How I Became a Foodie

14 Nov

In continuation of the “Introduction to Marissaseries of Q&A posts I’ve been writing over the last few weeks, today we have a question from Cristina from An Organic Wife:

I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

This is a great question because it taps into one of the fundamental questions that really drove me to write The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.

I began caring about what I ate when I became a vegetarian. As I’ve covered in one of the earliest posts ever on this blog — for better or for worse — that decision came as a result of watching a PETA video in college.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, which means that I truly did not know what a farm looked like. As far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store. So when I first understood the reality of a concentrated animal feeding operation, I was so horrified that this was the normative standard that I quit, cold turkey.

But even as a vegetarian, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the larger issues of food. I barely even spent time thinking about how well I was eating. So while being a vegetarian was designed to help me become a ‘better’ eater, I wasn’t concerned with the state of food until seven years later…

I began caring about the state of food when I began thinking about eating meat again. Or rather, thinking about the state of food is what made me consider eating meat again.

In the summer of 2009, I bought and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And while much of that book was a revelation to me (as it was to the country), the aspect of the book I found most illuminating was Pollan’s discussion of the corn monoculture industry.

In tracking a fast food meal backs to its origins, Pollan ends up in a corn field in Ames, Iowa. At the time I read the book, I happened to live in Ames, Iowa, so I had some sense of how much of the land of the Midwest was taken up with growing corn. What I didn’t know was how much of that went to cattle feedlots, or how much damage was being done to the land in the industrial growth methods being used. What I really didn’t know was how much the federal government was invested in corn growth — so much so that corporations were practically being paid to come up with non-cattle uses for all the excess corn.

I went home and started checking the ingredients lists on all my vegetarian foods, and found either corn or soy byproducts in nearly everything — yogurt, salad dressing, whole wheat bread, lemonade, and certainly in my fake meat substitute products — and I was pretty horrified.

The realization I had standing in my pantry on that day in mid-August was that being a vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean that I was opting out of the larger, flawed system of industrial agriculture. Sure, perhaps I wasn’t eating animal meat (though this is often also cleverly hidden in seemingly-innocuous foods) but I was still spending my money within the same system. Corn and meat were part of the same agricultural behemoth.

I spent a few weeks feeling very angry and very disillusioned. But then I kept reading the book, and discovered, along with Pollan, that there was such a thing as a farmer who actually worked with, rather than against the land. And while I read along while Pollan toured one particular farm for his book, I began to wonder whether there may not be some of those farms around me.

As it turned out, there were many. Perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of industrialized agriculture in Iowa, it also seems like a hotbed of sustainable innovation. I met biodyanmic cattle farmers, toured family-run organic vegetable operations, and bought wild, sustainably-harvested Alaskan salmon from Inuit fishermen through an affordable, no-membership-fee buying club right there in Ames, in the middle of the cornfields.

As a result of all this, I was forced to re-examine my initial way of thinking about food. Clearly, being a vegetarian and “opting out” of the system had not solved all the problems, or absolved me of input into the industrial system. And on the other hand, it appeared as if I could buy meat that did side-step that system, and instead supported

At any rate, what I began to learn that summer and fall was that the whole question of what to eat, and from where, was much more complex than I had initially thought. My interest was piqued, but more importantly, so was my conscience. I knew that if I wanted to eat meat again, I was going to have to establish some standards and hold myself to them.

And as I began to do research, to meet more farmers and read more books, I found so much information, so many great inspiring ideas, and so many horrifying, disgusting realities, that I couldn’t turn away. I was sure that many people were in the dark, like I had been, and may  be inadvertently supporting things they disagree with.

So I decided to write a book about my realizations. And two years later, here we are.

What moments in your life have made you care about food — the state of food, your dietary choices, or just how to cook a particular ingredient in a new, illuminating way? Leave a comment or drop me an email at marissa@wemeatagain.com and share your “becoming a foodie” story, and you may end up in a future blog post!

