Food for Thought: Consider the Coconut

Food: we cook it, we eat it, and then we’re done.

Well, not quite. Like the good folk milling around the Tower of Babel, we also spend a great deal of time talking about it, except that we’re not always speaking the same language.

Food is, both figuratively and literally, on everyone’s lips and the discussion has never been so deep or widespread, providing fodder for everyone from filmmakers and politicians to home cooks and bloggers, who all have something different to say about what we eat. The array of issues is so dizzying, it’s enough to make you toss your salad.

Fortunately, the simple cure for this spinning sensation is to focus your attention on a single spot. To that end, I ask you to consider the coconut. But don’t let its humble and homely exterior fool you. Within that hairy shell are many of the current themes in our food discourse:

1. Sustainability: From Husk-to-Nut

From its edible meat used in cooking, to its hard shell transformed into bowls and utensils, to the fibers of its fuzzy husk woven into rope and mats, the coconut is the plant version of the nose-to-tail consumption that’s being championed by top chefs and food advocates alike. The Economist reported on a recent study that found 40 percent of America’s food supply is discarded, representing the waste of 25 percent of our water consumption. By making the most of the food we produce, whether from flora or fauna, we make the most efficient use of our limited natural resources, bringing us closer to food sustainability.
2. Cultural Connections and Local Eating

Local and seasonal eating is important to many of us, but the need to protect the environment can run into the need by others to preserve heritage. Nearly 75 percent of all coconut production comes from just three countries: Indonesia, the Philippines and India (FAO Statistics 2008). Here in the U.S., it is only grown in Hawaii and Florida. So for most of the nation, coconut is hardly a contender for a “local” or “seasonal” food label. But like many ingredients common in other lands, yet not available here, it is an integral element of traditional dishes that serve as cultural connections for many immigrants and their families. So, is it possible to reconcile the desire to eat locally/seasonally with the importance of eating culturally?

3. Nutrition: Weighty Matters

Coconut is touted as a superfood, particularly the juice of young coconut and coconut oil. The former is chock full of potassium and low in sugar, leading some to declare it “Nature’s Gatorade,” while the latter is enjoying renewed interest as a healthy type of fat. In a nation where the most recent bit of good news on obesity is that it’s just holding steady, nutrition is the issue that grabs the cover stories and leading news spots as people fuel the health-club industry and politicians cook up public policies in the fight against unhealthy eating. If only we were as good about practicing nutrition as we are about discussing it!

4. Tasty Trends

Coconut is the new bacon – the ingredient most likely to be ubiquitous in 2010, according to the recent Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Every year, such a declaration is made about one food or another, which just goes to show that for many, the serious themes of environment, culture and nutrition take a backseat to sheer hedonism, and discussion takes the form of restaurant reviews, cookbooks as art, and sensuous food writing and photography. Sometimes, food is really all about the sensual experience of consuming it.

When you talk about food, which of these four are most likely on your mind?

Simple Good and Tasty is pleased to welcome Tracey Paska, a student at the University of Minnesota who is pursuing a self-designed degree in food studies, which combines coursework in anthropology, history, and sociology as they pertain to the foods we eat. She was born in the Philippines, but now lives in the western suburbs of Minneapolis with her husband. When she's not composing research papers, she writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. She also has contributed articles to the Minnesota Women's Press and hopes to make food writing her profession.