Friday, July 20, 2007

Utopian Pizza

This is primarily an addendum to my last post, because although I mentioned being vegetarian and Kosher, I neglected to place these (what? Events? Conditions? Practices?) in context. The context, as it turns out, was important to the point I was trying to make about the connection between cooking and community.

I began keeping a Kosher home when I married for the second time and was firmly established in an urban community rich with Jews, many of whom were much more religious than I. The nice thing about being newly married is that the couple receives presents, and we made our kashrut plans known to our friends and relatives--who graciously helped stock the kitchen with two of everything, coded with colors (cool for dairy, warm for meat) to help simplify the process. But I never was a true believer; I wanted a Kosher kitchen because I wanted any friend of any religious persuasion to be able to eat at my table. So my initial instincts were communitarian, if not doctrinally pure.

The move toward "vegetarianism" (which sounds like a religion itself) came about as I began to explore philosophy in graduate school, and probably in a subconscious effort to pay tribute to my beloved grandmother. I wouldn't be surprised if a psychoanalyst were to uncover another motive: to make keeping Kosher even simpler (if one eats only dairy or pareve, one needn't worry about mixing meat with milk. Tah Dah!). But even as I became a full-fledged, full-time vegetarian, one of my goals was to feed my friends so that no one would miss the meat. I remember throwing a holiday party for my then-husband's colleagues, and after everyone had raved about the food, I expressed some surprise that nobody had remarked about missing Swedish meatballs or cocktail weenies. Those gathered around the heavily laden table, piling their plates with marinated mushrooms and slices of veggie quiche looked at one another and laughed; nobody had even noticed. By this time we were living in a community with far fewer Jews, and even fewer who were concerned with dietary laws, and eventually any dietary restrictions could be handled with vegetarian meals.

Somewhat later, as the children grew and began to behave like starving, deprived orphans in front of the supermarket meat counter, I relented. I began to cook, serve, and eat meat, albeit sparingly and infrequently. Fish was easier (I hadn't ever gazed fondly into the eyes of a flounder, and was thus much less sentimental about scaly things), and soon after it became fairly simple to acquire poultry (and, for a hefty premium, beef) that hadn't been marinated in hormones, sprayed with insecticides, and/or tortured to death, and my conscience was soothed. My friends could then gather for an organic meal featuring well-raised and thoughtfully killed animals, and I could remind my children of their supper's origins by announcing that they'd be enjoying "dead baby chickens." We never did have "dead baby cow" because of the way veal is raised in the United States, although they once did taste Kosher, humanely-raised veal in London after being reassured about its free-range origins.

Both of my children are, today, much more aware of ethical considerations than are their peers. The specter of congenital heart disease now haunts us all (I had bypass surgery due to genetically astronomical cholesterol levels at the age of 47), so we eat even more healthfully than we did while they were growing up. And, because I teach at a school with a culinary arts program, I have become increasingly interested in the history, philosophy, and culture of food. As a result, being mindful about eating comes quite naturally, and solutions to dilemmas about what to eat are solved fairly simply. I'm still squeamish about eating certain kinds of foods (lobsters=bugs in my book, and I could probably only eat a cricket if I were starving to death), and I still eat things I shouldn't (take-out pizza, for example) more often than I would like.

And this leads me to the main obstacle in the way of mindful eating in modern culture: time. Until we can learn to slow down and to choose our priorities more wisely (do we really need to haul our children around to five different organized activities per week?), we will never put Papa John's out of business. My own hand-made pizza, baked with freshly ground whole wheat flour, home-grown tomatoes and peppers and herbs, and locally-crafted mozzarella cheese, tastes infinitely better, is far more nutritious, and economically more satisfying and sustaining than the one the pizza guy brings to the door.

One thing about thought experiments is that they're often fairly inspiring. So I'm going to finish this post and go out to the garden (more like a jungle after all the recent rain) in hopes of harvesting the makings of what I'll have to start calling Topsy's Pizza, in honor of the terrific meals Morris describes in News From Nowhere. He undoubtedly never had pizza, but if he'd run into it in his imagined future London, this is what it would've tasted like.

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