Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

23 Jan

A few months back, I asked We*Meat*Again readers to leave me questions they’d like answered about me on the site. Cristina posed this question: 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.

Little did she (or I) know at the time what would come of the asking.

You can read my answer here. But I was so inspired by the responses to my original post, that I decided to ask some friends to share their stories with me. I sent out a few rounds of emails to people I’ve known in various stages of my life, asking if they would share their “becoming a foodie” story with me. And of the responses I’ve received so far, all have been powerfully moving accounts of wild variation, centering on the theme of food. So I decided to start showcasing some of them here.

One common theme, however, is a near-universal dislike of the term “foodie,” so I’ve decided to try and pioneer the new term “Food Advocate,” since I hope it allows for multiple meanings (some people feel themselves advocates for artisinal food, others for food justice, others for environmentally sustainable food, etc.) without being too unweildy to say or remember either. I’ll explore this in more detail in a future post.

For now, enjoy our first installment in the new “Becoming Food Advocates” Series, from my good friend from New Hampshire, Steve, who writes the blog Or Until Golden Brown. Read, enjoy, and leave us comments sharing which aspects of Steve’s story resonate for you.

Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

When I was growing up, I fondly remember my mother asking me every year around my birthday what I wanted for my birthday dinner.  And inevitably, I always chose macaroni and cheese with sliced up bits of hotdog throughout.

Kraft macaroni and cheese.  The kind with the powder that you mix with margarine and skim milk and stir into cooked noodles.  And probably generic brand Shaws hotdogs.  Sliced into discs.

This was my idea of gourmet.

It tasted so good.  And it was salty.  And a fun, bright orange color.  And those hotdog slices were meaty and fatty and just so good.  And it was the one night of the year when I didn’t have to eat microwaved frozen vegetables with my dinner.

But of course, it was the 80′s.  Convenience was all the rage.  Butter was out, margarine was in.  Whipped cream?  Out.  Fat-free cool whip?  Yes please.  And anything that could be thrown together out of a box, anything frozen or pre-packaged or canned was very much in.  With my family, anyway.

The idea of mashed potatoes is one perfect example.  On a regular basis, my mother would prepare mashed potatoes for dinner.  But did this involve peeling, boiling, and mashing an actual potato?  Of course not.  It involved measuring out potato flakes and mixing them with boiling milk and then adding…what else?  Margarine.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Only on Thanksgiving would my mother prepare “real” mashed potatoes.  That was the distinction.  Either “mashed potatoes,” which came out of a box, or “real mashed potatoes,” which came from a potato.  Even at the time, I recognized a disconnect between preparation of food and awareness of what that food actually was.

I’m sure there were people in the 80′s who ate organic.  Who had a clue where there food came from.  Who put time and energy into cooking everything from scratch.  Surely, some people already had a finger on the pulse of what I’ve come to think of as post-millennial food awareness.  But they didn’t live in the Gravelle household.  Or probably in Merrimack, New Hampshire, a small suburb boasting King Kone, the local soft ice cream stand, five Dunkin Donuts, and a frequent Meat Bingo at the VFW Hall.

Which is not to say that it was my mom’s fault.  She grew up eating only seven things.  Seven meals.  My grandmother, child of the depression, made exactly seven meals.  One for each night of the week with no variation.  And that’s all my mom knew.  She had never tasted pizza before she met my father.  Had never had any cheese except American slices.  Had never tasted a fresh strawberry.  She was 21 years old.

And so I can’t blame her for not knowing how to cook many things, and for playing it safe.  Frozen spinach would never go bad and have to be thrown out like fresh might.  Canned wax beans can’t develop mold.  And a box of mashed potato flakes is surely more economical than pounds of fresh potatoes.  And she was raising three children!  Who can fault her for wanting to employ cost-saving and time-saving into her cooking?

I don’t remember exactly when it happened that I started to seriously think about food.  How I went from actually thinking of vegetables as being frozen to being aware that they grew out of the ground and could be bought fresh.  I know that college was a big part of my food awareness.  Before leaving home, I had never tasted Thai food.  I didn’t know what sushi was.  I thought that I didn’t like asparagus because I had only tasted it from a can and it was stringy, salty and mushy all at the same time.  It turns out, I love fresh asparagus.

In college, I feel like my friends and I were starting to move from the quick, easy meals of our childhood and into more awareness of food generally.  Trying international cuisine certainly helped.  Sneaking ziploc bags of vegetables from the dining hall salad bar home to make stir-fry helped a lot.  And when I decided early in my sophomore year that I was tired of the Tater Tot Casserole (ground beef, leftover tater tots and lots of cheddar cheese), I had the idea to experiment with vegetarianism.  To see how hard it would be to leave peperoni pizza behind and to give up Chicken Patty Wednesday and to stop eating meatballs with my spaghetti.  And I found very quickly that I started to question all of those paradigms I had as to what food is, why we eat it, and to how it makes us feel.

I wanted to incorporate more color into my diet.  I tried every color of bell pepper for the first time.  My friend Ben taught me to sprinkle salt on my eggplant before cooking to draw out some of the moisture and prevent it from getting stringy.  I tried fresh arugula for the first time and found myself loving it.  And suddenly, I was only visiting the dining hall to pilfer ingredients and I cooked most of my meals at home.  I fell in love with veggie burgers and meat substitutes.  I started cooking with beans and tofu and considering foods I’d never seen before.  I first heard the idea of buying “Local” produce when our local grocery store started a small rack of entirely local foods.  It was the beginning.

