Thinking about Food

Thinking about Food

The garden is starting to come in again — fresh chives on my morning egg for the past couple of weeks, the mint is coming back so my morning pot of tea tastes fresh and green again, and as always, onions are poking up from all sorts of odd places among the perennials. I’ve begun planting, the tomato, pepper, eggplant and cucumber seedlings are in the cold frame.

And it’s spring, so I’m craving greens — spinach or asparagus, for example. But at the supermarket I look at those crinkly packages of baby spinach, or mixed greens and I just can’t do it. Where did they come from? How many people have touched them? What were they washed in? Those bags — are they off-gassing into the leaves? And what’s the real cost in fossil fuels to truck those bags all the way up here to Montana? Or those grapes I bought the other day — it can only be the sign of a decadent society that we’re eating grapes flown in from Chile — there’s just nothing that makes sense about that.

And so I dither. I’m eating the last of the chard and last year’s broccoli rabe out of the freezer. I know where that food came from — my backyard. Or I go to Foodworks and look at the organic greens (which still came on a truck from too far away) and watch the newspaper for the ads — Deep Creek Green says they have some early spinach now, some mesclun. I’ll have to drive up after dog walking some afternoon this week and see what’s in their walk in — most of their stuff goes to their regular CSA customers, but what’s left over is available to the rest of us.

Because I work at home, I often have the television on — and there was Oprah, doing one of her health shows. She sent these “anti-aging” doctors into some woman’s house to see what she was eating and it was horrifying — the woman’s fridge was absolutely full of pop –there wasn’t any food in there — just pop, both diet and “regular” — and her pantry was packed full of “snacks” — all sorts of processed stuff in bags, and again, no real food. She really didn’t know that high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils are evil and from the looks of it, that’s about all she was eating. The doctors taught her how to buy real food, and they gave her a simple recipe for salmon. “Who would have thought?” she said on camera. “I like salmon!”

I was totally freaked out by this. Freaked out in the same way that the regular grocery store increasingly freaks me out — what’s happened in the meat case, for example? First of all, there isnt’ a butcher in the store most of the time, and the meat case seems to be increasingly colonized by pre-made meals. People like Marion Nestle are writing 600 page books telling us What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (a book that can be boiled down to a couple of common sense tips — don’t eat anything with more than 5 ingredients listed on the label, avoid high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated anything, eat a lot less and get out of your car and walk more). Cooking is increasingly being treated as a hobby, or some esoteric “gourmet” activity that only rich or upper class people take part in and which requires specialized equipment and a lot of preparation. This is such a crock. It’s such a load of advertising bull … designed to get us to pay more than we need to for food that because it was prepared far away by strangers and put on a truck is now full of stabilizers and preservatives and other junk.

In the four years I’ve had a garden I’ve learned to eat things that I might not have bought in a store because they’re the sort of things that grow really well here — chard, kale, beet greens, all these funky Italian chicories I buy from my beloved Seeds of Italy . And I came to understand the origin of some classic recipes I’d always found mysterious — braised peas and lettuce, for example. A classic French dish that made no sense until I grew a garden and realized that the first tender lettuces come in about the same time the peas get ripe. Aha! of course! Peas and lettuce. And while I’m certainly no sylph, between eating my own vegetables, walking the dogs, and living in town where I can walk to the store, or to go out to dinner, I’ve steadily lost weight during the three years I’ve lived here. And I feel better.

I’m not saying everyone should be growing their own food (although it’s not hard, and even when I lived in crappy apartments I always had something going in a planter — a cherry tomato say, or some herbs), but I do think it’s a problem that people have become afraid of plain ingredients, and that something as basic as meal preparation is portrayed as some esoteric ritual that’s too difficult for the general populace. This isn’t rocket science or neurosurgery folks — it’s just dinner.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Food

  1. Excellent post, and one I agree with.

    But do you think the woman on Oprah was more of an exception than a rule? This is an honest question on my part. I just moved back to the States after 13 years in France, and the changes here are not always tangible.

  2. I was fully expecting to see you mention in this post that May is 2006 Eat Local Month (see for more). Since you didn’t, I will. 🙂

    Now that Spring is Springing, I’m starting to think more about food, too. I’ve just signed up with one of my local CSA farms to get a weekly box. I’d had big plans to plant this year, but we bought a new house, so instead I’ll be moving, and watching the sun patterns on my new property through the summer so I can plant next Spring. I’m looking forward to more of your garden news this summer, I always enjoy reading about your harvest!

    Alison — I’m sorry to say that the woman on Oprah was more the rule than the exception. Americans are terrified of food, especially of preparing it. The average American’s relationship with food can be described in one word: unhealthy. But that’s only the beginning, an understatement. The iceberg beneath the surface is that we have no idea where food comes from, what it doesn’t and doesn’t do for our bodies, and how our decisions about our food affect so much more than our waistlines.

  3. I agree with your post, and yet I can imagine that an overworked, exhausted parent might view a pre-made meal from the supermarket as a godsend. For one thing, depending on the meal it may be a healthier and more economical choice than fast-food from, say, McDonalds. Agreed, there are lots of virtues and joys and benefits to meal planning and prep. But they do require time and energy one might not always have in the struggle to triage “free” time. (And this eating thing is so relentless – day in, day out, three times a day no less. Too much! Honestly, there are times I wish I could just pop a “meal pill.”)

    I feel that this sorry state of affairs is all part of the vicious circle created by big-business and the capitalist system (a/k/a consumer culture). Workers need to work long, long hours to make ends meet and then may well be too exhausted (plus simply lack the time) to enjoy a back-to-basics homelife that includes growing food and slicing, dicing & simmering. Employers actually require the long hours (in the name of “higher productivity”). Supermarkets with pre-made meals, fast-food chains, etc., are part of what makes the system work, making it easier for workers to eat and thus keeping them chained to their workplaces.

    All that said, to me this also folds into a larger issue that too many people never get adequate training in essential “life skills.” Developing a working knowledge and practical skills about food, nutrition, and cooking, etc., etc. should be part of every American’s education, starting at a very young age. So, go Oprah (and Alice Waters, and Jaime Oliver, et al) for raising awareness and providing some practical advice.

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