The way we eat is intrinsically connected to how we live our lives and, therefore, to the way we use our world. It’s helpful if we can link these in our minds and in our actions.
It would be difficult to look honestly at the way we eat and not see that it is contributing to the erosion of so much that matters: our good health, the vitality of our small farms and local communities, and the resources offered to us by our planet. The problem, at its root, is one we might blame on a profit-driven food industry, yet the challenges we face are not due to highly-processed foods or poor quality ingredients, at least not really. They are, more specifically, being degraded by poor ways of living.
As a society, we have come to place an unusually high premium on time-saving, labor-saving approaches, and on a lifestyle that minimizes the “drudgery” of putting food on the table. An entire industry has been created to support our culinary leisure. A look to the past, however, reminds us that our great-grandparents worked hard at being food producers. They grew and cooked much of what they ate. Their days were centered around output and, without seeming virtuous, around maintaining a household and sustaining life. We, on the other hand, are food consumers. We shop for what we eat.
When we let go of daily cooking, we lost more than good nutrition; we gave up our ability to think in relevant and discerning ways about food. We deprived ourselves of a crucial connection to that which sustains us, and I don’t only mean real food, but also the process of growing, gathering and preparing it. That, too, is nourishment, and without it we are often left subtly wanting.
While living the way our great-grandparents did may not seem reasonable or possible for many of us, reversing this trend to at least some degree is a goal we might all want to embrace. By forging a solid connection to the food we eat, and to the sources of that food, we put forth ripples with every bite–ripples that either lift up or bring down much that is around and within us.
Eating well demands a willingness to look squarely at where our food comes from. It calls for open eyes, and asks that we acknowledge this truth: we are all farmers and we are all cooks, each one of us. We may not personally use our hands to handle these tasks, but someone, somewhere is tilling the soil and raising animals on our behalf. Someone, somewhere, is harvesting food and preparing it so that we can eat, and so we are responsible for the animals and the patch of earth that feed us. Their welfare is our responsibility and our direct concern.
We might all want to commit to ensuring that the food we eat doesn’t come at the expense of anyone or anything, whether nearby or across the globe. This is a commitment we can act on over time, aiming for solid forward momentum around steps like these:
- Spend time sourcing and gathering ingredients. Invest yourself in the process of learning where your food comes from and how it was grown or raised. Try to know, too, how many miles it traveled, and how complicated the connection was from producer to you. If you have a yard or even a window box or planter, try growing some of your own food. Container gardening is a simple way to get started, and many herbs and vegetables are easy to raise in small spaces. As you reap your harvest, you may feel a deepened gratitude for farmers who do the hard work of feeding us. You may also come to appreciate the wondrous cycle of life: seed to plant to fruit to seed once again.
- Read labels. Become familiar with the ingredients that are in the foods you buy and understand, for better or worse, what they do. Know, too, who owns the company that produces your food, and pay close attention to the messages that food manufacturers give you and to the claims of health on their packaging. Remember that new is not usually improved and real healthfulness requires no loud assurances.
- Get to know small, local farmers. One important way of engaging with and strengthening your local community is to step around distant middle-men (manufacturers, transporters and preparers) who have no connection to you or your table, and instead buy as much as you can from small, local farmers. Your meals will be fresher, more flavorful and more nutritious. And you will lose some of your reliance on food that has been shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, using petroleum that someone else might need, or that we might need in future years.
- Cook more often. Cooking is practical and necessary and good for us. It is also a way of using our hands and creativity to express caring and love. Preparing even one meal for yourself or your family is a way to begin. Momentum will build. You will save money, improve the quality of your meals, and eliminate additives and preservatives that do nothing for you. You will become a food producer rather than a food buyer and, over time, you will likely find nourishment in the goodness of your meals and in the task of bringing them to the table.
- Believe that cooking matters. Your willingness to cook has a broad reach, extending far beyond the walls of your own kitchen. Cooking gives you the means to move your corner of the world, preserving resources rather than depleting them, sustaining small farms, keeping air and water clean, and caring for animals with respect and gratitude. There is no single way to act on this belief. Our tastes, preferences, and talents differ, but the practice is the same. A willingness and determination to apply yourself to the task of preparing meals is all that is required.
By approaching these steps with curiosity and care, you may begin to appreciate the significance of cooking and to value it as a source of power. Through cooking, we place a premium on being good to ourselves and our families, making our own health, and the well being of our communities, small farms, and planet the axis around which our kitchens revolve. Each meal we prepare and all that we eat becomes a vote cast in favor of a more considerate and responsible world. As Shannon Hayes wrote about homemaking, and as I will write about cooking: “It is not an act of submission or family servitude. It is an act of social transformation.”
I am indebted to Wendell Berry, whose writing about farming and food provided the ballast for my thoughts. I can recommend any of his non-fiction, but especially Bringing It To The Table and What Are People For.
Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul