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The Ethics of Eating Well

It is almost time for apples, which means it’s almost time for apple-picking. Few things bliss me out as much as spending a crisp, sunny Autumn day picking apples and drinking hot cider before going home to bake, bake, bake.

Yesterday, I was hunting around online for an orchard where David and I could go and pick our fill. The first place that came to mind is the orchard that David and I visited last year. It was an idyllic, lovely little orchard, and exactly the sort of apple-picking experience I wanted. But I hestitated. The apples at that orchard are grown using pesticides.

And as that moment of hesitation expanded, I realized that I was probably going to have to go ahead and find an apple orchard that’s chemical-free. For me, eating has become ethical.

I dug my heels in on this for a long, long time. My food came from the supermarket. It appeared there, by magic, waiting for me to buy it. Anything that happened to it before it got on my plate didn’t really interest me. I had no desire to think about it.

When David and I were in the first flush of dating, he mentioned an article he had read about the dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup and how it is in absolutely everything we eat. Man, did I fly off the handle. “Psh!” I said. “It’s corn. It can’t possibly be that bad for you! The government regulates these things! They wouldn’t let people eat it if it was bad for them!” They were gonna have to pry the Diet Coke from my cold, dead fingers, I can tell you that much. David, wisely, did not push the issue. My ignorance was a bright flag; I waved it.

The first thing that put a crack in my resistance was cooking. Cooking, for me, began as an experiment. A challenge. When I was a junior in college Dan came up to visit me for a weekend, and I decided to make my first ever pie. I found a recipe somewhere–who knows where–for a simple apple pie, and I went at it with gusto. Peeling apples with a slippery little paring knife, rolling out the crust, dumping it all together and hoping for the best. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could DO it. If I could create something out of nothing, like magic. It turns out, I could.

The pie was gorgeous coming out of the oven. The high crust was golden and sugar-sparkled. When we cut into it (without bothering to let it cool–how could we wait?) there was an odd, 2-inch gap between the dome of the crust and the cinnamony filling, but who cared? I had pulled this out of thin air. It tasted wonderful.

That’s how I cooked for a long time: to see if I could do it. I tried many more pies. I made bread. I made over a hundred mini cheesecakes for the holiday party at David’s office. I made pita, and macarons, and fresh pasta. If it was difficult or time-consuming, I tried it. I started to read about food, to invest more time and thought into what I was making, and soon enough these one-off cooking experiments evolved into something else. I started cooking full meals, three times a day. For the first time in my life, I was cooking consistently to feed myself.

The more I cooked the more interested I became in the ingredients I was using. It became a lot harder to pretend that the food I was buying at the grocery store was harmless, or even–that it was food.

I will tell you right now that one of the biggest reasons I refused to inform myself about the American food industry is that I knew, instinctively, that something was very, very wrong with it. And once I opened that Pandora’s Box there was no going back. I’d either have to drastically change my life, or go on as I was and feel ashamed and guilty about everything I ever put into my mouth for the rest of my life.

Let me pause for a minute here, and just try to say something. I’m not here to tell you what to eat. I’m not here to say that the way I feed myself is the way that you should, too. Food is deeply, DEEPLY personal and I sure as hell don’t want anyone to dictate the very complicated relationship that I have with it. I’m not trying to dictate yours, either. The reason that I’m writing this post is that while a lot of things have changed in my life in the last year, one of the most visible changes has been centered on my relationship with food. And it’s been one of the most emotional changes. One of the most exhilerating. I want to process that, to record it. To take stock and say, this is where I am, this is what has happened to me, this is how my life has changed.

Needless to say, I opened Pandora’s Box. I read all the Michael Pollan: THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMA, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, SECOND NATURE, and THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I watched FOOD, INC. and JAMIE OLIVER’S FOOD REVOLUTION.  I read blogs and books and listened to podcasts and talked to people and educated myself. I went to farmers markets and started an herb garden in my window sill and tasted things. And there were a lot of really terrible moments where that dormant sense of dread I’d felt so often in the grocery store, the one I refused to face, proved to be justified, and even more horrific than I’d thought. I gave up the Diet Coke of my own accord.

