Thinksgiving (November 2011)

My mother’s arm is in a sling.  Her rotator cuff surgery has incapacitated her from doing things like chopping vegetables, slicing bread, lifting a turkey and opening wine—thus, my girlfriend and I are cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Seeing as how Superhero Clubhouse is about to open SATURN (a play about food), and considering the questions about food that arose from our playmaking research and development, it felt appropriate to set a challenge for ourselves as we prepared the Thanksgiving menu.  So we agreed (girlfriend, grandmother, mother and father all graciously participated) that our dinner would be as locally grown as possible, and we would research each ingredient in order to find out the story behind the food.

My parents’ home lies deep in the agricultural countryside of upstate New York, just west of Syracuse.  Despite all the farms around, most of the grocery stores are stocked with food from distributors, grown with pesticides, chemical fertilizer and/or genetically-altered seeds and shipped from hundreds if not thousands of miles away.  It is a common paradox present in many small farming communities in the US, as of the last few decades.  Only recently, thanks mostly to a few outspoken journalists, particular chefs and stubborn farmers, has anyone, let alone small town locals who live right next door to farms, had much access to fresh, local, sustainably-grown food.

But now that there is more public knowledge (albeit mostly among those who seek it out) about the food in our grocery stores, there is a growing demand for high-quality food grown simply and transparently, and therefore a growing popularity in farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and local options in certain corners of thoughtful grocery stores.  So the conversation is happening, and it allowed my family to meet our challenge with surprisingly little effort.

Here are three dishes (and stories) from our locally-sourced dinner:

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Dish: Turkey

Ingredients: turkey, herbs, olive oil

Story: The antibiotic/hormone-free turkey was raised eating grass in a pasture on Oink & Gobble Farm (61 miles from store).  It was brought by truck to Wegmans Grocery (13 miles from house), where my parents purchased it and drove it home in a sedan.  The herbs (parsley, sage rosemary and thyme) all came from my mother’s garden in the backyard (0 miles).  The olive oil was already stocked in the kitchen before we made our challenge and so was used, but it did come from an unknown olive grove in Italy (approx. 4,000 miles as the crow flies) and was one of our only exceptions.

Dish: Sweet Potato Spoon Bread (from Heidi Swanson)

Ingredients: sweet potatoes, goat cheese, shallots, butter, whole-wheat flour, eggs, simple spices, Parmesan cheese

Story: The sweet potatoes came from DeMarcos’ Farms (3 miles from house).  The shallots were bought at the Syracuse Farmers Market (18 miles), originally from Caltabiaco Farms (21 miles from market), as was the goat cheese, originally from Lively Run Farms (68 miles from market), and the eggs, from Meadow Creek Farm (68 miles from market).  The butter and flour were bought at Wegmans (13 miles from house), and came from a local dairy and mill.  The Parm cheese, typically shipped from Europe (approx. 4,000 miles) came from Wisconsin (approx. 850 miles); in retrospect an ingredient we probably could have substituted with something more local.

Dish: Cornbread Stuffing

Ingredients: corn flour, parsnips, carrots, onions, leeks, cranberries, eggs, cream, herbs

Story: The produce was purchased from the Syracuse Farmer’s Market (18 miles from house).  The parsnips and herbs came from my mother’s garden (0 miles), the onions from Caltabiano Farms (21 miles from market), the eggs from Meadow Creek Farm (68 miles from market), the cream and flour were bought at Wegmans (13 miles from house), and came from a local dairy and mill.  The cranberries were from Atoka Cranberry Farm (60 miles from store).  We didn’t write down which farm the carrots and leeks came from, but they were purchased from a small stand at the Union Sq. Green Market in NYC before we departed for Syracuse.

Wine/Beer: Gewerstemeiner from Herman J. Weimer on Seneca Lake (70 miles from store), beer selection from Middle Ages Brewery (17 miles from house)

Dessert: Grandma's apple pie with very local apples (we live in the midst of apple country)

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I challenge you, dear readers and eaters, to answer the following questions for yourself: What exactly did I eat on Thanksgiving?  Where did it come from?  How was it grown?  How did it get to me?

Whether or not you answered with words like “local”, “organic”, “grass-fed” or “I biked to the farmers market” isn’t the point.  I posit that the cause of the current food complexities has less to do with poor choices and more to do with lack of thinking.  Of course, it also has to do with where governments put their money, what regulations allow which harmful practices to exist, and a general lack of public information.  But I’m interested in individuals, and the thought we put into choosing what to feed our families.

