Tag Archives: The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat

Happy Father’s Day: Hawaiian Pizza

20 Jun

In honor of Father’s Day, a few days late, I thought I’d offer this little anecdote from The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat — the book-in-progress — about the part my Dad played in my development into a foodie…sort of:

Both my father and I are incredibly picky eaters, while, for my mother and sisters, eating is a contact sport. Why anyone would bother to turn down a food they’ve never tried before is beyond their understanding. When I was growing up, they argued their position often, trying to convince my father and I that this restaurant’s Thai satay sauce didn’t really taste like tahini, or that really, a samosa is a lot like a French fry. We remained unconvinced, a fortress together. My father adamantly refuses any parmesan cheese on his pasta—in fact, refuses to eat pasta in any shape other than long spaghetti. With a father who turns down the cheese on a cheeseburger that he orders hockey puck hard, my aversions towards eggplant, lentils, broccoli, or mushrooms never seemed too strange.

Our shared food fussiness meant we were a team on the home turf, strong enough in our protests for anything too weird to invade the family dinner table. We certainly were not going to tolerate any ethnic food on our kitchen table. Once every few months, to indulge their taste for the spicy, my mother and sisters would have what they called “girls’ night out.” They would dress up a little, taking the excuse to use their curling irons to wear heels and eyeliner, and head out on the town for a more international approach to fine dining, and to catch a romantic comedy at the theater by the mall.

I stayed home with my father, relieved to have narrowly avoided getting roped into what I thought of then as far too girly a night, lucky to have missed out on the raw fish or the latest Meg Ryan flick. We’d order a couple of pizzas—plain cheese for him, Hawaiian for me—and he’d let me watch him watch ESPN while I ate off a paper plate on the living room floor. He’d drink a Sam Adams straight from the bottle while we watched the Celtics rattle the backboards at the Garden, him leaping up dramatically with each basket made. We’d laugh as I imitated him, launching myself into the air, coming down on one knee and pumping my elbow backwards, yelling yeah, baby!

These nights with my father were my private victories, my first little rebellions against the culture of womanhood, a culture that seemed to me based mostly on hair and makeup and a far too adventurous approach to food. I knew I shared more in common with my father than either of my sisters, despite the fact that they actually played on the basketball and soccer teams he coached. We liked pizza better than Indian food and we were never going to change.

I must have sensed at the time that I was missing out on something, watching them from a distance as they learned to use chopsticks and hair straighteners, wrinkling my nose at the mysterious cardboard containers they brought home, bottoms spotted with grease from thick yogurt sauces, or round aluminum plates with crumpled edges full of seaweed rolls and thin strips of ginger. My decisions not to go along with my mother and sisters were perhaps too voracious, too full of scorn. I decided I didn’t want to learn that way to be a woman—perhaps because I sensed I wouldn’t be much good at it.

I’ve branched out a bit since then, discovering an adult taste for a good California roll and a vodka martini, tuning in for my fair share of Sex and the City. But I was a quiet, clumsy girl surrounded by brassy, confident women, comfortable in heels or in the kitchen. People who met my family for the first time assumed I was adopted. Rather than be left out, branded the too-awkward tomboy, I chose a different identity for myself. My father was my closest physical analog in the family, and so I took my first steps in self-identity towards him, away from the kitchen. Away from femininity, and towards pizza off paper plates with ESPN.

What are your favorite food & family memories? Leave a comment, or email me to share your story!

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Ragazza Sottile

9 Mar

First, a shameless plug. I have a new (totally non-food-related) essay up at The Nervous Breakdown on why presidential candidates need to remember what they learned in Comp 101, so if you like logic, you should check it out!

But now on to We*Meat*Again business: My post last week on Comfort & Food (which included my Nona’s ravioli recipe) got a pretty good response, so I thought I’d leave you all this week with another recently trimmed excerpt from the book — a scene of our family eating that ravioli! Mangi, all.

*

These meals were the driving force, the reason, the purpose, the very life blood of my hunched, world weary Italian great-great relatives. As a child, they terrified and mesmerized me, full of big booming voices and the incessant, overlapping chatter of too many people who have shared so much history. We packed in around Nona’s good table, her china cabinet shaking with our laughter. The hutch served as an extra table, because there usually isn’t enough space on the main table for all the dishes—homemade pasta, olives, tomatoes, spinach and ricotta cheese, sausages stuffed to the brim with my Nona’s bare, meaty hands.

