October 3rd, 2016
While learning about Sioux Chef Sean Sherman and his effort to reconstruct a genuine North American cuisine, and I found myself thinking about Afghanistan. Yes, the Dakota badlands echo the mountains of Central Asia, but those weren’t the similarities that intrigued. Sherman’s home turf, the Pine Ridge Reservation, is one of the poorest places in the United States, while in Afghanistan close to half of the people scrape by on less than $1.35 a day. More tellingly, both the Sioux and the peasantry of Afghanistan have powerful western societies to thank for their current state.
While the US Cavalry was duking it out with the Sioux on the Plains, the British Empire was doing the same thing in Afghanistan, in the course of three separate wars. When your home becomes the battleground of empires, the result is never desirable. So Pine Ridge and Afghanistan are both broken societies, manipulated by outside forces and internalizing that damage in the fabric of their social relations.
But if one was determined to find a silver lining in this state of affairs, you just might because — whether you’re a poor seven-year-old Sioux kid hunting pheasant for dinner or an Afghan woman whose role is to walk behind her husband — disinvestment in the Way Things Are can be a real advantage.
In Afghanistan, this has taken the form of new farmers’ unions — organized by women. Having no stake in the farming traditions of their menfolk — traditions that themselves are the result of centuries of improvisations to raise any food in the midst of warfare — the Afghan women were open to novel ways of doing things. Consequently, they have become expert in new crops and new techniques which are, modestly, bringing money into the house and birthing regional food economies, which include much needed jobs that don’t involve AK-47s.
Chef Sherman, having worked his way up from the dishwashing station to head of the house in traditional European traditions, is now putting that expertise to work in different ways, piecing together what’s known about indigenous North American cuisine, and filling in the holes with his culinary imagination. He’s attracted a lot of attention, and his embrace of branding techniques and use of Kickstarter show that his savvy doesn’t end in the kitchen.
What resonates most strongly, however, is not that Chef Sherman and the women of the Afghan farmers’ unions are bootstrapping themselves to a better place, but rather what they are leaving behind. In Pine Ridge, that means crap commodity food manufactured with government subsidy and then unloaded on poor communities — canned meats, white flour, fats and sugar. In Afghanistan, that means potatoes — the cheap survival crop that the British trialled in their first colony, Ireland, with historically disastrous results.
While Chef Sherman is replacing Spam and Wonderbread with rabbit in amaranth leaves, in Afghanistan, the spud-centric diet is now sprouting tomatoes, beans, cauliflower and other greens. All these advances are, of course, small. Neither the farmers’ unions nor Chef Sherman are going to heal the historic wounds their societies have suffered at the hands of forces that are richer and more powerful than they. But they are changing their own stories and that is a door to something more elusive and powerful.
Whether or not we think about it, each of us carries a library of narratives in our imaginations. They are stories about what it is to be person in the society we inhabit. Some are inspiring, some tragic, and more than a few prosaic, but all of them share something — they define the ranges of behavior. They are, if you will, a menu of possibility. What Chef Sean and the Farmers’ Unions of the Bamyan Province are doing is adding a page to that menu, enlarging the range of the possible. And in the right mind, that new choice may well sew the seed of a whole new page.