This topic has been on my mind recently for a few reasons. Firstly, we recently moved to a new area, and so I have had to find new sources for all of our “important” foods; secondly, I am still on my learning-to-bake-gluten-free journey (which has been going on for about three months now); and thirdly, as always, I have been reading widely on food, health, and ethical eating. Several meaningful articles and message board posts that I have read recently inspired me to put down in one place why and how we eat the way we do.
The topic of food is a big one at our house, and a very big one for me. My obsession with food has ranged from ambivalent (when I was young) to unhealthy (when I was slightly older) to healthily passionate (now, I like to think.) I am passionate about what I shop for, what I cook, and what I feed my family because I think that what goes into our bodies deserves FAR more attention than it is generally given. Food and nutrition are the building blocks of our well-being. And for the most part, I have found (imagine my surprise) that the foods that are better for the environment, our human and non-human fellow creatures, and our taste buds, are almost universally better for our bodies too.
So how DO we eat? Well…here you go. We eat (to the best of our ability, which does not mean ALWAYS…we have our off-days just like anyone else) a whole- foods diet, and and do our best to make it organic, local, humane, and gluten-free. Whenever any one of these things comes up in conversation, I get raised eyebrows. Sometimes it’s because it must be SO expensive…”I’d love to eat like that, but I could never afford it.” Sometimes it’s because I (apparently) must be an ultra-liberal, tree-hugging nut. “Why exactly does humane versus factory-farmed matter? They’re just animals…” Sometimes it’s because people literally can not imagine spending as much time as I do in the kitchen, or why it might be worth it. “I just don’t have the touch for it…it’s nice if you enjoy it, though.” Some have no idea what gluten-free means; and I don’t blame them. It’s pretty new for me too.) And to some, the whole idea of making one’s own food is just so foreign that they smile and nod politely, with no concept of what I’m talking about. Because we live in a fast-food, frozen-food nation.
So…why organic? There is so much information out there on this one that I won’t bombard you with my own version. Quite simply, I really don’t care for a nice spoonful of chemicals and pesticides along with my broccoli. Organic food is just plain better…please do the research. You’ll be glad you did. That being said: grocery-store organic food IS expensive. So how do we do it? Well…we prioritize. There are some foods that are significantly more dangerous to eat non-organic (strawberries, for instance…thanks a lot California for your recent laws allowing use of a particularly dangerous pesticide on berries). Celery is another high-risk food; fortunately, organic celery is relatively inexpensive and easily obtained. Foods lower on the dangerous pesticide scale would include many of the thick-skinned fruits….mangoes, bananas, watermelons, kiwis, and so on. These foods are less harmful than others if you need to choose which foods to buy non-organic.
Here’s another thing though (and this borders on my next point). Many small, local farmers who sell at farmer’s markets or straight from their farms may not be USDA certified organic, but do raise their food in ways that meet organic specifications. Sometimes these farms are too small to be USDA certified; sometimes they don’t care to be. But often you will find that their produce meets or exceeds the quality of commercially available organic produce. If it is raised without harmful chemicals or pesticides, but is not certified “organic” (because, remember, in the US “organic” is an official label that cannot be used without going through a process), it will often be labeled “all-natural”, or something similar. But if you want to know the origins of your food, and how it is raised, the best way is to get to know your local farmers. Often they are extremely passionate about the safety and cleanliness of their food, and will be happy to discuss their methods with you.
And that, of course, brings me to my next point…why eat local?? Well, there are a number of reasons, among them the one I referenced above. If you eat food grown in your own county, or maybe the neighboring one, you can know exactly how your food was raised, which chemicals were or were not used on it, whether it is GMO (genetically modified) or of a superior heirloom variety, and so on. You can go see the field or the garden; you can meet your farmer. You can buy eggs that were laid that morning, or milk from the night before. You can often go pick your own blueberries, strawberries, apples, or peaches.
