Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Garden of Eatin'

I love food.  While I wouldn't say that I live to eat, I definitely don't just eat to live.

Food in our Western culture seems to have become a very complicated matter.  Dieting has been around for centuries and today it's a multi-billion dollar industry.  People are running around looking for answers, desperately wanting someone to tell them what to eat and how much, and guilt abounds when they fall off the wagon.

I have never been one to diet (especially not the kind of the fad variety), but that doesn't exclude me from the masses looking for answers.  How can I be healthy and satisfied and not feel deprived?  I grew up in a family with two working parents and as I grew more independent and socially active into my young adult years, food--though enjoyable--became a commodity that had to be ready quickly, easily, cheaply if at all possible, and the more portable, the better.  In high school I was particularly proud of the discovery that placing food wrapped in foil on my windshield defroster would be nice and warm by the time I got to school.  (A trick I modified later in college by placing pastries on my computer monitor while I was in class.)

I began to really get serious about cooking for myself when I was 19 going on 20 and participating in an internship program at Walt Disney World.  In an apartment with 5 other girls, we no longer had the convenience of a college cafeteria to rely on.  I had pretty much o.d'd on Ramen and Easy Mac the previous year, so I managed to avoid that pitfall.  That semester in Orlando, I burned pans making rice, perfected the frozen veggie mix side dish, accidentally cold cooked a filet of salmon in vinaigrette dressing, and prepared the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a lot of fun and I benefitted from the experience.

Several years later as a college graduate, I moved in with a friend who shared an appreciation for the art of food preparation.  We would have weekly competitions in which one of us would choose an ingredient or culinary style for the other to attempt, usually with good results.  (A rare exception...won ton ravioli.  Heh heh.)  Neither of us were from Southern California, and suddenly the abundance of avocados and the introduction of new things like jicama and plantains were more prominently featured on the menu than some of the traditional dishes of the Mid-Atlantic/Midwest where we grew up.  I developed my signature cooking style that the roommate dubbed neo-classic, as I was always putting new twists on old favorites.  We both made honorable attempts at keeping dishes on the healthy side.

Gradually, I began to make other changes to my diet, like avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and sodium-rich frozen prepared dishes.  I thought I had it pretty much figured out until a few months ago when I realized that I could stretch my grocery dollar further if I cut back on meat.  I've been living alone for over two years now and without anyone to share any of the expenses with, I have to keep a weather eye out for ways to save money.  So I began to forego chicken breasts in favor of tofu blocks, eggs, and maybe some frozen tilapia fillets as my weekly protein.  I began to get more creative, adding more legumes like black beans and replacing pasta and potatoes with brown rice and quinoa.  Slowly, subtly, I began to realize how little I needed meat at all.  I used to get downright cranky without it.  Now I can go several days without it.  Was that dependence psychological?

If you think this is a manifesto about how I have come to forsake meat and all its perils, it's not.  I had a piece of rare filet mignon last night at the company holiday party and it was lovely.  And I will always, always, always want another piece of bacon even if I've already had 8.  No, what I've come to realize is how much I dig vegetables.  And not just any vegetables, but the fresh ones.  And, dare I admit it, but organic too.  Once food to hippies and food snobs, now organic is becoming more and more mainstream.  I recently read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and was fascinated by the history of Western food consumption and how it went from agrarian farming to big industry flash-and-packaging.  I learned why organic food is good for you, why cage free hens who scratch up their own bugs to eat produce more nutrient-rich eggs, why raw milk* became a taboo after the discovery of pasteurization.

Reading the book was a revelation, it's directives a liberation.

Now I look at food and think, "Is this the real deal?  Or was it cooked up in a lab?" and make a quick decision from there. I went to a few local farmers' markets over the last couple of weekends and my dinner for the week was largely decided for me by what was offered out in the stands.  Are organic products more expensive?  Yes.  Is there a difference in the taste?  Also yes--for the better.  Do I buy less and eat less because it costs more?  Yes and yes!

Only time will tell if this makes any significant difference in my outward appearance, but I can tell you already that inside I'm feeling pretty damn good.  As an accidental almost-vegetarian, I don't have to fret about what kind of meat to get and how much it's going to jack up my food bill, I'm broadening my culinary palette, and I'm feeling a lot more alert through the day.  I like the idea of supporting my local farmers, who are generally really friendly and eager to educate you on what you're getting--and sometimes do things like throw in an extra avocado if you sing the praises of their table loud enough.   I actually get, well, excited about finding recipes for the things I bring home. Granted, it's easy to experiment like this when you're living in southern California, magnet to progressive leftists easily influenced by health-conscious ideas.  I won't even try to deny that reputation.  As I described it to my best friend back home in Pennsylvania, I'm becoming kinda granola--but more like granola dipped in chocolate. :-)

Have you made any particular changes to your way of eating as an adult for health, monetary, or ethical reasons?  Are you of the vegetarian or vegan persuasion?  Do you find that eating a Western diet is as destructive and complicated as authors like Michael Pollan declare it to be?  What's your personal eating manifesto?

*One of my favorite discoveries is raw milk.  I'm not touching skim milk ever again if I can help it.  I bought raw milk for the first time last weekend and have been delighting in it all week.  "Regular" pasteurized milk aggravates my lactose intolerance; raw milk does not because it still contains all its live cultures that "eat" the lactase for me.  My stepdad worries about my calcium intake because I haven't been able to drink much milk for the last several years, but he can lay that one to rest now!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Tragic Christmas Tale

At my parents' house in Virginia, there is a sizable collection of nutcrackers in varying sizes and styles.  They're one of my favorite Christmas decorations, and when I came home this last time, I cracked up when I noticed the addition of a little cannon, cannon balls, and swords.  "Sometimes they have wars", Mom informed me as I stood examining them.

Indeed they do.

But in the Christmas spirit, they decided to lay down the weapons, eat, drink, and be merry.  Out of this, a Conga line formed on Christmas Eve.


One can only surmise, however, that things got out of hand, and Christmas morning we awoke to this carnage:


Luckily, Monstro did not succeed in actually eating Claudio.  Unfortunately for him, Claudio was quick to exact his revenge with the sword and brought his aggressor down by the next morning.  The day after, they held his processional.

You may notice the snowman standing guard and saluting.

Yes, that is a Mexican mariachi nutcracker at left, and yes, he is playing "Taps".

My family is nothing, if not imaginative. ;-)