“The words “wow” and “awe” are the same height and width, all w‘s and short vowels. They could dance together. Even when, maybe especially when, we don’t cooperate, this energy–the breath, the glory, the goodness of God–is given.
Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, “Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,” you are in trouble. At that point, you have to ask yourself why you are even here. And if I were you, I would pray “Help.” … Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”
–Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow
If you had told 26-year old me that 36-year old me would say that food is one of her biggest passions, I wouldn’t have believed you. I also wouldn’t have been sure what that even meant. Was I consumed with filling my belly bite by delicious bite? Was I baking and cooking during all my free time? Did I now weigh twice as much as I used to? Those were probably the only questions I would’ve had because I was ignorant about issues surrounding food. I certainly couldn’t have grasped that many bits of information, gathered over a decade’s time, would transform my eating habits. I wouldn’t have had a clue regarding the broad range of emotions paired with this journey: tears of joy hearing about teenagers experiencing their first fresh raspberries, savoring each bite of a new dish with surprisingly flavor combinations, deep sadness and anger reading about the atrocities committed by many pursuing profit through the corporate food system.
Maybe you’re on this journey with me. Maybe you’re watching it from a distance thinking I’m off my rocker. I know those passionate about food can look that way. I’ve made my share of mistakes in how I express myself about it. Since eating is a common way to celebrate relationship and build community, awkward moments easily present themselves. Nobody wants to have just made dinner for someone only to have them tell you that they could never eat “x” food product again, while that very product is ready to be served for dessert.
This is a complicated, touchy subject and new information arises almost daily. No matter how hard one tries to do what’s best for their health, humanity, and the environment, it can feel like it’s not enough. Or that it’s all too much. I frequently feel the tension. I can be really passionate and committed to some things, only to see it slip away a year later. Other times, I am surprised by my own consistent, growing devotion.
This is what I’ve realized: Knowledge shows me the road. Inspiration and courage lead to my first steps. Wonder keeps me walking.
SKEPTICISM and CURIOSITY
During my twenties, conversations with a few classmates and coworkers about their amazing homemade meals for weekday lunches, vegetarianism, or gardening adventures all made me a little quizzical. Sometimes I was jealous, eating my boring sandwich and mealy apple while they ate incredible smelling leftovers. Often I was skeptical of their enthusiasm. I didn’t really want to make any changes nor hear some of the truth they were speaking. I didn’t want to pay more money for organic food. I didn’t really know how to cook. I didn’t know how to garden. It all felt too big.
I was also naive. I wanted to believe that big companies had the best in mind for their customers. I believed that the US government monitoring agencies were capable and protecting us. I didn’t think about real ingredients versus additives. I didn’t think beyond the 1990s nutritional education that low fat is best. (I’m definitely over that.)
Eventually something one of these wise souls said to me years ago would make it into the bigger news rounds. And it would happen again. And eventually it happened enough that I began to realize they really knew something about food safety and health (the first things I cared about) before the general public did. I began to trust them and seek out more information. I was always a bit amazed at their knowledge and humbled by my naiveté.
MOVIES and BOOKS
Harry and I watched Super Size Me together one night upon recommendation of a friend. From that point forward, we were deliberate about avoiding fast food. We weren’t serious consumers prior, but it was a fall-back for us on road trips or long days away. I’m happy to see some big chains making baby step commitments to sustainable practices and more nutritional food, but I still greatly prefer to pack meals from home. I find it’s tastier, healthier and more economical.
After repeated prompting from a close friend, I got up the courage to watch Food, Inc. It was my first introduction to government subsidies, our reliance on petroleum, the overuse of corn, and the oh-so-lovely details surrounding factory farmed meat. It, and what I’ve since learned from champions like Michael Pollan, is why I usually do not eat meat if I don’t know where it came from. (Sometimes I forget and still do. Sometimes I don’t forget and still do.) Anyways, this means I don’t eat meat if I’m dining out unless sources are listed. Thankfully, many restaurants in Seattle are committed to sustainable, local food sources. (This Portlandia clip highlights just how funny it can get in the Pacific Northwest.) I think the limited options have led to increased creativity in the culinary scene. Our chefs make radishes sexy.
FIve years ago, under the amazing tutelage of my master gardener father-in-law, I began growing food. It was miraculous to me. I don’t think I’d planted a seed since preschool and I’d certainly never harvested food I had nurtured. Growing food is magnificent. Smelling the dirt while planting seeds. Watching the first sprouts. Anticipating the first harvest. Witnessing a “mostly dead” (I will always love Billy Crystal’s Princess Bride character), under-watered artichoke plant pop back to life because I decided to not give up on it. These are all mini miracles to me.
Often, there is just as much pleasure in the harvesting as there is in the growing. Sometimes more. I love growing rare varieties or using parts of plants that can’t be found at grocery stores or even farmer’s markets. I find tremendous satisfaction taking a colander outside and coming back with dinner. My personal favorite is harvesting herbs by hanging my body out our kitchen window. I planted them in the perfect spot.
Having a garden with high yields of any particular vegetable forced me to broaden my cooking horizons. I experienced my first zucchini fritters the first year I had a zucchini plant. As I grew to love cooking more, my palate began to change. This marked the beginning of my path to preferring fresh food over processed alternatives.
