Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thinking About Food

My reading this week has primarily been Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", the story of her family's attempt at growing their own food and eating locally grown/produced food for one year. Much like books by Michael Pollan and Marian Nestle, it's got me thinking about my own atrocious eating habits, and dreaming of when I was little and got to eat raspberries, warm from the sun and straight off the bush, at my grandparents house.

Obviously, my own health is a consideration. I came out of the womb a picky eater, and was in my late twenties before I could stand having my mashed potatoes touch my peas. Intellectually I know it all winds up together in my stomach, but I just couldn't deal with mixed colors or textures on my plate. I also have a strong aversion to vegetables, although I am slowly getting better about that. For years my diet staples were Diet Pepsi, tortilla chips with salsa, and chocolate, so any change is an improvement. I was shocked to learn that red peppers are actually really good, particularly when roasted. I also was shocked to discover that I will forego ice cream for a couple of clementines, and that fresh spinach and arugula have miles over the plain iceberg lettuce I grew up eating. And, when I am at my grumpiest, I know that sweet potato "french fries" will never fail to cheer me up.

But beyond health there are socio-political ramifications about one's food choices as well, and those are the things I am dwelling on at the moment. I'm not going to get into the whole "meat is murder" issue - you either believe that or you don't. And, as all three authors point out, meat and poultry can be raised and butchered humanely, and those options are becoming more available (if expensive) alternatives. I'm personally more interested in the economic and community development issues related to food production. If there's one good thing about the current gas crisis, it's that we are now faced with the real costs of food production as it is trucked and shipped and flown across the world. A consumer-driven market gives us strawberries on our New England store shelves practically year-round, despite our short growing season. The off-season berries generally hail from California or South America, and they didn't walk to Maine. They were transported here by some gas-powered engine. Do the health benefits of eating strawberries in December outweigh the cost associated with fossil fuel consumption? What are the real costs associated with our food?

And then there's the whole "big business" thing...practically everything we eat has high fructose corn syrup in it, because we subsidize the production of corn. (I know there's some argument that higher grocery prices right now have something to do with government-mandated ethanol production, but I haven't fully investigated that). Most of our food production is mandated and controlled by large corporate "farms" (really, factories), which has decimated thousands of family farms across the country. Subsidies aside, communities disappeared along with these farms. One of my favorite projects was helping get a farmer's market started, and it was amazing the sense of community that grew up between the producers, which included a couple of celibate nuns, a young family with toddlers, and several old male codgers who chewed on toothpicks and said very little. It makes me wonder about what was lost when farming became a conglomerate.

Then, the cooking part. I really hate cooking. I will bake, but cooking real food as opposed to dessert or bread just doesn't enthrall me. I think it takes a certain amount of organizational ability that I do not possess. As a single person, it's often easier to get take out than to actually make a meal from scratch. I also hate leftovers; I can't eat the same thing several meals in a row. But Kingsolver's experience showed that she spent significantly less on food and arguably ate better. And, a friend of mine who weathers the ups and downs of self-employment has said that knowing how to cook provides a security blanket when funds are low: beans and rice are always cheap and can be seasoned in a myriad of ways. I like the idea of self-sufficiency. I like the idea of spending rainy Sundays making big pots of soup from scratch, or the smell of pot roast cooking away. The reality, though? Errrgh. All I can think of is how many dishes will have to be washed and put away.

Now, I must ready myself for LOST, a show where the castaways conveniently discovered a cache of processed foods to sustain them. Imagine that.

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