Bridging Nature: The Fusion of Cooking and Ecology
PITTSBURGH — A dynamic city, known as the city of bridges, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a city built among steep hills and ravines, a topography of a deeply scoured plateau where the Monongahela and the Allegheny join to form the Ohio River. Civilization traverses this topography through a combination of winding roads, steep streets and tunnels, making Pittsburgh one of the most unique cities in the States and also one of the most frustrating to navigate. With an official count of 446, few would argue that Pittsburgh's bridges are not a necessary part of daily life; nor are they any less important than the bridges of Venice.
Bridges are what tie Pittsburgh's infrastructure together, and while many are focal points of the city — colorful, ornate and scenic — it is a lowly, lesser bridge that has become my favorite.
My first memory of the Bloomfield Bridge was of an imposing, out of place arch towering in the background of my friend Leanne's quiet row house neighborhood — a ghostly giant resonating with white noise under the clack of expansion joints. The original Bloomfield Bridge was built in 1914 and after years of heavy use was abandoned in 1978. It was later torn down and finally rebuilt several years later in 1986. Constructed during the Rust Belt era with a minimum of state funding, the modern Bloomfield Bridge is a utilitarian girder bridge separated with Jersey barriers and lined with chain-link fence.
Unlike most bridges, this bridge is built on a visible incline, arching from the relatively flat plateau of Bloomfield up to the base of the Hill District on the other side of a steep ravine. On the Bloomfield side, the bridge roughly divides the neighborhoods of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. On the Hill side, the bridge divides the neighborhoods of North Oakland and Polish Hill, with the Hill District rising above a tough, resistant piece of rock that separates the last few miles of the Monongahela and the Allegheny.
Like in a gorge, this wall also provides shade, helping to maintain soil moisture.
From below, the Bloomfield Bridge looms like a mountainous apparition. Soaring 150’ above the ravine, the steel and concrete skeleton shadows the wooded hillsides that surround you. The faint roar of traffic contrasts the quiet of the valley, reminding of the dynamic city above. Like a mountain, the bridge’s scale is only appreciated at a distance.
From above, crossing the bridge is like crossing a ridge top. Far above the trees the wind tears across the bridge on windy days. During the summer, the unshaded concrete bakes in the summer sun. When it rains, water trickles down the sidewalk like a stream, running from the high side to the low.
While the weather may make the bridge unpleasant at times, the structure also provides beautiful ridge top views. Vistas of mist rising from the Allegheny.
The morning sun blazing over Bloomfield and the East End. Snow blanketing the crowns of trees along distant slopes. Large white clouds contrasted with blue sky on those rare sunny days.
The Bloomfield Bridge though is more than a place to view nature — nature is also actively involved with the bridge. In addition to birds that roost on the bridge’s street lamps, seeds make their way to the bridge on the wind or clinging to human clothing. Over the years, soil has formed on the bridge, allowing many of these seeds to germinate and reproduce.
During the fall, new soil is created when leaves blow over from Polish Hill and are trapped by the concrete walls that line the bridge’s sidewalk. When it rains, the rotted leaves are distributed down slope and are deposited at various niches along the inner wall. Like in a gorge, this wall also provides shade, helping to maintain soil moisture.
With no drought this year, many different species of plants thrived on the bridge, despite being 150 feet from the soil and bedrock. Purslane, wild carrot, sow thistle, lamb’s quarter, wood sorrel and green foxtail grass, were just a few of the many plants to take up residence on the bridge. While this kind of diversity is common in neighborhoods, it might seem surprising on a bridge so far removed from the natural landscape.
Nature, however, is a dynamic force and does not necessarily distinguish between human and natural forms. An open habitat is a puzzle to solve and the long-term solution to the puzzle is the process of evolution. An abandon building, slag heap or neglected bridge presents a space open to colonization. A crack in a rock is little different whether it was formed by weathering or specifically designed into a concrete sidewalk. For the wild and weedy plants of the Rust Belt, adaptation to the city is a way of life.
Over the years, I've found more than just urban weeds growing in unlikely places. Fragile ferns colonizing the block foundations of a train bridge. Woodland Christmas ferns finding a home at the base of a towering, abandoned blast furnace. Sumacs growing from the ballast of abandoned railways. Black raspberries growing in the ditches between forest and railroad bed. Grasses and occasionally trees taking root atop factories creating natural green roofs. Even the Mesoameican kitchen herb epazote growing from a crack in the pavement at the back door of the restaurant I work at.
How can I take beneficial relationships in the garden between plants and also combine them on the palate?
While we rarely pay respect to weeds, they serve as an important reminder that nature is not static. Nature is a dynamic, active process and the colonizers of disturbed environments quickly adapt to human structure in the same way they adapt to lands affected by fire or storms. Just as ravens follow a wolf pack, so do weeds follow us, ready to take advantage of the opportunities we create for them. It really shouldn't be surprising then that many of the weeds of the Bloomfield Bridge are parents and relatives of the food we cultivate.