For the next few years, I went back to eating meat, first poultry by way of incorporating animal protein back into my diet to help put on muscle mass.  I was living in New Jersey and working out three to five nights a week, and I realized that tofu and beans weren’t enough to get me through a weightlifting plateau.  So I started eating chicken and developed shoulders like mountains.

But just because I started eating meat, I was still primarily vegetarian.  I kept the idea of putting lots of color on the plate.  I kept experimenting with new vegetables and fruits.  I tried my first pomegranate that year when my Iranian roommate brought one home from the market.  I still remember the juice dripping down my arms.  My Texan roommate taught me to cook black-eyed peas and how to drink bourbon.  My Jersey-born roommate got me a job at an Italian restaurant, where I tried Lobster Ravioli and Chicken Piccata and Clams Fra Diavolo and Fried Calamari for the first time.  Moving away from New Hampshire and developing friendships with people from all over the country and of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds opened my eyes to food in a whole new way.  The possibilities of what ingredients were out there and how one could cook them seemed endless.

Around that time, I moved to Philadelphia to become an apprentice at a well-known local theatre, where I met a friend from Georgia, one from Virginia, people from California and Colorado and Montana and Seattle.  From the South, from Spain, from Michigan and Canada.  And the more I cooked, the more I found myself talking about food.  And obsessing about food.  And all of these friends I made started to realize how much I loved food and we all started talking about it.  All the time.  And people shared their family recipes with me.  And their methods for cooking one thing or another.  And I just kept cooking.  I cooked every week and started cooking for my friends.  And I started watching the Food Network on a regular basis and discovering new ingredients and new cooking styles I’d never even heard of.

And all of this food talk and cooking and watching and learning started to mingle with documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and various shows on NPR about food and food issues.  And the idea of Food Justice started to enter my mind.  And what we eat and how we eat it and things I’d been thinking about for years suddenly combined with the question of where does my food come from?  And I met some friends who advocated passionately for Whole Foods, and I started going to restaurants that promote local food.  And I discovered first hand how much better food tastes when it’s both local and seasonal.  And I just kept cooking.  And started going to farmer’s markets.  And buying local meats and learning about where my cheeses from from.  And tasting.  And eating.  And cooking.  And hosting dinner parties.  And a weekly Brunch Club for my friends.  And then I found myself cooking a huge meal of both vegan and omnivore versions of the same food.  And I cooked all the food for my own wedding’s rehearsal dinner.  I started a food blog to share my food experiments and experiences.  And I just kept cooking.

So where does this leave me?  I feel like a perfect storm has been brewing in America’s social consciousness about food.  Suddenly, it seems like everyone is asking these big questions about food.  Where does it come from?  Why do we eat so much imported produce?  How are the animals we eat being treated?  How does something fresh taste versus something frozen?  How important are questions of ethics to food?  How important is organic?  Who actually produced and food we consumed?  What is in that McDonald’s hamburger, and how different is it from a grass-fed, locally produced burger at a nice restaurant?

And I don’t have all the answers to those questions.  But to me, being a foodie doesn’t mean always making the perfect food choices.  Sometimes, I just want a Cheez-it.  But being a foodie means asking the question.  I’m not going to visit every farm to check out the growing of everything I put into my body.  But I’m going to try to only buy local produce.  And seasonal.  And to support what I see as a better system.  Local farms are like any local business… without the support of local people, they die out.  So even though it may sometimes be more expensive, a potato that came out of the ground today will always tasted better than one that travelled across the country from Idaho in the back of a huge truck.

And I feel fortunate that I am living in a time when food matters.  And when it isn’t enough to open a box, add margarine and milk and call it good.  When we actually care and are starting to demand more knowledge and more participation in our food system and how our daily choices affect the system as a whole.

As for my mom?  She had ovarian cancer in the late 90′s and started eating an entirely organic, vegan diet, blaming preservatives and pre-packaged foods for her cancer.  She went through a number of dietary changes over the years, from developing an allergy to gluten, beef, mushrooms and soy, to finding the Blood Type Diet and following that for a while.  Now she’s eating cultured vegetables and kefir as part of the Body Ecology Diet, and she’s feeling great.

She’s come a long way from the 80′s.  And so have I.  I don’t eat boxed mac n’ cheese anymore, and I only eat hotdogs rarely, but I do make a mean baked mac n’ cheese from scratch, and I make my own sausage with a meat grinder and sausage stuffer.  But now I use local pork and locally sourced natural casings.  And it tastes—and feels—so much better.

Interested in sharing your story of becoming a food advocate? We’re looking for all variety of stories, from people of all walks of life, whether you consider yourself a casual amateur or a gourmet chef, whether you care about the environment, nutrition, your children’s health and safety or your local butcher.  If you’d like to submit your own post, here’s all you need to do:

  1. Write up the short story of your food journey. What inspired you to start thinking about what you ate and why it mattered. What your wake-up call was. What’s changed. What your challenges have been.
  2. Anything goes — nothing is too small or tangental. (But please write something new — don’t just send us a link to an already-published post.)
  3. Email this story to us: marissa@wemeatagain.com. Use the title: BECOMING A FOOD ADVOCATE STORY.
  4. If you have them, also send along 2 (or 3) photos to help illustrate your story.
  5. Include your contact information (name, what you’d like us to call you, blog address — if you have one, etc.)
  6. Be patient. We’ll get back to you ASAP — but publishing on the site may take several weeks.

Of course, if you have any questions — just leave ‘em in the comments section or email us at marissa@wemeatagain.com.

And don’t forget today is your last chance to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

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