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Good for the farmer. Good for the chef.
Great for you. FIND OUT MORE
Great for you. FIND OUT MORE
An Accidental Radical
The dinner table of my Minnesota childhood was not a place for making statements. Some nights we had spaghetti with Prego sauce and a salad; other nights we had Shake ‘n Bake chicken, or tacos, maybe a roast from the Crock Pot. There was always at least one fruit or vegetable on the menu and we drank milk, not soda. Snack time was only once a day (right after school) and if we were eating cookies, the limit was three. I had parents who cared about healthy eating, but they were far from fanatical. We were a pretty average Midwestern family, doing our best to eat healthy.
What I mean to say is that I was not primed to become a radical eater. Where our food came from was a question about which grocery store Dad went to on Thursday nights, not a discussion of food miles. We never shopped in the organic section, and as far as I knew, neither did my friends’ families. The biggest eating-related change I remember from my childhood was when my parents decided we needed to worry more about fats than sugar. That meant we were granted more leeway with what we always called “sugar cereal”, but I don’t remember what it meant we were supposed to eat less of. Oh, the selective memory of childhood…
But radical is what my food life has become, slowly enough that I barely noticed. My apartment screams “Food Hipster”. The piles of onions from the Greenmarket on my table, the shelf packed with jam and pickles that I canned during the summer, and the weird alien blob on the shelf in our dining room (that’s kombucha) identify me as someone who has made Big Choices. I am pushing the boundaries of what most normal people do about food, a weirdo on the dining fringes.
I swear to you that this was not the plan. I wasn’t trying to become edgy or unusual, and my guess is that most people who end up radical, even those “shack in the woods” types, weren’t either. These things happen bit by bit; one experience colors the way we see another, a friend or mentor sways our thinking, we happen to be in the right place at the right time, and surprise! We’re a Tea Party member, or a yogi, or, in my case, a food fanatic.
I can’t mark the day I decided to eat with purpose. Unlike my friends who became vegetarians at 14 or gave up bread in college, I had no intention of changing my eating habits. The influences piled up slowly, without announcing themselves as important—my job working at a restaurant, learning to cook with my roommates. A friend had a summer gig starting something called a “CSA,” which sounded like a good way to learn how to cook more vegetables, so I found one and joined. I got Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma as a gift one Christmas. No big changes, no declarations of intent to save the world by dinnertime. Just a bit of reading and a crisper full of kale.
The changes were based on convenience at first. I could get eggs through the CSA, so I ordered some. It was easy—I sent off a check, and when I went to my weekly veggie pickup, the eggs were waiting for me, too. Soon, I was used to these farm fresh eggs with their brown shells and incredibly bright yolks. I noticed they made better omelets, delicate but strong like a savory crepe. When the CSA season ended and I went to the grocery store, I just couldn’t go back to the cheap white eggs in Styrofoam cartons. I got the closest thing to my CSA eggs; some over-packaged brown eggs labeled “organic” and “free-range.” But I remembered what Michael Pollan wrote about how little the “free-range” label means on egg cartons and found it hard to justify the increased price without increased benefit to the chickens—or to me, for that matter. (They didn’t really taste any better, these fancy store-bought eggs.) So I found eggs at my local Greenmarket, just a few blocks from my apartment. One substitution was complete: I now mainly bought local farm eggs instead of store bought. No big political statement intended against store bought eggs—I just found something I liked more. Meat and bread quickly followed suit, along with maple syrup and flour.
Matt and I lived together at this point, and our individual choices started to snowball into bigger changes. One of us would mention a preference for something local or homemade, and the other would find we had changed our habits. Slowly, foods that seemed like permanent fixtures disappeared. Matt gave up soda. I stopped buying foods made with high fructose corn syrup and long lists of chemicals I couldn’t pronounce. I didn’t feel like I was depriving myself of anything—those foods just stopped sounding good to me. (Even Doritos. Sorry Mom!) I never would have been able to make these changes on purpose; I don’t have the willpower. For lack of a better explanation, the more choices I made, the more seemed to make themselves.
About a year ago, we had reached a plateau. We were getting local products that were easy to find, but we were still hanging on to our old non-local standbys. Then, Matt suggested a challenge: although we had no interest in going 100% local permanently, we would try it out for some length of time, lining up with the start of CSA season in June, just to see what it was like.
