This is the story of my search for balance in the kitchen, of reconciling lofty ideals with the reality of 21st century urban America. This has led me to change the way I think about food, which in turn has led me to new strategies for making the best and healthiest choices I can—both for myself and the planet—and then making those choices taste good!
Please note, however, that it is my story and is in no way an attempt to say that my choices are original discoveries, better than someone else’s, or that everyone should be doing things the same way I’m doing them. This essay is simply a chronicle of my continuing efforts to bring my version of Druidry home for dinner and some of the insights I’ve had and milestones I’ve reached along the way. These are my opinions only and are true for me, but I am not saying that mine is the only truth. We all have factors beyond our control that influence our options and I also respect your right to have a different opinion. Nor is my story complete—there are far too many facets of my personal quest for eating “druidly” to explore here—but what I present here is the beginning and the basics of my evolving sensibilities. The pleasure of your company while I tell my tale is welcome, so if you’re still with me—and this is not too provincial a narrative for our international members—let’s get on with this!
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“Since the end of World War II, this country has been out of sync with the natural order of sustenance and nourishment, embracing processed foods, revering canned goods, “instant” breakfasts, and frozen dinners, then elevating fast food to a way of life with such force that its impact has become global…” —Michael Ruhlman, The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen
Awhile back my own personal “disturbance in the Force” regarding food in the 21st century grew to proportions I could no longer ignore. I knew exactly what to do—Michael Pollan had summed it up nicely in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, when he put forth the elegant little aphorism, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I could accept that wholeheartedly. And I could also subscribe to the Slow Food movement’s precepts that food should be good, clean, produced in such a way as to be sustainable and have a positive impact on the ecosystems, and that the growers and producers should be compensated fairly for their labor. I believed these things, but I wasn’t exactly living my beliefs. I couldn’t figure a way to wrap my existing food habits around what my Druid sensibilities were telling me I should be doing.
I had been, like many Americans, happily wedded to fast food, “junk” food, anything that was quick and easy. Oh, and cheap.
I’d get home after work and about the last thing I wanted to do was peel potatoes or roast a chicken—I wanted to get something—anything!—that was more or less edible onto the table (read: tray in front of the TV) as soon as possible and get it over with so I could shove the dishes into the dishwasher (extra points for being able to just throw away the microwaveable trays!), start a load of laundry, get the trash and recycling taken out, clean the cat boxes, and still manage to have a couple of hours to myself before crashing into bed—way too late, as usual. Spending a bunch of time getting step 1, dinner, going was NOT my idea the way to start an evening.
OK, maybe I’m not the brightest bulb in the box—it took awhile, but eventually I realized that not only was that approach not sustainable in terms of ecological impact, not only was it of questionable nutritional value and possibly directly harmful (e.g., trans-fats, pesticide residues, etc.), it was not all that wonderful in terms of taste or satisfaction.
And when I came to those conclusions, a little voice inside my head started whispering that I needed to give up junk food and fast food drive-thru restaurants. That stuff wasn’t good for me and it wasn’t good for the planet.
“But…” whined the other little voice in my head, “but I like junk food! And…and…if it weren’t for McDonald’s, I’d probably starve!”
“Of course you like junk food,” I answered myself. “The food processors see to it that their stuff tastes good—how else could they sell that bag of artificial everything? And as for starving…have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Did you ever have a voice inside your head telling you things you didn’t want to hear? Did you hate it, too? But I had to listen and I had to change and somehow I did.
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“To give you an idea of how much more energy goes into junk food than comes out, consider that a 12-ounce can of diet soda—containing just 1 calorie—requires 2,200 calories to produce, about 70 percent of which is in production of the aluminum can. Almost as impressive is that it takes more than 1,600 calories to produce a 16-ounce glass jar, and more than 2,100 to produce a half-gallon plastic milk container. As for your bottled water? A 1-quart polyethylene bottle requires more than 2,400 calories to produce.” —Mark Bittman, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating
Prior to my epiphany, as I said, food generally came in a box or a bag or a pouch or a carton. Snacks always did. This had to change. I could cook from scratch—I’m a pretty good cook and I’ve always enjoyed it—but I only did it when I had the time, which was usually never.
The only way I could reconcile what I thought I needed to do with what I thought I had time to do was to change my attitude. It was not easy, it was not overnight, and it doesn’t happen every day, but most evenings when I get home from work I really do cook dinner from basic, “real” ingredients. It isn’t that I don’t have time to cook; it was that I didn’t want to make time to cook. Once I got that straight in my head, it got a lot easier.
Getting back to Pollan’s prescription for healthier eating, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much,” I found the first part more challenging than the second two. (Not that “mostly plants” and “not too much” were all that easy to actually put into practice, but at least they’re straightforward and I understood what they meant.)
A crucial part of that equation is that the food must be “real” food (i.e., if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, it isn’t “real”). Real food doesn’t come in bags or boxes. Real food isn’t loaded with polysyllabic additives. Real food isn’t mass-produced, made with the cheapest possible ingredients, or designed to be eaten while driving.
