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Dialogue - Issue #2

Death: The Giver of Life

Illustration by Cláudia Salgueiro

We should celebrate death as a natural part of the life cycle, because it is the giver of future life and nourishment.

Food is one of the most crucial and fundamental aspects of life on this planet. As a chef, I know how essential food is and how connected humans are, through food, to nature. I see how deeply reliant we are on food and I see how we are emotionally and physically connected to the preparing and eating of it, its relationship to our bodies, and the impact that this consumption has on the planet. To create a planet-friendly plate of food takes a deep understanding of the entire food system and this drives my philosophy in the kitchen. It is important to realise that food replenishes us, excites us, lifts us when we’re low, nourishes us and draws us closer to our environment.

While we celebrate food, hold countless feasts, revere and ritualise it, we do not often observe or honour its full life cycle. Naturally, all life will end: it is essential that it does so in order to renew and refresh. We celebrate this life but, usually, we do not celebrate its ending. It is vital for life that we do. We must now, more than ever, use food to replenish rather than deplete our planet, and use decomposition, decay and death as the processes with which we reconnect with our precious food systems. Apple trees drop leaves and fruit to the ground, where they decompose and are recycled; mushrooms grow and die rapidly as the fruit of the living fungal filaments below.

Nature has built a hugely complex and important system to clean up the remains that are left by the process of death and, as a living entity, soil requires this carbon conveyor belt of nourishment. Nature has been composting, upcycling, reusing and recycling for millions of years. There are important release triggers inside decomposition that are needed for the next wave of life. Without this cycle our food would not be healthy. In fact, it would struggle to grow at all. Decomposition is universal in the natural world and feeds huge amounts of microbial and mycorrhiza activity. The mycorrhiza allows for mutually beneficial relationships to be built between plants, fungi and soil, such as the exchange of water, sugars and minerals like phosphorus.

The existence of many living things depends on the death of others. The journey of animal and plant matter using death as one of its transitional processes is a vital one. We should revere death and the way that nature breaks down, reabsorbs and redistributes the myriad of complex minerals, trace elements, carbon particles, enzymes and water, back into what we consider to be food. When we consume food we are simply a continuation of a natural process, which breaks down food to become nourishment and energy. Soil literally gives us life and we must understand that the way humans now deal with the food system and how it impacts on our health is becoming more aggressively focused on volume and profitability rather than being a system of mutually beneficial, natural relationships between nature and our diets. Each day our body uses a huge number of different nutrients to replenish itself: building bone, replicating skin cells, building strong hair, keeping eyes clear and teeth healthy.

Every time our heart beats, it uses calcium to contract and magnesium to relax. The body does not make these essential minerals,they have to come from the soil, and they are assimilated most easily when they are ingested from whole foods rather than supplements. The delicate balance of these nutrients can be upset by taking supplements: iron, for example, is toxic to the body in very high quantities and feeds bad bacteria in the gut, so we need our food to deliver the right balance. As humans we play a significant role in the subtle rhythms and cycles of nature. It’s these natural processes that we now need to understand better: we need to tune into the fundamental building blocks of health, both for our bodies’ and the planet’s sake. From a chef’s perspective, and an earth narrative, we must focus on the important holistic cycle of life and death as taught to us by nature. This food will only truly nourish if it has been grown in a well balanced and well maintained, nutrient-rich environment: an environment built on death, the journey of all the elements, and finally in the growth ofthe food we eat from seed to plant. For the chef, acknowledging this is the key to delivering a nutritious, nurturing, delicious and planet-friendly meal.

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