So if we’re not thinking about sodium benzoate, the environmental impact of chemical fertilizers running off into our waterways or abused turkeys injected with hormones, what are we thinking about when shopping for our Thanksgiving dinners?

It’s likely we’re thinking about price, quantity and taste.  Not only are these factors valid, they are often deal-breakers for most people (including myself, with a busy schedule and limited funds).  There is no easy solution to this conundrum: fresh food is generally more expensive, harder to get, in need of preparation, only available in season, and rather unpredictable.   Unhealthy food is cheap, addictive, tasty and ready to eat in a microwaveable minute.

The labels on groceries do not tell complete stories.  Simply naming the spectrum of items we are about to put into our bodies gives us neither proof nor peace of mind that what we are eating is good; because we have become so far removed from the source of each ingredient we eat, and because the food industry has done such an excellent job pacifying our anxieties, we spend our meals justifying, defending or simply ignoring, in the name of desire.

I say desire and not hunger because the “we” I am referring to is the small percentage of the world that has access to ample amounts of food.  A stomach gurgle does not signal starvation, and we do not buy a hot dog from a street vendor because we need it.  The Thanksgiving feast is an undeniable luxury, globally speaking.

What we do need is food.  Healthy food.  We need it to live— more precisely, we need it to live without a debilitating assortment of disease and disorder.  And yes, we need food to taste good, otherwise we wouldn’t want to eat it.

The trouble is, we’ve become blinded, unwittingly caught up in a tangled web of industry and media that make it hard to simply eat, or eat simply.  Because so much “food” is manufactured to taste good and be cheap, our inherited bodies tell us: “eat that, its good for you”, and our evolved minds tell us: “buy that, you can afford it”, when really, neither is true.  Poor diets lead to poor bodies, and poor bodies lead to skyrocketing medical bills.

Michael Pollan has written about the stories we are told by industry advertisers, pictures and words evoking quaint, fertile family farms that in reality no longer exist.  Advertisers tickle the old-fashioned farming narrative we hold in our heads, and our trust is sold.

I observe another story being told, in this case by ourselves: infiltrated daily by media, by all the contrasting information we receive from books, news, fashion magazines, Paula Deen, Facebook, and our friends and families, we begin to cast ourselves as victims.  We see the problems, recognize the amount of thinking required to sort through this web, and give up, proclaiming defeat in the name of a short life and a cruel world.

So we either tell ourselves stories of barn raising and horse plowing to convince us that what we are eating is no different from the food of our great-grandparents (in other words, “food is food”), or we tell ourselves stories of exasperation and hopelessness, and rattle around cities like characters out of Beckett, eating whatever is being sold at whichever bodega because we feel there is no other choice available to us.  Or else we tell no story at all.

I am guilty of all three narratives.  I long for the by-gone days of family farms so that I didn’t have to think so much about food; so I could simply trust that the ones who are selling me food are responsible people, damn it.  And I also have a tendency to give up, justifying the purchase of my packaged snacks with unknown origins in the name of helplessness, because I live in a city and I am always on the go and because I’m only human, damn it.  And I also eat without thought, shoving something—anything-- into my mouth multiple times a day, and there are evenings when, reflecting on the past twelve hours, I cannot remember what I ate.

But I’m ready for a new story.  In my new story, the temporary solution to the food conundrum (at least until government subsidies, regulations and markets meet my demands) is to think.  I am going to think.  A lot.  I am going to think about food.  I want to read about it, think about it, talk about it… and then, I want to eat it.  After all this thinking, I might still need to be frugal in the grocery store.  I might still buy food on the go.  I might still indulge in the occasional fruit from South America or dunk an Oreo.   But secretly, I’ll be thinking about it.  Hard.  I know from history that thinking leads to revolutions, and I know from stories that revolutions lead to changes of mind and heart.  The best stories end with changes of mind and heart.

On Thanksgiving, I’m going to think even harder.  I imagine myself like Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, throwing open the window of my mind, proclaiming to the throngs of neurons: I will celebrate food!  I will honor farmers, appreciate the people, animals and technology that made this massive meal possible! I will remember the 7 billion people in the world!  I will choose my menu carefully!  I will debate, defend, inspire, and inform!  I will tell stories of food!  I will eat slowly; I will eat with pleasure and appreciation!

I have a lot to think about.