OK, having decided that I needed to cook, and that I needed to cook real food, the next question was to figure out what, for me, defined real food and how I could manage to get it.
Here’s my laundry list of criteria that, in my mind, qualify an item for “realness”:
1. It should be a whole food.
“Our physical nature is such that we need foods that are whole, not refined and denatured, to grow (and) prosper…” —Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions
For me, this means buying only raw produce, not already cut up, not bagged, not mixed with anything—just potatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, etc. And buying only raw meat, for the days we eat meat (and try to work in meatless meals with increasing regularity), preferably from pastured animals. (If industrial meat is all that’s available, I think twice before buying.) Buying eggs that come from local uncaged hens that can eat anything they can find, including grass, grubs, and bugs. Real farmyard hens don’t have the “vegetarian diet” touted on boxes of eggs in supermarkets. Buying dairy products that are minimally processed and preferably local. And yes, starting with unprocessed whole foods means that I have to spend longer in the kitchen. But at least I know what’s in the meals I serve without having to read the labels.
2. It should be grown or produced as close to home as possible.
“…(S)hould lovers of planet Earth assume that it is okay to distribute their products from one corner of the earth to another? And should I assume that I have a God-given right to access the entire earth’s bounty, however far away some of its produce is grown?” —Gary Nabham, Coming Home to Eat
I don’t believe in buying food that requires a passport to get here. My carbon footprint is bad enough without adding in the effects of transporting out-of-season fruits and vegetables from New Zealand. As it is, most food in America travels over 1,500 miles from farm to fork, with resulting degradation of taste and quality. I don’t want to make it any worse. If at all possible, I buy from the producer at my local farmer’s market. The produce was harvested not more than a day or two before it arrives here each Saturday morning and I can talk with the growers about their methods, what’s good today, etc.
3. It should be organic, if possible, for a lot of different reasons. However, for me, conventional produce grown locally trumps organic produce shipped in from California or Mexico any day of the week.
“Organic does not necessarily mean that the food was grown in an ecologically, energetically, or socially sustainable way. If you send it halfway around the world before it is eaten, an organic food still may be ‘good’ for the consumer, but is it ‘good’ for the food system?” —Gary Nabham, Coming Home to Eat
4. If it’s a processed item—and let’s face it, most of us can’t eliminate buying some processed items...how many of us regularly make pasta from scratch, for instance, or have access to a cow for raw milk (even if we were inclined to ignore public health advice that advocates pasteurization for all dairy products?)—it should be as minimally processed as possible. I’ve latched onto the “five-ingredient, three-syllable” rule (so widely quoted I don’t know who originated it): avoid products that contain more than five ingredients or contain ingredients having more than three syllables. In addition, I prefer to avoid "enriched" items—if nutrients have to be added, it means they were taken out at some point in the processing and I'd rather eat food that has what it started with.
5. It should be “in season.”
“Live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” —Gary Nabham, Coming Home to Eat
This is surely the most Druidic of goals. It means no asparagus or strawberries in the fall (and here I am speaking only of the Northern Hemisphere and specifically the non-California parts of the USA), fewer eggs in the middle of winter, no peaches in early spring—never mind that you can always find anything in the supermarket—but considering the taste of those things bred to withstand a trip halfway around the world and still look perfect when they get here, it’s not that hard to give up. Much of our commercial produce today is grown for looks and durability, not taste; cardboard might be more flavorful.
Do I always follow all these “rules” to the letter? No. I’m not sure it’s possible to “always” do anything, even in an ideal world, but in my city, in this decade, the rules have to bend from time to time. And, too, my husband doesn’t always share my opinion of what’s edible. My choice was to greatly reduce or give up entirely sugared soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, and packaged junk food, but I can’t require it of him. And sometimes I simply can’t afford the (more or less) locally produced grass-fed beef or organic free-range chicken. I do the best I can at any given time—I read labels and think about what I’m doing, then make the best choice I can based on what I have available and what I need and can pay for. As I see it, Druidry is living in the world, and like it or not, we’re a part of the world as it exists today. Sometimes for all our good intentions, we simply have to compromise.
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A few other observations:
“…one thing is clear: if beef and butter were to blame for heart disease, heart disease would not be new. We've been eating them for too long.” —Nina Planck, Real Food
Real food is healthy. It’s not necessarily low-fat, but I no longer believe that fat is the enemy. I cook with olive oil and butter—not soybean oil and certainly not corn oil. Industrially processed corn (as opposed to fresh sweet corn) is a pervasive ingredient that I am convinced is responsible for many of the so-called diseases of civilization, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Fat is essential for maximum absorption of vegetables’ nutrients, many of which are fat-soluble. Eating steamed vegetables exclusively robs us of many benefits that a little coating of butter can provide. (Besides, it tastes great!)
