Friday, June 13, 2008

Simpler Food, Better Lives

Some of my most treasured moments growing up in Taiwan involved taking a day off from school for an appointment with the Air Force dentist stationed at the "listening post" where my father worked as a radio code guy (we thought he was a spy). After the appointment, I was on my own until Daddy got off work, so I'd head for the base library for the afternoon, and this is where I discovered both science fiction and British children's adventure fiction in the guise of Enid Blyton.

I loved these stories (especially Island of Adventure and Five Go to Smuggler's Top) because the kids were much braver than I was and I could enjoy their perils vicariously. One remarkable (to me) aspect of these adventures, however, was the emphasis on food. The protagonists were always off on picnics or camping trips and would take enormous amounts of food with them. Or they'd buy freshly baked goods and fresh fruit and good cheese from an affable farmer's wife--or they'd come upon stores of tinned food (including, usually, potted meat and peaches) in pirate lairs.

On weekends we'd often head off to Bitan (Green Lake), near Taipei, where my parents and their friends would hire a canopied boat. It doesn't look all that attractive in some of these vintage photos I found, but we'd load the boat up with food, beer, sarsaparilla, and chisueh (a 7-Up clone), and chug out to the middle of the lake where we'd spend the day talking, eating, and swimming.

Many of my earliest memories, in fact, centered on the very particular combination of camaraderie, fun, and companionable eating and drinking. As a result, it's really no wonder why my own utopia is replete with these same associations--especially among eating, drinking, and talking. And it seems that the simplest food--picnic staples like sandwiches and fruit, grilled veg and meat--makes it possible for human beings not only to survive, but to create the background for lasting friendships and meaningful conversations. Summer, even here in the humid Southwest, brings out the legions of backyard barbecue mavens anxious to try out the latest marinade. Beer-swilling minions brave the heat and the mozzies to show off their cooking talent, and fill the breeze with the scent of roasting flesh--and lighter fluid.

Ah well. If only these folks would learn that they don't have to douse their charcoal with petrochemicals in order to make it burn. A simple chimney affair will get it lit within a few minutes and move us one step further from dependence on fossil fuels. But, I digress.

The nature of these activities is almost primal. Grilling our food takes us back to our roots and ties us into the first culinary traditions. Cooking outside also keeps the temperature in our houses down, and reduces the amount of electricity and/or gas we use, thus lowering our energy bills. But the sheer simplicity of it all is what attracts me: throw a few peppers on the grill along with assorted other bits, make up a simple salad, bake some flatbread, and voila: an al fresco feast worthy of our earliest ancestors. As long as we don't char everything, we can avoid the carcinogenic effects of grilling; as in everything else, moderation is the key--as is mindful preparation.

There's a lot to be said for peasant food, especially in times when folks are spending more and more of their budgets at the supermarket. The less processed the food, the cheaper (as I mentioned in my last post), and the more potential there is for creating truly healthful menus. In many ways, meals based on whole grains and pulses, with vegetables and fruits cooked or eaten raw alongside, would address a number of problems (including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer) and help transform the economy.

Unfortunately, the world-wide food picture looks rather grim. Here I am, suggesting that everyone eat more whole grains, while the price of grain is making even this basic "staff of life" more and more difficult to obtain for more and more people on earth. The causes are manifold, but among them is one ironic ingredient: the growing prosperity of formerly marginal economies is increasing the demand for meat--which in turn raises the price of the grain used to feed cattle. In addition, the growing demand for biofuels is further affecting the price we pay for a bowl of cereal or a loaf of bread. Supplies can't keep up with demand, and so prices go up--it's the law of the market economy. The situation provides yet another reason to decrease our intake of meat. Even if you can't bring yourself to become a vegetarian or a vegan, it's not all that hard to forgo being a carnivore a couple of times a week. It might also be time to make friends with a hunter or two.

Dairy products and eggs are also increasingly expensive, especially if one insists on buying from organic, free-range, grass fed sources. Few of us would like to give up our daily glass of moo-juice or grated Parmesan on our pasta. But these are essentially luxuries that can be extended with some imagination--or even done without altogether. I seldom use eggs, so that when I buy them I can afford a half-dozen organic cage-free versions from (preferably) local growers. In a pinch, dried skim milk will sub for the fresh variety in cooking, and a glass or two to drink is all we really need. We are, I'm constantly reminded by vegan friends, the only species that drinks the breast-milk of other lactating animals. So it's certainly not an absolute need. In truth, almost everything we can think of cooking can be made without dairy products at all. Well, maybe not real lasagna . . . .

Reading books on how people survived the Great Depression and rationing during the war years can be instructive, and the best of these is M. F. K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, originally published in 1942 (and reprinted, along with others, in the collection The Art of Eating). She goes off on everything from the idea of "balanced meals" (in her chapter, "How to be a Sage without Hemlock") to eating sparsely with friends ("How to Be Cheerful Though Starving"), and much of what she wrote then is still applicable today--and certainly timely. With the possible exception of Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet, I don't think any other book has more thoroughly influenced my views of food and community as this one has.

