Sunday, July 8, 2007

how to eat closer to home

Not long ago, my friend H. challenged me to write some how-to's for would-be ethical eaters. She had been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book about one family's experiment with eating locally, and was inspired to eat 'better' herself--just a little unsure about how to start. I haven't read the book myself yet, but from what I understand, the Kingsolvers decided to opt out of our heavily industrialized food chain by spending a year eating only what they could grow on their land or buy from their neighbors.

While totally sold on the various arguments for eating locally, I feel pretty unqualified to tell anyone else how to shorten their food chain. I'm new to the pursuit, and rather longer on theory than I am on practice. But I can probably pass on a general principle or two of the sort that can always be taken up a notch from wherever you--or I--happen to be at the moment. I eagerly invite any and all other lovers and defenders of real food to chip in their respective two cents.

1. Summertime, and the Eating is Easy....At no other point in the year is fresh, locally produced food going to be so abundant. Look for it today, whether by stopping at a roadside stand or shopping at a farmers' market; here's where you'll find one.
2. Connect an existing priority or personal goal that you have to a new, specific commitment that you can make to these food sources. Do you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides? Keep this wallet-sized list of the most and least contaminated kinds of fruits and vegetables handy when you do your shopping, and be as consistent as your budget allows about limiting yourself to the organic, local versions of the worst offenders. Trying to lose weight? Exercise auto-portion control by starting your largest meal of the day with a salad, then aim to get some or all of the fixings from a local food source. Want to shake your reputation for being a picky eater? Try one new (seasonal, locally produced) vegetable every week of the summer. Alarmed by reports that the oceans are running out of fish? Print out a regional guide and commit to buying (and ordering) seasonal, sustainably fished seafood only. Grateful for the animals in your life? Decide that eggs from cage-free chickens are worth a little added expense.
3. Do anything and everything you can think of to emphasize the social dimensions of eating. As often as possible, eat meals that an actual identifiable and known-to-you someone has prepared. Call up your mother-in-law and ask her for that great recipe. Plan a picnic. Get home from work in time for dinner with your actual or improvised family. Organize a group of friends to pick apples, can tomatoes, or take a cooking class. Strike up a conversation with someone at the farmers' market about their plans for that fine-looking eggplant. And--this is most important--ask questions of the people who sell you your food, whether the lady selling sweet corn or the guy behind the butcher counter. Reward those who give you knowledgeable, thoughtful responses and take pride in the quality of their product with your loyalty. Food has the power to connects us in all kinds of wonderful ways. By making eating a social practice, you will find yourself naturally inclined to cut out the middle man on lots of different levels.
4. Learn to cook. Keep it simple--fresh, quality ingredients don't need a lot of fancy preparation. Instead of going out to the store with a list of things you need for a specific recipe, go to that farmers' market or roadside stand and buy what's in season, which not coincidentally will also be the cheapest and most plentiful stuff there. This is the information age, and I promise you, you can come home, google a recipe, and come up with a million doable ideas, especially if you keep some basic staples on hand.
5. Be frugal about your food. This is different from being cheap. Being frugal amounts to a much more complex appreciation of the value of your food. It means making thoughtful decisions about what and where you buy; limiting your purchases to what you can actually use (last night's roast chicken can be today's chicken salad, and you can make soup or stock from the carcass and the vegetable peelings); and saving money not by pinching or bypassing local farmers, but by buying food in season and doing the value-add part (whether peeling the carrots, frying the chicken, making the applesauce, or canning/freezing those beautiful green beans) yourself.


ithinkwithyou said...

Oh, you are an angel. Thanks for responding to my query with such nicely accessible, not-intimidating advice and links! I'm going to the farmers' market Wed. morning!

:: Suzanne :: said...

Enjoyed your post. I'd like to invite you to link it to the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle blogpost roundup.