Eating as political act

I spend much of my Sundays in the kitchen, preparing food for the coming week.

This is not a simple domestic ritual to me, though I enjoy it immensely. No, fermenting my own yogurt, baking my own granola, and cooking all my beans instead of getting them from cans is a radical political act.

Here’s why: By making my own foods from scratch—even just some of them and not all—I am rejecting our industrial food production system and all the dollars they pump into political candidates.

picture of a corn field

Most of our food is made from corn and soy. Photo by Tyler Allen. Used under Creative Commons license. Click through for source.

During the 2012 election cycle, agribusiness donated $90 million to political campaigns and advocacy groups, mostly Republican or conservative. In 2014, the food and beverage industry donated more than $16 million, again, mostly to Republican or conservative groups. I am registered Democrat, though the reasons for this have more to do with local politics and my state’s closed primary system than national politics, but that’s another post.

This is not a blue versus red issue to me, though. It’s a life versus death one. The way we produce food is not only killing the planet, it’s killing us, and (some) Republican lawmakers have shown again and again that profit trumps our very lives. So I refuse to take part.

Or, at least, take as little part as I feasibly can.

If that means I have to spend more on what I buy to get it from a co-op instead of a traditional grocery store and spend four or five hours in the kitchen every Sunday pre-cooking rice, chopping vegetables, making granola and cooking beans, then so be it.

My eating and cooking habits are not above reproach. I still enjoy eating at restaurants, many of which likely get their ingredients from agribusiness and giant corporations. I also eat at fast food places like Subway and Panera. Sometimes I rely on products that I know come from developing countries where the workers are paid barely enough to feed their families.

I am not perfect, but perfection is not the goal. Being mindful and engaged with what I eat is the goal. I read ingredients labels. I try to find out which giant food corporation owns the organic brands of frozen vegetables and canned tomatoes I buy (General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen, for example). I buy all my dry goods (rice, flour, oats, beans, etc.) in bulk.

I will not judge you if you react differently to our industrialized food system or choose different ways of eating and preparing food. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay. We should always have options, and a choice.

The problem is that for many, there is no choice. Plenty of people live in “food deserts” (my own neighborhood in a major metropolitan area is one) where the closest store that sells food isn’t a grocery store but a convenience store, where you’re unlikely to find anything but processed, packaged foods. Plenty of people don’t even know how to cook or even select good produce. By default, they have no choice.

My access to farmer’s markets, CSAs, and a co-op, not to mention my access to information on how to best utilize these resources, is a privilege. I recognize that. And that’s why it’s important for me to talk about the food choices I make and why I make them.

When I decline to eat your hamburger helper casserole, it is a statement, yes. But it’s not a statement about you or your skill as a cook. It’s a statement about our food ecosystem and how utterly broken it is. It’s a statement about refusing to fill my body with “food” made in a factory instead of in a kitchen or on a farm.

Yuppies

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps it’s my mother’s nosiness, but when I eat at restaurants, I can’t help but observe the diners sitting around me.

On a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, for the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, my husband and I ate dinner at a local vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Merge.

There was nothing pretentious about the place. It was decorated like someone’s living room, with plenty of live house plants, odds and ends with character (nothing so new as to be shiny or squeaky), and festive lights. Even the tables and chairs were charmingly mismatched.

And the food, oh my goddess, the food. I had a beet salad and shrimp risotto. I love beets. But I had no idea beets could be so delicious. They were served on top of a bed of mixed greens, with fennel, candied walnuts, and a vinaigrette. I will definitely try to recreate that at home.

This isn’t a post about good food, though. It’s a post about class. (Not that the two aren’t intimately related, but that’s another post.)

A family—father, mother, grandfather, three kids—sat at the table behind us. I didn’t notice them until I heard the father say, “We’ve got theater tickets for 7:30, so we need to be quick about this.”

It was 6:30. Something about his tone, demanding and so self-assured there wasn’t space for doubt, got my hackles up. I looked over. They were all appropriately dressed for a show, with slacks and dress shirts and sweaters.

Over the course of their meal, I watched this family interact with each other. They chatted about school and the menu, and the father repeatedly exercised his fatherly authority over his children. I hardly heard a peep from the mother. And it was this—the constant insistence of “I’m your father, and I’m in charge”—as much as the impression of easy money that had me gritting my teeth.

