We’re incredibly honored to have the humorous and entertaining Howie Southworth on the evōx team. He’s spent much of his life zipping around the world learning about local ingredients, customs, and traditions. Throughout this journey, he’s met people from all walks of life and has had the pleasure of truly engaging with people in ways that few other “tourists” might. I recently asked him a few questions to learn about his observations over the years.
Spending time over a meal is an important way to keep the bonds between family members tight. It’s a place for conversation, laughter, intimacy, and storytelling. Is this true as well for a family in the furthest reaches of China, for example?
It is absolutely true! In fact, there is nothing more true throughout China. In any environment, whether it's a family farmhouse, an apartment in a highrise or at a glitzy restaurant, time around the table is the most meaningful time that can be spent. In my experience, though the topics may vary on daily tribulations-work, love, art and politics-the conversation always comes back to food. As a nation, they are food-obsessed!
When we're shooting Sauced in Translation, one of the coolest things that happens both on and off camera are the inevitable and numerous meals that bring together our crew with local guides, chefs, managers, and food sellers. It's the thing to do and it's an expectation that defines the relationships. No wonder, if we need access to something, somebody or somewhere, a meal is an undeniable and pleasurable part of the deal.
This one time, in the middle of Hunan Province, [show co-creator] Greg Matza and I were lucky enough to be invited into a family home to see how "real Hunan cuisine" was done. We battled torrential rains, got lost a handful of times, but eventually knocked on their door. What followed was hours of great cooking, laughing and convincing them we weren't crazy for walking in the Hunan summer rains. After a few hours, we finally enjoyed the meal.
Visualize this: six family members, two hungry Americans, seven little plastic stools, hovering around nine dishes on a 2-foot by 2-foot table. It was awesome...aside from the calf lung dish. I don't like calf lung, but I ate it with a smile. This was my new family, afterall.
My primary goal with Sauced in Translation has always been to give viewers a window into this phenomenon. We eat with folks, we cook with folks, and cook for folks. Everyone gets happy and the world gets smaller with every frame.
In the United States, people are becoming increasingly interested in seeing more sustainable practices used by large food growers throughout the food system. You’ve traveled all over the world and talked to chefs, farmers and all who enjoy good food. What have you gathered from your conversations with those in other countries about these issues?
I'd say that in the US and Western Europe, sustainability is a hot topic and constantly in the news cycle. If you travel to most other places in the world, however, you could hear a pin drop when you ask the question. I have found that access to food is of huge importance, but its source isn't...yet. Even in the US, concern over sustainable farming, pesticides, genetic seed modification, etc. are a privilege of the wealthy. If you're on a tight food budget, you're going to eat what you can afford. But, things are getting better.
In China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, I've seen innovative and ongoing experiments around creating a better food system. Close to cities with large populations, you'll find an increasing number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, advanced organic composting projects, as well as mindful livestock research. This is progress.
When we're shooting Sauced, what we talk with more people about is the traditional, and at times, the ancient. In China, some of the most compelling examples of sustainability are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. From agroforestry (using trees around farms to control wind, soil and water), to rice-duck-fish agriculture, farming practices in the countryside of China is something we can learn from.
The crew and I had the opportunity to visit some incredible rice terraces in Yunnan Province. The following are four aspects that support these communities to be basically self sustaining: 1) forest atop the mountain; 2) village built into the mountain; 3) rice terraces cut into the hills below; and 4) river at the bottom of the valley. Fish and ducks live in a pond cut above the terraces. The ducks eat insects and harvest refuse, the fish eat bacteria left by the ducks. Their collective waste and the pond water are seasonally released to flood the rice terraces below. Oxen help to till the underlying terrace soil, and add to the fertilizer that help the rice to grow (Yep, poop is still fertilizer, folks!). Once the rice is harvested, the terraces are drained into the river, and the cycle starts again.
While we're outlining each episode of Sauced, we try to find locations where there may be something to learn. This was a particularly cool little gem!
I just started to listen to Michael Pollan’s new book, “Cooked.” In it, he makes the observation that we are now elevating chefs to celebrity status. We’re entranced by watching food shows on television and will spend 30 minutes watching Top Chef, but we’re buying more pre-packaged food now and spending much less time in the kitchen. Can you speak to this phenomenon?
Pollan's skepticism about the cult of chef-as-celebrity is fine, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. He gives a very small minority too much credit for changing the face of how we eat. Consider this: there are 120,000+ chefs in the US, 1% of them have been on TV, 12% of those are stars worth watching, and 60% of these are on food related contest shows and never touch a pan! It drives me crazy. We have much more of a game show problem than we do a celebrity chef problem.
There is more food on television and other media now than ever before, and still more coming. It's building interest and growing comfort around food and the topic of food as conversation. In a culture where “foodies” is a known term, clearly more people are willing to try something new. This may be something new at a local bistro or their home kitchen. Mark Bittman from the NY Times wrote a piece a few years ago making a similar point. People are cooking more, and I tend to believe it.
I do think that Pollan hits the mark when he writes about the importance of cooking. It surely is the finest thing you can teach a child. Skills to last a lifetime, and they’ll make more friends, do better business and raise a strong family of their own, etc.
As I am still me, of course I have a relevant China story. We’re planning to shoot an episode of Sauced around this very cool event called the “Long Banquet” in a town called Luchun in Yunnan Province. Every year in October, the Hani minority descend on the town’s main drag and pull together 2000 meters of tables and dishes to feed thousands of faces! Everyone older than 5 cooks something for the event. Everyone! Kind of changes the definition of a block party, doesn’t it? We should take a hint.
It’s quite clear that you’ve successfully created a lifestyle where you blend an incredible passion into your career. You’re following your dreams - and your stomach! What kind of advice can you give others for intentionally creating a career that integrates their passions?
Like everyone, I'm a work in progress! It's a really lucky thing that I have been able to do as much as I have given limited time and resources. No one knows how long this will last, so I'm having as much fun as I can, now!
My advice for others?
Do what you love to do and turn a camera on while you're doing it. Cooking, fly fishing, bowling, animating, cave art? How does it appeal to others? Can you develop a community around it? Might what you're doing teach somebody something new? Are you willing to sacrifice a paycheck or two or twelve to get it going?
In many ways, I'm grabbing the low hanging fruit here with food and travel! I still think it will be like a lightning strike if this thing takes off, the odds are so small. But, if it does, it means that I found a thread that others fall in love with. If I find a great meal somewhere new, it doesn't really matter whether the cameras are on, but it would be terrific if they were, right?
To watch the premiere episode of Sauced In Translation on evōx Television click here.
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