five, three? Thousands of varieties of bananas, what do we have? One. How about all that milk, yogurt—you know, how many more varieties of yogurt can we possibly need at this point? Oh my gosh! Ninety percent from the same kind of cow?
That stuff is just—it’s not visible, and I want to make that visible to people so they start to understand what’s going on.
Was there a particular food that surprised you the most, either in its diversity or in its lack of diversity?
Truly, I would have to say dairy is quite shocking to me. But, perhaps the one that—I don’t know, troubles me the most—is what’s happening with bananas. I’ll just say, across the board, you’re only going to find that same, pretty, yellow banana we see here, right? It’s the Cavendish. It’s the follow-up banana to what was known as the Gros Michel. Gros Michel tastes a little sweeter, a little bit better, but it succumbed to a disease, and breeders and farmers were hard at work creating what we eat now, the Cavendish. The Cavendish is now also succumb to that, a different strain of that same tropical disease. And we’re gonna lose it.
So we’re just one step ahead, and that’s the thing that just is so invisible to people. I often cite the example of the Irish potato famine where it’s like—there’s political stuff in there too, don’t get me wrong—but it’s there, and then you just lose it. Just one disease—sshhhpp. Wipes it all out. Look at all these monocultures we’re growing here in the United States. Of wheat, of corn, of soy. What do you think happens if they get vulnerable? And, I mean, I can speak for myself here—I just didn’t think about that at all. I just thought, There’s 27 kinds of potato chips—we’re good! But they all come from the same potato—or in the case of milk, ice cream, and yogurt, the same cow.
So those are questions that we don’t have answers to. Nobody—including scientists—and that’s why we need this diversity. It’s our backup system. It’s our resilience. It’s the insurance that we need to make sure we can have our bread, our wine, our chocolate, our banana, our yogurt, our fill-in-the-blank, moving forward.
Wow. You sound extraordinarily passionate about this.
Thank you! I mean, I am, because there’s five years of skin in this game and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and payment of probably like a dollar an hour, but really it’s because so much of it has happened in our—and I’m making a leap here, I don’t know how old you are—in my lifetime. So much of this happened since 1992—I was in college! So the reason I’m so passionate about this is because we can change it back. We’re not past the point of being able to fix this problem. And unlike something as gigantic like climate change, the solutions are right here on our plate.
I talk about this early in the book—the global standard diet, which is essentially what the world eats now. It’s rice, it’s potatoes, it’s corn, it’s soybeans, and it’s palm oil. And the head researcher, Colin Khoury, said to me, you know I said, “What can we do?” and he says things like, “Eating anything outside of that is a revolutionary act.”
That means we all can do it. Literally, he says, “Eating olive oil is now a revolutionary act.” So the invitation isn’t, “You have to buy a chocolate bar that costs $15,” even though you really should because, if you can afford it, your life is just gonna grow by deliciousness exponentially. The invitation is, “Look at what you’re eating, look at where it comes from, and look at what’s happening.”
Because if you want to be eating this tomorrow and the day after and the day after, we have to make some changes here. And the changes aren’t, you know, so much like in my environmental career: Turn down the thermostat, put on a sweater. It’s not scarce. What I’m suggesting is, Save foods through savoring them. Which, to me, is kind of the best solution I’ve ever heard of, even if I hadn’t suggested it [laughs]. Oh I’m sorry, you want me to eat better chocolate?
But I’m not being trite. You’re a science writer, you just told me my science is tight. That science—200 scientists, 68 pages of citations, and hard science—I’m not being glib here. I mean it. I just chose foods that would be, maybe, a more palatable invitation for people. But, like I say in the beginning of the book, map it on to whatever you eat—whatever your bliss is, that’s threatened too.
What you’re advocating sounds like a nice bridge between class and how you can affect food. It kind of addresses those people who say that worrying about what you eat is a privilege. This sounds different to me.
It feels different to me. Because I actually will say that that assertion makes me tired. And it hurts me because I think—and I say this again, not to beat the drum here—I say in the book that the U.S. population spends less of a percentage of our income on food than we did during the Great Depression. We are the country that spends the least amount of money of any developed country in the world on food.
To me, it’s like, How much cheaper do you want it?! How do you think that cow got to you when your burger’s $1.99? You know how much a tank of gas costs. And you know meat isn’t free. Who got shortchanged here? And why are we content with this? Why is it okay that people make so little money that that’s all that’s available? That the least healthy, the most “convenient,” most heavily processed foods are the ones that we’re supposed to eat when we are of lower income?
