Food for Thinkers: takes a geologic turn
01.18.2011, 8:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Recently FOP posted a call for submissions to our proposed, edited book about the geologic turn in contemporary culture. While we’re not necessarily focusing on food in that project, Nicola Twilley’s week-long, distributed, online conversation over at GOOD magazine has prompted us to think about food through the geologic turn.  

Between January 18 and January 23, some forty food and non-food writers (including us) will take up Nicola’s question:  “What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?” Part of GOOD’s newly launched Food Hub, Food for Thinkers will explore food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible.

For us, that means considering how contemporary culture’s increasing awareness of–even fascination with–geologic materials, time, and forces plays out across food experiences, practices, and preferences.  In this post, we offer a few “sightings” of how today’s food production, consumption, and even protection are taking up and sometimes eating up the geologic.

In response to the questions Nicola poses in Food for Thinkers, we found several instances in which the geologic turn in cultural sensibility pivots on food.

For example:

Terroir is a French term loosely meaning a “sense of place.” Some people claim to be able to taste “place” in foods such as wine, tea, or beer.  Not just any aspect of place–but specifically its unique combination of geology, geography, and climate.  Some say that unique qualities of particular wines, for example, can be attributed to the mineral composition of a region’s soil, its Pleistocene heritage, or its geomorphology (such as steep slopes).

Geologist Terry Wright, who offers geology field trips related to terroir in California’s Napa Valley, goes so far as to say:  “A label without reference to soils types and roles is leaving one half of the story of the wine in the dust.”

Recently, the idea of terroir has generated a bit of controversy.  For some, terroir “speaks with a quiet voice”–one that adds much to the pleasures of sipping and tasting, and even to the slow food and locavore movements.  For others, it doesn’t speak at all, or speaks in a voice that some wine growers (whose practices don’t take the subtleties of terroir into account) find threatening.

Jamie Goode offers a detailed discussion of terroir controversies and misunderstandings in a blog post citing research by geologist Alex Maltman from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth (‘Wine, beer and whisky: the role of geology’ (Geology Today 19:22–29).

Perhaps the lure of the taste of terroir will expand beyond wine and tea in the coming years as a result of slow food and locavore movements.

Eating Rocks

As controversies about wine and tea terroir play out among scientists and food critics, it’s interesting to imagine a situation in which there could be no doubt that we were tasting a place itself.  For example, what if we literally ate the rocks of a particular place?

No need to imagine, because we actually do taste a place itself when we eat its geologic materiality in the form of salt.  And culinary discourses about salt have taken a big geologic turn in recent years.  Hundreds of varieties of “artisan salts” exist, enough to justify the establishment of stores selling nothing but gourmet salts–each claiming unique properties due to the nature of trace minerals, “impurities,” and geologic context (some of those claims require a geology degree to interpret).  Newly opened stores sell rock salt plates and bowls for imparting special flavors to foods.  Some restaurants boast about their “rock salt grilles.

It appears that salt is the only rock humans eat.  The fact that we eat any rocks at all is pretty astounding. According to the USDA most Americans consume just over a pound and a half of salt each year.

Entrance to the Redmond Salt Mine, image courtesy Real Salt

Eating salt not only offers a taste of a place–it also offers a taste of a moment in time.  Deep time.  Real Salt Corporation’s mine near Redmond, Utah, taps into the edible Jurassic for its product. Real Salt explains the differences between Redmond salt and other salts in geologic terms.  Its deposit is the remnant of an ancient inland sea, probably part of what the company calls the Sundance Sea.  That would place its  deposit within the Jurassic Period.  Over time, the salt that settled at the bottom of the sea was trapped within the earth and eventually was pushed up near the surface close to the town of Redmond, Utah.  The Real Salt deposit begins about 30 feet below ground, covered by a layer of bentonite clay, which has protected it from erosion and from the possibility of modern contamination.

the Real Salt mine in UT and Real Salt at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn

Redmond salt is mined like any other rock.  It is “harvested,” using carbide-tipped equipment that scrapes the salt off the walls of the mine. Harvester/miners follow food-grade veins 300 feet below the surface. The salt is screened and crushed to size before being shipped to a food-grade facility in Northern Utah. Over 60+ natural trace minerals occur within the Redmond deposit, giving the reddish colored salt its unique color, flavor, and claims to numerous health benefits.