At Nona’s table, my mother’s brother Paul would always sit next to me, on my left, because he is left-handed.  Paul is a small, dark brown man, thin and straight, a natural with a short-sleeved, white, collared shirt and a cigarette hanging casually from beneath his small black moustache. He is thirty, unemployed and living at home, and he already has an ulcer. Paul is like all of the Italian men in my family. Small and straight, with gigantic appetites and metabolisms faster than my mother can speak, and all completely dependent on their women.

Even after my vision was corrected and I no longer had to wear my massive glasses, every woman at my family’s holiday tables seemed larger than life to me. My mother, her rich, shiny brown hair tightly curled and pulled away from her face. She wears purple and turquoise eyeliner; that’s how strong her skin is. My Nana, who is German, and married into this family, a small, angry woman, who still insists I sit on her lap every time I see her. My Nona, the modest, white-haired matriarch, hands like a map, greasy with meat and the juices of fresh tomatoes, nodding her head vigorously in the direction of my half-full plate.

“What’s wrong with your lasagna?” she bellows, “You didn’t finish!”

“Oh, I’m just not hungry anymore, Nona,” I reply.

But Nona is stubborn, like all good Italians, and she pretends not to understand the things she doesn’t like to hear. “Don-na be silly, ragazza sottile, skinny girl,” she shakes her head at me, “Pass me your plate, I get you some more.”

*

Readers: I need your input. I’m looking for request for future We*Meat*Again posts, so if there’s an ingredient or technique you’d like profile, a recipe you’d like made-over with healthier options, some whole foods-eating advice or how-to posts, or food news and policies you’d like to see explored creatively or otherwise, leave a comment, tweet at me, drop me an email — let me know any way you can!

 

Comfort & Food

2 Mar

My latest issue of Cooking Light magazine has this adorable feature where world-renowned chefs share their favorite comfort food recipes and the stories from their family’s past that explain the emotional component to each dish. I was making Gnocchi with Brown Butter this week and thinking about how comforting food is, how we can have a healthy relationship to comfort food (as opposed to one based on indulging in gross, fatty food for emotional comfort). Because the real reason comfort foods are comforting is that they remind us of people.

I thought I’d share some scenes from The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat cutting room floor (something recently cut from the manuscript) that reflects on this, the communal cooking of my Italian childhood, and the emotions tied up in those rituals. Enjoy!

*

This past Christmas, Nana announced that she was not going to make ravioli anymore. Last year, around December 17th, an ice storm hit New England, where my parents and grandparents both live, ten minutes apart from each other, in the town where I grew up. Both houses were without power for more than two weeks, and though they tried to salvage the food in the basement freezer by tossing it out into the waist-high snow banks in the backyard, the freeze was too deep to preserve the delicate ricotta filling or the spiced ground beef in the centers of the ravioli. All the hard work ruined.

It’s an Italian tradition to eat ravioli early on Christmas Eve—dinner of cheese and meat ravioli, tomato sauce, Italian sausage and an uncapped shaker of Parmesean to dump snowy mounds over everything, around four, before the eight o’clock mass. So every October, my parents and grandparents have a ravioli-making day to prepare the massive batches of ravioli this family dinner requires. The four of them, sometimes joined by one or more traveling Landrigan daughter, passing through her hometown, gather in Nana and Gampi’s tiny white cottage kitchen and perform the balanced construction.

First, the pressed pasta, birthed the week before by Nana and Gampi, alone. Then the alchemy of the filling, beating together egg and ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, parsley. Letting beef simmer in its own juices in a skillet over a low gas burn. Then the cooling. The ravioli dough thaws on the laminate countertop, waiting to be rolled. Soon, my Nana’s small arms, brown and spotted with time, take the wooden rolling pin to the yellow dough, kneading and stretching it taut, until you can nearly see clear through the material. This is just the getting ready.

Next, the assembly line. After Nana rolls out the dough, she and my grandfather, together, lift the wide, flat dough up and over, laying it down across the ravioli plaque, a two by twelve series of fluted-edge metal squares, that look like conjoined cookie cutters. They are not cookie cutters. The dough hangs there, suspended. Gampi, the most patient, uses the plastic mold to gently—so gently—imprint tiny round crevices into the center of each ravioli, creating filling pockets. My mother’s job is to use two spoons, regular dining room table spoons, to scoop just the right amount of filling into these pockets, without overflowing, without skimping on the good stuff, without bursting the bubble of dough with the weight. My father, the least Italian and therefore the least trusted in the kitchen, uses a pastry brush to dust the filling with a few sprinkles of water, to help seal the dough together. And then Gampi is there again, ready, waiting, another sheet of rolled-out dough hanging softly between his two thick hands. He lays the second sheet on top of the filled raviolis, still hanging over their metal plaque.

