a guest posting by Angie Picardo
I’d eaten “local food” before, but this was on a whole new scale. Our lunch, eaten in a picturesque bungalow in the middle of Petch Thongnoi’s sun-drenched rice paddy, all came from within a fifteen-yard radius.
Bananas, fresh fish, rice, bean pods, bamboo, sawalots, and papaya came from the backyard; several types of chili peppers, lemongrass, and onions from the front. A feast, a cornucopia, performance art – Petch killing and gutting the fish with one artful swing of a knife as we roasted them over the fire, on a stick, like marshmallows. Our hands were soon covered in sticky and spicy food, our arms intertwined as we unabashedly reached and delved into the communal dishes at the center of our seated circle.
Petch punctuated the end of the meal as he rolled up the giant place-mat banana leaf, scooping up the food scraps, and tossed it directly into the rice paddy water. Everything from the rich Thai soil, and everything back to it!
In America, how often is lunch such a magical, or even particularly memorable, experience? As a graduate of UC Berkeley, coming from a land of fast food and drive-thru’s, my experience in a quiet northeastern Thai farming village was a major change of pace. Living with the Thongnoi family (Petch, Nusaan, and their granddaughter Agnoon) revealed how one can exist mindfully, lovingly, and sustainably, in even the simplest daily routines. Their life revolves around the communal consumption of food, and around the cultivation of an incredible variety of plants – growing literally everywhere.
My host parents’ ethos is simple: “If you grow plants with love, and harvest with happiness, the plants will grow well. This is why it is important to be happy in all things.” This mindfulness during gardening transcends the act of merely raising crops. True to their Buddhist beliefs in self-awareness and moral action, they live their faith daily, emanating an undeniable warmth and wisdom.
Almost all farmers in Thailand switched to chemical agriculture at some point as the seemingly unstoppable Green Revolution and its chemical fertilizers spread across the globe. Members of the current reactionary organic movement have seen the environmental and human costs of planting mono-cultures riddled with chemicals, providing artificially high yields of a single crop for export.
They recognize that depleting the soil of its resources at escalating rates and that selling produce permeated with toxins to consumers are all dishonest and immoral ways to share food. As the villagers of Yasothorn reiterated, to grow food organically, one must have the love and the heart to do it. Their concern for their family’s health follows the Buddhist belief that change begins with the individual.
They grow everything they need, consume only cell phone minutes (to stay in touch with grown children in Bangkok), have no debt, are mindful of their bodies, and get great pleasure from providing good food to others. Nothing they do is radical, but may hold many answers to the problems plaguing contemporary Thai society. The pastoral life of organic farmers like them across the Isaan region provides a model of living their faith by growing food mindfully with love for themselves, the environment, and the consumer.
In a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, what does the day-to-day faith of its average citizen look like? How does a Thai layperson reconcile the goal of being committed to renouncing the material world (the goal of Buddhism) while being firmly rooted in it?
I think it looks a lot like the Thongnoi family. They grow everything they need, consume only cell phone minutes (to stay in touch with grown children in Bangkok), have no debt, are mindful of their bodies, and get great pleasure from providing good food to others. Nothing they do is radical, but may hold many answers to the problems plaguing contemporary Thai society. The pastoral life of organic farmers like them across the Isaan region provides a model of living their faith by growing food mindfully with love for themselves, the environment, and the consumer.
One old man shopping at the Yasothorn Organic Farmer’s Market told us that he heard about the fledgling organic movement from his local wat, or temple. On the wall was printed the Five Precepts (abstain from killing, false speech, sexual misconduct, stealing, and taking sense altering substances), and included, almost as a footnote, a simple encouragement to eat organically grown food.
Now that I’m back in America, a Filipino-American woman in a city full of modern conveniences, I find myself missing the Isaan village. I’ve changed in more than a few ways, and since returning I’ve tried to eat local, organic food as much as possible. I can relate to the farmers who are committed to sustainable agriculture – having lived in their shoes – and believe strongly in the benefits that come from being mindful of one’s food.
As my host mom Nusaan said – quite profoundly – “Food is the number one issue in the world.”
Angie Picardo is a writer for Nerdwallet, a personal finance website dedicated to helping consumers travel meaningfully and achieve retirement success. She is a recent graduate of University of California in Berkeley. Feel free to Ask Angie any questions about Thailand in the comments.