Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

(All) foods have a story

When I was a little girl, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about life in the pioneer days. Two stand out as especial favorites. The first was Farmer Boy, and I think part of what I liked so much in this book was the description of everything they ate:

“Father’s spoon cut deep into the chicken-pie; he scooped out big pieces of thick crust and turned up their fluffy yellow under-sides on the plate. He poured gravy over them; he dipped up big pieces of tender chicken, dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones. He added a mound of baked beans and topped it with a quivering slice of fat pork. At the edge of the plate he piled dark-red beet pickles. And he handed the plate to Almanzo.”

Ruth Reichl, eat your heart out.

My other favorite book in the series was The Long Winter.

For those who don’t remember, The Long Winter recounts the year blizzards prevented the trains from reaching Laura’s little town on the South Dakota prairie. Supplies of coal and food dwindled until the community was on the brink of starvation.

When all the flour in town was gone, Laura’s Pa brought home seed wheat. Using a little hand-cranked coffee mill, the wheat could be coarsely ground, half a cup at a time, to make sourdough bread. Ma baked it in a cookstove fueled with hay twisted into sticks. And that’s how they survived that long winter, on bread and baked potatoes with salt and hot tea. Most of each day’s labor went into making each day’s food.

It’s quite a memorable story.

Today we tend to lose sight of the fact that all our food has a story, a story much longer than the last few chapters when the food makes its journey from supermarket to table. Rather than a story set only in our own kitchens, backyards and local communities, the story of our food is a national story and even an international story.

The first several chapters of our food’s story would explain where it was grown, by whom, under what conditions, and for whose profit. They would detail the story of the seeds’ origin, the planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying and harvesting. The next chapters would go into the transporting, storing, packaging, processing and marketing of our food.

By the story’s end, we would see clearly the impact of our food on environmental health, on our local economies, on our local neighbors who farm and on people around the world.

I recommend Northwest Environment Watch’s book, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning. In it you can read much of the story of one familiar meal: fast-food hamburger and fries. The story of the burger begins with the story of grains fed to cows in a feedlot. The story of Idaho russet potatoes cannot be told without the story of water usage and salmon habitat.

An excellent introduction to the complex international story of our foods is Mennonite Central Committee's 17-minute video, "Food: A Plate Half Full." It may be borrowed through MCC's online catalog.

When we know the more complete story of our foods, then we are better equipped to make choices that feel good to us: choices that help our neighbors and leave a healthier earth.

With Thanksgiving coming this week, here is a prayer from a beautiful collection by the Iona Community, Blessed Be Our Table (Wild Goose Publications, 2003):

Loving Creator God,
We thank you for this beautiful earth from which our food comes.
We thank you for the long chain of people
who grow, harvest and transport it,
who sell, buy and prepare it,
and for those who now serve, share and eat it.
Bless the world and all its people, ourselves and this food,
to bring life and harmony
within your whole creation.
We ask it for your love’s sake.

* * *

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Kale Potato Soup, is a soothing way to follow Thanksgiving feasting. “Starting with Advent, soon after a hard freeze, I begin to make kale-potato soup once a week,” the contributor writes, noting that kale sweetens after a frost. “This is warm, comfort food. It is green and fun to serve with a swirl of something red, like spaghetti sauce.”

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")


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