These next steps, the most crucial, are always Gampi’s and my mother’s. Nana is hard at work rolling out another two sheets of dough, and my father has retreated. Gampi moves the rolling pin over the pressed dough, with just enough pressure to cut along the fluted edges of the plaque, just enough flour to avoid catching the sticky dough against the pin, or his hands. If you’re good at this—and Gampi, his mother’s son, is very good—the ravioli don’t drop. They are trimmed, but fit perfectly inside the plaque. Gampi turns the plaque over quickly, but smoothly, without any jerking, and gives it one solid, insistent tap against the counter.

As the newly made raviolis drop from the plaque, he hands them to my mother, who places the two-inch square pasta pillows onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet in a single layer. This is an honor. This is an important job. She takes it very seriously, and she loves it. My mother, a daddy’s girl, loves that her father has entrusted her the sacred position of moving the finished product from here to there, from construction to creation.

That’s what it takes to make twenty-four ravioli, and in one batch, Nana and Gampi make two hundred cheese and three hundred beef ravioli. They like to stock up. So when the freezer kicked it during the ice storm and the ricotta congealed and the ground beef striated with grey burn, that was the worst thing you could have done to Nana. The ravioli were ruined and so was Christmas. We ate store-bought ravioli that year and nothing, nothing could be more a slap in the face. She refused to ever go through that again.

Nana’s Ravioli’s Recipe:

4 c. flour

5 eggs

1 egg shell water (whole egg shell)

Mix with fork not too wet. Let rest 10 mins. Covered 10 mins. After kneading 10 mins.

Cheese Filling

1 big ricotta

3 eggs

Salt + pepper

Parsley

¼ c. grated cheese

There are no directions for the hard part—for the rolling, the pressing, the filling, the cutting, the careful handling. Because that’s not something a person would ever do alone.

Corporate Vegetarian Food

8 Dec

I’m in the midst of a pretty serious overhaul of the working manuscript of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, a process that is involving the second major rounds of cutting/rewriting to the book in the few years I’ve been working on it. This go-round involves the extrication of much of the research elements of the book–or at least a reframing of them as personal revelations.

So I thought that perhaps some of those segments might work well here on the blog, where the research may be new or at least interesting information. Let me know what you think of this one below, and perhaps I’ll make a trend of this. Scenes from the cutting room floor…

(Fellow Ithaca College alum may recognize some details…)

My first meals as a vegetarian, eaten in the crowded, generically-decorated dining halls of my college, were prepared by Sodexho. These dining halls were palatial, and would have impressed any dorm-dweller. One house had a vegan station and another a kosher station (with on-site rabbi), complete with separate kitchens and staff. All held tin warming counters polished to a glisten, swinging heat lamps hung down low over the chafing dishes of hot entrees, a sandwich bar, a salad bar, a soft-serve ice-cream machine, and lots of choices. We could choose from three different dining halls, including one with a waffle station and a fountain, or another that was open until midnight during the week. They were staffed by latex-gloved, hair-netted blue collar employees: small, frail women with thick glasses, men with big biceps, faded tattoos, edges softened with time, young Latin- and African-American men, fresh out of high school, who were not students at this college.

I didn’t know then that Sodexho, the 22nd largest employer in the world, pays their food service workers as little as $8.27 an hour to reheat frozen bags of soup and spoon them out to college students and elementary schoolers, to wash our dishes, to stock our salad bars, to fill our ice cream machines, to swipe our cards at the entrance. Since Sodexho employees are only needed during the school year, most are essentially laid off during the summer months, and are not guaranteed their positions will be available in the fall. I didn’t know that the HMOs Sodexho offers their employees cost more than a quarter of a full-time income. That Sodexho posts annual profits in the hundreds of billions. That their most lucrative source of income are the private prisons they operate, including ones they contract with the U.S. military to build and run on foreign soil. That most of the Sodexho workers making my on-campus food would have qualified for federal anti-hunger programs.

