Orion Blog

Simran Sethi on Her New Book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate

BreadWineChocolate_Sethi_CoverJournalist and educator Simran Sethi’s new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, is about the rich history—and uncertain future—of what we eat. It’s out today from HarperOne.


This is a book about food, but it’s really a book about love. It’s about that moment when you find yourself savoring something so wholly and intently you never want to let it go. I thought this love, at least in the culinary sense, could only be found in superlative places: a secret supper club in London, a hidden bistro in Paris or a roadside dhaba in Mumbai. But I know now the greatest love is found in humble places: in my morning coffee, in a morsel of bread or in a bite of chocolate. And that to pay closer attention to these ordinary pleasures isn’t just to see them anew but to experience them in a whole new way.

I had forgotten how to do this. I had forgotten how to be present to what was right in front of me, knowing only how to love what shouted for my attention. Until I realized I could lose them.

I spent the spring of 2012 researching this book in Rome, Italy, where the saying “When in Rome” took on a life of its own. When in Rome, start the day with un caffé e una sigaretta! When in Rome, mangia un gelato every afternoon! When in Rome, start drinking at five: In bocca al lupo!

Four months later, I returned to the United States chubby and tired, primed for a cleanse. And primed I was as I walked through San Francisco’s Embarcadero to the headquarters of chocolate maker TCHO (pronounced “cho”), basking in the virtuous glow of the no-sugar-no-dairy-no-gluten-no-alcohol-or-cigarettes-or-anything-that-could-be-construed-as-sinful cleanse I had started days before I was to interview the company’s head chocolate maker, Brad Kintzer.

I stepped into the chocoholics’ lair and asked for Brad. (If you ever eat a TCHO chocolate bar, you’ll find a photo of him smiling beatifically on the wrapper’s inner fold.) About five minutes later, he walked out, apologized for running late and requested another 15 minutes to finish his work. He invited me to order a cup of hot chocolate from the café to pass the time and sweeten the delay: “Order whatever you want.” I thanked him, waited until he left and ordered a cup of water. I was cleansing—and virtuous. So virtuous.


To be inside the original TCHO space (they have since moved) was akin to placing myself inside a Willy Wonka dream: Simi and the Chocolate Factory. Brad brought me into the conference room and explained they were putting the finishing touches on a new hazelnut bar. The room was heady with the aromas of nuts and chocolate; broken samples were scattered all over the conference table. “Help yourself,” he said. I smiled, beatifically. “I’m okay. Thanks.”

The 20-minute interview stretched to almost two hours. I was captivated by Brad’s story, his journey from a man who had started off studying the biology of sugar maples to now making award-winning chocolate. At one point, he described the moment he shared some of that chocolate with the farmers who’d grown the cacao—men who had never before tasted a finished chocolate bar—as “one of the most sacred moments in all my life.”

I was starting to regret my cleanse.

As we wrapped up the interview, Brad asked if I wanted to tour the factory. Of course. Willy Wonka was giving me a tour of his chocolate factory. Brad and I slipped on mesh hairnets, smooshed in orange earplugs and walked into the outer perimeter of the factory where bars are molded and hand wrapped. It was chilly; the area is kept below 66 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain the consistency of the chocolate. And it was loud; Brad shouted over slappers that hit chocolate bars out of their molds, plus cooling and packing machines that churned out roughly 5,000 TCHO bars per hour.

He then pushed through a thick plastic curtain and led me into the inner sanctum, a cozier 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The aroma of chocolate grew stronger as we approached the refiner, a machine that grinds and melts solid cakes of cocoa into a warm, gooey mass.

That’s where I nearly buckled.

As Brad explained the transformation of solid into liquid, I closed my eyes. The scent of chocolate was so overwhelming, my mouth started to water. “The fat in chocolate is solid at room temperature,” he said. I swallowed; I could taste the chocolate without tasting it. “Chocolate melts just below the temperature of our mouths.”

I caressed the refiner as if I were touching a lover. The drum was so warm, the smell so intoxicating. Brad was shocked. He stopped mid-sentence and asked if he could take a picture. I was still in my hairnet, covered in various shades of brown—brown skin, brown jacket, brown bag, brown boots—looking nearly post-orgasmic. I was embarrassed, but Brad understood. He smiled and said, “We’re born loving chocolate.”