But I did get an impression that they had enough money that the didn’t have to worry about their finances beyond whether their retirement investments were simply doing well or outperforming the market by 10 percentage points.

Of course, that’s where my own biases come in. I grew up directly across the street from a steel mill. We never had to worry about enough food, but we had to worry about union strikes and debt, about growing gang violence in our town, about my dad being called up from the reserves to fight in Iraq, about the car breaking down (again).

Things were secure, but they weren’t that secure. I remember sitting in my parents’ bedroom while my dad packed his Navy duffel bag, and the air was so tense with anxiety and excitement I didn’t know how to feel.

Thankfully, my dad didn’t wind up going to Iraq. And I know no family, no childhood, no life, is perfect. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having enough of it can surely make you miserable. Even as a (mostly happy) child, I was acutely aware of this fact.

The kids sitting at that table in Merge? I’d bet they had no idea. In a way, that’s good. Kids should have the freedom to be kids without worrying about their next meal. But in other ways, it’s not so good. It creates a false sense of security, a sense that everything will work out for you no matter what, a sense that you have some power and control over your life, or the expectation that your parents will always fix your problems for you.

A bit of stress and worry is good for you. It creates resilience. Without it, sometimes you start thinking you’re better than the people who have to worry about the next meal, or, in this case, that you’re better than the people serving you the next meal.

I don’t really know anything about that family. Dad could have been having a bad day, or they could have planned to be at the restaurant at 5:30 and gotten held up by something out of their control.

Ultimately, that’s irrelevant. My point is that class is a huge issue, even divorced from the issue of race. The media and politicians reinforce the ideas that the rich have somehow earned the right to be rich and the working class and the poor should just try harder if they want to get ahead.

And clueless upper middle class people help perpetuate the problem by ignoring what’s going on around them and breezing through life and climbing the corporate ladder and sending their kids to excellent, expensive colleges as if all these things were a given.

For most of the population in the United States, none of those things are a given.

If someone gave me a large sum of money and told me they had the power to send me back in time so that I could grow up in a 100% financially secure household where my parents worked because otherwise they’d be bored and not because they needed the money, I’d say, “No thanks.”

I’m grateful for the uncertainty I experienced growing up. Yes, I’m also grateful that the uncertainty didn’t extend so far as to affect my ability to eat, but I am glad that I learned early on that nothing is a given, and getting what you want requires a lot of hard work and dedication—and that achievement for the sake of achievement or for impressing other people isn’t valuable.

Basic kindness is what’s truly valuable in our interactions with each other. I can’t solve class issues in America, but I can be kind to everyone I meet, regardless of what they look like, how much money they make, or what they believe (unless they believe in genocide or denying basic human rights, in which case I might not be kind, but I’m not going to be mean, either, because that doesn’t solve any problems)*.

And yes, that extends even to the family of yuppies who inspired this post.

*This is, obviously, a work in progress.

Winter blessing Spring

The snow melts slowly over the candle flame, first compacting into slush and then pooling at the bottom of the mason jar. Sakura-scented incense smoke rises and curls above the altar as I hum a chant, my prayer to spring.

When the snow transforms completely to water, I begin the work of planting seeds for my garden—my first garden in my first house. A slight breeze finds its way to me through the open window, along with the sounds of children riding scooters up and down the street, calling out to each other, laughing.

I fill each egg carton cell with soil and carefully place each seed. Tomato, eggplant, celery, radish, turnip, beets, fennel, sugar snap peas, parsley, mint, dill, thyme, basil, lavender, sunflowers, coneflower.

Some of these—tomato, eggplant, peas, the herbs—I have grown before, and others are new to me. I have been reading book after book on gardening and growing food, but I learn best through experience, through working the soil loose with my hands and watching leaves and flowers unfurl.

For a final blessing I sprinkle each cell with a few drops of the melted snow–a promise for renewal, for growth. I place each egg carton in recycled plastic containers and set them on my windowsill. With dirty fingers and a happy heart, I snuff out the candle and offer thanks to the earth, to the sun, for the gift of seasons, of change, of new beginnings.