Ungrateful for idiocracy
I would like a Farm Bill I could be thankful for, but instead it makes me angry that the subsidies in the current $286 billion dollar Farm Bill fall far short of helping US farmers grow food for people, and that the refusal to have Country of Origin Labeling serves the same industrial interests getting bloated off Farm Bill fat. It's crazy that we have neither the right nor the information tools to know where our food comes from or whether it's genetically modified.
The argument has been made countless times now: It makes sense for my food dollars to be circulating in my own local economy. It should be a simple thing, rather than the big political issue it is, to know where my food comes from and that it was grown to taste good. It just makes sense that food be grown by someone who cares about sustainability and in return is able to make a good life for themselves. Why would anyone who eats expect anything less to have real food, food that tastes like the best example of what it is, to sustain their health and happiness?
I'm tired of being insulted at the grocery store by all the ersatz vehicles for multi-national companies' profits. I don't understand our national addiction to "convenience" because it's not convenient to have to feed my family a box of chemicals or to live in an economy that sends its resources to California or Argentina or China (nothing against those places, they're just not Michigan). And while I've heard complaints about "the plush Ann Arbor people" with more money than sense, having real food is not the realm of just the privileged few. If anything, it has to cost many fewer dollars than a lot of people spend now on convenience foods. If we tally true costs, when the alternative is industrial agriculture and factory farms for animals, real food costs much less.
Gramma Sam's Day
There was a time in the not too distant past when it would have been silly to say I want to know where my food comes from because it worked like that already. Without the choices we have now, there were certainly trade-offs to having real food then. My 84 year old Gramma Sam remembers life on the farm her parents owned in Chesaning as an unending cycle of punishingly hard work. Like a lot of other farm families, they lived in poverty when she was a girl growing up during the great depression. She tells a story about getting only a pencil for Christmas one year and about a winter when all 5 kids got measles, diptheria and scarlet fever in succession.
There were 10 mouths to feed when Great Gramma Callihan's sister's family came to live with them with no place else to go. The family left the farm, rented it out, so Gramma Sam's father could find work in Saginaw as a baker. There, they survived on beans and onions that a farmer gave them, left over from processing. Her aunt would spend entire days separating beans from dirt so that they could have enough for soup. Gramma Sam says that surviving times like those made them tough.
My feisty grandmother at 84 years old made most of our Thanksgiving dinner this year. She can't stand for anyone else to roast the turkey. And no one else makes the dressing right. And, just like her dad the baker, her dinner rolls are divine. A tough old bird herself (albeit a fun, dirty-joke telling one), her life is a testament to how people rise to the challenge when times are hard. Perhaps the opposite is also true: when times are easy, people sink to their most base instincts? Does anyone remember Rome? Fast food and convenience foods are not really cheap. They are about resource extraction.
The virtuous payoff
What's been most surprising to me about eating real food is that since we've starting getting most of our produce and eggs from the farmer's market and our meat from small local farms, I'm pretty sure we're spending less money overall on food. The reasons I've been able to figure out for this are:
1. Cooking at home. When we have beautiful food in the refrigerator, I want to cook and eat at home. Anything that keeps us cooking at home saves us money. And pretty much anything I cook at home is healthier than the most virtuous choice on the menu at a restaurant.
2. Feeling better is living better. Eating well makes us feel noticeably livelier and maybe even happier. There's more energy for things like cooking and the inevitable clean-up, and for fun things like entertaining. Again back to the beautiful food - it's more of a privilege than a chore when there's something special to make into a meal. It brings us together as a family and encourages us to have friends over more than ever. Both of those add joie to our vivre. And I haven't had a cold since I can't remember when. Since the benefits of good nutrition are cumulative, I can only think that we are saving on doctor's bill of the future too.
3. Not wasting things. We are much less wasteful of food that is not cheap, of food that is food and not just a commodity. It means something that we know who grew it or made it. We buy what we need and don't stock the cupboards with bags and boxes that we won't end up using or that will go stale when there's still half left. Any of the rinds and cores left over from the prep go into the compost to give a boost to my kitchen garden. And we're not supplying the city dump or recycling center with mountains of garbage from all the packaging we're no longer using.
4. Cutting down on processed foods. I've stopped buying much processed "food." I already make my own cookies, but now I've started making my own ice cream. And I want to start making pasta. Like everything else, it tastes so much better and it costs so much less. Now that we're eating differently overall, I don't much crave a bag of chips or a package of cookies like I used to. I'll have nuts or dried fruit if I want salty fat or sweets. I'm tired of eating empty calories - if I'm going to eat something that's going to make me fat, it has to do something for me too. Since processed food stuffs are probably the most expensive things on anyone's grocery list, this might be the biggest savings.
5. Growing my own food. We don't grow enough to have a very big impact on the total food bill, but it has been very gratifying all the same to have many pounds of my own tomatoes, different kinds of peppers and all the fresh herbs I could want. I've made marinara sauce and pesto and even green tomato mincemeat enough to put in the freezer. So, some savings for sure.
6. Bonus. I have a friend who thinks that, in addition to saving them money, eating real food and shopping at the farmer's market has helped her lose some of the 80 pounds she's taken off since the birth of her second child. I haven't seen quite the same effect of weighing what I did in high school. I'll have to investigate that result some more.
I had a transporting experience on Thanksgiving day when I roasted the rainbow of vegetables we got from the Tantré Thanksgiving share. I spent over an hour blissfully cleaning tiny fingerling potatoes and itsy green brussels sprouts, purple and orange cauliflowers, hot pink turnips, blood-red beets, thumb-sized orange carrots, and sweet yellow onions. I cut them all up and then put in a good amount of olive oil with salt, whole garlic cloves and thyme. I roasted them at 400º on a couple of cookie sheets just until they were starting to brown and carmelize.
I swear I've never eaten anything as good as those vegetables were. Each bite was alive with the taste of something indescribably wonderful. Terroir perhaps? Does Michigan have terroir? Each bite was different but harmonious and so incredibly sweet. This was the epitome, the absolute height I'm sure, of vegetable goodness and of Michigan's best food grown for people in Michigan.
I thought about knowing the exact piece of land where these vegetables grew, about the mindful and hard-working people who raised them, about dividing up the huge boxes with my friend Rachel whose family loved them just as much as we did, and I thought about my Gramma Sam and how she probably thought I was pretty silly for rhapsodizing over some roots.
It's just that it's a different experience, qualitatively and quantitatively, to know where your food comes from and to see it from the farm to your fork. There are roots that deserve rhapsodies. Even if it's silly, I'm grateful that I can experience that. I hope everyone I know tries it some time.