We joined Mississippi Market, a local food co-op. I became obsessed with the idea of going to the Farmers Market. I marked the opening date on my calendar, and we were there at 8am that dull grey April morning, browsing through half a dozen stands all bearing some slight bundles of asparagus and perhaps some new potatoes. Not very glamorous. But as the summer went on, the number of vendors exploded. By buying almost every last bit of our produce at the Farmers Market, David and I wound up eating seasonally. For myself, at least, it was the first time in my life.

I love sugar snap peas, particularly when eaten raw. I fell in love with them, oddly enough, in New York. After work one day my friend Bri and I met up and decided to amble around down in Union Square as we so often did. The Wednesday farmers market was still thriving, so we gathered up some bread, some cheese, some strawberries, some sugar snap peas. We sat on the grass and reveled in our bounty. As we sat there, chatting and laughing, snapping open thick pods and popping raw peas into our mouths like candy, I remember falling a little bit in love with just about everything at that moment. Every time I eat them I think about that afternoon.

Our co-op had some. Slender little things imported from Mexico. I bought a bunch, and shelled them enthusiastically (I love to shell peas. When I worked in restaurants I also loved to roll silverware or fold napkins. I find small, repetative tasks that require little focus so relaxing and lovely). And they were…ok. Not great. This is nothing against our little co-op, which champions local growers and products at every turn. But the winter sugar snaps imported from Mexico? Not impressive.

Several weeks later in the spring, our Farmers Market had sugar snap peas by the trillion–big fat pods that snapped with the most delightful, satisfying crunch I had ever heard. Mexico had nothing, nothing on Minnesota as far as peas were concerned, and I made my first decision about eating foods in season. I will never, ever eat wimpy little sugar snap peas again. I will wait, in agony, every year for that brief window of time when peas are available locally, and then I will GORGE MYSELF on them. Having had something so delicious, I never want to settle for a subpar sugar snap ever again. It will be worth the wait.

Eating in season, eating locally, eating food that has been raised without chemicals or hormones, meat that has been fed only its natural diet and been granted the freedom of unrestricted movement–these are some of the things that guide my food choices, now. I want to support my community, stimulate my local economy, meet the people who raise my food and know that they do so sustainably. I want the food that I eat to be food.

I’m by no means a purist. I love coffee. I love my fully-stocked spice cabinet. I really, really love citrus. But I want to make the most ethical food choices that I can. I want the time that I spend in the kitchen to be a joy, the ingredients that I use to be the freshest and most nutitious, the meals that I eat to be delicious and shared with the people I love.

I’m not saying that eliminating HFCS from my life was easy. I’m not saying that I will never eat another Snickers Bar. I’m saying that educating myself about my food, and making a commitment to better food choices is something that I have never once regretted. Not for a second.

I’m saying that once I realized that other choices existed, once I explored them and committed to them, a lot of beauty came into my life. And this small triumph, this act of deliberate choosing, opens up so many other doors. In how many facets of my life am I doing what I’m doing simply because I haven’t bothered to access any alternatives? My choices about eating have empowered me to make other choices, to take control of my life in other ways.

Eating mindfully is just a start.

And I am still learning.

I just recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE, and was telling David about it on a long car ride. In the book, Barbara is having a phone conversation with a friend of hers who happens to be a gourmet chef. They are discussing Barbara’s garden, and she mentions that the potatoes have recently come up. Wait, says the chef. What do you mean ‘up?’ What part of a potato comes ‘up?’ Barbara answers somewhat incredulously, the plant part. Hold on, says the chef. What are you talking about? Potaotes have a plant part?

The gourmet chef and I have that in common. Potaoes grow under ground. They sprout little eyes that take root and, you know, that’s it. The fact that potatoes have a plant part that grows up above the ground astonished me.

“Can you believe it?” I said to David in the car. “A plant part? I never knew that! Did you?”

“Um, yes,” he said, this man who claims that the corn fields where he grew up count as the suburbs. “We drive past potato fields all the time.”

Well, imagine that.

Posted by on September 16, 2010 in Food