The company’s website credits the purity of its salt to the fact that its deposit comes from an ancient sea bed created “long before the earth experienced any pollution or contaminants that are troubling our oceans today.”

However, even Redmond salt hasn’t escaped geologic-scale effects unleashed by human activity in the Anthropocene:  Real Salt devotes an entire post on their blog to explaining how the effects of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site during the 1960s has turned their salt slightly (but harmlessly) radioactive.

It’s hard not to wonder if tiny amounts of radioactivity add to the terroir of salt not only from Redmond, but from many other places around the world.

Preserve, Protect, and Defend:  geology as the front line of food’s future

the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, wikicommons

Food’s future took a geologic turn with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in 2008.  According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the vault will eventually hold 4.5 million distinct samples of seeds — or some 2 billion seeds in total — encompassing almost every variety of most important food crops in the world.  CNN reported that the Norwegian government paid to build the vault 390 feet inside a sandstone mountain near Longyearbyen, in the remote Svalbard islands between Norway and the North Pole. The United Nations founded the trust in 2004 to support the long-term conservation of crop diversity, and countries and foundations provide the funding.

Geologic forces play a main role in the design and function of the vault.  The site at Spitsbergen was considered ideal because of its lack of tectonic activity and its permafrost, which will aid preservation.  According to Wikipedia, the location 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will ensure that the site remains dry even if the icecaps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard −18 °C (0 °F). The permafrost surrounding the facility will help maintain the low temperature of the seeds if the electricity supply should fail.

Drawing: Global Crop Diversity Trust

Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds of years. Some seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly thousands of years.

Back in the USA, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), located deep within Cheyenne Mountain, might be considered the antithesis of the Nordic seed vault.  Nestled 2,000 feet into Cheyenne Mountain, the Operations Center and the Cheyenne Mountain Directorate “collect data from a worldwide system of satellites, radar, and other sensors and process that information in real time.”

Photo of the North Portal entrance, wikicommons

Here, a food vault of another kind awaits activation.   Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, writes that behind the three foot thick steel blast doors designed to endure earthquakes, thermonuclear blasts, biological weapons, and radioactive fallout . . .

. . . When the men and women stationed at Cheyenne Mountain get tired of the food in the cafeteria, they often send somebody over to the Burger King at Fort Carson, a nearby army base. Or they call Domino’s. Almost every night, a Domino’s deliveryman winds his way up the lonely Cheyenne Mountain Road, past the ominous DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED signs, past the security checkpoint at the entrance of the base, driving toward the heavily guarded North Portal, tucked behind chain link and barbed wire. Near the spot where the road heads straight into the mountainside, the delivery man drops off his pizzas and collects his tip. And should Armageddon come, should a foreign enemy someday shower the United States with nuclear warheads, laying waste to the whole continent, entombed within Cheyenne Mountain, along with the high-tech marvels, the pale blue jumpsuits, comic books, and Bibles, future archeologists may find other clues to the nature of our civilization — Big King wrappers, hardened crusts of Cheesy Bread, Barbeque Wing bones, and the red, white, and blue of a Domino’s pizza box.

NORAD blast doors, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. USAF photo.

As we follow GOOD Magazine’s Food for Thinkers event this week, we pose two questions back to the public and to food writers:

What does framing our food practices, needs, and futures through “the geologic” make thinkable and doable?   How might placing our considerations of food within the context of deep geologic time affect, and perhaps improve, food experiences and policies of the “now”?

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[…] Lockwood of Outside the Interzone also dug into the archives with this post from last June, combining a series of fantasy cake images (for Nissan cars, of all things) with some actual photos of a “zebra” cake with gneissic banding. Lockwood was also kind enough to point to the Friends of the Pleistocene geo-art blog, which explored some of the connections between food and geology in a recent post called “Food for Thinkers”. […]

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