Becoming Food Advocates: Liz’s Story

6 Jun

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.

Hence was born our very irregular series of posts on the topic of Becoming Food Advocates, wherein I’m gathering stories by readers and friends of the blog to tell us the story of how they began to care about food. Today, we’ll hear from my good friend Liz, who writes the blog Flexitarian Writer, about her story, which began in childhood.

Becoming Food Advocates: Liz’s Story

Food & food traditions are integral to the family I was raised in. I grew up making tamales at Christmas because my parents grew up eating them (they both grew up in central Texas), not to mention the more regularly featured mole, carne asada, and homemade tortillas. The “central” part of Texas is a key detail to why I grew up with strong food traditions—even though they often came into conflict. Central Texas attracted a lot of German settlers and on my dad’s side of the family contains strong German lineage. So, I also grew up eating sauerbraten, red cabbage with apples, noodle kugel, stuffed cabbage leaves, pumpernickel and rye.

That was before our food traditions got weird. In my early elementary years, my mom told my dad that she refused to eat turkey more than once a year because she really didn’t like it. I didn’t like ham. So our Easter meal became based in Middle Eastern cuisine—things that would possibly have been eaten during the “real” Easter—yellow rice, a yogurt-honey-goat dish, bitter greens.

By the time I reached middle school, a typical week of meals (by cuisine) might have looked like:

  • Monday – Mexican (perhaps a carne verde stew or a del mar something or other)
  • Tuesday – Chinese (Americanized, cashew chicken or chicken cabbage peanut; or more traditional – a soup made of cloud ear mushrooms and tofu)
  • Wednesday – Leftovers
  • Thursday – something moderately quick, but newly cooked — chicken paragonia was a popular one, as was stroganoff
  • Friday- something with fish or vegetarian
  • Saturday – tacos
  • Sunday – Indian or leftovers

My family almost always ate dinner together—an opportunity to communicate, an opportunity to bond, an opportunity to fight. There were times I hated this tradition, particularly in high school, after a brief family-dinner hiatus where we all got home at very different times. It seemed like an opportunity to stress—and there were a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which was simply me being a teenager.

In middle and high school, I made dinner a couple of times a week—I grew up helping in the kitchen, did most of the baking by high school, and my dad and I made something of a wall that shut my mom out of the kitchen pretty effectively. She got distracted, let things burn, didn’t cook other things enough. She was better at baking—she taught me to bake and then I took off with it. Sometimes I feel guilt for taking over this aspect of the family kitchen, but my impression was that she never really enjoyed baking or cooking. My dad and I bonded over it.

This bond suffered some when I became more conscious about food. At some point in college, I became hyper-sensitive to the “food as fuel” idea and started carefully trying to monitor the things I was putting in my body so that most of it was fuel. I couldn’t always afford organic on a student budget, but I avoided things with HFCS, with a lot of sodium, and anything with more than one or two ingredients I couldn’t pronounce was definitely out of the question. When I went home, I fought with my parents over food, refused to eat some of the things put before me, questioned their choices in the grocery store.

During my second year of college, I lived with a woman who not only had Celiac’s (the inability to digest gluten), but also lactose intolerance and a couple of other intolerances I can’t remember anymore. The list of things she couldn’t eat seemed too extensive to me, so I was always asking “Can you eat this…?”

Before that, I’d never heard of Celiac’s, didn’t understand how a person could avoid wheat (because it IS in freaking everything, just like corn & soy), but shopping with her and cooking with her opened my eyes to a whole new set of food issues, and also a whole new set of food experiences as far as baking, cooking, and eating are concerned. Now, I have a close friend’s son is allergic to wheat, milk, all nuts including legume-peanuts, soy, rice and possibly eggs. In other words, every major food allergy you can have and a couple that are less common like tomatoes and strawberries and I’m not sure how they eat, or how he’ll survive to adulthood – especially  since my friend is (trying) to raise him vegetarian.

One of the things I noticed as I became more food-aware is the extent to which most people aren’t food aware (and don’t seem to care) and this boggles my mind. A coworker routinely eats chocolate-covered gummy bears, chugs energy drinks, and eats canned soup. Another coworker seems to survive on protein bars, Starbucks, and bananas.

But I think there’s also this sub-culture that cares enough about where their food comes from—how far it travels, how it was produced, if it’s in season, if it contains GMO ingredients, that food activism and awareness has become something these “I don’t care…” folks actively push against — it’s seen as a neo-liberal movement, or elitist, or as something that someone can only care about if they can “afford” good food – and we see this again and again as we point out the racial and socio-economic lines in the “obesity epidemic” – and yet there seems to be so little that we do to combat this in the soup kitchens and other places.

When I volunteered in a soup kitchen in Ames, Iowa, where I attended grad school, I watched one very thin man horde loaves of bread, which he clearly wasn’t eating. I watched as the Head Chefs struggled to prepare nutritious meals when both the pantry and fresh foods were incredibly low and struggled as a Head Chef in the same capacity several times. It sucked when my options were sandwich meats, iceberg lettuce, canned peaches—and I didn’t even necessarily have all those at the same time. And I found it incredibly frustrating that people only really donated to the kitchen’s pantry during the food-drive times of year (and mostly crap-food at that), as though people weren’t always going hungry, as though most of the people making those donations would eat the foods they donated.

When we started gleaning from the farmers market in Ames, that made a huge difference to our produce supplies and our ability to create fun new dishes that the guests enjoyed—but only a few of chefs even pretended to be up to this task. Others just shied away from the produce, because they didn’t know what to do with it or had a strong bias against a particular vegetable or fruit.

I was there often enough that regular guests noticed when I wasn’t there on the days I was supposed to be, that they asked me about other volunteers who had moved or stopped coming. A few gave me hugs. I heard updates on apartment searches and job searches, on getting a forever-failing truck fixed, on a set of estranged children. I witnessed the community that formed within the confines of the church basement turned soup kitchen, was reminded of how much food helps build community – and then saw it repeated as I volunteered on other farms around Ames, at Mustard Seed and Onion Creek.

I grew up in a world where food was integral to our family’s community, as we forged our own traditions from our food habits. But so many of the people I’ve encountered out in the world have shown me that not everyone gets to participate in that community – their diets or incomes or schedules or abilities limit their access. But the possibility for community is always there, and it’s that I try to return to, whenever I cook with friends, whenever I welcome others into my kitchen.

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: 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 just want to read more, Y\you can read my story here, or the first Becoming Food Advocates guest post by Steve of Or Until Golden Brown

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