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The Druid in the Kitchen: One Woman’s Quest for Culinary Equilibrium-by Kathleen Harrington

This is an abridged version of a seminar offered on the message board in April 2010 that is a relevant today as it was then. We hope that you enjoy it. To read the complete seminar or any other seminars offered by members of the Message Board visit http://www.druidry.org/board/dhp/viewtopic.php?f=326&t=35831

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.