This weekend, the 2014 Edible Institute was held in NYC. This event brings together some of the most progressive minds in the food industry to conduct seminars and roundtables on topics in the food movement. I wasn’t able to attend, but happily the organizers live-streamed a number of the events (yay, interwebs!), and I was able to watch from the comfort of my couch while sipping a cold iced tea, in between trips out to the garden to plant another pepper or tomato. And Twitter provided a running list of sound bites and recaps through the hashtag #Edible2014.
For me, the most interesting event by far was the opening address by Mark Bittman, who touched on a lot of points rationally and intelligently in his allotted hour. The session served to refocus my thoughts today, this day in May, on the many ways I can make a positive contribution the food movement — some at the community level, some larger scale and public, but even more in my quiet, everyday life.
I spend a fair bit of time thinking about — stewing over, really — the food industry and the many micro-issues within (in no particular order): antibiotics in our meat; unfair wages and conditions for farm workers; the mistreatment of animals in CAFOs; industrial ag’s completely suspicious practices (and intentions); the utter crap that processed food has become; the decline of farming (in terms of numbers); the consequences of monocultures; the warping of the meaning of “organic;” Monsanto Monsanto Monsanto; the puzzle of GMOs; the limitations of farmers’ markets and small farms; etc., etc.
It can be overwhelming, quite frankly. These are big problems — big, hairy, intertwined problems that people far smarter than I have yet to unravel and set aright.
But, I realized long ago that, while we’re, societally, wrestling with these global issues, there’s something you and I can do every day that will have a real, sustainable impact. To borrow the overused, slightly cheesy (and, in fact, sloppily paraphrased) Gandhi quote: be the change you wish to see in the world. If we all take small steps together, the forward momentum will change everything.
Here we go:
1. Cook at home
This is a food blog, and if you’ve been following SoupAddict, then it’s a really good bet that you already have a keen interest in cooking.
But even we cooks are not perfect. Or, at least I’m certainly not. I live in a neighborhood that is ridiculously heavy with fast food restaurants, and the lure of the sandwich shop is sometimes just too tempting, especially at the end of a long day. My neighborhood Kroger is positively stuffed with boxed and frozen meals (and by frozen meals, I don’t mean healthy frozen vegetables. I mean those Ikea-assembly-food-projects — you know, with the steamer bowls and fold-out trays and packets of strange sauces and weird cubes of frozen morsels).
As Bittman said in his address (and it was one of two of the most retweeted sound bites of the conference):
“By buying prepared food, we’re releasing control and knowledge of what we put in our bodies. Choosing and cooking our own food puts us back in the drivers seat. To continually outsource what we eat to companies that don’t care about us is nothing short of reckless.”
And the other popular quote:
“The most radical thing you can do to improve your diet: cook at home with minimally-processed ingredients…. Cooking is healthier than not cooking. Cooking is cheaper than not cooking. It’s the most economical way to eat.”
It’s all true. The quickest way to improve the health of our families is to cook at home, from scratch, as much as possible.
But it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Again, small steps: add another evening of home-cooked, family-’round-the-dinner-table meals. Try a simple breakfast of cooked oatmeal, or eggs on toast. My favorite meal — for any time of day — is a salad with lots of fresh greens and crispy veggies, especially in spring-summer-fall, when I can pull them from my own garden. Add some leftover pasta or rice, and grass-fed meat if that’s your thing, and you have a filling, healthy meal prepared in minutes.
2. Grow some edibles
By and large, we’ve lost our connection with the natural process of how food gets to our table.
You don’t have tear out your lawn. You don’t need a garden so big it takes over your free time. Think small scale. Grow herbs in a pot. They’re super low-maintenance, and you can move them indoors when winter returns.
Live in a condo with a deck? Plant your favorite pepper in a pot — they thrive in containers. If you have a small plot of earth available, loosen the soil 12″ down and plant some carrot seeds. Carrots are awesome. Their foliage is beautiful and they’re one of the easiest things I grow in my garden. A little more adventurous? Plant some potatoes. At the community garden where I volunteer, it’s a hilariously joyful spectacle, watching the kids dig for potatoes like buried treasure. (Awesome — and Michael Pollan-approved — comfort food: home-grown, home-baked oven fries.)
Or, get all science-experimenty and save the root portions you cut away from green onions. Place them in a tall glass with water covering their roots … and wait for the magic to happen.
Grow some food. It matters.
3. Share your knowledge
The one thing about the state of the food system today that scares me the most is this:
We’ve nearly lost the knowledge base to produce our own food and cook it at home, at the family level.
And this occurred in my lifetime. I’m no spring chicken, but neither am I an old coot.
The thought of letting that know-how slip away is more terrifying than any scheme Monsanto could pull.
Growing up, we never ate out. My mom cooked every day. I’m not saying she enjoyed it, but it was a necessary step to feed a family of seven. My dad took a packed lunch to work every day; ditto, me and school.
I lived on a street with lots of kids my age, and each day around 6pm, the chorus of dinner calls would begin, as parents stepped out on their porches to gather their broods for dinner. (My dad had a particularly piercing whistle that could be heard all the way down the block, indoors or out.) But we didn’t climb into the family station wagon for a trip to the pizza joint. Instead, we headed to the kitchen.
We all had vegetable gardens, too. Every last family on the street. It’s just what we did.
Folks marvel at my vegetable gardens now, but instead of making me feel warm and fuzzy with accomplishment, I feel mostly sad that such a thing is so rare today. And a quick visual survey of my neighbors’ yards confirm it: I’m the only one with a vegetable garden.
Just 25 years ago — one generation, as it’s defined — families cooked at home most days of the week, and many had vegetable gardens.
As a community of cooks, I encourage us all to share the knowledge of cooking. Cook and bake with your youngsters. Teach your college-bound children the basics and help them develop knife skills (the secret to not hating cooking, imo: competency with a chef’s knife).
For those of you who already garden, don’t be shy about evangelizing. When someone expresses a polite interest in starting a garden, jump at the chance to sell the vision of a fresh tomato-basil-mozzarella salad. Share your insight and tips with gentle encouragement. Give cookbooks, gardening books, and potted herbs as gifts.
Keep the knowledge alive. Cooks and gardeners are gatekeepers of critical life skills, and it is no small thing to pass them on to future generations.
And, to dip my own toe into the video world (gasp!), here’s a tour of my deck garden and the things I’m growing in containers this spring:
(Hollywood bound, I’m not 😉 ).