A Lengthy Meditation on All Things Food

At one point in my life I wanted to be a chef. I started cooking around my senior year in high school and fell in love with the kitchen. Prior to, the stove top was always a scary place, my concept of dishes and meals very limited and thus, I feared what I didn’t know and stayed away. I’m not sure what exactly compelled me to give cooking a real fighting chance. Maybe it was my impending independence with college life looming right around the corner; once college hit, next came real life and before I knew it I’d be living on my own and would need to feed myself. Yes, I am that neurotic and anxiety-ridden that I start planning four years ahead of time. 
I also started watching a lot of the Food Network around this time. It’s like the old chicken or the egg conflict - I’m not sure if it was my interest in food television or the cooking itself that came first. Either way, I learned a lot from what I saw on TV, such as how to handle a knife, what sort of flavors worked well with others, how to prepare dishes and sides of all sorts, the techniques for some more complicated meals than a basic pasta salad or a recipe that only requires a microwave. In time, my cooking horizons further expanded - I picked up cookbooks and, since I’m a reader, indulged myself with literature pertaining to my new interest. This opened up a whole new culinary world for me. Watching someone else prepare a dish and then mirroring their process is quite different from reading a recipe cold and figuring out the terminology, making decisions without any advice, and adapting what you read to the reality of what’s going on in your kitchen. 
I fear that this makes me sound like an illiterate idiot, but it’s actually that I was worried about screwing up. For I had yet to realize that the kitchen is not a laboratory, and is actually much more akin to an artist’s studio where nothing is an exact science and mistakes provide great opportunities for creativity. When watching Rachael Ray or Giada de Laurentis prepare a dish, they verbalized all of their actions as well as the reasoning behind them, the changes in appearance and touch that signify when fish is cooked through or the way pasta should feel to the teeth when it’s done cooking. In reading a recipe with no culinary background, you’ll often find yourself lost among super-specific measurements and initially precise instructions lacking any follow through. Heat this many quarts of water, put this exact amount of pasta in, and then cook for anywhere from a little to a lot of time. Plenty of vague and questionable instructional phrases pop up in the simplest of recipes, like wait for the meat to be “cooked through,” or pop the cookies in the oven “until done.” Now I barely even give these sorts of directions a second look - I’m comfortable enough in the kitchen to know that cooking isn’t an exact science and I have the confidence to judge when my chicken’s been cooked through. But for the novice culinary artist, these are daunting phases in the cooking process. 

