I’ve been away for a while, I know. I have every intention of telling you all where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to–and I will, very soon–but there’s something else that’s been on my mind and that I need to put out there.
I’ve already been pretty vocal about my desires to change the way I eat, to be more conscious of how/where I get my food, and that I think it’s important that everyone starts making these kinds of changes. It seems sometimes that there’s a fine line, though, in the world of food writing. It’s the line between communicating these things in an effective (and affective) manner and obnoxiously preaching…most often to the converted. I’m going to go not so far out on a limb here and say that most food writers are well aware of the crisis and are already taking steps–like shopping at farmers’ markets, buying humanely raised meats and local, seasonal produce–to affect their own change. Standing up and raising your voice in favor of revolution can feel a bit awkward when those around you are shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Yeah, we know.”
But, at the risk of sounding completely adolescent (and I sort of am in all of this, I’m still finding my place in it), I’ve decided to open up a little further. I think it can be helpful to hear the same thing again in a new way, in a different voice. Sometimes changing a few words around can make someone see a piece that was never quite clear before and suddenly the whole picture looks different. Still, dear reader, feel free to venture away at this point and return for my next post, if you’d like. No hard feelings.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about consumerism and priorities. What do we spend our money on and why? What are we really gaining when we make a purchase? What is the larger impact of these choices?
My thoughts turn to our roles as consumers, because one of the reasons most frequently cited for not buying organic fare is cost. I can certainly understand this. Even after fully realizing the necessity of the decision to buy more wisely, I’ll admit that I had a hard time stomaching the fact I’d be paying nearly two dollars more for my dozen eggs. Once you make the commitment, however, the numbers become secondary. I now know that my eggs did not come from chickens who were stuffed into cages, mutilated, and kept in conditions that would make most people wince and avert their eyes. That’s worth two dollars to me.
But there are people out there who can’t afford to pay extra for their meat, eggs, and produce–not to mention those who forgo the supermarkets altogether in favor of 99-cent menus. Some of these cases are legitimate and heartbreaking, but I believe that in many of these situations it comes down to a question of priorities.
We are a society of upgrades and toys and things. We accumulate shelves of DVDs and video games, closets full of shoes and handbags, garages full of brand new cars in our newer, bigger, fully renovated homes. Something that I’ve learned living in New York is how little space and how little stuff a person actually needs. All of those boxes stacked in the garage, the attic, the crawl space, your closets–do you even know what’s in them? Some of it I’m sure has been held onto for sentimental reasons (Which I’ve also learned is overrated. Try throwing some of it out, you’re not likely to miss it–afterall, it’s been languishing in a box for how long? How important can it really be?). Others are things that we no longer use, things that were pushed out for bigger and better things. Things, things, and more things.
What if we didn’t spend so much money on things? What if we lived in a space big enough to accommodate only what we need, a house or apartment where every room serves a purpose (or two) and none are furnished solely for appearances? What if we took public transportation, walked more often, drove our cars until they no longer ran and not only until the next model is released? Would we have enough money to buy organic then?
Think about it. So much money is spent on material possessions, on extras. We’ve moved feeding ourselves to the lowest rungs of the priority ladder. Yes, we do it. We eat. But while we’ll shop endlessly for the best flat-screen TV with super awesome specs and and an amazing picture, we’ll turn around and walk through the grocery store mindlessly tossing plastic bags and cardboard boxes into our carts. We have very little regard as a society for what we are actually feeding ourselves. We’ve become comfortable with so-called convenience foods that are loaded with artifical colors, unpronounceable ingredients, and must be fortified with nutrients. We’ve devoured the idea fed to us by the companies that produce and market these “foods” that, Hey, you don’t have time to cook. It’s really a horrible, nasty chore anyway. See? Blegh. You don’t want to do that. Now step away from the stove and let us take that burden off your shoulders. You deserve a break.
It’s a fact that Americans are spending more time at work than ever, and that’s unfortunate and has definite consequences. Cooking and eating good, quality food doesn’t have to be one of them.
It’s all about choices.
