September 26, 2012 | Food for Thought
When was the last time you attended a fundraiser luncheon and were served a vegetarian meal made only from local and seasonal foods? Well, I recently had the opportunity to hear Alice Waters speak here in Denver, and that’s exactly what we had. A surprisingly filling salad of local greens, those famous Palisade peaches, an assortment of roasted beets, and a local goat cheese crouton. Waters was the keynote speaker for the CU Center for Women’s Health Research, but she opened her talk by almost entirely dismissing the word “health” itself. Instead, she spent the next thirty minutes talking about why food – whether in the garden, the kitchen, the classroom, or the farmers’ market – is where we should focus instead of on that term health. In her view, “health is the outcome of living well”. Amen to that! For years I’ve been worried that we are so concerned about healthcare reform, what our health insurance plans look like, and who will pay for the ever increasing financial burden caused by the health (or lack thereof) of our country’s people, that we are missing the point entirely. Living well, as Alice so succinctly put it, creates health.Those of you reading this might just now be conjuring up what the term “living well” means to you, as it has many connotations. But so we’re on the same page here, I’m referring to living well in the sense of feeding ourselves. I am floored (and cringe outwardly) when people say to me – whether with pride or embarrassment, I don’t know – “Oh, I don’t cook.” Food, feeding ourselves, and feeding our families is one of our most basic needs – in fact, it is one of the most basic of the physiological needs that Maslow wrote about in his hierarchies – without food, air and water, as a species we are completely unable to survive. So exactly when did so many of us turn over responsibility for this need to food processing and packaging companies, grocery stores, and restaurants? As it turns out, as Alice reviewed for us, that began on a grand scale in the post-war era, in the 1950s, with the introduction of fast and processed foods.When Alice Waters started Chez Panisse in Berkeley 40 years ago, she was tugging at the food memories that helped shape her. Things like her parents own victory garden, although she admits she wouldn’t understand this connection until much later in life. But she explained that those taste memories of the incredibly delicious fruit and produce were planted in her brain early on. She’s adapted that idea today with her Edible Schoolyard Project, knowing that educators and parents have the potential to “plant positive taste memories in unsuspecting children” that they will then carry with them for the rest of their lives. Imagine your kid coming home from school and craving a salad with fresh strawberries instead of a cola drink and chips. It’s possible, but only if we help teach our children to develop those tastes.For Alice Waters, it happened less as a result of her upbringing, and more as a result of her first trip to France. Here, for the first time, she saw food completely integrated into life, being enjoyed as fresh and beautiful – not like all too often in the US where the “family meal” has increasingly been replaced by a short feeding session, with food all too often prepared by someone else, in a mindless attempt to go through the motions of feeding ourselves. It’s as if we’re just trying to get it over with, not that we’re enjoying it. That’s not right, is it? I mean food is pleasurable by any measure. And in France, Waters experienced that food was integral to life itself, and was of such quality and so delicious that she didn’t feel the need for large portions.Today, many of us, both kids and adults alike, suffer from senses that have shut down – in large part, Alice points out, because of replacing the enjoyable aspects of food – growing, harvesting, cooking, sharing – with fast food. Food that is less than high quality, with less taste than it should have, overloaded with far too much salt, fat, and sugar to hide its inferior quality. She, and many others (including me), are making a career out of putting food back into context in our lives. If you feel the pull to do the same, here are some ideas for how to get started:
- Cook – it doesn’t need to be complicated or time consuming, but cook real food using real quality ingredients. The internet is full of sources for techniques and ideas that will inspire you and delight your family. Invest a little time into learning basic cooking techniques if you need to – either on TV, online, through books, or in classes.
- Wean yourself from processed foods – it’s impossible not to buy a single packaged thing in a grocery store, I know. But limit what you buy pre-packaged to those foods with only a few natural ingredients.
- Buy ingredients, not fully completed meals. Stop buying pre-made dishes or meals just for the convenience – figure out a plan with family or friends to cook together. I know women who gather once a month to make a ton of homemade dinners they freeze for busy school nights. I know families who assign dinner duties to the kids each week. Find a plan that will work for you and follow it.
- Garden – start your own garden, plant a potted tomato, grow herbs in a basket inside in the winter, volunteer at your kids’ school garden, or work in a community garden. There is something basic and primal about growing our own food that just makes it taste better. And since you’re likely to be growing fruits and vegetables, by default your family will be eating more of them. (And from my experience, kids are much more likely to try and then like something they grew and cooked themselves!)
- Plant a fruit tree – I do just about nothing (water only) to my Italian plum trees and I’m rewarded with 50 pounds of plums a year or more. In many communities, if you can’t eat all of the fruit, or if you need help harvesting it, local volunteers can assist through gleaning projects.
- Plan your meals – don’t leave the family hanging, starving at 5:00, without any idea what your dinner plan is. Develop a weekly strategy to ensure you are creating healthy meals without a crisis. Menu planning tools online can help – or you can use a simple steno notebook like my own mom did. She mapped out a month’s worth of dinners so that she could not only shop on a budget, but could make sure she was ready to cook.
The goal, in my mind, is to bring food and cooking back into focus in a healthy way. To say no to the onslaught of fast, cheap, and easy in favor of real food, cooked at home, shared with families and friends. To take control of how food shapes our lives so that we can eventually turn the corner and spend more on quality food, therefore requiring us to spend less on healthcare. Won’t you join me?