According to me, food is about more than fancy garnishes and the latest fine dining trends. Food is about more than how a thing looks, or even tastes. Food is about communion, and about creation — but not only. It’s complicated, see? According to me, food is about the dirt in which it is grown. It’s about hedonism, which may seem contradictory though I promise you it’s not.
Food is about farmer’s markets and a floppy hat to keep the sun off my face and hybrid cars and the chickens roosting on my back steps. It’s understanding some chemistry, and being able to manipulate a recipe so it comes out how I think it ought to — it’s making six batches, if that’s what it takes, to get it right. According to me, food has everything to do with politics and environmentalism and ethics. I use food for calories, for pleasure, for stress-relief, and, occasionally, for triggering emotional breakdowns.
According to me, food is about preserving biodiversity. It’s about affection and passion and communication. I can’t tell you what I was wearing when something significant happened, but I can tell you what I ate that day. Maybe I am obsessed — it certainly does appear that my life moves around this central theme. But I assure you, it is not so tragic as that. Food is self-care; food is compost.
I fantasize about self-sufficiency, about being more in command of my food supply. I make my own jam and haven’t eaten the store-bought stuff in more than a year. I’m into preservation, storage, and utilization. Dan bought me a chest freezer for summer berries and raw pizza dough and trout and anything else we can figure out how to make a lot of and keep in suspended animation. I am learning how to make wine; soon we will do beer, too. One evening last summer, we sat on the porch, eating a salad (for we are very in to salads), and he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be great to sit here next year and eat a salad full of things that we grew ourselves?” Everything about that question lit me up. So this year we have a garden – three gorgeous raised beds filled with dark, loamy dirt. I’ve stuck seeds and starts in all of the places I think a plant has a prayer of growing. There are strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, figs, pomegranate, nasturtium, basil, cilantro, thyme, lavender, sage, rosemary, parsley, mint, sweet corn, sugar peas, lettuces, carrots, one surprise radish, bush beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, watermelon, kabocha, pumpkin, zucchini, tomatillo, artichoke, hot peppers, and sweet peppers.
Did I go overboard? Absolutely. Does it make me feel a little drunk just looking at them? Goodness, does it ever. I grew up in Salinas, California, the daughter of farmers. I didn’t pay much attention until years after I moved away. Now my grandmother says that it’s something that’s in me, this need to sink my fingers in the dirt.
In March, Dan built a coop and we put three chicks in it. Now they are pullets, young adult hens that look awfully mature, but who have not yet begun laying eggs. I believe I can say with some degree of certainty that they are all indeed hens, and that I won’t have to learn how to kill a rooster. The chickens began as a way for me to look like an eccentric neighborhood kook, but soon they became part of the system around here.
We buy and grow food, but we don’t consume all of it. The humans are not 100% efficient. The chickens, in turn, eat our weeds and our table scraps. Their feet scratch at the soil; their poops enrich it. When they are older and begin to lay eggs, I’ll bake with them, give them away to friends, and make Dan eat omelets for breakfast five mornings a week. We’ll put the egg shells into our compost bin. Next season, we’ll spread the compost in the garden.
Would it surprise you if I said that the laundry line strung between the backyard fence and my eighty-year-old walnut tree has to do with food, too? It shouldn’t. When it is warm, I can save electricity on drying clothes and use it for the food dehydrator, or to offset the extra fuel the stove uses during the midsummer frenzy of jam-making. Plus, the chickens look particularly picturesque walking around under flapping sheets and pillowcases.
I’ve got some strong feelings about how I think commercially-produced food should happen. If, after reading this, you have lingering curiosities about the nature and scope of these feelings, send me an e-mail or pick up a copy of Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Or both. As a liberal arts sort of gal, I’ve taken more than my share of environmental science courses, and anyway it doesn’t take that big of a geek to see that our farming practices are unsustainable and dangerous. If I were in charge, we’d all have time — and space — to grow our own food. Many of us are already sure that we cannot responsibly do otherwise.
So, here is my confession: I’m sort of an urban hippy-type.
And here’s another one: I break my little rules every day.
According to Dr. Weber, my very first Philosophy professor at Monterey Peninsula College and the dude responsible for settling me on this ethics kick, the most powerful objection leveled against John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is that – get this – it’s too demanding.
But the objection isn’t about laziness. This construction of Utilitarianism calls for behavior that always maximizes The Good. The Good can be defined in any number of ways, but let’s just say for now that The Good is Zero Environmental Harm. We may do things that cause Some Environmental Harm, but we must always keep in mind our moral duty to cause Zero Environmental Harm and do everything we are able to get as close to living a harm-free life as we can – that’s the rule.
Imagine you need to get to work. You certainly can’t drive your car alone. You could carpool, but the bus is a better choice – and the MAX train, better still. Preferable to motorized transport, you could ride your bicycle, but biking generates more waste heat than walking does. It’s awfully efficient though.
So maybe you choose to walk to work. Now let’s think about which shoes you should wear: what materials they are made from, how far away they were produced, what they’ll do to any plant life you should happen to step on as you walk.
It might be better to stay home and telecommute — but what environmental impact does your personal computer have? It’s made from all sorts of hazardous stuff. And in your home office space, are the light bulbs compact florescent, or incandescent? Do you pay a little extra for electricity generated by wind or water? Does your employer? It gets worse, this Utilitarianism-business. It is crazy-making to constantly think of the ways you can do better, because you can always do better. I can, anyway.
I take my responsibilities as a consumer, a cook, and an eater very seriously. The things I do these days in the name of our little blue planet would have seemed very unlikely to me as recently as four years ago. I arrived here incrementally; but here I am, saving chicken shit, walking miles to school, collecting old CDs until the pile is big enough to justify a trip to the recycling center. I’ve tried to think of something that I do that’s outlandish and I can’t. Collecting gray water is normal. Washing out plastic bags for infinite reuse just makes sense.
Back to my confession: As much as I am tryin’ to live and eat in ways that feel right to me, I fall short. Often. Some days, Panda Express just pushes my buttons, and I am pretty sure that everything they sell came off of a Sysco truck. Conventional (read: factory farmed) eggs are a lot less expensive than the eggs from hens fed organic meal and allowed, supposedly, to roam free and cluck in the sunshine. There’s an economic premium to this lifestyle, and times can get rough. I’m not often motivated to drive even twenty minutes out of my way to get the Draper Valley organic chicken meat. I should, though. Actually, I should ride my bike out to get the Draper Valley stuff. Or, I should give up eating meat altogether. See how it can get out of hand quickly?
If this ethical eating business is such a huge and important part of my life, then why do I still shop in places I know I ought to avoid? Why do I ever use my car? Why can’t I resist the mangoes from South America? Well, all I have in answer is that I’m doing my best, and my best isn’t perfect. We all hide twinkies – in some form or another — in our desk drawers. As much as I’d love to believe that I can save the world, I know that I am just one girl: one girl who loves mangoes and, occasionally, greasy steam-table chow mein. I won’t feel guilty about my food. My food doesn’t deserve that.
According to me, food is about more than what’s for dinner. According to me, food is about craft and about dirt and about making choices true to oneself and to the rest of the planet. Food is about honesty, and about love. It’s about acknowledging that butter makes it taste better, but not going crazy with the saturated fats.
According to me food isn’t worth much if it doesn’t feel good, if it can’t keep you alive and healthy, if you can’t share it with friends. Food, you see, will soak up all the meaning and the heft you want to give it. And if you don’t want it to mean anything, then just eat it already — Bon appétit.