Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The omnivore's dilemma -- 1

Onions, cabbages, pigeon peas, corn, bananas, papayas, goats, chickens, conch. Until surprisingly recently these locally grown, raised or fished foods constituted the essential diet of most of the people who lived on this island in the central Bahamas. By "surprisingly recently" I mean mere decades. It was a poor island, with limited electricity and brackish water drawn from shallow wells, pits really, chiseled from the soft carbonate rock. People lived in clusters of homes on the ridges, and farmed the few low-lying areas where there were snatches of semi-fertile soil. A simple life, remembered with fondness by the old people of the island. A hard life, too, no doubt. Two tiny government clinics supplemented by bush medicine. The nearest dentist in Nassau, 275 miles away.

All changed now. The electrical grid has reached the most remote settlements, along with cable television. Sweet water is piped from a central reverse osmosis plant. I know of only one remaining person on the island who is familiar with native remedies. Farming has pretty much gone by the board. The community packing shed, where local produce was available, was damaged by hurricane flooding a few years ago and has not reopened. The industrial food chain -- bane and blessing -- has this little island firmly in its grip. New Zealand butter. Long-life milk from Italy. Frozen fish from Indonesia. Strawberries from California. Asparagus from Argentina. Water from Fiji. And every sort of packaged junk food you might want to eat made from Iowa corn and Persian Gulf oil.

When we came here twenty years ago we caught the very end of a unique traditional way of life. And, of course, we were part of the cultural squeeze that brought it to an end. We came for the simplicity -- basic local food, gentle tempo, dark skies. We carried the virus of globalization. And the locals love it.

(More tomorrow.)