Even for my mother, the woman who was the primary chef in my house up until I began experimenting in the kitchen at age 16 or 17, often asks for my opinion about how long to cook this and what to do with that ingredient. And my responses are always very arbitrary - I’m no expert and rely on experience above all else to address her questions. Unfortunately, I feel as though her years of experience in the kitchen have done little to increase her confidence or familiarity with the kitchen. Part of this can be attributed to her indifference to cooking - though she doesn't hate to be in the kitchen, she is not as passionate about her food or the preparation of it as I am. I know that her horizons have expanded vastly since I was a 17-year-old novice chef. She now eats plenty of green plants, realizes that roasting with olive oil, salt, and pepper is one of the tastiest methods of preparing any vegetable, and is willing to try out new dishes that would have been met with a nose wrinkled in disgust just a few years ago. So I'm no longer too worried about my mother, but rather the rest of the nation. I fear that far too many people, especially mothers since they are the ones making the majority of diet and grocery decisions for their families, feel like my mother used to in the kitchen - uncomfortable, unsure, scared of anything deemed "healthy" or "fresh" and largely unaware of how to maximize their health through what they prepare in the kitchen. When the kitchen is a scary place, when one has not been exposed to the pure pleasures of fresh produce and a wholesome meal prepared by hand, it is much harder to value and pursue a healthier lifestyle. And this has got to change because some of the most healthy and delicious meals are also the simplest. A more healthful diet is not only increasingly more accessible these days, it's also easier than most people imagine.
One of my biggest concerns about the way 21 century America is changing (and trust me, I have many) is the way we think about, prepare, purchase, and consume food. Before the dawn of the supermarket chain, backyard and local farms were the mainstay of the food supply for any given family. The majority of one’s diet was composed of whole foods and the distance traveled from farm to plate was an identifiable distance along a well-known route. Today, most food travels 3000 miles before it reaches our plate - even if it was grown in the same state where it is ultimately consumed. Packaging and processing play a huge role in our well-traveled food supply, as well as our desire to eat anything and everything whenever we please - regardless of whether or not it’s in season. But food will taste better and have more nutritional value if it’s as close to it’s whole form and it’s birthplace as possible during the time of year when it is naturally occurring. The less processing involved in getting it to your table, the better. The more foods you eat in season, the better they’ll taste, the less you'll need to eat to feel satisfied, and the more you'll get out of them nutritionally-speaking. 
These considerations concerning produce were not expressly understood as cornerstones of our food system back in the day because processing, out-of-season availability, and the like were hardly even present. People didn’t have to think about their food so much because working for it was a part of life - and work for it they did. Not in the sense that they went to work, made a paycheck, and then ran to the nearest grocery chain to cash in on California’s latest harvest, but in that they often did the manual labor necessary to, literally, put food on the table.  
I could go on about this for hours, but I don’t think I would be making points that anyone hasn’t heard before. It’s more about spreading the knowledge and helping people to recognize and understand the importance of making a change in our food system, as well as how it could be done. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are the two names that come to mind first when I think of these issues. With Pollan’s In Defense of Food and Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the issues within our food system, pertaining to our health, our environment, our economy, our future, are all laid out in stunning and alarming detail. 
So do you want to improve your health? Go to your farmer’s market and try out the freshest of local produce or join a CSA and have the food delivered to your doorstop. Then put all of that goodness into your body with as little interference as possible. But the saddest thing is, if we were to go back a hundred years, we'd probably get an even better product. As our agricultural system has increasingly headed toward mono-cropping and reductions in diversity, the soil in which our produce is grown has become decreasingly nutritious. The more we wipe out different varieties of apples, carrots, broccoli, lettuces, peppers, avocados, peas, eggplants, cauliflowers, oranges, tomatoes - everything we can grow in our own country - in order to churn out immense quantities of corn and soybeans, the more we lose the nutritional integrity of these fruits and vegetables. Corn and soybeans are primarily used to process more foods that resemble their whole food origins less and less. Offering little proven nutritional value on their own, on top of the effects of processing that further reduce nutrient content, corn and soybean products pack much less of a punch than the alternative products - fresh produce. But in the age of profit-driven agricultural methods, these tasty and once nutritious fruits and vegetables are being driven out because they are more labor-intensive to harvest and more expensive to grow with a lower sales return.
I sat down to my computer intending to write an essay about the importance of simple, authentic food over the experimental dishes served in many modern restaurants and regional supermarket chains that barely resemble anything our forebears would have recognized as edible. It quickly turned into a meditation on my adventures as a novice cook, and then once again turned a corner to the way we grow and harvest our various forms of sustenance. Allow me to take one more divergent road before I return, somewhat, to my original intentions.
Consumption. We as Americans are an unhealthy group. There’s really no way to deny it or state it otherwise. Obesity, cancer, heart disease, addiction - these diseases and conditions are all abundant today and so much of their causes and cures can be found in what goes into our bodies. Once again, Pollan is a great source for the facts, as well as a compelling argument to shun the grocery store, but I’ll give you the scary overview. A majority of these diseases have higher rates of incidence than ever and most of that can be related to the way in which our Western diet has become so processed and our authentic food culture, non-existent. The French have a high-fat diet but are nowhere near as obese as a citizenry as us in the U.S. The Italians place great emphasis on food, many of which is carb-heavy in their corner of the world, and they have very identifiable dishes, ingredients, and flavor caches. But what do we as Americans have? The hamburger, Kid’s Meals, and fried candy bars? Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but our Western diet is not very well defined, except for the special places that processed and fast foods have in our hearts. Nutritional scientists are always searching for the fad nutrient of the moment, the thing found in foods that makes certain people healthier than others. But if you pay close attention, you’ll see that their brand of science is still far from exact. Nutrients are always being divided in good and evil, with the lines constantly in flux. By isolating nutrients this way, maybe we’re missing the big picture. 