*

In the Campus Center Dining Hall, at the vegan station, there were these veggie burgers, made with brown rice and black beans. I imagined them soft in someone’s hands, rolled around and flattened, the way my Nona’s raw meatballs felt in my palm before they were baked. Burgers tossed onto a slatted grill by a twenty-something guy with flowers on the backs of his hands I could just barely see through the gloves, then wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper and placed in a cardboard container, next to the side of the coveted sweet potato fries. We loved the Sodexho sweet potato fries, the perfect layer of corn-syrup crispy on the outside, a delicate crust that broke open into the soft, tanning-salon orange flesh of the fry, always just this side of too hot, crumbling and sweet.

We would sit in circles around tables, us white college kids, and talk about serious things, about free trade and facial piercings, and shove whole handfuls of these sweet potato fries into our mouths. I was happy to let someone else do the cooking.

Thanksgiving Carnage

28 Nov

Back to regularly-scheduled posting tomorrow, but for now, I thought I’d leave you all with some Thanksgiving aftermath photos.

Every year, we laugh about how long it takes to prepare the meal versus how long it takes to eat it, so this year, I thought I’d pay my respects to the dinner table disrepair…

To the leftovers…

To the dishes left to wash…

To the turkey carcass to be gutted…

And leave you all with a little mini-excerpt from the book, a Thanksgiving carnage prose poem:

On Thanksgiving, after the turkey was carved and gutted, after we’d sliced through one half of the twenty-pound bird my mother insisted on ordering, though there were seven of us for dinner only, my father and grandfather would return to the half-spent carcass and harvest the rest. They would dig their thick hands into the ribcage and pull out shards of meat, darker than a roux, dripping with bone grease, and toss them, by whole handfuls, into my mom’s biggest saucepan, where she would boil it in a stock to freeze as turkey soup for later, for the winter nights.

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!

Reading & Writing The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat

9 Nov

I promised you all another video post, and finally I am able to deliver. Thanks to the benefits of having a full-time media staff available at my university, I have a video of a lecture I gave on campus this past week titled “We Meat Again: Activist Writing & Becoming Un-Vegetarian”. The lecture focused on the genesis of the project, the process of writing it, and in particular the blend of the personal and political that made me want to tackle food as a subject for my first book.

It’s quite long, and since I know we don’t all have time to sit and watch a 50 minute lecture, I’ll probably skip a post tomorrow and let everyone have some time to look it over and let me know what you think.

Or, in case you only want to watch bits and pieces, here are some of the things covered.

Up to minute 8: I introduce the project and specifically my desire to write as a form of social action. Through this, I discuss how and why food was the subject I chose to write about.

Between minutes 8-28: I read four short excerpts from the book, and after each, discuss a challenge or technique in constructing a personal political narrative. This is the section to check out if you’re interested in hearing more of the book itself.

Post minute 28: The massive question & answer session! Lots of people had lots of questions and I had a lot of fun trying to answer them all. It was really illuminating for me, since I’m still such a novice in the field of food — and am really only an expert in food writing – to see what people care about, what they need to know more about, and where their interests lie. This Q&A covered everything from my diet and weight, urban gardening, Monsanto State University, the unending process of cutting/rewriting/cutting some more that entails writing a book, and a list of some of the other boycotts I’ve personally enacted.

Anyway, hope you all find something useful and/or enjoyable in here, whether from the writing itself, the personal political writing process or the food and dietary questions. Watch and enjoy and share widely as you like, and feel free to ask any questions you would have wanted to in the comments section, or via email!

Working on the Farm

3 Nov

A couple weeks ago, I asked you readers to toss me some introductory questions, starting with what more you’d like to know about the face behind this blog. I got some great questions — some of which are BIG ones — so I decided to answer them in parcels, tackling one or a few at a time.

Today’s question comes from my old friend Steve of Or Until Golden Brown, and has to do with something I mentioned in my introductory post: what’s this about you working on a farm…?

Yes, it’s true. For a brief two weeks in the summer of 2010, I worked as a volunteer at Shooting Star Organics, a small-scale vegetable operation in southwest Wisconsin.

About a year into the writing of my book, it was becoming increasingly clear that I couldn’t just write it based on the experiences with food I had already had. Chapters were already being born on environmental sustainability, global poverty and urban hunger. I was knee deep in researching agricultural systems and I had no clue what I was really talking about.

One of the coolest things about my very cool MFA program is that all students are required to complete 90-120 hours of field work — in the subject area of our choosing. The hope is that by getting us writers out of our dark basements and academic caves, by forcing us introverts to interact with the world around us, we might better be able to write to that world. And so I decided that for my field work, I should spend some time working on a farm.