He’s right. Chocolate has been my constant companion: every birthday cake, my wedding cake, the food that got me through my divorce. It, along with coffee and the occasional cigarette, has fueled every single page of this book. But despite this love, I had never thought deeply about where it came from, or where any of my favorite foods came from, beyond a fuzzy notion of “farmers in fields” and “workers in factories.” They were people whom I considered in the abstract but did not know.

Yes, I’m friendly with the farmers who sell me eggs and seasonal produce at my local farmers’ market, but most of the people who cultivate what I consider life staples (including chocolate and coffee) don’t even live on my continent. Despite my passion for food and agriculture, and my deep care for land and people, my relationships with the foods I love have been long but not deep.

I didn’t spend most mornings thinking of where my coffee came from.

I didn’t spend any mornings thinking about where my coffee came from.

Now I do.

Because coffee, chocolate, bread, wine—every food we care about—is under threat. While we debate GMOs and the merits of Paleo, while we count calories and queue for Cronuts, we’re losing the foundations of food. That’s what I learned when I traveled to Rome to research challenges in modern agriculture. Embedded in every conversation about feeding people, conserving natural resources and ensuring a healthy diet, both now and in the future, is the threat of the loss of agricultural biodiversity—the reduction of the diversity in everything that makes food and agriculture possible, a shift that is the direct result of our relationship with the world around us.

Once I learned about this, I knew I had to go to the places that hold the keys to the future of food. So I quit a job I couldn’t get fired from, sold my house, gave away my car and embarked on a journey to learn how we could save the tastes we love.


“Eating,” author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry says, “is an agricultural act.” Food connects us to all living things, and to the lineage of who we are and where we come from. It isn’t farmers in fields and workers in factories who bring us our food; it’s people like us. People who dedicate their lives to creating something that we take into our bodies. They transform nature into culture, as what they touch becomes part of us. This intimacy is astonishing and humbling.

We treat our food system as an abstract thing; however, it’s a dynamic entity made up of these relationships, ones I have come to fully appreciate through the journeys on these pages. But this isn’t where I started. The first wine I loved was a peach Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. The first coffee I tolerated—heavily diluted with half-and-half and sugar, and chased with a glazed doughnut—was at the world’s original Krispy Kreme. My favorite chocolate bars were Whatchamacallit, Twix and Nestlé Crunch—in that order. Until a year and a half ago, all I knew of coffee was that I preferred a cappuccino to a latte. But now I grill baristas about coffee origins, beg friends to bring back chocolate from various countries and quiz breweries about the source of their hops.

I am not trying to be precious. I have learned, by traveling to the places where some of our favorite foods and drinks began, that these foods are precious. I had no idea how hard it was to get a coffee bean from a forest in Ethiopia to my local café, or how much work and care went into making a premium bar of chocolate or a hearty loaf of bread. I had no idea how endangered the best, most delicious versions of these things are. This awareness is what makes them precious, and, meal by meal, makes my life better.

By helping you more deeply understand foods that are already a part of your life, and develop a sensory map for exploring new ones, this book will enable you to discover and appreciate flavors you may not have experienced. It will give you the tools to define your own deliciousness—and reach for more.

That’s been this journey’s greatest reward: finding a new appreciation for what I already loved. And understanding what it takes to sustain and save that love—in farms, on our plates and in life—lies in recognition that how we eat is a reflection of how we live. By sustaining agricultural biodiversity, we sustain ourselves.

“Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance,” Berry adds, “is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”


Simran Sethi’s short essay “Faith” appears in 30-Year Plan, an anthology of writing published on Orion’s thirtieth anniversary, describing thirty things we’ll need to build a better future on Earth.

The piece above is excerpted from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Copyright © 2015 by Simran Sethi. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers. Author photograph by Cem Ersavci for Dumbo Feather.

5 Questions for Paul Hawken, Author of a New Book on the 100 Best Solutions to Climate Change

PaulHawken_2015Paul Hawken has dedicated his life to changing the relationship between business and the environment. He has written numerous articles on the topic for Orion, and his books include The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism, and Blessed Unrest, which catalogued the worldwide grassroots movement for social and environmental change. His newest work, called Project Drawdown, is a book, digital platform, and basis for curricula that identifies the 100 most important and achievable solutions to the climate crisis, from mass transit and micro-grids to the education of girls and the restoration of wetlands.


Project Drawdown describes how 100 different efforts, employed globally and together, could solve climate change. How did you go about crafting the list?

We went looking for the 100 most substantive solutions that currently exist, initiatives that are in place and have robust science, data, and research behind them. We’ve shied away from general terms like “organic farming” and “renewable energy,” because you cannot measure generalities. Instead, we’ve tried to get specific: the list includes particular strategies, like multi-strata agroforestry, telepresence, and co-generation, for example.

Does anything about the list surprise you?

We’re surprised by how underrepresented land-use solutions are in the climate conversation, and by how significant they are when you do the math. Photosynthesis and the miracle of stomata are often overshadowed by an emphasis on Promethean energy solutions. Our analysis is still in the works, so I can only guesstimate at this point, but I would say 40 percent of our list’s top twenty solutions involve land use and food.

What does the term “drawdown” refer to?

Drawdown refers to that time when CO2 in the atmosphere goes down on a year-to-year basis. Drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is the only way to ensure the continuation of civilization on this planet. There are three trillion trees and several quadrillion plants out there, and they are our allies. As we nurture, protect, feed, and honor them, we regenerate life on Earth and reduce our collection of greenhouse gases. We need other solutions as well—solar, wind, electric transport, net zero buildings, and so on—but without plants and trees, we cannot achieve drawdown.

You’ve worked for decades at the intersection of business and the environment. What role can the private sector play in enacting some of the solutions on your list?

I’d argue that, in 2015, business is the creator and destroyer on planet Earth—it’s our Vishnu and Shiva. And one by one, it is dawning on companies that climate disruption is not just another sustainability issue. It’s a survival issue. We’re working with one company that has changed its mission to reflect the fact that they’re now in the business of reversing climate change. They’re the first I know of to do this. But it’s what our situation calls for; any goal short of it doesn’t make sense.

Why build this list in the first place? What do you hope to do that’s not been done before?

Well—this sounds almost loony—but a list of this kind has never been made before. It’s incredible: We have known about climate change for decades, but, until now, no one has compiled a list of the fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred most substantive, extant solutions to the problem.

Three years ago, Bill McKibben wrote a great piece in Rolling Stone called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” It was based on the work of a researcher in London who calculated that, if human civilization is to survive, most of the oil, gas, and coal companies’ carbon assets are simply unburnable. We’re trying to put forward a hopeful rejoinder to this idea—we’re describing the “brilliant new math” of climate solutions. And the reason we’re doing it is because no one has done it before.

Paul Hawken is the featured speaker at the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference, The Next Wave: Cultivating Abundance in New Mexico, from November 11 to 13. Tickets to the evening event that features him on November 11 are available here.

Learn more about Project Drawdown at www.drawdown.org.

3 Poems from Antarctica

In 2008, when I published a collection of poems about polar exploration, I hadn’t yet been to either the Arctic or the Antarctic—although I’d been on ships around ice. But during 2011 and 2012, I worked as a naturalist on an ecotourism expedition ship in Antarctica. While there, I took photographs. I considered the impact and fact of at long last journeying to a place I’d been actively dreaming of for fifteen years. I found myself writing.

Now, those writings are taking shape as a collection of haibun titled Botched Pilgrimage. Three excerpts from the book are below.

Haibun, a classic Japanese form, recounts everyday life or travels in terse, diary-like prose scattered with small poems, often haiku. The best examples are found in the writings of Bashō, the seventeenth-century master of the form. Bashō’s work is infused with allusions to poets, stories, figures, and cultural tropes that his contemporaries would recognize—here, footnotes serve the modern reader as an approximation of that experience. While Bashō’s journeys are accompanied by calligraphic paintings, here, photographs become a visual third in the triad of representation. —Elizabeth Bradfield


Shackleton’s Waterfall

Not assigned to the group that retraces his steps from Fortuna, summits, imagines the dawn factory whistle, their relief at blubber-stench & slide to rescue, I am Shackleton to the station master’s question. Forbidden to walk the ruins—asbestos & loose metal katabatic-tossed like playing cards. Walk guests upvalley to the fall base, stare down fur seals’ territorial yellow-grin whimper-threat, a new knack still part sham. Reindeer calves, introduced & acclimated, gangle November’s summer green. Drifted penguin moult. Shed antlers. North/South. Next year, the deer will be removed, status slid to invasive. Endemic’s antigen.


