Eating in America

There seems to be a growing awareness in this country that there is something wrong with the way we eat an interact with food. Browsing Cody’s the other day, I noticed a huge layout of books all about the American food crisis: the way we eat, where our food comes from, and how our fast paced lifestyles are destroying us from within. This topic seems to come up a great deal at Thanksgiving, a holiday when families traditionally cook large meals incorporating a complex mixture of ingredients.

I swung by the grocer’s last night to pick up a few things for Thanksgiving, and it was interesting so contrast my basket with others. To begin with, I took a bus to the grocery store and had to be conscious about how much I was carrying. I also didn’t need to pick up meat and stuffing ingredients, because the Cap’ns are doing that. Thus I can’t be too smug about my shopping.

I had: milk, cream, buttermilk, butter, eggs, white flour, yeast, water chestnuts (Cap’n Raspberry is skeptical about putting them in the stuffing but he says if I buy them, he’ll use them), spaghetti squash, corn, acorn squash, apples, a pie pumpkin, Yukon gold potatoes, and cranberries. Today some of those ingredients turned into pumpkin pie and bread, with the assistance of other ingredients I had around the house, and tomorrow I’ll be making apple dumplings (or pie, the jury is still out), along with roasting the squashes and corn and ricing the potatoes to make buttermilk mashed potatoes. Later today I’ll go back into the City to pick up salad ingredients.

I think our meal is going to be well balanced: a mixture of fresh vegetables, meaty goodness, and salad. I think we will probably eat more than is good for us, but it will be a balance of healthy, delicious food cooked by caring hands. I was surprised by how many people purchase packaged meals, where turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a lone woeful looking vegetable all come out of a box. Where’s the fun in that?

A friend seemed incredulous yesterday when I said I was on the way to the grocers to pick up ingredients.

“Oh,” he said, “you’re making everything from scratch?”

Well, hardly. If I was making the meal from scratch, I would have planted squashes in the early summer, along with corn seedlings. I’d have a field of wheat which would have been threshed and ground into flour. I would collect local wild yeast, grow my own potatoes, and have a miniature cranberry bog. There would be a cow or two in the back yard along with a turkey.

But yes, I am assembling things ingredient by ingredient, rather than buying everything pre-packaged.

“Well,” I said, “I think it has been established that I am kind of a food Nazi, and I think it will taste better.”

Does it?

I think so, but maybe that’s because I was raised on home made food. My father cooked dinner for us every single night, and it was always varied, interesting, and delicious. But friends of mine raised on macaroni and cheese out of the box often don’t like my food. It’s “weird.” My cooking has “too many strange flavours.” My bread isn’t white. My pie “isn’t sweet enough.”

But I feel like my food is also healthier. I have more control over my ingredients and where they come from. I can season food to my taste, seeking out flavors I like and discarding flavors I don’t. I experiment with my food, and I’m always willing to try something new in the kitchen…as long as it’s not out of a box. I really just can’t fathom making things out of boxes. It mystifies me, and it mystifies some of my acquaintances when they mention off hand that “such and such a food” would be good and the next time they come over I’ve looked up various recipes and made it. “Oh,” they say, “I was thinking the kind that Kraft makes.”

Numerous authors have written that we are losing our connection with food: I don’t think that point needs to be belabored. But I think sometimes that the food gods on high alienate consumers with talks of a locavore diet (a noble and great thing, but a stretch for some people), or other various high and mighty things. You don’t have to make bread with whole wheat flour. I could make a bread surprisingly similar to Wonderbread if I wanted to, and maybe I would if it would show someone that it is possible to make cheaper, healthier incarnations of the food they eat every day. I think that dietary change is all about baby steps.

First, show people that home made bread is easier and cheaper than store bought bread. Show them that it can be therapeutic, that it makes the house smell good, that it is worth the time and making bread can be worked into a busy schedule: millions of housewives over the centuries can’t be wrong. Show them that familiar foods can be replicated without the use of artificial colors, flavoring, and stabilizers. Let people taste fresh home made food…and then try to win them over to the gospel of organic, of whole grain, of locally sourced sustainable food.

People eat trash because their parents fed them trash, and they perceive it as easier. Rather than trying to convert a die hard McDonald’s fan to a locally based vegan diet, first get them making burgers at home. I think that most people will be converted when they experience the taste difference. Especially for families, making and serving food together can be a fun experience…and will be the formation of a new generation of food Nazis, who think nothing of whipping of a quiche or experimenting with a new recipe.

Expanding the American palate is not going to happen overnight, but it might require less effort than you think.

[American diet]