(Just like our bodies don’t begin to crave exercise and healthy food until they’ve experienced them regularly, my experience is that our palates aren’t tuned in to fresh flavors until they’ve been surrounded by them for awhile. If this is new to you, be patient. Your palate probably needs a tune-up. This is one reason I don’t like the term “food snob” / “coffee snob” / etc…. There is nothing wrong with being more aware of flavors. Would you tell someone who prefers Fat Tire to go back to drinking Keystone? A chocolate lover to move from Theo to Hershey’s? These refined tastes can happen across all foods and drinks with practice. This type of practice is really, really fun. Unless it’s with whiskey. Which will always taste like band-aids to me. I refuse to practice more.)
Growing produce has taught me how intricate our food system is and the crucial aspect of biodiversity. We inherited decades of weeds with our rental, but aren’t using herbicides and pesticides. Of course our place would look better with much less work. Don’t get me wrong, it can be tempting. But ultimately I think it’s a selfish choice. Soil is alive and these chemicals can kill the vital microorganisms, as well as beneficial insects. There are systems that work beautifully to keep it healthy without toxic synthetic chemicals present. Places where these chemicals are rampantly used now have resistant bugs, previously unheard of pesticide resistant-weeds, and poor soil quality. Additionally, they get into waterways and hurt the overall ecosystem, including salmon. They are also being linked to bee colony collapse. Bees pollinate a lot of our food, people. That isn’t good. Perfect grass is not more important than food. There are countless other reasons why pesticides and herbicides make me angry. This is the biggest reason I’m passionate about organic food. (Truly. Not my family’s physical health, though I think it matters for that, too.)
There is stunning beauty in the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, even though how out of whack we are scares the daylights out of me. When systems are right and we’re growing food using sustainable practices, everybody wins. (Or at least has potential to prosper more. The social / racial / class divide here is not lost on me.)
Books like Barry Estabrooks’ Tomatoland and articles from Pollan highlight the frequency with which farm workers are enslaved and the power of Big Food. Small farmers regularly get sued by Monsanto. (Watch Food, Inc. or Seeds of Freedom.) I do not want my money to support slavery or bullying companies. I try to be very careful about this and doing so often eliminates a lot of food and seed choices. (That being said, I have a lot of learning to do when it comes to understanding when other purchases are ethically problematic. The Bangladesh factory tragedy should open all our eyes a little wider, right?)
I actually find having fewer choices freeing. I feel good about not giving money to companies with questionable practices and fabulous about giving money to those going against the flow. The icing on the cake for me is that the latter companies almost always have better tasting products. More expensive, but I’d rather eat really delicious chocolate treats once a month than semi-tasty ones every week.
I had the incredibly weird and highly unrecommended experience of losing most of my senses of smell and taste. The etiology is unknown, but my doctor guessed this was from a particularly bad sinus infection paired with massive sleep deprivation during Miles’ first few months. Also, possibly nasal inhalers I used for allergies years prior. Regardless, for a solid six months I could only taste bitter and super sweet. (We lived down the street from one of Seattle’s amazing bakeries and I was far too frequent of a chocolate ganache cupcake and cappuccino customer.)
During that time, I was still eating processed food on a regular basis. By “processed” I mean food that I could not replicate at home. If ingredients aren’t real food, I consider it processed. My definition doesn’t eliminate all store bought food. I began to notice that most foods with preservatives had a bitter aftertaste that I didn’t notice before my smell went awry. I began to understand why so many additives were in those foods-not just to cheaply sweeten, but to mask the bitter. It was a huge turn-off to me.
I began purchasing more locally grown food, including participating in orchard and vegetable CSAs last year. I love supporting small family farms for the obvious reasons. But the taste of those fresh foods and unusual varieties have brought me to tears. One of my neighbors, who grew up in Hungary, told me she hadn’t tasted fruit like our CSA fruit since she was a little girl. There is splendor in those bites.
We are missing a lot of amazing flavors when we depend on big farms. The ideal harvesting times are skipped and varieties are chosen to tolerate weeks of transportation in trucks and big boxes. Plus, refrigeration often ruins flavor quickly. Most of us know how delicious homegrown tomatoes are. The same difference in vibrancy goes for all other vegetables! If you haven’t had fresh from the farm broccoli, do yourself a favor. It isn’t bitter. Carrots are bright and sweet. Onions and garlic are juicy. I relish the taste of a freshly picked red to the core strawberry. June! Come soon! After years of Driscoll’s, that’s a jaw dropper.
Maybe desiring good tasting food, and being willing to wait for it, is also a commitment to maintaining a sense of awe with food. Just like we wait for tulips in spring, we wait for peaches in summer. I want the glory. I don’t want it to fall flat.
“If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this little rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.
When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing– we had this all figured out, and now we don’t.
New is life.”
–Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow
A final little note-
I understand that this is a personal journey. I may hope for people to walk the road with me, but if they don’t, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to share a meal. Being invited to someone’s home is a huge gift to me. Please don’t apologize if something isn’t organic or local. Don’t even mention it. I’m not going to tell you these details, either. Maybe we can all try to keep our meals shame-free? (I have my own issues with this.) For some this means not apologizing about nothing being homemade, for others it’s not worrying that the tomato sauce comes from a can. We all have our issues, and the spectrum is actually quite hilarious! There are people out there making their own pots and pans for their 100% homegrown food, too. They probably feel bad that they didn’t build their own house. I’m sure of it. So, invite people over! Share what you have. Cook rice and beans, boil pasta, get take-out if you need to! Community is so much more important.