But aside from knowledge of the origins of your food and assurance of its safety, there is also the matter of our carbon footprint…both as individuals, and as a nation. “Carbon footprint” is a term thrown around and joked about a great deal; but simply put, it has to do with the relative impact we have upon the earth and the environment. For instance, most Western nations have an unconscionably huge carbon footprint. We devour not only our own resources, but those of other nations, often without giving a fair wage or return. We do not properly replenish the earth from which we derive our nourishment; instead, we milk it dry and then pollute it with our waste and greenhouse gases (remember the recent news on the NY harbor?) Local eating enables you to support businesses and farms that pollute the environment less, promote corporate and agricultural diversity and draw business away from the huge genetically-modified grain/soy corporations (i.e. Monsanto), provide farmers and workers with a fair wage for their work, and reduce the number of miles your food travels to get to you…thereby reducing the amount of pollution you participate in producing. It’s a small thing we can all do to help a big problem. I personally love my trips to local farms and farmer’s markets. I love buying just-picked produce, talking to the farmers who usually become my friends, and learning how to cook new things. I love the sense of community instilled by people who support local farms. Now, of course, there are exceptions to the rule; the biggest ones (for us) being non-local coffee and flours. Coffee…well…let’s just say my contribution to the environment if I were to stop drinking coffee might be canceled out by my significantly lower contribution to work and family. And flour…this is another one of those things that, unless you live in a grain state, is virtually impossible to obtain locally. So of course we make exceptions. But we try to consider our exceptions, and make sure that they are worth it for our health and quality of life.
Why eat humane? This question always baffles me. Why would anyone NOT want their meat (and dairy, and eggs) to be humanely produced? In fact, I don’t even like that word…”produced”…used in relation to animals. Many meat-related illnesses were unheard-of before animals became a “product.” Animals are not products; they are living, breathing, sentient creatures, deserving of a humane, comfortable life and death. As we lost sight of this and brought factory farms into existence, we came to separate the meat and bones on our dinner plates from the strolling, rolling, grazing animal. And as this happened…and our meat and milk animals became more of an object/product to be injected with every antibiotic and grown hormone under the sun, we became more and more distanced from the sources of our food. Most people would never be able to walk through a factory farm or meat plant, but have no problem eating an animal raised and killed under those conditions. And this baffles me. How can we be so detached? so childish? How can we assume that because something is out of our sight, it doesn’t matter?
So…how do we do it? If you have ever looked at humane-labeled meat, you know it is expensive…almost prohibitively so. Well, for me, the answer is an easy one; rather than eat cheaply produced, inhumane meat every day, why not eat expensive, ethical meat once or twice a week, and eat vegetarian the rest of the time? That is what we do. We buy local, humanely raised meat….which means free-range, grass-fed, humanely killed, well-cared for animals. We pay a lot for it, but we only eat it once every several days, and we get the most possible out of it. I try always to think gratefully of the animal who gave me the meat I am cooking, and I use every bit…from the meat to the bones to the offal…so that I do not disrespect the animal’s life by wasting its death. We may roast a local chicken one night, use the offal for gravy, make chicken salad from the leftovers, and simmer a wonderful stock from the bones. And that will be all the meat we will eat that week. The rest of the week, we will have amazing veggie pizzas, frittatas, soups, salads, quiches, bean dishes, and so on. It is a very small price to pay for being at peace with the way you eat.
Why gluten-free? Like I said, this one is new to us just in the past few months. Little Guy has had a host of stomach issues over the years, some which are connected to some neurological issues; and recently we decided to make the plunge into a gluten-free lifestyle for his sake. It was terrifying at first, but I have seen him make enormous progress in his sleep patterns, sensory issues, and eating habits in the past few months. And those changes have motivated me to stay consistent and learn everything I can learn about effective, delicious, gluten-free baking and cooking. I have gone from being completely clueless to, just this week, turning out some pretty astounding (if I say so myself) pizza crusts, yeast bread, brownies, and chocolate chip cookies that all rival their wheat-heavy counterparts. It is definitely a work in progress, and I am learning all the time, but we are all committed to staying on this path for the time being since it is helping one of us so much.
So what does this mean, on a daily basis? What do we actually eat? Well, for breakfast, I might make gluten-free pancakes (using local eggs, butter, and honey), and fruit (hopefully local also…right now we have some amazing berries, peaches, and cantaloupe in the refrigerator.) Lunch might be grilled cheese sandwiches on gluten-free bread, along with salad or fruit; or perhaps a frittata or leftovers. Dinner…shall we say a local chicken, roasted with farmer’s-market onions, peppers, and tomatoes, with a side of new potatoes (also from the market) sauteed in my own butter with fresh herbs, a salad, and freshly-hulled purple-hull beans? Sounds delicious to me. I go farmer’s marketing a couple of times a week. I make trips into the country for fresh chicken, eggs, and milk. I search out the best, most economical sources for gluten-free flours and baking products. Eating this way makes me happy; it gives me a chance to feed my loved ones the best, healthiest, and most ethical food available, and exert my creativity too. It is incredibly rewarding.
So my question is…why wouldn’t we eat this way?