the falls fall, braid to outwash

gurgled cliff-foot

two pintails browse their one home


Note: Sir Ernest Shackleton (known as “The Boss”) and a few men aboard the small dory James Caird sailed hundreds of miles in abysmal conditions and hit this island, thus saving all of his crew. But wait. They landed on the wrong side of the island and had to hike over its mountains and down to the whaling station on the other side. They made it. Katabatic winds are a local downward swoop of cold air, and are very common on/near glaciers. Godthul Harbor is on South Georgia Island, an outpost between Antarctica and South America that was at one time the whaling capital of the world. The South Georgia pintail, a dabbling duck, is endemic to the islands.





Point Wild, Elephant Island

Rough. Chop on top of swell. Passengers stagger the gangway. Bow in, idling, wait my turn for pickup. Gust off the glacier—hunch away—slaps shoulder like a stupid uncle. Water down neck. Now six with me. None with much English. What if what if what if in the pulse between Sit :: translation :: sitting?


surly ice licks down, tastes chop

brash spittle hisses the keel


Weddells snooze in shallows. Chinstraps crow. Back for another round. Gawk at ice-free fingernail of beach by the statue. Rough base, bronze torso. Takes up almost all space they had to watch horizon’s hope. Stomp for warmth. Blackboro, I think of you, toes snipped. My privilege to enjoy (yes, despite & because) short discomfort. Winds up, sea crests slung. The others say it’s always like this here. All crossing, they scheme to avoid it.


Note: It was on this toenail of land that Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew waited 137 days for “The Boss” to return and rescue them. Blackboro was a stowaway on Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance, and the first to set foot on Elephant Island as well as the only crew member to get gangrene and, thus, have all the toes of his left foot amputated during the crew’s time on Elephant Island.





Port Lockroy

End of the landing. Fifteen minutes to last boat. Zip to Lockroy, world’s southernmost post office. All women at the gift shop counter, all women at the base by design since, D tells me, scandal & suit. British. Logoed neck gaiters, fleece, hats. I’m urged to write myself a postcard. Don’t. Rush the museum. Pemmican & Christmas pudding on shelves. Woolens, skis hung. A whole room in the cramped hut of six for machines that flout distance (telegram, etc). Jayne Mansfield painted behind bunkroom door, bombshell above each bunk. Not bad. Buy Antarctic tartan scarf with color key (blue for ice, white for…). Tourist. Help lug twined-up cardboard, boxes of glass, bags of cans to take aboard & away. Our part in how they manage.


snowy sheathbills

fed on boot-tracked gentoo shit

coo under porch grate


Note: The base at Port Lockroy was established in 1944 to observe wartime enemy activities in and around the Peninsula. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) operated the base as a science research station until 1962. In 1996 a small team of four carpenters spent two to three months restoring the base as much as possible to its 1962 condition and the base is now managed by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT). Strangely (or not?), the main currency in the gift shop and post office is US $.

5 Questions for Noah Strycker, Birdwatcher Extraordinaire

Photograph by Bob Keefer.

Photograph by Bob Keefer.

Noah Strycker is an associate editor of Birding magazine, and the author of two books about birds. At the beginning of this year he set out to see 5,000 species of birds before December 31—a feat that no one has ever accomplished. As of October 27, he’s seen 5,014 species.


How did you arrive at the idea for this trip?

I’ve thought for years that the 2008 record set by a British couple, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, of 4,341 bird species seen in one calendar year, could be broken. The key would be to do it in a single, continuous birding trip around the world, rather than separate out-and-back trips from home. And never take a day off.

The worldwide “Big Year” idea—birders often refer to the challenge of seeing as many bird species as possible in a single year as a Big Year—came together for me when I solo-hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, in 2011. I had a lot of time to think it out, and I figured that if I dedicated myself to it, I could see 5,000 species—about half of the bird species on Earth.

In a way, a worldwide Big Year is like a long-distance hike—you’ve got to show up every day and put in the miles. But with a lot more birds.

You’ve just recently broken the record—so far, you’ve seen more than 5,000 species of birds since the beginning of the year. Does any one of them stand out for you?

