Food Envy

We recently had the pleasure of having my mother in for a long weekend. She is an interesting case, one you will read more about one day soon as the story she is writing for herself of her golden years is one every adult, young and old, should hear and if, possible, embrace. My only wish is that she hadn’t taken so long to get to it, but as I said, that’s for later. This post is about food, or, I should say, it’s about love, happiness and taking care, and mostly it’s about pleasure.

My mother starts it off because she was the one visiting and sitting at our kitchen table and asked, “So, what’s for dinner?”

From America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook

It was a simple enough question, one posed every day of the week, I dare say, in most traditional households. In fact the answer, my mother most probably knew and had already read for herself, was written on the whiteboard menu we keep on the door of the fridge (in this case, Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps from one of our favorite cookbooks, America’s Test Kitchen).

But dinner at our house is not just about sustenance, you can get that anywhere, especially if you’re willing to push health, taste and sustainability aside. At our house food is a centerpiece, as much as any artsy heirloom or family artifact passed down through generations. It is the meal, or the experience of eating real food, that has become our handiwork and our pleasure to create — thanks entirely to Franca, who embodies the ancestral spirit of cooking that can transform a kitchen into a blank canvas and beg of a visitor to ask, What’s for dinner?

Next week on Food Envy: Baking bread. It’s easier than you think..

A Sustainable Pantry?

February one year ago, I shared with you how Franca and I had declared war on sugar a couple of years prior and I thought that with the three year anniversary of that  eye-opening event having passed recently along with our one year marking of Lia’s diagnosis of diabetes, I’d open the door once again and peer inside our pantry.

To do that, I think, it’s important to share our philosophy on food. What is that, you might ask. Well, put simply, it’s a way of thinking about what we eat with the same level of care that we ask ourselves, what do I want out of life. This degree of careful reasoning, of course, takes much more than just listing what foods we like to eat. That would be like saying what I want out of life is to have a nice farmhouse and a family. That’s not a philosophy. Those are things, and like other things — a good job, perfect health — they make up the goals we set for ourselves on a daily basis. As such, it’s difficult to look past them and know that all of the energy, passion and effort expended in their pursuit fits into the much grander scheme. That is, are the things we are doing helping us achieve what we want most out of life. A philosophy helps answer that question and further guide us and keep us on track, by taking a much broader view of the question and focusing on the one thing we believe is the most valuable.

In writing this post I challenged myself to boil down my philosophy of food into one, most valuable word (MVW?). The first one that came to mind was healthy, but I discredited it almost at once as I refuse to fall to the ludicrous marketing strategies of so many food providers, to whom if they had their way, we’d be buying up boxes of cookies and chips for their life-saving nutritional content. To our credit though Franca and I, and to a great extent our children, do spend a great deal of time thinking about the healthier aspects of the food we eat. Most of our grocery budget, in fact, is spent at the outer aisles of the grocery stores on fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood, far and away from the misleading slogans printed on cardboard boxes and cellophane packages.

The next word that came to mind was taste. Whenever we compliment one another on something made in the kitchen, what we are usually referencing is the food’s  taste. But to classify taste as a philosophy is to ignore the mechanics of how the body and mind works in relation to food. One of the most notable findings we experienced when we outlawed sugar and again later in learning how to treat type 1 diabetes was that eating sweet foods seemed to encourage the eating of more sweet foods (this is the short of it, the real culprit here is insulin). Or, to put it in more appropriate terms, after a few days of not eating sweets, we found we stopped craving sweets, thus letting our body reach and enjoy a happier state of equilibrium (homeostasis) that it has evolved over millions of years to work toward. For us, I suppose, in this century and the last, sugar became the preferred method food producers use to get us to like their product. In the eighteenth century it was probably salt. Smells like marketing again. That rules out taste as a philosophy.

After taste failed to stand up to the rigors of philosophy, I thought maybe convenience would serve well. We are a family of five. Both parents work. The kids are actively involved in school and building relationships, and with our free time we’d rather spend it outside on a walk or visiting with friends than cutting up vegetables at the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, how we spend a great deal of our free time is cutting up vegetables at the kitchen sink. That’s just how it is when you choose to shop the outer aisles and prefer your meals made at home. When you add in taste as factor, well, the time required seems to double. I might wish convenience was our food philosophy, but it’s not and likely will never be.

With healthy, taste and convenience out of the picture, the only other word that could possibly describe the most value we search for in food is that it must be real. But what does that mean, real? Doesn’t any food you can touch, smell, taste qualify? You’d think, but that’s not the case if you believe like Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book, In Defense of Food, that only food that our great grandmothers would recognize as food is real. All that other stuff, he says, is wrought by scientists in lab coats, not by nature, and once it’s pumped up with nutrients, so as to market it better to a society confused and mega-driven by expert advice and false health claims, the pre-packaged result only resembles an “edible foodlike substance”. It’s not real, it’s not food. And it’s making us all sick (here is an in depth article on this very fact. I strongly urge everyone to read the first part about the Afghans. You’ll find it sadly fascinating).

While real most approximates the way we think about food and would serve nicely as our philosophy, honestly, if you were to look in our pantry — a word, by the way, derived from the Middle English term panterie; which is taken from the latin word for bread, panis, and therefore suggests that what’s kept in it is not real — you’d find more than a few processed things. Cereal. Pasta. Crackers. And of course, juice boxes, sweet tarts, dark chocolate and a small corner shelving what can best be described as “bags of stuff”.

So there you go. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, summarizing our philosophy of food into one simple word; and I guess that’s the point and the trouble with formulating a philosophy. It’s not meant to be easy. If it were, people wouldn’t be on their death beds wondering how they had let themselves get so distracted and had failed to achieve all the things they had wanted out of life. A philosophy keeps you on task, so you don’t, in fact, mislive. But as our own pantry shows, a philosophy — even a dependent and loosely, knotted one as that involving food — without an effective strategy designed around a grand scheme, there is the chance still you won’t succeed.

There is the chance, too, as anything a writer may write, that I’ve given this way too much thought and have digressed to the point where I’ve lost you. Maybe a picture would’ve worked just as well….


But I doubt it (other than the fact that it’s noticeably empty, which should give you a clue into what our refrigerator and freezer must look like).

The point is, food and the choices we make about food are just too important (maybe even more important than medicine or science) to our overall health to leave it to clever marketing and profit-driven nutritionists.

Despite all the recent attention (and some old), the truth is not much has changed about our pantry. It still takes knowledge, willpower and a diligent, concerted effort on all of our parts to root out the hidden perils in the foods being offered to us. It can be done, and the dangers of not doing so are high. But it’s a shame that we have to spend so much time in deliberation and worry over it. Our great grandmothers would be shocked and more than a bit saddened considering their unique perspective of having made their own life’s journey and left knowing what really matters.