Hospitality / Ordinary Life

Behind the Food We Eat

I’ve been doing some reading on food—where it comes from and how it comes to us. In her book, Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver relates how she decided to grow her own food in their family garden or buy it from farmers locally. It’s a great idea—and not a unique one. (See also, for example This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. By Joan Dye Gussow, a nutritionist, this memoir includes interesting points on establishing a new garden, tips on making compost and on growing fruits and vegetables successfully in a northern climate, and various recipes using the garden bounty.)

Kingsolver goes on to research how our food is grown, and the Big Business behind the farmers. She identifies the price we pay to get an abundance of low cost food in our grocery stores, and she outlines the consequences of bringing food here from all over the world so that we can have our favorite foods available, whether in season, or out. I won’t get into her argument that transporting food thousands of miles is having an enormous affect on our environment, but I do recommend reading Animal Vegetable Miracle, and taking up her challenge. I share Kingsolver’s concerns about the trends in our food consumption—though I didn’t realize it at first.

I grew up in the midst of Southern culture, where gardening and farmers’ markets were like celebrations welcoming the arrival of summer, much as Thanksgiving and Christmas were celebrations hailing the arrival of winter. Each season brought a change in routine, temperature, and a different way to cook. My grandparents planted big gardens that produced most of their vegetables for the year, with some leftover for our family. My dad, from my earliest memory, planted at least a few tomato plants and hot peppers. So I know first hand what juice-running-down-my-mouth-still-warm-from-the-summer-sun-red-delicious-tomatoes taste like. And fresh, tender sweet corn. I know first hand the arduous job of tilling a garden and pulling weeds.

When we didn’t have a big enough variety of vegetables from our garden my dad would get up early and be the first at the farmers’ market. He knew the farmers by name and asked after their children and parents. Dad could enter in to the struggles of the farmer—too much rain or too little, an unexpected hailstorm—he knew what it is like to wait for vegetables to grow and mature. He would come home loaded with small bags of fresh, out-of-the-garden produce, and then would spend the day in the kitchen cooking. In all my memories of dad, that is where he was the happiest and most relaxed. Preparing good food was something that made sense to him in a deep way—resonated with him—bringing contentment and rest.

My dad’s familiar rhythms with all things food-related influenced my love of the culinary arts in a significant way. I absorbed the rhythm of eating and cooking seasonally, and of buying locally. So, quite honestly I’ve wondered at all the recent attention given to these simple ideas. I love the fresh light fare of summer, and when days start getting colder and shorter my mouth waters for braised meats and root vegetables. Even the herbs I use change with the seasons—basil, mint, and tarragon in summer; hearty rosemary in the harsh cold of winter. All this seems instinctive—thanks to my heritage.

But it is necessary to draw attention to these themes—such things are not instinctual for most people in America. So, many figures in the culinary world have raised them. Alice Waters, Darina Allen, Nigel Slater and one of my favorites, Jamie Oliver, (plus many other chefs) talk about how local food, in season, and organic when possible, is the best to bring to the table. More and more restaurants describe their offerings, identifying the grower or rancher or the waters from which the ingredients came. Chefs write their menus daily, according to what is fresh, seasonal and available. There is an international conversation in progress, and great strides are being made to change the way we, as a culture, think about food.

During my time in culinary school at Ballymaloe in County Cork, Ireland I was exposed to Darina Allen and her passion for food. She introduced us to the local fishmongers, cheese makers, butchers and farmers. They, in turn, had detailed knowledge about the environment and history of the particular item they produced. These men and women took a great deal of pride in making sure that the products that bore their name were of outstanding quality. If not, they would not sell it. One afternoon I went to the meat shop for some lamb chops. Mr. Cuddigan was a butcher as his father, grandfather, and great grandfather had been before him. His small shop was on the edge of town and as I walked into the shop I noticed a huge chopping block where he trimmed and portioned his meats. One side of the block was so worn down that it looked like someone was making it into a bathtub—it was very old and well used. The shop was cold inside and you could see meat hanging in the back—definitely not what we are used to in America. Mr. Cuddigan had some lamb chops but he refused to sell them to me because he was not satisfied with the quality. He knew his animals, and also knew that the best thing for his reputation as a butcher was to offer top quality meat. Darina spoke passionately about having a relationship with your food producer and she gave us copious reasons. She stressed the fact that they are people who deserve our respect for their hard work and attentiveness to their craft so that they can bring to us top quality ingredients. Out of that relationship, she said, would come the benefit of having confidence in our food supply. It brings dignity into the way we live in community with the merchants where we live, shop, and work.

