The Foodprint Project: Eating in Context

23Jun08

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Several weeks ago when I ate shrimp in a San Francisco restaurant I asked the chef—who is also the owner of the restaurant and buys his own ingredients—where my shrimp had been caught. He told me it was from Louisiana. I went home and began researching the Louisiana shrimp industry. I learned that Vermillion Parish has one of the largest shrimping ports in the U.S, and that most of the fishers there are Vietnamese immigrants.

According to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, the shrimpers’ operating costs are rising, even as the retail price of shrimp is falling due to imports. It’s cheaper to catch, package, and ship shrimp from Southeast Asia than it is to source them from the U.S. gulf coast.

As it turned out, my meal intersected with this global economic reality. When I finally located the company that had provided the shrimp for my dinner, I discovered that they were actually a distributor of imported shellfish. My shrimp had come from Vietnam.

Currently, determining the economic, environmental, and human impacts of our food is nearly impossible. Despite Google’s seeming omniscience, the material returned on most any search into an ingredient’s backstory consists of 100-page academic papers, chart-heavy industry reports, and inscrutable government statistics.

A growing number of Americans express a desire to know more about the origins of their food and a willingness to base their purchasing decisions on that information. But even to those of us willing to dig deep, the workings of the food system are opaque. We can’t expect progress without transparency, but we need a better way to reveal the backstory.

By looking at a plate as a blueprint—a foodprint—we gain context for the often rootless array of colors and textures that make up a meal. We can see the carefully designed systems and human stories that each ingredient passes through, from the smallest scales—molecular gastronomy, genetic modification, food engineering; to the most ubiquitous and widely felt—industrial farming, factory production, branding and package design, global distribution networks. That narrative not only creates more informed consumers and empowered cooks, it adds layers of anecdotal umami to the eating experience.

The Foodprint Project is a place to explore these culinary microhistories through my own kitchen experiments, my growing collection of out-of-print regional cookbooks, and my undying love of obscure grocery store reconnaissance.

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Photos courtesy of Hafiz Ismail and Hillary Stein.

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