Geography Of Food And Our Culture

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In today’s society, it is easy to feel a disconnect with your groceries. The fruits and vegetables stacked high on the shelves aren’t typically accompanied by pictures of farmers and factory workers. It’s almost impossible to know where your food is coming from when you buy it from the market. This is mainly because markets are usually supermarkets and big chains, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger. Unless you’re buying your food directly from a local farmer’s market, farm-to-table restaurant, etc., you have no idea of your food’s origin.

While some companies are transparent when it comes to where they manufacture their products and where their ingredients come from, many other companies are closed books. If you look deeper, you’ll find that most of the foods you eat daily have rich histories, and you may even be surprised by where they are manufactured. In this essay I will trace my grilled cheese sandwich, focusing on three ingredients. Through research on the holy trinity – bread, mayonnaise, and cheese – I will acquire a deeper knowledge of a meal that I so often absent-mindedly eat. The most essential ingredient for burgers and sandwiches all over the world: bread. However, in this case it’s nothing special; just classic, good ole’ white bread. But before it became the sliced up loaves that we all know and love today, bread took many different forms and travelled through many cultures.

The story of bread starts in approximately 8000 BCE where the first grinding stone was invented in Egypt. The bread they made with the stone isn’t similar to the sliced loaves we see in stores today, but it was an essential step in the process of bread making its way into other cultures. It wasn’t until 1000 BCE that yeasted breads became popular in Rome. The Greeks had created more than 70 different types of bread by 300 CE. As for the United States, wheat wasn’t planted until 1777. Bread as we know it today was not the norm until after the Industrial Revolution. I used Simple Truth white bread to make my grilled cheese.

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Simple Truth is a Kroger-owned brand that is promoted to be organic and fair trade. Kroger’s nearest producer of bakery goods is Country Oven Bakery in Bowling Green, KY. The Kroger brand bread in our stores here in Lexington most likely come from this bakery, which is only a couple of hours away. However, it is still unclear where they get their ingredients to manufacture the bread. Kroger’s 2018 Sustainability Report is fairly vague when it addresses the supply chain. The only information offered is that Kroger has “thousands of domestic and international suppliers of raw materials”. Who’s to say how far the product has travelled?

Tracking the supply chain of a loaf of bread from Kroger would have to be a job for a detective, or an entirely different, investigative assignment. With both of my parents being Caucasian, I haven’t really had a particular cultural reason to eat bread, like tortillas, pitas, etc. I also don’t believe that Louisville had a special affinity for bread, so I’d have to say I have no cultural attachment to bread, sadly.Next on the list is mayonnaise. Most people butter their bread, but mayo is the true way to go. Mayonnaise may not be as old as bread, but its history is much easier to track. Before it was mayonnaise, it was “mahonnaise”. That is, if you believe this origin story – it is one of four popular theories of the beloved condiment’s invention.

According to the most popular version of the story, mayonnaise was created in June of 1756 on the Spanish island of Minorca. French Duke Richelieu had just captured Port Mayon and decided his victory was deserving of a victory dinner. The duke’s chef had to use olive oil instead of cream in a sauce he was making, and voilà! Mahonnaise! On the other hand, some say that mayonnaise was actually a specialty sauce in the southwestern French town Bayonne, where it was originally called “bayonnaise”. Flash forward to New York in the 1900s: Richard Hellmann, a German immigrant, opens a deli where his wife dresses the salads with her homemade mayonnaise. People enjoyed it so much that the Hellmanns started putting the mayonnaise in jars and selling it, leading to their first factory in 1913, which brings us full circle in our story. The mayonnaise I used was, of course, Hellmann’s. According to the website, Hellmann’s sources its ingredients from American farms and calls it the Blue Ribbon Standard. It showcases three family farms that they source from, all located in Iowa. Unilever, the company that owns Hellmann’s, stated that “nearly 100 percent of the soybean oil used in Hellmann’s mayonnaise came from Des Moines, Iowa” (Unilever). They are also in association with Field to Market, an organization that believes in sustainable farming and a closer relationship between farmer and company. Save for one in Chicago, it’s difficult to find the locations of Hellmann’s factories, if there even are more.

Given this information, the most I can do is assume that the chain is fairly short: farmer to Hellmann’s factory, then straight to Kroger. I have no cultural attachment to mayonnaise, unless countless homemade BLT’s are considered as a cultural attachment. We love mayonnaise in the True household. Lastly, the origin of the most important ingredient: cheese. As with many foods that have been around as long as cheese has been, it’s hard to pinpoint where it was invented and by who. Most people believe that cheese was created by accident, which seems to be a very common occurrence. Cheese is older than Methuselah – jokingly and literally. Its so old that the Bible mentions cheese in the tale of David and Goliath. Remnants of cheese were found in Egyptian clay pots dating all the way back to 2300 BCE. Just recently in what is now Poland they have discovered cheese strainers that are 7,500 years old. In other occurrences they’ve found more dairy farms remains in Neolithic ruins. However, the Romans were the first to mass produce cheese and they were crucial to spreading cheese throughout Europe. Cheese finally made its way to the Americas in 1620 when the Mayflower arrived, bearing cheese as one of its supplies. Getting back to the grilled cheese, I used Sargento Sliced Colby-Jack cheese. As read on their website, Sargento is very proud to say that they are a family company and produce and manufacture their cheeses in Wisconsin, where they have four facilities. One can only assume that these “facilities” are manufacturing and farming facilities, because, after a considerable amount of failed Google searches, finding the locations of their farms is either incredibly difficult or impossible. Although the production of the cheese is questionable and mysterious, you know when you’re getting Sargento cheese, it’s coming from Wisconsin. I don’t have a cultural reason as to why cheese ended up being a staple in my diet, but let’s just say I might as well be a Wisconsonian. I blame my nana due to the abundance of macaroni and cheese in my childhood.

As illustrated in this essay, the foods we eat every day are more complex than they may appear sitting on the supermarket shelf. Behind every product there is a company, behind every company there is a factory, and behind every factory there is a farm. Not all of this information is easily accessible on the World Wide Web, but obtaining the information is not an impossible task if you are determined to know the origins of your meals. Knowing where your food comes from and feeling a connection to it is very beneficial. The process of getting the food on the market shelves to you involves a whole lot of manpower and energy. The farmers who plow the fields are equally as important as the CEOs running the companies. It’s important to figure out if your support of a company is warranted, and that they are treating their employees – factory, store, and farm – fairly. Knowing the history of your foods can also teach you about your culture or maybe even another person’s culture. Educating yourself with the geography of your food makes you a more conscious consumer. So, you can either go to the store and buy your groceries without a second thought, or you can educate yourself more and end up writing a whole entire page on a condiment.

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