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6 Responses to “How I Became a Foodie”

  1. Cristina @ An Organic Wife November 14, 2011 at 10:34 AM #

    Thanks for answering my question! :)

    I guess my journey started, like many others, with “Food, Inc.” I’d never heard of factory farming. I didn’t know that stuff was in our foods that could harm us. I thought the ingredients in the bread I bought at the store were flour, water, yeast, and salt. I didn’t know that conventional farming was environmentally unsustainable, and in fact, detrimental.

    I did tons of research online, read lots of books, and watched several more documentaries. A quick look through my pantry revealed a diet mostly of corn and soy. The first change I made was switching to organic fruits and vegetables. I visited my local farmers’ market for the first time. Besides the produce, I found many real and homemade foods at the market. Bread with 4 ingredients. Cupcakes without high fructose corn syrup. Raw honey. Locally grown peanuts.

    I began cooking more dinners from scratch. Previously, my idea of a “homemade” dinner had been a box of Hamburger Helper. You have to remember to defrost the hamburger! ;) I threw out almost everything we had in the pantry.

    Probably the last thing I switched was our meat. I thought that “natural” chicken from the supermarket was okay. More research revealed that it’s usually not. I found a beef vendor at the farmers’ market, although I later learned that it quite wasn’t up to my standards. I switched to a 100% grass-fed beef vendor through the local co-op (what a wonderful resource!). I buy chicken parts in 10 pound bags at the market. For my birthday this year, my parents bought me an extra freezer. It was exactly what I wanted.

    Now, we’re about 95% organic. (You can blame the other 5% on the junk my husband likes). I love cooking and baking, and I’m pretty good at both. I don’t buy anything from the store without giving the ingredients list my full attention. Going to the farmers’ market is one of my favorite parts of the week. I’m healthier than ever. I don’t diet, but I lost a few pounds. I rarely get sick. Nothing smells as good to me as a fresh orange.

    But more importantly, I know my local farmers. I’m environmentally responsible. I know what I’m eating. And I’m okay with it.

    • Marissa of We*Meat*Again November 15, 2011 at 6:31 PM #

      Thank YOU, Cristina, for the great question — and for your own great story! I’m thinking of making this into a guest post series, actually. Maybe I will begin with yours…I’ll be in touch!

  2. Liz November 15, 2011 at 12:20 PM #

    Awesome post Marissa. I think that this is the type of thing that’s going to help promote your book and the type of thing that more people need to be thinking about as they make their food decisions–not only what they’re opting into/out of, but also their reasons for doing so and where they are (literally or figuratively) and how that influences those decisions.

    • Marissa of We*Meat*Again November 15, 2011 at 6:30 PM #

      Thanks, Liz! That’s really the whole reason I wrote the book — to work through some of these complexities myself and help people see them where they may be none the wiser.

  3. Steve Gravelle November 18, 2011 at 7:08 PM #

    I think we’re living in a time of a huge growth of awareness about food. Generally, in terms of the food network and the huge bubble of food magazines on the shelf, as well as food blogs and food books like Pollan’s work. you, growing up in Merrimack, NH I never thought much about food. But in college, it started to become clear that food is fuel, and you literally are what you eat. I went thought various food projects like vegetarianism, a brief vegan stint, and then being super-poor and being a very bad, pasta-centric vegetarian. But since then, through countless articles and books and documentaries and general cultural sources, I’ve grown to think a great deal about my food and how it’s made and where it comes from. Which is why I try to make all of my food, and I’ve transitioned from factory-farmed meat and industrial vegetables to organic, local vegetables (whenever possible) and local, grass-fed and cage free meats. And I also obsess about nutrition labels and try as often as possible to get food with fewer ingredients, and no HFCS. And I get sick much less often, have lower cholesterol, and have more energy and a happier digestive system. And I started OUGB to share with other people that you don’t need a degree from culinary school to enjoy cooking and to make simple, healthy food that will keep you healthy and happy. I’ve had no culinary training but cook with a wide variety of techniques and ingredients, and my curiosity and experimenting in the kitchen have led to almost two hundred original recipes! I’m so happy to be a part of the food renaissance.

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