Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Busted at the Bistro

I had a book signing here in Bellingham a few weeks ago, and a couple days after that, as I was polishing off dinner at the Fountain Bistro near my house and trying not to get salad dressing on the papers I was correcting, my neighbors Bob and Selma stopped by my table. They told me they were shocked, shocked after hearing my talk to see me eating restaurant food instead of staying home to scrub the topsoil off my rutabagas. 

Lucky for me that my profile is low enough so that a bit of teasing from the nice folks two houses down is the extent of my exposure to public expectations. I would hate to be, say, Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollen and have every my every public mouthful scrutinized.
Christmas Eve vegetable plates, in lurid, blurry living color
But speaking of Michael Pollen, one treat of my vacation is to read through 
months-old copies of magazines that I don’t get to during the work weeks. This week I browsed a six-month-old copy of the New York Review of Books, where Michael Pollen has a roundup essay on modern food movements. His thesis is that unlike many movements—say feminism, or Protestantism--which tend to fragment into ever more specialized concerns as time goes on, food campaigners may be finding more mutual connections. I don’t know if he’s right about this, but the essay, which discusses books on hunger in America, vegetarian activists, locavores, government food policy, sustainable farming, and critiques of bureaucracy (and more!), did help me put some ideas together. 

One of them is the economic relationship between American food prices and our health and family life. Pollan writes that on average, we spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food and only half an hour a day preparing it (including cleanup). Those are the lowest numbers in the industrialized world, and they imply enviable quantities of disposable income and time to create great things outside the kitchen. But here’s the web in which those figures are tangled. That cheap food is the stuff that’s made directly or indirectly from heavily subsidized corn and soy—pop, McBurgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes, processed cheese etc. (Fresh vegetable and fruit prices have not stayed proportionally low) And we all know the health consequences of that diet. The money we save on groceries gets spent instead on the medical consequences of our obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and diet-related cancers. Big Agriculture and Big Pharma get bigger yet, while we go broke paying medical bills. 

The French and the Italians--to pick two famous foodie cultures--pay a higher percentage of their incomes on food, spend a lot more time preparing and eating it (though less than they used to), spend a lower percentage of their income on health care, and live longer on average than we do.

But what about the time saved? Convenient food was supposed to liberate women, especially, from drudgery and resentment in the kitchen, and there is a case to be made there. Not every household contains someone who enjoys cooking, and though I love to cook I’m not in the mood three times a day every day. But it’s also true that it takes about as much time to go through the drive-through window as to throw a salad together. If you have the money, you can get food that is both nutritious and convenient. The people who make their livings at the fast-food windows, or processing the chickens that make the McNuggets, or stocking the Quick Mart shelves with Top Ramen, are the ones who can’t afford to buy nutritious quick food and often lack the time and training to cook more economical healthy meals from scratch. This plays into the familiar critique of mainstream feminism, that it is a creation of and for comfortable middle class women. 

And that brings to mind an old poem by Marge Piercy

What's that smell in the kitchen?
All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria: it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they're supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.

Burning dinner may be war, but having the dinner to burn is good fortune. That’s why it’s so important that we link up the issues of food equity and food quality. It’s not enough to have cheap food, if the real costs are our health and environment. It’s not enough to have sources of nutritious and delicious food if only the comfortable can afford it. 

Here's a link to a Bellingham Herald story about increasing access to real food:

If Pollan is right, and I hope he is, we’ll see more Food Bank Farms, more farmers markets taking food stamps and WIC, more community gardens, more gleaning, and more opportunities for people to make a decent living providing good food to their neighbors. 
And speaking of that, I hope Geoff and Anna at Osprey Hill are making a decent living, because they certainly are providing good food. Our Christmas Eve dinner relied heavily on their produce from my CSA box—delicata squash, carrots, and onions in the risotto; onions and garlic stuffed in the pork roast, with parsnips and potatoes cooked alongside; applesauce for those who like it with pork; mixed braised greens. It was all great.

After writing this ramble, and thinking about how I am one of the fortunate few who not only has the resources to grow and buy good food, but also gets to make a little money while promoting it, I decided to make my donation to the food bank automatic and monthly instead of by whim. Join me?

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