And I don’t believe meat, red or otherwise, is the enemy, either. Vegetarianism is a choice based on ethics or preferences (and not one I’m going to argue with someone who’s made that choice), but it’s not a biological mandate; our ancestors were omnivores and so are we, in terms of how our dentition is arranged and how our digestive systems work. It is not biologically plausible to think that a group of australopithecines would have survived to give rise to the habilines, or that some of the habilines would have passed on their genes to what would become Homo sapiens (or whatever the current thinking on human phylogeny is) if their basic diet—omnivorous—hadn’t been something gave that them an evolutionary advantage in the survival game. Many human hunter-gatherer societies have been described and many of these obtain over half their calories from animal protein. No, I believe the culprit is fake food, the “edible food-like products,” as Pollan puts it. The rise of industrial farming, the practice of subsidizing certain crops (e.g., corn, soybeans) to the exclusion of so many others, the mass-production techniques that guarantee quantity but not necessarily quality—these are the villains in my book. As Nina Planck says, “the so-called diseases of civilization are caused by the foods of civilization. More accurately, the diseases of industrialization are caused by the foods of industrialization.”
“Apologists for industrial farming repeat one argument like a mantra: this food is cheap, and people want it that way. But the real costs are seldom reckoned.” —Nina Planck, Real Food
All these things that are done in the name of providing what passes for food at what seems to be affordable prices…but what price the loss of biodiversity? What is the cost of the pesticides and fertilizer runoff that pollute our streams and soils and embed themselves deep within every facet of our lives? What is the worth of the countless small animals and insects that once contributed to the health and functionality of our ecosystems, but which are now killed by the millions by industrial agricultural methods? Our modern methods may feed us, but malnutrition is still present in 21st century America, and many of us are less than healthy as a direct result of what we eat. But the worst is that agribusiness has skewed our thinking as a society.
“…we’ve also managed to debase our eggs on a massive scale, to contaminate them so that they may actually make you sick if you don’t cook them till they’re hard, and downright dangerous for the very young and the very old. We’ve done the same to our animals, too, by pumping them full of chemicals and feeding them crap they wouldn’t naturally choose in generations of evolution. Our major commercial hog producers are breeding the fat out of hogs to try to please the knuckleheaded consumer, who doesn’t know anymore what’s good for him or not—how could he? he’s been taught to fear the egg!—degrading a once-fine animal beyond recognition, and yet we think nothing of supersizing our french fries and burgers and Cokes. We’re breeding chickens without feathers. Most people scarcely know anymore what their food looks like when it’s alive. They get grossed out at a proper pig roast. They wouldn’t know what to do if they saw an asparagus growing wild—you can’t eat that, it’s gotta come in a bundle with a rubber band around it. If food doesn’t come in a package or a box or wrapped in plastic, we aren’t comfortable with it, don’t trust it. It might hurt us. Gotta be processed. Gotta have an expiration date. It’s sometimes hard to remember that what comes out of our boxes and packages first comes out of the earth.” —Michael Ruhlman, The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen
Well, I’ve rattled on far longer than I intended and never actually got around to discussing how eating locally makes it more likely that food is clean and wholesome, or the spiritual aspect of food, the sensual pleasure of creating something delicious for people you love—including yourself! Or that slowing down, of learning to savor food, of eating consciously and being mindful—but not maniacal—about what we are eating and why we are eating it—those are the keys to a healthier life. I could write two or three more pieces along these lines and still not do an adequate job of conveying everything I wanted to say on the topic.
But my message here—what I have come to believe—is that only by being “present” to what I eat, knowing what’s in it and where it came from, selecting it carefully, preparing it simply, and serving it with respect both for the food itself and for the people for whom I have prepared it—only then can I call myself a Druid in the kitchen.
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“The eaters drive the market. Each day, most everyone makes choices about food. We cast our votes through vending machines and take-out windows, at the grocery register, and on our restaurant checks. And each vote makes a difference. Every time you choose flavor—for the locally grown apple over the imported one, for the meal at the diner down the block instead of at the drive-thru chain—you are playing a part in the Real Food Revival. And you’re not alone.” —Ann Clark Espuelas, The Real Food Revival
Further Reading and Other Resources:
Bendrick, Lou, 2008. Eat Where You Live: How to Find and Enjoy Fantastic Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live
Bittman, Mark, 2009. Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating
Espuelas, Ann Clark, 2005. The Real Food Revival
Kingsolver, Barbara, 2007. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Nabham, Gary, 2001. Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods
Page, Karen, and Andrew Dornenburg, 2008. The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity
Planck, Nina, 2007. Real Food: What to Eat and Why
Pollan, Michael, 2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Pollan, Michael, 2007. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Ruhlman, Michael, 2006. The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen
Weber, Karl, 2009. Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—and What You Can Do About It
Slow Food International: http://www.slowfood.com/
Finding local foods:
Food Routes (USA/Canada): http://foodroutes.org/
Eat Well Guide (USA/Canada): http://www.eatwellguide.org/
Local Harvest (USA & Canada): http://www.localharvest.org/
Local Farmers’ Markets: http://lfm.org.uk/