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A Sense of Place

Perhaps you have heard the term “food culture.” It is the idea that a particular group of people eats a particular group of foods. Cajun, for example is from Louisiana. It is spicy, and includes a lot of fish, or German cooking, that uses cabbage and sausage. Both use the foods that are locally available to create a particular flavor palate. Food culture is trendy. Which is funny because it is just what people eat because they had to. Germans ate  - and still eat – sauerkraut because cabbage grows well in Germany’s northern climate. People on the gulf coast eat fish because it is available, and spicy foods because it is cooling to do so. Food culture is about place. Barbara Kingsolver says food culture is “an affinity between the people and the land that feeds them.”

For Europeans, this is a straightforward proposition. There are long traditions there that are supported by not only differences in food availability, but in differences in language. For North Americans it’s a different story. We do have some things that support local food cultures to be sure, in our early years here, it was a matter of pride for a woman to source her family’s needs close to home rather than importing from England. This was one of the ways that women contributed to the Revolution.

But the melting pot combined with the industrial revolution has meant that one can get the same low quality food almost anywhere in the US. And that food may be produced anywhere in the world. The French concept of ‘Terroir” says that the mineral content of the soil in any given location makes subtle changes in the flavor of wine. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, has also applied this concept to the taste of food. How can we taste the terrior of a French fry, that has been grown in Idaho, had flavor applied from a laboratory in New Jersey, and fried to death in oil produced in Illinois?

I just came back from my yearly sojourn a Rites of Spring, a festival in the mountains of Western mass that just completed its 34th year. We do what Pagans love to do, get out in Nature and drum and dance and talk and play. We call the land sacred, and yet what do we really know about it? We know it is beautiful. We know the paths well enough to walk them in the dark as our feet find and evade familiar stones and ditches. We know the weather will be unpredictable. For those of us who have attended for many years, this creates an illusion that we know the place.  But if we were dropped there without our carload full of supplies, we would quickly starve, and the beauty we cherish would be of little value. Yes indeed, there are a few people in the crowd of hundreds that know which local plants are edible, but how long would such resources last with out the knowledge of how to nurture them? And humans need more than plants.

Ancient Pagans were necessarily more connected with the place where they lived. They did not travel as we do, hopping in a car to go hundreds of miles away. We in this place and time do not have local shrines to the gods of river or mountain. They often lived and died on the same piece of land.  While trade is human activity, people still needed to know that land well enough for it to nourish them for a lifetime.  For the most part, we cannot say the same. 

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Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.

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