Monday, November 26, 2007

Our conflicted way of food

I've been wanting for some time to write about attitudes toward food in our American culture, but have been mulling over just where to begin and what to say.

Then this weekend I noticed that our seasonal confusion now extends to confusing times of feasting and times of fasting. Used to be we had lots of advertising and editorial copy in the various media about feasting until the New Year, when the ads and features about exercise and dieting began. Gradually this moved backward until one could see the diet and exercise pitches beginning on Boxing Day. This, more than anything, signalled that the Christmas season was dead except liturgically. Now it seems that the diet data comes right along with the recipes for butter cookies. The Saturday after Thanksgiving I turned on the tv a few minutes in advance of something I wanted to watch and stumbled upon a segment - on one of those shows that fills the gossip column niche - on how to take off the pounds gained on Thursday.

So I want to know - who gains multiple pounds in one day? Surely that is only possible for chronic dieters and the dehydrated? And who weighs themselves the day after a major feast? And I want to know why we must jettison the leftovers and get all puritanical right away?

Are we afraid of food? afraid of pleasure? afraid of losing control? Or we are just determined to make ourselves miserable and never enjoy anything?

Actually, I have been wondering if our life circumstances are so out of control, or seem to be, that one of the few places we feel we can exercise control is over our food choices. Is this a motivation for both the addiction to diets and the interest in fresh, seasonal and local food?

I want to think that the latter is somehow more positive than the former because it allows for seasonal celebration and choosing foods for taste, not just for caloric, carb or fat content.

But I'm still mulling.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Open Season on Food

It's the Wednesday before the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and today's food edition of my local paper sold out before I went in search of a copy early this afternoon. That's because, I'm assuming, it's loaded with food ads and wine ads and recipes for the great American meal.

I decided yesterday to go ahead and cook, even though I don't have very many people to come and I won't do a turkey. Whoever comes is the right group, and whatever leftovers will get eaten eventually.

I'm not sure what I'm having yet. I like stuffing, so I think I may try baking some winter squash and then stuffing them with something. Perhaps adapt my standby stuffing, with brown and wild rice instead of bread cubes, but retaining the butter, onion, cranberries, orange juice and rosemary. Then more vegetables: Brussels sprouts or another flavorful dark green veg in some form, and creamed onions with blue cheese. Green tomato mincemeat pie with cheddar for dessert for sure. Haven't homed in on a starter yet.

I began, as I came up with menu ideas, worrying about having cheese in every dish. But then I realized that too much cheese is a dairy vegetarian's equivalent of too much gravy. Most days I limit myself to one ounce of cheese. Maybe my goal should be to have cheese in every course for this celebration of abundance.

And cranberries in every course, too. I was surprised to read in one food column that the writer felt she must choose between having cranberry sauce with the turkey and a cranberry tart for dessert. Why?

But then, I think about two precedents. One is that I came from the land of Ocean Spray world HQ. (You've seen the guys in the bogs in the ad. Bogus bogmen.) We thought little of having cranberry juice and vodka cocktails, cranberry sauce, cranberry jello salad, cranberry-raisin pie, etc.

The second is the learning when in Japan twenty years ago that if you went to a crab restaurant, every course, every dish, had crab in it. I do not see why Thanksgiving should not be a similar celebration of the cranberry for those of us who truly love them.

And I have absolutely no food miles shame around the fact that yesterday I went in search of guaranteed Massachusetts cranberries from Wareham. Not the kind that say they may have been packed in Oregon, Wisconsin or Massachusetts.

Here's a helpful article from the Times with three great looking vegetarian dishes that really do fill the bill for one person's hearty side is another person's main dish.

What is sane? what is green?

Yesterday, after coping with my hmo and doing some necessary things at my desk I decided I needed to escape for a while to the movies. I saw Michael Clayton which seemed the best classic sort of movie I have seen in a while. I thought going to the movies might even be an escape from the thinking and writing about food issues which I ought to be doing, but not so. The food system is everywhere.

An attorney who has been working for years on a liability suit against an agribusiness company goes off the rail - he's bipolar - and begins taking the plaintiffs' part. The huge corporate law firm's "janitor" (Michael Clayton / George Clooney) is sent in to manage the attorney having the meltdown. There are many interesting twists and turns involving things like an idealistic Iowa farm girl who has lost parents and siblings to the offending herbicide and is living with her older sister's family, the fantasy novel which Clayton's young son is reading, and the dysfunctional, addicted, but ultimately redemptive bonds of Clayton's cop culture family.

One is left wondering if the crazy attorney might not have been the sanest one after all, his break a break out of amorality. And the backdrop of greenwashing in the agrichem ads has to make us all wonder if we are all the crazy ones, buying into their system in the many ways we do.

Enough. The food system is everywhere, and it's a good movie. Go see it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Garden themes and meanings

I've just added to the book list City Bountiful which is a history of community gardens in the United States, from the turn of the century depression (19th to 20th) to the present. It was a bit of a slog for someone like me who is not a history buff, plowing through all the details - but well worth it in the end. If you are part of a community garden, or thinking of starting one, I hope someone in the group you are working with will pick this up, read it, and share the learnings. The last chapter summarizes very useful ideas for planning a garden project.

The interesting thing, of course, is how purposes, values and organizational patterns for urban gardening have changed as times have changed. We can welcome the fact that gardens and garden schemes are a lot less paternalistic these days, involving, as they do, the gardeners themselves in preparation of sites and policy development.

Another interesting note is that community or urban gardens have become more important at times of societal stress and insecurity. The author writes "garden programs serve to further a vision of what should be in times when society is unclear about where the future is heading. " (emphasis hers)

I couldn't help but think of the story of a garden in Genesis, and the purposes it serves. It's a constructed ideal past, what we wish life were if it weren't so complex and limited. The song echoes, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

"Restoring Eden" is not about restoring anything, but about a longing for what we feel creation should be. This plays out in our biblical garden story, and in our dreams for our little plots.

The author points out that urban gardening has also served, and still serves, a variety of practical purposes such as food security, health, recreation, economic opportunity, and community building. The last has become more important and more time consuming as leadership in community gardens has become more widely shared. This is something I recognize as parallel to my work in congregational ministry development. When one person is not the boss and delegater, how we do things, especially decision making, takes lots more time and energy, and how we do things becomes more important than what we do.

Like developing a garden, developing community is a process with many twisty feedback loops, and much to learn.