Luckily, one of my hippie professors just happened to have close personal friends who ran a small, organic outfit, and who also just happened to have a guest house I could stay in for free. So off I went into the rolling hills of Wisconsin to learn — a little — about farming.

Here are some things I learned on the farm (as recounted in the early drafts of my book):

  • Farming is work

By the time we stood up in the radish plot, my knees were already swollen and stiff. In the hoop house I moved around in a seated position to give my sore joints a break, but soon felt a searing warmth spreading in my lower back. Later that week, I would notice stretched sore muscles in my abdominals, from bending and lifting heavy bags of fertilizer, and strains in my hamstrings from the sideways-step lunges I did up and down the rows while laying pepper plants.

More than the physical aches of the work on the farm, I found another way that the labor was hard—it was dirty. Dirty doesn’t even begin to describe the layer of slick you get up to your knees crawling up and down the ground of a hoop house that’s just recently been watered, or laying irrigation strips beneath a plastic tarp covering in the eggplant plot. We all know what happens when water mixes with soil. What you might not know is what that combination does to even your heaviest hiking boots when you step ankle-deep in it: sucks the shoe right off your foot, so you come down into the muddy soil in nothing but a gym sock.

But all that dirt and muck—the smudges of it on my face and arms, crusted into my braids—reminded me of the fundamental truth of the farm. All food grows in the ground. Food, when you do it right, comes up out of the dirt of the earth. And sometimes that’s messy.

  • Farming is natural

Every night, Jenny had a report about how much rain might be falling tomorrow, and during which hours. But for the first time in my life, this kind of information was not small talk, but absolute necessity. Knowing that it would rain between one and three in the afternoon meant we had to get started an hour earlier to get all the lettuce harvested and out of the field before lunch, so we could wash and pack it in the barn during the showers. Cutting lettuce in the rain would mean dirty, slimy leaves that would take more washes to come clean, and the washes would wilt the lettuce with too much moisture.

Jenny had to know the weather. She had to know when it was going to rain to plan the daily schedule, to decide whether or not to put the seedlings in the ground, to know if we’d need to water the baby lettuces waiting for harvest, or if they would have a storm to help them grow for another two days in the hot June sun without drying out before they were ready to pick. Knowing the weather meant knowing how much produce would be for sale that week.

One afternoon late in the week I got caught in a torrential downpour while attempting to plant leeks, their newborn root structures disintegrating in my fingers, the seedling threads like blades of grass crumbling under a few drops. I had to run inside to save them, and then ate avocado sandwiches standing up in the kitchen to avoid muddying the table. The weather was ever-present, another reminder that food-growing is an operation that can’t be done without the cooperation of nature, a cycle that can’t be complete without the basics of sunlight and water. A simple truth, but one I wasn’t sure was common knowledge anymore, in the world of Taco Bell’s 88 percent beef burrito.

  • Farming is religious

On the drive back to the farm from market on Saturday, Rink told me that in Mineral Point, they called market “church.” This is their weekend worship ritual, their version of finding spirituality and living in harmony with a higher moral calling. Thought it was sort of a joke—the market was a place for gossip and socializing, and a place where people who lived ten miles out of town on a farm could spend time chatting with their friends—there was a current of truth to the mingling of food and religion. On the cool, sunny afternoon I spent there, I couldn’t conjure something more significant than a community committing itself to supporting the people who worked hard to providing healthy, safe food for their neighbor’s children. When hands were shaken and produce bags stuffed full here, it meant something greater. It meant something like take this, all of you, and eat of it.

  • Farming is love

On one of my last days at the farm, as Rink and I walked up and down the rows, one foot in front of the other, tossing squash seedlings to the soil, where we would later crawl along the ground and scoop palms full of dirt up to plant them, Rink stopped, resting the tray of squash plantings on his hip and asked, “You know what I love about squash?”

I smiled and shook my head.

“It’s so precocious,” Rink continued, returning to the rhythmic dropping. What he meant was that squash plants flower very quickly, taking only about a week from the day we put them in the ground to blossom. To Rink, this plant was one of the best representatives of the cyclical nature of a vegetable farm, but I was struck by how human he made them. These plants could be described with the same adjectives a person might use to describe their kids. Though Rink has a son—who he loves, very much—he sees the plants as his too, not with the same level of love, but with the pride that comes from a powerful, long-term devotion. That’s when I saw food-growing for what it was to Rink & Jenny—more than hard work, more than sore knees and sunburns, more than extra paperwork and no extra cash for health insurance. It’s farmer’s markets and shaking hands, it’s wind and sun and rain, it’s the reason for soil. It’s pretty lettuce and precocious squash. There is no evil here. Farming is as simple and beautiful as growing food for people to eat.

