One of the very first newsletters I ever sent out was about a dinner I helped cook at The James Beard House with my friend Yewande Komolafe. (.) Not only is she a wonderful cook (check out her recipe for Roasted Root Vegetables with Suya Spice Relish below), but also a great writer.
She wrote an article for Heated last month that I thought was very much worth highlighting here. It’s about red palm oil (a staple of her Nigerian cooking), and the ways in which criticism of it as an environmentally and ethically dubious product reveals the deeper problems with how we often understand and talk about food. Or as Yewande puts it:
“Palm oil criticism is well-intentioned, but it is founded upon ignorance — ignorance of how colonial systems have evolved into our current global trade. Our ingredients do not all come from Whole Foods; they do not come with origin stories about the founders of the company trekking through some far-off place to work with local producers to create a ‘more sustainable’ trade. This is colonial language. And the way palm oil is discussed is steeped in precisely this sentiment…
Suggesting that West African cuisine reconsider an ingredient that corporations have come to produce and exploit is like arguing a fonio farmer in Senegal should not water her crops because somewhere else in the world water is sold in plastic bottles…
I’m not denying my own complicity in this; palm oil is a problem, and I’m part of the problem. But it is my habit as a consumer of palm oil-derived products that is a problem, not the ingredient itself. The focus of the palm oil debate so far has been to make regions on the other side of the globe the first to be implicated for the crimes of an industry that includes all of us. Deforestation and habitat destruction don’t begin on the other side of the planet. These forces originate in your kitchen, bathroom, or pantry, and not, specifically, in the cuisine of West African people. This is an important first step in acknowledging what makes problematic ingredients problematic.”
Her piece is really worth a read, not just because it provides some context and perspective around an ingredient that many of us know little about, but because it offers an opportunity to acknowledge and reevaluate how we think about the things that we consume. Check it out below.
Talk To Me, Goose!
Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma’s potato salad, or your mom’s meatloaf, or your uncle Drew’s three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don’t hesitate to reach out anytime.
We produce reported pieces, profiles, interviews, and rants about what’s broken in the food world (there’s a lot) and how to change things for the better. People sometimes tell me to just keep politics out of it. Respectfully: No. Food is political. We can’t and won’t ignore that.