We can choose, after work, to drive through a fast food restaurant, spend a few minutes mulling over the backlit menu, and cruise on home for dinner. Or we can choose to come home, collapse onto the couch and wait for Chinese to be delivered while we page through the DVR recordings. Or, instead, we could stop at the grocery store, or better yet a local farmers’ market, and peruse the fruits and vegetables. We could buy something that’s ripe and in season. It might have to be chopped and sauteed or roasted once we get home, rather than torn open or tossed into the microwave, but isn’t it worth it? Isn’t it worth it to know that you’re eating whole, real food?
I understand that the dollar menu seems like it can get some families far. And I’m sure it really is too much to buy organic for certain people. But try buying a few different veggies, maybe some meat, and creating a soup, stew, or satueeing it all together and serving it over brown rice or tossing it with pasta–those kinds of dishes go far. They’re filling, nutritious, and you’re likely to have leftovers from a big pot like that. More importantly, they’re cost effective. Sure, maybe it looks like you’re spending a few dollars on that package of chicken breasts while you could be getting an entire chicken sandwhich for only one dollar. The chicken sandwich sounds like a better deal up front, but you can make an entire meal from scratch, from real ingredients, that when portioned out will be equivalent in cost to (who knows, maybe even cheaper than) your 99-cent burger and the inevitable fries and coke that accompany it. It is possible and there are programs out there that you can look to for advice. For instance, Melissa D’Arabian, the latest winner of The Next Food Network Star, has a new program on the Food Network called Ten Dollar Dinners. And Rachael Ray does a segment called Meals for a Steal, also creating family meals for under $10.
Then there’s the question of cooking. It’s too much work. It’s too time consuming. Well, again I say try. Not just one night, but try cooking most or every night for an extended period of time. I personally think that most people find cooking to be too much of a chore mostly because they are not proficient at it. The more you get in your kitchen and cook, the more smoothly you’ll move, the more accurately you’ll be able to time things, and the faster and easier your meals will seem. It will become part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower in the morning–and who knows, you may even start to like it. There’s enormous satisfaction in creating and serving something to those you love that tastes good, and it feels even better when you know that it’s good for them too.
Food is necessary for our survival, but it can also be a great source of discovery, joy, and community. Instead of watching TV or going to the movies, go on a family trip to a local greenmarket or farm. Spend the day looking at all the amazing variety, smelling, tasting, talking with the farmers to learn more about where they come from and how their produce is grown. If you have kids, let them pick out veggies or fruits they find interesting and incorporate them into that night’s dinner. Or you could find someplace where you can pick your own fruit. In the northern states during the fall apples abound, and some of the orchards where you can go to pick them also have hay rides and corn mazes. Make a day of it. And then, when you return home with your booty, spend the next days and weeks making pies together and coming up with new and creative ways to use up your spoils.
And if you find yourself with a significant excess of produce, there are even more exciting options that you can turn into great family/group projects. But more on that later….
We need to start making what we eat a priority. We are all consumers in this country, but the focus of our consumption remains on things that don’t really feed us. Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice handbag as much as the next gal, but the satisfaction that I get from a well-made meal, composed of quality ingredients, shared with someone that I love is so much deeper–not only in my stomach but in my heart.
We can all make changes within our means to shift the balance. First, start buying whole foods. If you can, shop at farmers’ markets and support your local agriculture. You’ll walk away with fresh foods that haven’t had to travel great distances (reducing your carbon footprint) and that were picked at their peak, rather than being plucked prematurely and forced to ripen chemically. Buy organic if you can. Know what that means. Learn about what you’re eating and how it impacts you, your community, and the food industry at large. Grow your own, even if that means a simple window box. And one of my favorite rules of thumb out there lately: Don’t eat anything that your grandmother (or great-grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food.
It is our responsibility to make these changes. Not just for the environment and for the proper treatment of animals–things which have become interestingly easy to roll one’s eyes at–but for ourselves as well. These changes are necessary for our health and for our posterity. Have you seen Wall-E? I don’t know that I need to say much more. It’s not an unrealistic future for us at this rate. But if we can get back into the kitchen, get back in touch with our food, there is still hope. We as the consumers have the power to tell the manufacturers what we value. Let’s reprioritize and choose to consume things that serve to better feed us all.