Hey everyone, this is Jonathan, a sometimes guest-writer for this wonderful, wonderful blog. He would like to apologize in advance for the “sometimes” part of this, as he is neither good at photography nor particularly good at remembering that he has urges to write. If you’re a completist and read each and every single post on this blog, a bit of self-deprecation: this post may have nothing particularly novel to say about what it means to eat and to cook, but who knows? You may end up loving the post.
It should be no surprise to readers of this blog that both Kala and I are cooking through Alice Waters’ wonderful The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. If you don’t already own it, I couldn’t recommend it enough. While the text certainly includes helpful recipes, its meat consists of ideas and techniques. Waters is more content with teaching skills than simply writing (admittedly amazing) recipes. After reading and re-reading various sections of the book, I become more inspired to generate ideas, to learn more about cooking techniques, and to experience more modes of eating food. As a result, I’ve come to learn that Waters is more of a culinary educator than a recipe writer or cook.
Part of the joys of Waters’ book–and one of the reasons that elevates the book to greatness–is the ways in which Waters politicizes the acts of eating and of cooking. The book is in no way entirely subtle about this. Her introduction includes an enumeration of the guiding principles that dictate her culinary philosophy, including: eat locally and sustainably; eat seasonally; shop at farmers’ markets; plant a garden; conserve, compost, and recycle; cook simply; cook together; eat together; remember food is precious. In all ways, these principles subscribe to the notion that the most ethical way of cooking and eating is by having an intensely personal and intimate relationship with both your food and the ways in which your food is produced. Her recipes often specify for organic fruits and vegetables as well as meat from free-range, grass-fed animals. About locally grown produce, Waters argues that “food tastes naturally delicious when it has been grown with care, harvested at the right moment, and brought to us immediately, direct from the producer.” She continues to claim that a human element is at play when shopping from farmers’ markets, remarking that “one of the best things about the experience [of shopping at farmers' markets] was meeting farmers and learning from them–and influencing them, too, by asking if they could grow vegetables and fruits that had almost disappeared from commerce.” Locally grown produce, then, results in a satisfying interpersonal relationship with the growers of the food as well as a simply better product. Although her arguments about eating ethically raised meats are not as prominently featured, Waters’ suggestions for picking a perfect chicken for roasting provided a perfect moral compass for me to re-examine the ways in select the meat that I buy:
First and foremost: find a good chicken, one that has been raised with care. Because chickens are so widely available and inexpensive, we don’t often think about where they come from and how they are raised. Unfortunately, these days most chickens are produced under factory conditions, cooped up in tiny overcrowded cages, de-beaked, and fed a diet that is heavily laced with antibiotics and frequently includes animal by-products. These conditions are unhealthy and stressful for the birds (and the workers as well) and produce chickens of compromised integrity and flavor. Organic free-range chickens are raised on organic humane conditions, resulting in healthier, tastier birds.
For Waters, eating ethically raised meats and buying locally grown produce results in food that is more satisfying, more ethically sound, and more conducive towards building a tight community of producers and consumers. What’s more, eating food this way is environmentally sustainable insofar as the travel required to transport locally grown foods has a lesser environmental impact.
At the same time that I can totally understand and subscribe to Waters’ culinary (and, moreover, economic and geopolitical) philosophy, it’s been nearly impossible for me to completely carry out a lifestyle that aligns with said philosophy. And there are two main factors that have inhibited this lifestyle change: (1.) it’s based on a notion of what it means to participate in a capitalist economy, one that’s nearly too radicalized for me to adjust to it properly, and (2.) on a nearly related note, it’s far too expensive for me to be sustainable.
I’ll start with an explication of the first reason, which is more or less entwined with the second. For all of my twenty-one years on Earth, I have shopped at a grocery store, where a great majority of the produce and meats are non-organic and not free range/grass fed/likely ethically raised. This form of capitalist participation has been ingrained in me. Even when my family began visiting the farmers’ market years ago, our main place to shop was at the grocery store. Shopping at the farmers’ market was in no way a political act. Instead, it was simply a way of shopping at a different venue. There was no emotionally, politically, socially, or economically charged reason for shopping there.
However, to live a lifestyle that conforms to Waters’ various principles would necessitate a radical reorganization and upturning of the ways in which I shop. I would have to shift my entire lifestyle–I would have to seek butchers who carry ethically raised meats, do much of my shopping during the Friday and Saturday mornings during which the local farmers’ markets operate (which is impossible on Fridays because I work on Fridays), consequently plan entire weeks’ worth of meals in order to purchase all the necessary ingredients to execute said meals in between visits to the farmers’ markets. Here’s where I face the absolute moral dilemma: I completely agree with the Waters’ philosophy and the ways in which culinary interests intersect with economic, philosophic, geographical, and political polemics. At the same time, I would have to radicalize both my shopping and behavioral habits, tear them from the roots, re-envision them. I don’t know if I’m entirely ready for that, yet. As much as I long and desire to do so, there’s something stopping me from doing it.
It’s a lack of capital. I don’t have enough social and economic capital in order to make this possible for me. Just yesterday, I made Waters’ beef stew, which calls for 3 pounds of grass-fed beef chuck (Trader Joe’s price: $5.99 per pound of stew meat, which I used in the absence of a cut that was explicitly chuck). In total, the ingredients for this meal probably cost something close to $30, which is pretty hefty considering the fact that I am saving up for grad school and operating on a budget of about $300 a month (with, say, about a total earning of $1300 a month). What’s more, I cook for my family a lot. By family, I mean either my family of five or my extended family of eight. I pay for at least three meals a week, sometimes more. Despite the ostensibly miniscule difference in price between ethically raised meats and their less-savorily-raised cousins, it is a difference that ultimately adds up and detracts from my own economic capital. Of course, I don’t want to sound like a martyr, because it does not matter to me at all that I am paying for food–if I’m going to cook, I should at least be financially responsible for the disasters or miracles (or whatever is in between) of what I cook.
More than economic capital, I lack the social capital necessary to completely pull off an ethical, tasty lifestyle (or, as Waters calls it, a “delicious revolution”). Internet prowess notwithstanding, I don’t know if it’s entirely possible for me to find all the best resources available to me in order to eat well, deliciously, and ethically.
Most of all, though, I think a form of fear is operating here. I’m terribly afraid of making a lifestyle change, even if it would be far more congruent with my political/social/economic/culinary perspective. At this point, though, I’m getting there. Every time I purchase a plump, probably jacked-up-on-weird-food, way-too-heavy-for-its-own-good chicken breast, I feel a pang of ethical remorse. I feel weird eating apples that I’m certain have traveled half-way across the nation or world just to get to me, covered in pesticides and having lost a significant amount of flavor. I wrote this to wrestle with my perversity and my guilty conscience. But it’s okay. I’m only twenty-one. When my socioeconomic capital increases and when I become ready for a total personal shift, I’ll be ready for a delicious revolution.