Decolonizing Diet

When Europeans began coming to North America they brought with them much more than just their culture, languages and lifeways. They also brought their flora and fauna and changed the very landscape of the Americas, its ecology and its biology. One of the first things French settlers did in Acadia and the Saint Lawrence Valley was plant gardens. These gardens can be clearly seen in early drawings of the the habitations they built at Port Royal and at Quebec in 1605 and 1608 respectively.

port_royal_planancienPort Royal Habitation (Gardens in foreground)

Quebec Habitation (Gardens front left)

These were test gardens, planted and maintained in order not to learn to cultivate local plants (such as the three sisters cultivated by the Wendat and Haudenosaunee, corn, beans and squash), but rather to discover if European varieties could flourish in American soils. In 1972, historian Alfred Crosby published The Columbian Exchange, in which he argued that these gardens were just one part of a comprehensive effort on the part of settlers to create neo-Europes in the Americas. Europeans re-imagined and repurposed American environments to make them more familiar, more welcoming and more hospitable to themselves and in doing so fundamental transformed, over time, almost every region of the continent. They carved out fields, established villages, planted wheat, imported livestock, and perhaps most successfully, weeds and vermin, that were unknown in the Americas previously. Colonists reorganized new world ecologies and landscapes to suit their food needs and their aesthetic purposes, which is to say they set about making the ‘new’ world look, taste, smell and feel like the old. Because Europe and North America exist in relatively similar climatic zones, European plants and animals did quite well in their new homes. Slowly European landscapes expanded to cover more and more American soil. One need only look at the ubiquity of dandelions, native to Eurasia, to understand the extent, both intended and unintended, of European biological imperialism.

This form of colonization was not unique to North America. South America, Australia and New Zealand all were transformed by the ability of European biology to adapt to new areas with the help and encouragement of European settlers. The ability of Europeans to bring their lives with them gave them an advantage over indigenous populations wherever they went. It reduced the need to adapt both physically and culturally to new lifeways, new foods and new disease environments. Europeans simply brought these things with them and forced others to adapt to their ways.

This was not an easy process and it did not take place over night. The stories of early settlement are filled with failures, starvation and suffering. Initially, Europeans relied on help from local populations. Indigenous peoples, often driven by an ethics of incorporating outsiders as a way of pacifying them, tended to welcome the newcomers, providing them with food and aid. At Jamestown and Plymouth, the English died in the first winter of settlement before they began to plant American corn and other local foods (an event celebrate each year at Thanksgiving). Dutch settlers along the Hudson River also took up planting corn. When Indigenous peoples in these regions began to die in the 1630s from European diseases, settlers simply took over abandon fields and began planting them, initially on native patterns, but over time transforming them into  Dutch, English or French countryside with an American twist.

French settler field patterns along the St Lawrence River

By the 1640s settlers in New England and New France were cultivating wheat rather than corn. A period of adaptation was required for both Europeans and their accompanying plants and animals to take hold, but once they did the process was not to be reversed. Not only did Europeans revert to familiar diets, Native peoples in the Americas soon began to adopt the foods of the newcomers, as more and more of their land was taken up for the farming of European cereals and livestock. In the twentieth century, the industrial production of cheap processed foods made this change near total, and rates of diet-based diseases such as diabetes and obesity soared amongst Indigenous peoples unaccustomed to high fat, high sugar foods.

That colonization is an ecological and biological process as well as a political and culture one is being driven home through the Decolonizing Diet Project at Northern Michigan University. The purpose of this project is to develop diets based only on traditional pre-contact Anishinaabe Ojibway foods from the Great Lakes region. “Traditional” for this project means no pre-contact foods: beef, mutton, goat, chicken, pork, eggs, milk, butter, cream, wheat flour, rye, barley, black-eyed peas are all out. No processed foods even if the base is corn or potatoes. Drinks consist of water and herbal teas. Chocolate is not on the list unless it is unsweetened or sweetened with honey (of the Melipona bee–honey bees are indigenous to Europe) or fruit.

This is not a simple or trendy paleolithic diet. It is as much about community and decolonization as it is about food. It asks people to consider not just where food comes from, but also what it means culturally and how it has changed and evolved historically; the impact it has had both positive and negative on people and the environment. At a time when eating local has become a mantra of the environmental movement, it asks, “what is local?”  What does it mean to ‘eat local’ when most of what we in North America understand as local ultimately came from somewhere else?

The DDP group site contains numerous useful resources including grocery lists, meal plans and recipes: wild blueberry pudding; Sweat potato and wild leak soup; pumpkin blueberry muffins; crockpot cranberry turkey; sweet potato pancakes; corn silk tea; minty wild rice salad; great northern bean casserole; baked lake trout; bison burger; hominy grits, etc.

Some participants have decided to convert entirely to a decolonized diet, others have proceeded more slowly. The diet certainly isn’t for everyone. The import of the project is found in the awareness it raises of just how fundamentally, down to a biological level, colonization has changed the Americas and the people who live here. Thinking about ecology and environment as subjects of historical forces of colonialism reinforces how empire remains a part of day-to-day life for everyone in North America. In just 500 years, the landscape we live in has been completely transformed not just in appearance, but also in the kinds of life it sustains and how it does so.


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