FUSION OF HUMAN WITH NATURE
As human structures populate more and more of the earth, the relationship between plants and our own habitat only grows in proportion. Like the zone system in Permaculture — which creates intensive gardens close to home and begins to blur the lines between agriculture and wild the farther we get away from settlement — plants now interact with humans on a wide range of scale: from an apple variety propagated by cuttings and maintained by human, to purslane and other weeds that thrive in human habitats, to orchids that face local extinction from any modification of their environment.
Modern industrial agriculture attempts to create a sterile, laboratory environment through the intensive disruption of the natural ecosystem, while sustainable agriculture relies on the nature of plants to adapt to new environments and create ecological relationships. The interaction between human structures and nature is an active, inescapable process and the key to sustainability is building this bridge. Whether it is weeds turning neglected space into new habitats or a farm practicing polyculture, discovering the bridge between human and nature is what ecological farming, and cooking, is all about.
When I develop recipes, I'm often influenced by this aspect of adaption, something I half-jokingly refer to as organic fusion: the creation of new systems that reflect naturally evolved relationships through the hybridization of emerging and current conditions. I want recipes that bridge the human world to the natural; recipes that not only utilize local and sustainable food but that also reflect the historical, contemporary and future context of my local environment.
Nearing completion on the (first) Bloomfield Bridge, August 14, 1914.1
Creating a new recipe starts out asking the very simple question of what grows in my environment, but quickly leads to many other influences. How can I take beneficial relationships in the garden between plants and also combine them on the palate? How can I represent a habitat in a dish so that the dish not only teaches someone about their environment but also about how to harvest the ingredients from their bioregion? How can I be inspired by the intensity of an abandoned steel mill and fuse that intensity to the wild land that grew there before? How can I combine the past with the present to create the future?
And, how do I create a dynamic cuisine?
The 'fusion' cuisine that developed in the 80's and 90's is often not fusion at all. At its worst, it is a splitting up of distinct culinary ecologies and hastily resembling them. In order to accomplish these dishes, foods are shipped from around the world, influencing and creating styles of cooking (particularly in northern regions) that not only lack seasonality, but increasingly rely on exotic ingredients. While in recent years this style of fusion cooking has lost ground to the local foods movement, even with current trends toward buying local, modern cooking has often failed to develop and evolve new regional styles.
'Organic fusion' was occurring before globalism brought about the ability to ship foods out of season or turn regional specialties into exotic luxuries. We often forget that 'authentic' cuisine has been changing and adapting over time. What makes a cuisine authentic is its regional production. The same association of topography and organisms that form an ecosystem can also be applied to regional cooking. Just as an ecosystem evolves, so does a culture. While each may retain distinct characteristics, life is dynamic and cannot be stopped at a pinpoint. Authenticity is the meeting place between tradition and the drive toward the future.
The view from Bloomfield Bridge.
THE EMERGENCE OF 'DYNAMIC CUISINES'
Food crops have been traveling and adapting to new lands long before technological advancements in the 19th century turned food into a widely traded commodity and began to limit the influence of local food production. The sweet potato made its way from America to Polynesia and was adopted as a staple hundreds of years before it was assumed humans were capable of sailing such distances. The tomato, brought to Europe after contact with the Americas, was regionally adapted to areas of the Mediterranean and in Italy became one of the 'authentic' ingredients of modern Italian cuisine. The American chile pepper, while comparatively ignored in Europe, was whole heartily embraced in Asia, giving rise to a distinctly spicy set of cuisines in many regions.
The local food movement that has taken shape over the past 20 years has succeeded in getting more regional produce on the table, but the recipes of modern cuisine often lag behind. The rise of California cuisine in the 90's and the more ambitious strides made in Scandinavia are all encouraging, but to develop long-term sustainable food cultures in the West we must learn to cook dynamically — not only in fine dining restaurants — but as individuals, families and communities actively connected to our food.
The earth has always been a dynamic place and human modification is increasingly adding a new element. As climate change further impacts our environment the need to adapt to changing conditions — especially if we have any hope of relieving pressure on the last pockets of precious diversity in our local areas — is critical. Creating viable, long-term sustainable cuisines will require using a larger range of locally produced ingredients that can thrive in each region's dynamic ecological conditions.
Rediscovering the foods native to our local environment, and those hardy plants that have grown amongst us for generations, can lead to a whole revolution in culinary creativity. Just as cultural diversity gave way to an organic blending of music styles in the late 1970's (often unique to particular cities), so can the fusion of cooking and ecology inspire a more exciting, diverse, and hopefully sustainable food culture.
This article first appeared in The Journal of Wild Culture, February 10, 2015.
KEVIN EVILSIZOR, when not cooking for a living, writes the blog rustbeltvegetarian.com dedicated to exploring the wild and hardy edible plants of the Rust Belt and beyond. Fusing together his formal education in environmental science with his background in professional cooking, he is working towards starting a sustainable farm, where he plans to research rare and native food crops, in addition to growing local produce.
Photos by the author, excluding the historic 1914 bridge.