All week I’ve been engrossed in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, a book that’s encouraged a mini-revolution within me. My interest in eating organic foods was sparked in college, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. weren’t enough to convince me to really change my personal eating culture – I was indulging in “healthy” foods that served primarily to imitate the unhealthy food of which I was supposed to be letting go. Soy burgers…organic macaroni and cheese…Amy’s pizzas. Then I moved to China where the local food culture gave me an unhealthy reverence for Big Macs and (overpriced) processed American fare – anything that wasn’t soaked in oil and chock full of anonymous animal parts. (The irony being that if a Big Mac isn’t the consummate temple food to “anonymous animal parts” then what is?)
Since the Charlottesville farmer’s market started up back in April I’ve been every single week – except when it didn’t happen because of that rogue tornado. I remember being dragged to the FM in my hometown of Los Gatos with my dad when I was but a wee pre-teen and loathing every minute of it. Vegetables? More vegetables? Ooo, a Danish! And…some fruit? Under the spell of my initial Pollan reading and a slew of pulse-pounding documentaries highlighting the different ways in which I was incidentally killing myself by eating, I made it a point my senior year at JMU to visit the FM as much as possible. I would buy some produce and try to cook it, fail, get discouraged and go back the next week for something that required less skill, like locally raised doughnuts. Now that I’m living downtown and the Charlottesville FM is literally across the street from me I’m proudly taking full advantage of it. I’m back in a country where I can converse fluently with the person selling me my produce (although at nine in the morning on a Saturday, I admit I’m usually silent, intermittently sipping a [reusable ceramic] mug of coffee.)
Back to that mini-revolution I’ve gone through in the last week (three days to be exact, I won’t front.) It started with Pollan’s The Botany of Desire – a book I highly recommend as, while not necessarily galvanizing, it is in fact illuminating, empowering and fascinating. Damn! That’s a lot. The history of apples isn’t as dry as it sounds. Then I moved quickly onto the aforementioned IDOF, which shares much in common with the horrifying-truth theme of Food, Inc. and other works relating the perils of the industrial food system. I live pretty well Off The Grid right now – no cable, no TV in fact, no internet, no car, no landline…it’s just my iPhone and I in a little (fabulous) bat cave of an apartment. But despite the fact that I’ve opted out of almost everything one can imagine being billed for, I’ve still had trouble providing good food for myself. And I realized that it’s not just my early-twenty-something wages impeding my access to quality grub – and it goes beyond financial prioritizing. It’s my food culture. I’m too ready and willing to get pizza on a lunch break rather than put in the effort the night before to make a meal that provides leftovers. I also live alone, so I often end up eating alone. But these are choices – I choose not to cook, not to invite people over to share in the meal, not to look up recipes and actually work at becoming a better cook. The problem is that I’ve been telling myself for years that these are skills I want to acquire. I want to eat organic and local, I want to eventually be able to provide for a family, to be able to provide a family food culture that nourishes a traditionally European (harkening back to examples in Pollan’s works) way of eating. My biggest revelation? How much I will have to work at this. I think I’ve always imagined that one day I would just be the Barefoot Contessa, living in the Hamptons and smiling and eating and having garden parties all the time, because cooking is fun and easy and has a catchy theme song. But what I failed to realize is that Ina Garten started out as a caterer like, twenty years ago. She has worked for her kitchen wizardry, it didn’t just happen like, well, magic.
I must say I’ve had an auspicious start to my personal official local and organic movement. I’ve made two frittatas and a REAL legitimate recipe from a cookbook this week! (Double Potato and Halloumi Bake from Nigella Bites, Nigella Lawson.) I also started composting recently – or, that should be “composting,” as I’ve been told multiple times now that what I am in fact doing is “keeping rotting table scraps under my sink without a lid on them and no that is not the same as composting.” Apparently it’s a more complicated process involving effort and thought. Who knew?
And while I’m definitely doing this for my health, I think I’m also doing it because I feel it’s going to create in some small way the world in which I want to live. I can walk to Feast from my house and in that same complex they have a butcher and a fishmonger I can visit, should I feel so inclined. And have we tried the samples at Feast? If their cheddar cheese ball isn’t worth my money then nothing on this planet is. I just don’t want to be one of those depressing stories later on in life – you know the ones, “Oh, poor Billy. He never smoked, ran ten miles a day and hadn’t had a gram of fat since the 80’s and then wham – a heart attack!” I’ll keep my eating culture suffused with a Dionysian pleasure principle and wheedle down any physical exertion to getting from the cheeseball samples to the wine down the street, thank you very much. I figure if I keep can keep away from the American obsession with exercise I stand the chance of God not finding it ironic enough to strike me down with heart palpitations.
The Italians started the Slow Food movement a few years back (you know, it was in some book I read and now the exact date’s gone…sometime within the last decade, we’ll posit) and I’ve pretentiously had it’s slogan “Eat Your View” as my “political view” on Facebook for the past two or three years (while gorging on Big Macs halfway ‘round the world). Maybe it started as a pretentious nod to the “green” movement of which I felt Gwyneth Paltrow would be approving, but now that I actually live in an urban setting and have a garden I do have to say that yes, I would like to eat my view. I’d like to wake up in the morning and continue to see my garden and not a strip mall or a multipurpose commercial/residential complex. I’d like to see grass. And flowers. Or weeds. They work.
I don’t know where you stand on the food issue, or how much you value your local farmer’s market, but if you take away anything from this post I hope you pick up Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food and The Botany of Desire. They’re enlightening and crisply written and full of truly vital knowledge in today’s food economy. Cheers!
P.S. Don’t forget the Farmer’s Market is tomorrow! Follow me on Twitter @theSSsantiago for photo updates – maybe you’ll run into me taking a picture of the food you’re about to buy!