I’ll tackle more of the crazy things I’ve done in the process of researching my book in a video post next week. Until then, feel free to ask a question of me whenever you have one — whether about me, the eating choices I’ve made, the recipes I love or anything else. Tweet it to @WeMeatAgain, leave a comment, or drop me an email, anytime!

Good Food in Montana

6 Oct

I am off in the great state of Montana for a few days, giving a reading at the Western Literature Association’s annual conference, and hobnobbing with literati like Alan Heathcock, Kim Barnes, and Rick Bass. (By hobnobbing I mean attending their readings and ogling.) So I thought I’d share with you all today some writing on Montana and food, from my book, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.

First, an explanatory note: I always have a strange sense of nostalgia when I visit Montana. I lived here for about two years, five years ago, and almost straight out of college. This was a place full of promise for me, the first place I imagined I might be able to make my own home. Ultimately, it felt too far away when I lived here, young and idealistic and liberal-minded, but the mountains and the October weather still manage to tug on my heart when I return.

But enough nostalgia. The reason I mention all this is that these issues of home, identity and community are all a part of the essay I’ll be reading heree — an essay that ultimately focuses on an elk hunt I went on here in Missoula last October, as research for the book. As much as this place is tied up in memory and self-hood in my mind, food is an integral part of that. Here’s just a short excerpt from a middle chapter of the book that tries to begin to explore why…

When I got off the plane in Bozeman, having left the city after just three months there, I was twenty-two and broke; three months after graduation and three months before my student loans came due, so I took the first job I could get, unpacking souvenirs in the basement of a gift shop on the corner of Main and North Rouse.

One of my co-workers was a small sixteen-year-old native Montanan, mouthy and eager in her forest green polo shirt, working Saturday mornings for a few hours to save money for college. She took to foreign, eastern, college-educated me, and we spent hours talking about reading while we pierced price tags into stuffed animals and t-shirts. Maggie, with her long mousy-brown ponytail and freckles, one day told me she thought she’d settle in Belgrade because there was still space there for a small patch of land, and she liked the dense hunting cover and she asked if I’d ever had venison.

“No,” I replied, casually, unguarded, “I’m a vegetarian.”

And Maggie said, “What? Oh. I… I don’t know if I can be friends with a vegetarian.”

I worked at a gift shop, so I interacted with tourists on a daily basis. Customers asked me where the best burger in town was (The Garage) or how far to the nearest post office (three blocks straight south, one west) or whether or not the Museum of the Rockies was open on Saturdays (yes, 10-4) or how I liked the powder (this one I made up, since I wasn’t then and haven’t yet become, a skier). I may have just moved into Bozeman, but I was a resident. I thought of myself as comfortable there.

When I asked Maggie why, she seemed slightly confused and said, “Well, it’s just…I learned how to skin and gut an elk when I was twelve.”

This was the moment I began to think of myself as an outsider in the West.

*

Growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t know any farmers. And though people in New Hampshire hunted, I only knew hunters as the ricocheting echoes of boom in the backyard, as the flashes of orange and the reason I couldn’t play out in the woods in October. The pine trees in the back of my house were thin and easy to see through, only an acre deep. The forest, as I knew it, was a safe place, safe for ground-level tree forts and Peter Pan fantasies, for sword fights on fallen logs across small brooks, a place full of dense orange needle piles that hid nothing more ominous than the occasional garter snake.

Hunting was a distant tradition, an idea I thought of as something from times past. The men of my family, what few there are, did not own any guns, or knives, had never spent a wet Saturday hunkered down in a blind, waiting for a pass of brown across the binoculars. We got all our meat at the grocery store and the only blood on my parents’ hands was from the packaging. We lived right up against the edge of the woods.

Plenty of people on the East Coast do hunt, but the culture of hunting in the West struck me as somehow different, more serious, more highly revered. The tradition of stalking and killing animal prey means something in a country founded on the back of the hunt. The history of the West is one of open range buffalo slaughters, which grew into small towns run by cattle ranchers. The gun is a triumph over those hard times, a memorial to the cowboy skills of the West’s recent past. Maintaining that tradition by teaching the next generation to hunt is their way of keeping alive their history, and of differentiating themselves from we pampered East Coast liberals with our supermarket steaks and our big cities.

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