Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22
For me, the amazing world of cooking has been a reluctant discovery at best. Food, I love. But the decisions involved in shopping and cooking quickly become overwhelming. The onslaught of food-as-nutrition facts (many conflicting) mixed with the “you deserve it” food-as-indulgence messages (especially marketed to women) confused me and stressed me out.
So when it came time to set aside my store-bought-sushi and mixed-greens eating ways and try to cook, I just kept putting it off. My new marriage only made things more complicated. In trying to shun the image of the perpetually smiling, apron-clad wife turning out pot roasts and pineapple-upside-down cakes, I inadvertently shunned an imaginative, exciting activity.
Food politics and local food conversations kept creeping in, though, and I couldn’t stop myself from being interested. Ever since I was very young, I’d loved going to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings—probably more for the festive atmosphere than anything I could actually buy there. After finding a used edition of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I began to grow a little obsessed with learning more about food systems. All of her writings are moving, and, despite being nonfiction, Miracle is no exception. With incredibly simple, mouthwatering recipes interspersed with anecdotes and web resources, it’s a quick read that I had to pace myself to savor. Thinking about seasonal, local eating unexpectedly simplified things for me. Instead of trying to figure out what to do with the food from everywhere at once, I could concentrate on limited resources. And limitations have a funny way of spawning creativity. Suddenly the world of food had a deliciously (ha) subversive and adventurous flavor (ha, ha). When I heard about Trillium Haven Farm, owned by a family in my church, it was foodie fate. My husband and I split a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share with another family, and thus I was knee-deep in raw vegetables and launched into the local food movement.
First things first, I bought a copy of From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce. What is this purple, alien-brain thing on my counter? Apparently, it’s kohlrabi, and it’s delicious raw. Not a day went by from June to October that I did not flip through this book, already stained with beet juice and sandy with cornmeal. From storage to simple cooking suggestions, this book has all the answers and recipes. After several recommendations, I also picked-up a copy of Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb which opened my eyes to the theological dimension of shopping, preparing, entertaining and, of course, enjoying food.
Since signing on to that CSA last March, I’ve not only learned a lot about food and my southwest Michigan community, but I’ve come to a place where I can say with a passion I never thought possible: I just love cooking. And it’s the communal part of the new ways I get my food that contributes to that love. Food is always better shared—even if simply in the form of the recipe for homemade Spaghettio’s a friend shared with me. Films in which food enhances relationships and teaches, such as Babette’s Feast (where food communicates gratitude through sacrifice) and Eat Drink Man Woman (where food becomes the metaphor for family) are important in capturing the visual poetry of food and the connections we have through eating. Talking with the farmers who worked to create a harvest, joking with other share-holders about what to make with all these habanera peppers, exchanging recipes, sharing meals… somewhere along the way it all stopped feeling like consumption and started being imaginative.
As my search for new resources continues, a new favorite is Simply in Season, a cookbook from the Mennonite Central Committee. This book has expanded my seasonal menu and the little “notes” throughout the cookbook have expanded my thoughts on how gathering and cooking are worshipful activities. There’s a lovely moment when a woman is digging for carrots through the snow while thinking about dying to herself to find life in God. PBS has several fantastic cooking shows including Lydia’s Italy, Everyday Food and a show called Fork in the Road all about Michigan agriculture. One October day after watching an episode about apples I attempted an Apple Galette. When it turned out perfect-looking and delicious I remember thinking, maybe now I understand a glimmer of the satisfaction God felt in saying, “It is good.”
Some of the best lessons in eating locally have come to me through the appreciation of foods from other localities. In reading books with very simple recipes like Barefoot in Paris or a Spanish-English Peruvian cook book, listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper wax rhapsodic about the intricacies of gnocchi recipes on NPR’s The Splendid Table, and watching archival PBS episodes of Julia Childs’ The French Chef or films like Mondovino exploring the wine industry, I’ve begun wondering about the food legacy of the state and the country that I and my family call home. The flavors of a culture may be translatable into recipes, but the frosty mornings in my Aunt Jo-Ann’s North Carolina kitchen filled with the cinnamon scent of red-hot candies in our homemade apple sauce are shared experiences unique to my life and culture. Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table is a beautiful book of recipes rooted in short memoirs that capture not only the life of Angelou, but the food that helped create the places in which she lived.
Tapping into the local food system may change my community; it may transform my state and this country. But most of the change I’ve seen so far has been in me. My eyes have been opened to what has been in front of me the whole time and a new appreciation accompanied with joy has made my life a bit sparkly. I’m ready to let every great cook book, TV show and film I can get my hands on inspire me to keep finding ways to cook farm-fresh food and to write my own dazzling memories of the family recipes surrounding our food rituals. I even have a couple aprons hanging next to my shopping bags now.