I was psyched to see a Harpy eagle in Brazil, near the Pantanal, after waiting for four hours. It flew in carrying half a coati, a raccoon-like animal, in talons that could grasp dinner plates. Awesome!

Other than the fact that you wouldn’t have been alive, what do you think it would have been like if you had done this trip fifty years ago?

Fifty years ago there was no Internet: no web, no e-mail, no online databases of bird sightings, no instant communication to every corner of the globe. Telephones existed, of course, but international calling was expensive and difficult. Local birders communicated by phone trees and long-distance birders sent postcards.

At that time, recreational birding was taking off in the U.S. thanks to Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 Field Guide to the Birds, but it was not yet a common activity in most developing countries. It was just getting going in Latin America, and hardly existed at all in Africa. Few field guides for these areas were available to help identify the birds there.

Birders attempting a Big Year around the world fifty years ago would have had to brave the wild pretty much on their own, and travel infrastructure was not what it is today. In James Vardaman’s 1980 book, Call Collect, Ask for Birdman, about his 1979 North American Big Year, he estimated the cost of a worldwide Big Year to be $700,000—and that’s in 1980 dollars. In 2015, it’s still expensive, but with the help of birders around the globe, you don’t have to be a millionaire to try. It’s a lot easier these days to connect with other birders, get to good birding spots, identify the birds you see, and share the experience in real time via social media.

What about if you did it fifty years in the future? Based on what you’ve seen this year, how do you imagine the world, and its birds, will be different?

The sad fact is that fifty years from now there will be fewer bird species to see on the planet. In the U.S. alone, shrinking habitat and shifting ranges are expected to imperil nearly half of the birds within this century. As for how birding will itself change in the next fifty years, I can’t even imagine. Optimistically, I hope that international boundaries will have dissolved to the point that it will be more common for birders to go “birding without borders,” which is my theme for this Big Year.

What do you hope others will learn from your trip?

Birding is fun! Birds are everywhere, beautiful, and slightly mysterious—and they are a kind of gateway drug for learning about nature. Once you start paying attention to all the cool birds around you, even the common, everyday ones, you want to protect them, and then maybe you get interested in conserving their habitat, and then all of a sudden you find yourself caring for the well-being of the whole planet.

Read more about Noah’s journey, and stay up to date with his bird count, at audubon.org/noah.

Introducing the September/October 2015 Issue

SepOct15_336X406Fall in New England is glorious and quick. It seems like only days ago that katydids chattered from the green trees, and already the air is crisp and the hills ablaze with color. People from the big cities have arrived, walking the quiet roads in their wool jackets, staring up at the leaves. The season is so vivid in this corner of the world that it makes a kind of sense that it barely lasts a month—it’s unsustainably beautiful.

Fall, of course, marks the earth’s yearly transition from fecundity to rest, from birth to dormancy. It’s a season that might encourage a sort of maturity: like the earth, we, too, could learn to accept loss with grace, even gratitude. That’s one of the lessons in Julia Alvarez’s piece in the new issue of Orion, “The Practice of Gracias.” It’s about her visits with Jhonny Rivas, a Haitian man imprisoned in the Dominican Republic for attempting to organize on behalf of his fellow Haitian workers—and a man who has maintained such grace throughout his situation that, according to Alvarez, he’s “far richer than most of us.”

But one need not face such harrowing personal circumstances to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what one has. Our harrowing energy and climate circumstances will do just fine, says Charles Mann, whose essay “Peak Oil Fantasy” also appears in the issue. In it, Mann attempts to dismantle the popular idea that we’re running out of fossil fuel—because the real problem, he says, is much bigger and more dangerous: climate change.

Also in the issue are other variants on the theme of loss and grace: there’s a piece by a young woman whose relationship with amphibians helped her overcome anorexia; a dispatch from immigrant communities planting gardens in the image of their native landscapes; and a profile of a musician who’s turning the winds of New Orleans into song.

As usual, though, there’s much more in the print edition of the magazine, from J.B. MacKinnon’s short story “The Trial of Christopher Columbus,” to photographs of playgrounds around the world, to a meditation on one writer’s favorite natural object—the acorn. To read it all, pick up a copy of the September/October issue of Orion at our online store, or simply subscribe.