I also recommend reading the recent reprint of Helen Nearing's Simple Food for the Good Life: Random Acts of Cooking and Pithy Quotations, from the doyenne of simple living. The original version was published in 1980, and there is no better source for solid advice on plain cooking with wholesome ingredients. If you're a confirmed carnivore, you could learn a lot about how to get by without eating animals from this book. The Nearings' work is being carried on these days at The Good Life Center, which deserves a visit, if only online. And for truly inspiring source on simple eating and building community, see Eat Grub--the organization founded by Anna Blythe Lappé (daughter of Frances) and "eco-chef" Bryant Terry.

And this is really the core of getting by and eating well: learning to enjoy basic foodstuffs, and to do without what isn't really necessary. Since I try not to eat tortured animals, I eat little meat. I could probably become a vegetarian again fairly easily, although I'm not particularly bothered by eating animals who've been humanely raised and not killed in horrible scary factory abbatoirs that haven't changed much, it seems, since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. But one could easily argue that killing anything is hardly humane, at the core. And that may be right, and I may come around to that way of seeing things in the end. Nevertheless, it is certainly wise to minimize the amount of meat one does consume, and to make sure that it's not plugged full of hormones and antibiotics and other crap. It just makes sense to eat any food in as natural a state as possible.

One encouraging sign, in addition to the proliferation of farmers' markets I mentioned in my last post, is the growing availability of so-called "heirloom" plants. A burgeoning effort to re-establish fruits and vegetable varieties now makes it easier to buy tastier versions of everyday items like tomatoes and apples, and easier to grow your own alternatives to Burpee Big Boys. At the moment, the supermarket offerings are pricey, and unless they're organic they've probably been sprayed abundantly with bug-murdering chemicals. But local markets are offering more and more alternative choices with the possibilities of different nutrients (according to color) and more varied flavors. Once you've bitten into a fresh, warm Mortgage Lifter tomato (an appropriate choice for the current economic moment), you'll never want to touch another Beefsteak. Try doing a Google search on "heirloom" tomatoes to see how pervasive this movement is becoming.

I'm not sure how it was that Americans became addicted to all things sweet, but we could easily do without all the sugar we consume. Of course lots of food contains various sugars, and it's not necessary to avoid them. But huge amounts of added sugars end up in processed foods, and are completely unnecessary to our existence on this planet. Another advantage to cooking from scratch is that you can control the sugar content by not adding any.

While I'm at it, the very idea that "dessert" has to be a part of everyone's evening meal is ludicrous. And if we really want to round out the experience of eating a lovingly prepared bean casserole and a salad, a nice fresh peach in season should do it.

Confections such as cakes and cookies do not have to be a regular part of our diets. They can certainly be eaten on occasion, but we do not have to have them every day in order to remain human, I promise you. We tend to add unnecessary sugar to everything, including bread, but why not bake wholesome, unsweetened whole grained flatbread (like pita or naan) most of the time, with the Friday night challah (made with whole wheat flour) ritually added as a weekly treat? While there's no reason to deny oneself of the celebretory slice of chocolate cake, there is also no reason to assume that we actually need this stuff. Buy yourself a good jar of honey and leave it at that. Don't keep sugars in your pantry, and you'll find other ways to satisfy your sweet tooth: a handful of dried cherries, a few dried figs, a nice cold apple.

The bottom line is this: simple food can be inexpensive, nutritious, and relatively easy to prepare. Minimize the meat and sweets, and concentrate on fiber, along with colorful vegetables and fruits. You need nine servings of the latter per day, but a serving is only the size of your fist--so it's pretty easy to accumulate the optimal number, and it's not terribly expensive if you buy in season--especially from local markets. We are extremely fortunate in this country to still have abundant food (far too much of it in many cases) at prices most of us can still afford. But if we could imagine, even for one day a week, what less affluent folk have to get by on, perhaps we could become wiser about what and how we eat.

Cooking simple, nourishing, traditional foods with friends not only provides companionship and builds communities, but it provides opportunities for sharing garden produce and learning new cuisines. The adventure of discovering new ways of cooking may not be as exciting as stumbling upon tinned peaches and Spam in a smuggler's cave, but it can have its moments--and you won't have to worry about being abducted by pirates.

Photo credits: "Peasant Meal," an illumination for Aristotle's Politiques et économiques, France, 15th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits. "Old tomato varieties" taken at Marché Beauveau, Place d'Aligre, Paris, by "Popolon." Photo of 6-braid whole-wheat challah in the process of being shaped for baking. Photo taken on March 30, 2006 by Yoninah. All from Wikimedia Commons.


jenzai studio said...

boy, I was right there with you until I got to the part about dessert, at which point I thought "Are you mad, woman?!" Give up my sugar addiction? No thank you.:-)

Owlfarmer said...

Well, now you've got a blog post (Ruminations on Weaning) dedicated in part to defending myself from your accusation of madness.

I'm only partly mad; not completely.