That’s where I get tired, because it makes me really angry. This isn’t a book about a $13 bar of chocolate. This is a book about being empowered enough to say, “I deserve more. I deserve something better.” It requires us to really consider our own value, and what it means to, I think, live a really fulfilling life in which we aren’t just saving foods—I mean, I don’t want to get too whatever here—we’re saving ourselves. We’re saving our culture. We’re saving our spirit. We’re saving our palates. This is what I want. I don’t want a world full of mediocrity. That’s not what I’m fighting for.
To really change pace for a moment, I was so glad to see I wasn’t the only one who hated beer well into adulthood. I appreciated the part of your book where you admit to that.
If the first thing you drink is a Bud Light, it’s like, that was my idea of beer. It’s this thing that was like, insipid. And that’s again—is that what we want in this world? If that’s it, then how are we going to be okay? We’re going to have that kind of wine—industrialized box wine isn’t going away, you get your Two Buck Chuck—but is that all we can ask for?
I would say there are a few beers I love, but every beer, I respect. I wanted people to know that it wasn’t like I walked in loving everything. Learning about beer kind of blew me away. Someone asked me the question of what my favorite of the things were, and it’s chocolate, but in terms of being in awe of something coming together, it’s definitely beer. It’s incredible how democratic it is. How simple! You could say that of wine as well, but I really like the scholars who say, “We started agriculture for beer, not bread.” It makes perfect sense to me.
Anything that didn’t make it into the book?
The guy from Soylent, you know, Rob Rhinehart? Before that whole wave of him being in the New Yorker and everybody talked to him, I’d reached out to him and said, “I’m talking about the deep origins of food, and I want to do the same with you. Tour the factory. Can I explore that?” This is kind of what we’re looking at. And he was actually super cool, and I wanted to really show that this is our alternative. For people who don’t feel the culture or the trappings of what food means. We can just drink Soylent. That can be it. We can pound those calories and not even worry too much about flavor or whatever because we’ll be fed nutritionally. I thought that would be a kind of interesting contrast to go to the forest, the farm, then to go to the factory as the alternative.
Right, we want something more than just filler.
I mention this at some point in the book where I talk about how we perceive flavor—how the same meal eaten as a candlelit dinner with your loved one versus the leftovers reheated the next day in a cubicle under fluorescent lights. Same food, right? But it tastes different. The flavor is different. That context matters. And that celebration or the energy put into it matters. I still don’t like to cook. I’m not a cook. I’m not a chef. I’m not a gardener. I’m an eater!
So what’s your favorite meal? Or your perfect meal?
If you’d asked me this question a month ago, I would have cited something very different. I would’ve talked about the perfection of the meal created by a chef when I had the good fortune of traveling to Havana, Cuba. Or when the head chef made us soup, a sweet soup, that he dotted with flowers. The perfection and its beauty and its flavor. And those things are all great. But now the perfect meal has become something else.
Now, it’s any meal, actually, that has been cooked by someone I love. That’s pretty perfect to me. Because they all know how much I hate to cook [laughs] so they’re all doing it for me. That’s really, really special to me.
I would say, it wasn’t the greatest tasting stuff ever, but my dad actually taught my mom to cook, and my mom is like superlative—she far exceeded the master. But when she moved to Germany, I can think of all the things my dad made, like giant hunks of onion that weren’t fully fried [laughs]. Potatoes that maaaybe were a little hard in some places, and it was just thrown together, but they were still Indian-ish. They were still my dad and full of my dad. And so now, in the very short shadow of having just lost him, I think about that all the time. I think about those potatoes, the little red potatoes that would sit in the fridge until he was ready to fry them up that he’d already boiled. You know? Those little things. And I think about the things that he didn’t make, but that we would eat together. So I think perfection for me now comes in the form of meals shared with people I love and the bonus is, of course, if they made it for me.
For me it’s also realizing that those things change. Can you find the spirit or the gratitude in a Big Mac? That’s really the bigger question here. I’m not telling you you have to buy this. What I am saying is, consider how it’s made and who made it and just be thankful. If you’re picking up a Hershey bar, be thankful for those children who made this bar. Because it was kids who harvested that cacao. Don’t feel guilty! If you’re gonna do that, own it! Own it. Smell it. Touch it. Taste it. Feel it. Roll it around on your tongue. But really don’t shy away from it. Don’t shy away from any experience. Feast on all of it.
Simran Sethi’s book is available now.