Another lesson at cooking school was how to appreciate the fresh produce that arrived each morning. Darina talked about the work that went into planting the seeds, weeding between the plants, checking for insects and finally harvesting the delicate produce. She insisted that we treat the lettuce with care as we washed it and tore it for our salad so it did not bruise. She taught her students to think about how things were grown, and to appreciate the people who labored to give us healthy, delicious food to eat. These lessons were eye opening to many of us who attended the school that term, as we learned to respect food, garden, cooking, and people.

In my opinion there is no better way to learn about a country than through its food. Stephen and I have had the privilege of traveling to a handful of countries during our marriage. One of our favorite things to do is to find the local markets and spend the morning seeing and smelling what each country has to offer. A few years ago we traveled to the Ukraine. On the way we spent two days in Vienna, and though the city is known for art and music, we bypassed the museums and concert halls, and went instead to the market. We tasted the food, chatting with the people who ran the stalls, learning about their culinary heritage and culture. The markets in the Ukraine were quite different—not knowing the language, we had no words to exchange but we could show appreciation for the beautiful honey and fresh fall vegetables with smiles, nods and small purchases, connecting and celebrating. We experienced this time and again in Ireland, France, Spain and Mexico. How can you help but connect with someone if you value the fruits of their labor?

All this is great and I loved hearing about it at the cookery school. Organic food made perfect sense—food without chemicals—who could argue with that? Seasonal food—that is quite obvious. But then something struck me this week, as I started reading Kitchen Dairies by Nigel Slater. He says, “I have honestly never met anyone who wants to eat a slice of watermelon on a cold March evening, or a plate of asparagus in January.” I disagree. Of course, he is English, so maybe things are different there. If that were true in the States though, why do the big grocery stores sell watermelon and asparagus—and all manner of other fruits and vegetables that come from all over the world—year-round? There must be demand for them. That brings me to what struck me—maybe there are too many people who don’t know what superb, in-season produce tastes like; maybe those of us who live in this great, big country don’t give a thought to our food except to want it quick, easy, and cheap. So, we settle for mediocre flavor and nutrition. Maybe we need more people to write books and lay out the disturbing truth about what we have given up in order to gain the inexpensive variety that is now available in our grocery stores. Maybe we need to get to know the small family farmers in our community and hear what they have to say, and maybe we need to think about adjusting our budgets to allow for more nutritious food; to be more concerned with quality than quantity (there is another discussion we could have), and valuing individuals rather than avoiding inconveniences.

As I have pondered the people behind the food we eat, I have had another, deeper thought. The farmers have undeniable significance in the stewardship of the earth, as well as with the production of our food. Francis Schaeffer reminded us that everyone is created in the image of God—there are “no little people.” Whose image is reflected in these food producers? And who is behind the amazing variety of colors, shapes, odors and tastes of food that they should be so beautiful and pleasing? He is the One who knows the things our body needs to be nourished. We don’t get all the nutrients we need by eating one or two different foods—which would be boring. The two go hand-in-hand: eating is not merely about giving our bodies the chemical compounds needed to go on functioning, but also about enjoyment, and that amazes me. Think about the Designer and Creator who spent time over His world, taking pleasure in His own artistry, and I believe, in the knowledge that we would enjoy it as part of His creation. After He created it, God said it was good. So now question is: how are we called to take care of this good world, as agents of redemption as we await His return? Some of the answer to that question involves the food we eat, how we get it, and how we prepare it. I can only my thoughts help you discern something of the truth of that for your own life.

Couscous Salad with Farmer’s Market Tomatoes
2/3 cup of couscous, I used whole grain couscous
1/2 teaspoon top quality olive oil, organic if possible
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup fresh ripe tomatoes, diced 1/2” size, organic if possible
1/3 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped coarsely
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
a glug of top quality olive oil, organic if possible
1/4 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Measure the couscous and put in a medium size ceramic bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil, and stir with a fork until all the grains are coated. Pour in the boiling water and cover with a plate that fits over the top. Allow to set for about 5 minutes.

In another bowl mix the chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, and the olive oil. Let set for a few minutes while you chopped the parsley. Check the couscous to see if all the water has been absorbed, and fluff it with a fork. Set aside to cool. When the couscous is almost cool, add the parsley to the tomatoes, and then add the mixture to the couscous. Mix well, then cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

To serve cover the top with the toasted almonds.

Get creative—add a few chopped chives or green onions, vary the herbs depending on what you like, replace the almonds with toasted pine nuts, or add chopped fresh zucchini, top it with grilled chicken breast or better yet, grilled lamb chops. Balance is important and the highlight should be the tomatoes—even better if they come from your own backyard.

Copyright © 2008 Karen Baldwin