Chile Con Climate Change

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From the Schoolyard to the Market
Chile Con Climate Change
May 20th, 2011  By Vanessa Barrington
It¹s like one of those bar jokes: An ethnobotonist, an agroecologist,
and a chef walk into a chile field?but there isn¹t a punch line because
this book is about climate change.
Thankfully, the writers of the new book Chasing Chiles manage to keep
despair at bay as they carry the reader along on a fascinating journey
in their van, ³The Spice Ship,² visiting pepper fields all over North
America to seek out iconic regional peppers and the people who grow them.
The three authors, chef Kurt Michael Friese, agroecologist Kraig Kraft,
and ethnobotonist Gary Paul Nabhan, set out in The Spice Ship to learn
how climate change is affecting one particular crop (chiles) in a
variety of different places (parts of Mexico, the Rio Grand, Avery
Island, areas of the south, and the Midwest). They investigated and
documented how farmers are adjusting their growing practices to changing
conditions in their fields. Each of the three brings his own perspective
and unique brand of inquisitiveness to the micro-subject of chiles,
providing the reader with a kaleidoscopic lens through which to view the
macro subject of climate change.
The writing has a natural immediacy that made me feel as if I were
listening in on their conversations with farmers, cooks, and seed savers
in Sonora, Mexico, Iowa, and points in between. Some of the scenes were
physically upsetting. I literally felt sick to my stomach as the three
chile wranglers approached an orchard in the desert of Sonora, Mexico.
They¹d set out to see how the indigenous chiltepin chiles were faring a
month after a severe hurricane swept through the region, and found Oscar
González, whose farm had been hit without warning by a deluge that
filled his well and irrigation system with sand, ruined his tractor,
washed away his farmhand¹s house, his chickens, and his dog, and took
out more than half of his fruit.
As farmers shared details of the variability in weather patterns they
must deal with in deciding when and where to plant and which traits to
select for in their heroic attempts to stay one step ahead of climate
change, I was struck by their tenacity in fostering diversity in their
fields. If readers take one thing away from this book it should be that
genetic diversity is key to protecting our food supply in the face of
climate change. Variable weather conditions produce more than wholesale
destruction of crops; they also produce a variety of new and
unpredictable crop-killing pests and diseases. Crop variety must match
these threats.
You don¹t need to be a science geek to love this book. Even in the face
of the dire effects of climate change, the pleasure principal is alive
and well throughout the narration. All three writers are enthusiastic
eaters and experiencing the chiles through meals shared with farmers and
cooks along the way not only left me with tons of respect for farmers,
it made me yearn for the complex, chile infused foods they were eating.
Luckily the book includes recipes for dishes like Yucatecan pollo pibil,
Datil Pepper sauce, pilau and carne machaca con verduras de Sonora
sprinkled throughout, courtesy of Friese.
I hope the gastronomic aspects of this book get more people to read it
because it¹s going to take more than disturbing data about storm
severity, droughts, and changing bird migration patterns to get people
to make the connection between climate change and their plates. You¹ve
got to hit them in the gut. Now excuse me while I go try out the recipe
on page 98 for a fiery habañero condiment called xnipek.
Vanessa is a food writer and chef based in Oakland, California. She is
the author of the forthcoming book, DIY Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for
Simple Food From Scratch (Chronicle, Fall 2010) and coauthor of Heirloom
Beans (Chronicle 2008). She works as a consultant with HavenBMedia on
food, agriculture, and environmental issues. She blogs about food policy
and healthy cooking for EcoSalon and her own blog, Vanessa Barrington,
and she thinks the world would be a better place if more people cooked
real food more often.
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