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July 13th, 2016

Crossing the Border

BY Christian Ford

Even if we lived in a world without borders, you would know when you’d arrived somewhere different — the food would change.  That’s not as apparent as it once was, what with McDonald’s hamburgers in Paris, New Zealand apples in Washington State, and your average carrot traveling over a thousand miles to reach you; global trade works tirelessly to obscure the fact that foods and cuisines are rooted in place.   Sometimes, however, you get powerfully reminded of the fact that what we think of as normal is anything but, as Bee Wilson reminds us in her overview of just what Brexit may mean for the UK’s food.  It’s not particularly pretty.  Bangers and mash, anyone?

Audric de Campeau, hipster Parisian beekeeper, reports that bees in the City of Light produce far more honey than their country cousins in the Champagne region.  He attributes this to the city’s mix of plantings, as compared to the monocultures that dominate agricultural regions.  What’s more, park-keepers tend to go easy on the toxic chemicals, which gives city bees another thing to celebrate.  With hives atop cultural icons such as the Paris Opera, the Musée d’Orsay, and buzzing close by both the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon’s tomb — not to mention mead brewing in the  constant temperature of the Parisian catacombs — Audric and his steadfast beagle Filou are perhaps a little too aware of the marketing potential of his setup, but that doesn’t make it any less charming.  What strikes me most, though, is how the concentration and mixing of diverse ideas, artifacts and personalities which is the genius of cities, is also available to bees, who take full advantage of the cross-pollination.

Other borders are inherently invisible.  In the social contract that imbued the lives of North America’s eastern indians, no one owned the deer in the forest — until a hunter killed one, whereupon it became his property.  That mindset has lingered on in industrial fishing, where fish become owned when they are pulled from the sea.  But now that there are fewer and fewer fish in the sea, the invisible borders of the ocean are becoming more defined.  Surveillance technology (for once) is being put to good use in spotting illegal fishing, but identifying is one thing and enforcing is another, as illegal fishers have always known.  That may be starting to change.  When the Argentine Coast Guard moved to impound an illegally fishing Chinese squid boat, the fishers did what they usually do, ignored the authorities and moved on.  So the Argentines sank the fisher.  Bravo.

Some borders just work all wrong.  I’m specifically referring to the selectively porous borders that surround each of the tribal “nations” within the US.  These dividing lines are notorious for being invisible to the law of the US, and impenetrable when notions of justice are coming from the other side.  For example, if native on native crime occurs inside the reservation, it’s a case for the tribal court.  Involve a white guy?  Suddenly jurisdiction belongs to the US, the only circumstance that I know of where jurisdiction is (openly) tied to race.  The mind reels.

So it’s little surprise but still no less unjust when the USDA claims jurisdiction of food safety standards within reservations, never mind that — for instance — the Pima Indians were making blue corn foods long before there was a United States to tell them how to do so.  The conflict between the Food Safety Modernization Act and the reality of life on the reservation is an echo of food sovereignty struggles going on all across the country — the laws are written to require an infrastructure that mostly exists only in the realm of large, corporate food outfits, local and small food systems be damned.  Perhaps it’s the long experience of Native Americans to systematically imposed injustice that has put them out in front on this issue, because they are building their own legal framework to support tribal food sovereignty.   Maybe we should ask if we can tag along.

Louis Martin and Marine Mandrila, a twentysomething couple from France, cleverly parlayed their love of travel and food into a backpacking journey through homes and kitchens in ten countries all around the world.  Their culinary “kitchen surfing” included over 560 meals and 46,000 kilometers of travel in the course of six months and when they got home, they converted their experience into a web series by the name of Food Sweet Food.  But the most important border that they crossed was the one inside their own country.   France has an extraordinarily fraught relationship with immigrants from the Muslim mediterranean, but Louis and Marine knew that if there’s one way to break down barriers, it’s in the kitchen.  The result has been the Refugee Food Festival, which has been bringing in refugees chefs from places like Syria, and setting them up in the kitchens of Parisian restaurants.  The result is satisfying to more than just the stomach.


Paris Map by Refugee Food Festival
Bangers and Mash by Maura Neill
The Honeyed Rooftops of Paris by Audric de Campeau
Blue Corn by Carol Von Canon
Death of a Squid Jigger by Prefectura Naval Argentina