We shouldn’t look at health on a nutrient by nutrient basis, but rather on a cultural or diet-wide scale. The Mediterranean food culture is composed of many ingredients that are largely nutritious and delicious on their own. But they also come together in unique and tasty ways that further enhance their healthful benefits. Certain foods in the Mediterranean diet taste good with others, but beyond the flavorful combination they make, key nutrients in one helps with the absorption of those in the other. In this way, a very sound and complicated food culture exists, one that is flavorful, healthful, and ground in a culture, a land, a way of life and eating. For Americans, no native diet exists. Few whole foods define our food culture. And we are constantly looking at nutrients in a vacuum, eating whatever superfood has been enhanced with whatever is deemed good at the moment, without looking at the larger picture of our diet, our entire nutrient intake, and the form in which we consume our food. For tomatoes fresh out of the garden or, better yet, a farm that’s been growing them longer than any of us have been alive, will be far superior in every way to those masquerading in the grocery store produce section as "fresh produce" or the ones sitting inside a can with excess amounts of sugar and salt, awaiting a spot on a shelf in your pantry. Though nutritionists aren’t expert enough to tell us why nearly every other nation’s food culture seems to yields healthier people,  though it may contain lots of fat or little variety, we need to be smart enough to see that their mysterious wellness far exceeds our own rates of health.
And so I will finally, hopefully, tie things together a bit. There’s a reason why tomatoes and basil and olive oil and mozzarella cheese, the classic Caprese salad, taste so well together. There’s a reason why we’re all getting cancer and gaining weight when we eat microwave dinners, food from a can, and items that our great-grandmothers would not have considered food. There’s also a reason why some people out there swear by the farmer’s market, why they rave about the tastiness of their locally-grown produce and why they’re probably healthier and happier than their grocery-store-devoted neighbors. I don’t always make it to the farmer’s market and sometimes the grocery store is more convenient when it’s late and I’m low on food, when I’d have to wait a whole 6 days to get that last ingredient from the weekly community farmer’s market for the dish I’d like to make tonight. But I also am an informed consumer, so I know that buying any locally-grown produce available at the supermarket is a better choice than that whose origins I can’t identify or the stuff I can't actually see because it’s housed in metal or plastic. I know that eating cookies and fast food and TV dinners and sugary juices are not always the best of choices, not just for my waistline but also for the complex mechanisms going on inside of me that I can’t see or fully understand. I know that my body is constantly sending me signs about my health and what it is in need of that Dr. Oz and his team of nutrition experts can’t tell me, even if I religiously follow their advice. 
Most of all, I know that our food culture is far from perfect, but that there are ways I can avoid the trap that so many people are falling into. I know how to cook food that resembles food, I know which are good choices to make and which ones are the best available alternatives, I know how to indulge responsibly and when too much is enough. I know that I need to develop my own food culture because no one else is going to do it for me - at least not in my lifetime unless some major changes happen soon. 
So much is changing and there are an infinite number of things that could be improved, causes and cries that we can devote our attention to in this day and age. We can’t do it all, we have to choose our battles, buy into what really scares us the most and ignore the warnings that we know are being broadcast for someone’s self-interest other than our own. We need to recognize what issues are most essential and urgent, whether for ourselves or our loved ones or strangers we’ve yet to meet. Personally, I choose health, I choose a new food culture, I choose a homemade meal every night. My diet is the biggest factor in my health status and the thing pertaining to my wellness over which I have greatest control. And when my health is in check, I can take on the fight against hunger or homelessness or indifference or hatred. Knowing that I am doing my best to stay informed and make healthy choices, I can continue to use my powers to help others. That’s what it boils down to for me. I want my family to be healthy, my fiance and our potential future children, my parents and sisters, my friends and loved ones. So I lead a healthy life,  give them an example to follow, encourage them to improve so that they too can experience the best possible mode of well-being, and in turn, allow all of us to continue to love one another and lead happy lives. 
I guess I never really ended up exactly where I intended with this, but I’ve gotten where I wanted to go. I want to encourage everyone to improve their health and I want to make this a call not only for our own personal interests but also for matters larger than our individual selves. I truly believe that everyone has talents and gifts and thoughts that are valuable to someone else - whether that someone is actually a huge audience of people or just one other soul with who real connection and love can be achieved. Regardless of the number of people we impact, the ability to create change and improvements begins within oneself. Don’t mistake this for a religious call or a self-help essay - it is strictly a meditation on health and food and just how essential these things are. Everyone has been placed upon this earth for a reason and, though I worry there are too many of us here for our own good, each and every one of us deserves to lead a good life, to have an opportunity to reach our potential and to experience joy. But in order to do that, there are essential things we need, both available from within and from the charity and generosity of others. To access either of these, health and wellness come first. I need to be healthful in order to help anyone else, let alone to see to my own happiness. That’s what it all comes down to - our health as the very essence of our ability to live and give and connect and love. So take care of yourself and, if you need guidance, seek the advice of some seasoned experts (Pollan and Kingsolver) who will do much to further inspire you to make a change, all the while providing the rules, methods, and know-how to do it. And from me, your well-read, (hopefully) persuasive, non-expert messenger, good luck!


  1. Laura. This is a rocking post! I couldn't have said it any better... nobody could! Fantastic passion in your writing, I really appreciate it - keep it up -

  2. Thanks so much Megan (and thanks for reading this whole long thing)! I'm a huge fan of your blog and your writing too and I'm flattered that you stopped by!


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