Loneliness can be so acute. It can walk up to you in the bright sunlight, completely invisible until it crashes into you. The people, the physical beings that are said to counter this feeling, can all be present and accounted for. All of the basic requirements of home, family, friends, and love are fulfilled. But there’s that feeling again. Am I chronically dissatisfied with the present? Is it a universal human condition, or a symptom of the way I live? Most importantly, how do I change this?
My father piled 4 large scoops of mottled Chia seeds into his plastic Nestle bottle. Much like seeds falling in the soil while being harvested, each scoop that was lifted out had seeds that escaped back into the container and onto the countertop. This is our harvest. We sow our dollars and cents up and down the aisles of the supermarket. We make choices based on price, quantity, flavour, colour, brand recognition, and more recently on perceived growing conditions and distanced travelled. Where we choose to plant our modern ‘seeds’ determines what will appear on the shelves. This type of harvest is incredibly easy to participate in. The questions of where, by whom, and to what end can be totally disregarded, if we choose. But is there something lost in the supermarket harvest? Where are the connections to the soil and sun, to the grower and the picker, to the excitement of the coming asparagus season, strawberry season, or melon season? Is this a source of my loneliness?
Chia seeds are not local. They come from their native growing range of Southern USA, Mexico down through Central America. But their exoticism seems to trump their distance travelled for me. These are not looked upon as ordinary seeds, these are a superfood. What does that mean? It may, and personally still does, conjure images of extraordinary beneficial health effects that act almost immediately upon being eaten. In my minds eye the seeds nutrients course through my veins, into my muscles and brain, stimulating and healing everything. So what does it matter if they are not local?
Upon further reading, my superfood image is only partially correct. The word ‘superfood’ is an unregulated marketing term. Any company can apply this word to any food. Generally though, it is reserved for foods which are especially rich in phytonutrient content. And Chia seeds are rich. The mottled black, white, and brown seeds contain significant amounts of omega 3’s, protein, and dietary fiber, not to mention numerous other essential vitamins and nutrients such as Calcium, Phosphorous, and Manganese. When placed in water (or swallowed) each seed will absorb ten times its weight in water, forming a small tapioca-like orb. This provides the very interesting effect of making one feel full without actually eating very much. Furthermore, as these seeds are slowly digested they give a prolonged and efficient energy source that can be carried in a small container. So should these be dubbed as a superfood? I would say yes.
This raises an important thought though. If this wonderful South American seed is such an excellent food source, what else is there? More specifically, are there foods that grow closer to home which can nourish our bodies in equally efficient ways? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Superfoods with high price tags, exotic names, and fashionable packaging always draw my attention, but what about the foods that sprout right under my toes, in the sage lands of interior British Columbia?
Consider the Rose Hip, a shiny red seed package provides a sweet nutty flavor, and also has the benefit of providing you with more vitamin C than any citrus. Saskatoon berries are full of anti-oxidants, as are Oregon Grape. The hemp seed, while not native, is also considered a superfood due to its high protein, fiber, and omega 3 and 6 content (and as is well known, it grows extremely well in various climates throughout British Columbia).
Does my relationship (or lack of relationship) with food overlap or even contribute to my feelings of isolation? How is it that I can be connected to so many people and foods with rich histories and yet feel so disconnected? How do I become connected to a place? As written by Al Purdy and Lyn Baldwin, “Say the names”. This struck a chord in me and continues to vibrate.
What does this name mean when I say it? The word for this plant, while changed through history, has been a part of the cultural identity of countless generations of human beings. Today it is thought to be a part of the family Lamiaceae and is known among the science community as Salvia hispanica L. It refers to a small annual flowering herb, which looks not dissimilar to mint to the casual observer. It grows to a height of 1.5m-2m and is capable of self-pollinating. Chia flowers in late spring, the blossoms dry as the season progresses, and pinhead-sized seeds eventually emerge and are dispersed by the shaking of the plant. But how does this biological information apply to the modern consumer? Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
As my father explained to me on that first day that I watched him scooping Chia seeds at the kitchen counter, these seeds have a vast history. Our known use of them extends back thousands of years to Aztec and Mayan peoples. The seed was a staple food crop, its importance often looked at on the same level as Maize. It was carried by runners as an energy source, used as currency for a time, and out rightly banned during the early European colonization of the Americas. This plant subsequently saw a decline along with the Mesoamerican civilizations, its identity intertwined with people. In recent years it gained global recognition in a new form, on television advertisements across the country. It became Chia Pets. Late night televisions rang out with the cries of “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!” And this brings us to today, with Chia’s modern identity as a superfood.
So if Chia is any indication, all of our food plants have rich histories. And history is important. Where we come from leads us to understand where we are now. It grounds us and gives us a sense of place. Rediscovering the roots of the plants I eat helps me to find my own lost roots.
Amanda Karst, L. J. (2009). Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. Edmonton, AB, Canada: Lone Pine Publishing.
Cahill, J. P. (2003, Winter). Ethnobotany of Chia, Salvia hispanica L. (Lamiaceae). Economic Botany , 57 (4), pp. 604-618.
Smith, A., & MacKinnon, J. B. (2007). The 100 Mile Diet. Toronto, Canada: Random House Canada.