Sybs beyond the recipe

Sybs, From The Viand Zine, Issue 1 April 2007

“It all seemed too good to be true: That eating something delicious could be a strategy for preserving biodiversity and that the pleasure we took in doing so could itself constitute a small but meaningful political act.” (Michael Pollan, Cruising on the Ark of Taste)

I love this quote, because for me it captures the journey I have found myself on in this past year. When I started coming to the Viand, my method for figuring out what to eat was looking at a cookbook or magazine and getting inspired by a picture or an ingredient, the “ooooh, doesn’t that sound gooood, let’s try this recipe” approach to cooking. This was when I could muster the time and motivation to plan ahead, otherwise I would just root around in my pantry or fridge for something that could be thrown together.

The kind of food the Viand was serving made me very curious. How do they come up with all these combinations I would have never thought of? It all tastes sooo good! How does she know what goes together? How will I know what goes together when I am shopping for food or standing alone in my kitchen? What do I do with all those fabulous greens from the farmer’s market? How can I make a really great dish from simple ingredients? The Viand motivated me to move on from just the recipe on the page to wanting to understand more about food.

Eventually I found myself yearning to be liberated from “The Recipe”. To leave behind the concept that these things are written in stone and that you had better not mess with them- or else! I no longer wanted to just recreate something someone else had dreamed up and written down. I wanted to understand the principles, so that I could improvise freely. I began to experiment, to substitute ingredients, to open my mind to various possibilities. If I don’t have tarragon, how about basil instead? Gorgonzola instead of Parmesan? Salt on ice-cream and cayenne in the cookies?

Logically enough,  I became interested in the “background” of food. What makes a great bread? What is the history of salt? How do cultures differ in their views and preparation of food?  What does “organic” really mean? What the heck is “Slow Food”?  I believe I read nothing but food-related books for about six months.

Books by Jeffrey Steingarten for example, who is a compulsive devotee to anything foodish and thus a font of knowledge. His “The Man Who Ate Everything” and “It Must’ve been Something I Ate” make very informative reading and are endlessly entertaining at the same time.

Then I came upon “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. His book was truly a revelation to me, it opened me up to a much deeper understanding of all issues around food. It taught me about where my food comes from, how it gets here, what kind of food chains exist,  how animals are raised and slaughtered, what industrialization of food means, what kind of ecological impact is involved, why the way mainstream America eats seems to cause so many health-problems.
Since then, my thoughts about food have moved beyond the question “what do I feel like eating?”  What to feed myself (and others) has become a more thoughtful choice, a more conscious decision. I cook from scratch and mostly very simply. Lots of greens from the farmer’s market. I stay away from processed foods & excessive packaging as much as I can and strive for eating mostly food that has never encountered a bar code. I am aware that there is a difference between buying persimmons in season at the farmer’s market or getting blueberries flown in from Chile at Trader Joe’s. I may still buy those blueberries occasionally, but I now realize that they have travelled thousands of miles to get here. This is really not so great for the berry, for me or the planet. Too much energy has gone into getting it here and it is not what is in season here locally, it is what is in season in Chile. Or it comes from a hot-house which has no season and offers little in the way of great tasting food. If I want to eat beef, I now look for grass-fed from the Farmer’s market, because I now know what happens to “regular” cows in America and it is far from pretty or good for you.

I see now how it all connects. It is no longer just about what I put onto my plate and into my mouth and the impact that has on my personal health. I have learned to see food choices in a much larger context. I now understand that I have a “food-dollar” which I can put to good use. By supporting local vendors and buying organic food, I am casting a “vote” with my food budget. It matters and it makes a difference. My well-being and that of the planet are connected. To quote the farmer-poet Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act”. The personal pleasure of food has taken me into a much larger world and connected me to issues far beyond my kitchen stove or my dinner plate. It has been quite a ride & I have loved every minute of it. It all began at the Viand!