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by Peter Ruddock, Ark of Taste committee

If you’re like most Americans, even most members of Slow Food, you buy oil at the grocery store on a shelf at room temperature, not out of a refrigerated display. You may look for better quality oil in a dark bottle that protects it from light, store it in a cool dark place, and know that it will not last forever. You expect it to have some shelf life. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find oil in a refrigerator, with the possible exception of some oils sold as supplements in grocers and health food stores.

{{ image(2733, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:288, “height”:216}) }}Glenn Roberts would like to change the way we buy oil. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina-based company that specializes in artisan mill goods made with organic heirloom grains. A case in point is benne oil, extracted from the West African benne seed and a product on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.You might call benne oil “sesame oil,” but Roberts wouldn’t. He will tell you about the distinct aroma of benne oil, which has a lighter, more fragrant taste than the sesame oils we normally find today.

But this hasn’t always been the case. In the 19th century, benne oil was the preferred oil for both salads and for frying in the southern United States. Things began to change as our food system became industrialized with new mechanisms for processing food, the advent of grocery stores in the early 20th century, long haul trucking, and centralized food distribution systems.  No longer was taste and aroma a primary consideration. Transport and storage became paramount considerations in the new model. Varieties of crops were chosen and bred to maximize shelf life. And oil, for example, changed from a fresh product to a staple that sits on a shelf, part of what Roberts calls the “provision kitchen.”

{{ image(5383, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”:378, “height”:378}) }}Meanwhile, in West Africa, benne oil was still made and consumed in the old way, as a fresh food that was not kept for a long time on shelves. This tradition was not impacted by Western industrialization. Unfortunately, this is beginning to change as African food systems integrate with global industrial food systems. International efforts to decrease hunger, laudable as they are, often shift the pantry of an African home to that of the provision kitchen.

If Roberts has his way, Americans will return to a kitchen containing more live products, including perishable oils like benne, and Africans will not lose the tradition of eating fresh, live foods. In the United States, this likely does not mean pressing your own oil, but rather buying oil from your grocer’s refrigerated case. That is, once companies and consumers convince grocers to carry these products. In the meantime, we’ll have to go out of our way to find products like benne oil. But the extra effort will give the satisfaction that we are using a superior, tastier and healthier product, while preserving an important culinary tradition. We can eat benne to save it.