The adjustment wasn’t seamless. I probably hadn’t gone a week of my life since age 12 without a glass of OJ, a banana, or both. I switched to local apple juice blends and whatever fruit was in season. Snack foods were tough, and I found myself eating a lot more popcorn, popped in a skillet for the first time in my life. We struggled to find affordable local milk, which led to us drinking a lot less milk. On the other hand, local yogurt was easy to find, either at the Greenmarket or a local health food store. (On a side note, I’m still not sure why this is. I have a suspicion that it has to do with the fact that we’re used to seeing insanely cheap milk, so the local stuff looks really expensive by comparison. Yogurt prices aren’t as depressed, so the difference between store yogurt and local yogurt doesn’t feel as big.) We made exceptions (coffee, meals with friends, meals Matt ate out for work) but even with a lot of wiggle room, we had to change some major habits.
We never planned for the experiment to be permanent, and we’ve gone back to buying coffee and chocolate, even the occasional bag of pita chips. But several things have stuck. I don’t think I’ve bought a banana since June, and the only orange juice I bought went toward Thanksgiving dishes and canning recipes (it’s hard to escape the need for citrus when it comes to water bath canning). We’re still buying local yogurt, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to non-organic milk. Trying something that seemed extreme showed us how little we actually had to do to change our food buying habits, and even after the rigid rules were relaxed, it just didn’t make sense to go back.
So here I am today, with my kitchen full of hippy-dippy local organic vegetables, wondering what it means to be “radical” about food. I don’t feel radical—I feel like a pretty average foodie, especially for Brooklyn. But taking a step back, I realize that not only are my food buying habits not normal; they are considered bizarre, elitist, and definitely “crunchy granola,” by the vast majority of the U.S. They are considered those things by many of our friends who live within 30 blocks of us.
If I talk about the way I choose to eat, I risk offending people I love by giving the impression that I expect everyone to follow my highfalutin’, self-righteous example. This is especially an issue with a decision Matt and I made recently to stop eating meat unless we know where it comes from. Explaining that is even more awkward than declaring oneself a vegetarian: “Oh, I eat meat, I just don’t eat that disgusting drivel you refer to as a burger.” It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient (vegetarians, I now have much more sympathy for your plight at airports) but it’s important to us, so on to the list it goes. We’re still struggling with how to handle our private decisions in public space, but it’s another decision that eventually just became obvious. I looked at the ground beef at Key Foods and just couldn’t do it anymore.
Now that I’ve made enough of these changes to be branded as “different” by the people in my life, I’ve been thinking a lot about my “radical” status. The word has a few different definitions, some of which fit better than others. One of the several listed definitions is “characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive”, and I’m definitely not that. Eating local foods from small farms is traditional, and going back to a food system that looks more like what my grandparents grew up with isn’t progress so much as regress—“an act or the privilege of going or coming back” (emphasis mine). I’m not breaking new ground here. Humans have been eating real food raised by nearby farmers for nearly 10,000 years. The food system we think of as “normal” today is less than 100 years old, so doing something else hardly counts as “departure from tradition”.
On the other hand, radical also means “forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something”, and that sounds quite a bit like what I’ve experienced over the last five years. What I choose to eat is a fundamental part of my nature now. Thinking about food has affected what I think about politics, my career, and my community, in addition to my dinner. It has affected my vision of what makes a full life and seeped into my definition of success. It has forced me into discomfort and opened my eyes to new ideas. Eating locally has changed me, radically.
I’ve become even more aware of my own privilege. I have access to these foods, money to pay for them, and time to figure out how to procure and prepare them. Any activism I’ve taken on isn’t about convincing people that what they eat is gross or bad; it’s about making the privilege I’ve experienced available to more people who might want those things. I don’t feel right about my food choices—I feel lucky.
I’m lucky not just to afford these choices, but to have come into them at all. By accident, I discovered something that has changed the course of my life. I’ve become a better cook. I’ve met my neighbors. We started this website. I’ve become a food writer. I eat so well. I have found joy in ripe tomatoes and happy chickens.
If I can extrapolate anything from my own experience, it’s that Big Change doesn’t start big. It starts small and builds from there, and before you know it, something radical has happened. You don’t have to be a protester or a politician or an activist to change your world, and that is such a relief to me, because I don’t have the energy or time to be a Mover and Shaker. But I can make a kickass kale pizza, and for today, that can be enough.