Sunday, June 26, 2011

An Honest Meal

It is such a simple thing: a meal, prepared any number of ways, presented 3 times a day (or more!) to my girls. But the truth of where - and how - this food came to us is often muddled and murky and rarely simple.  These days shopping has become a minefield. The choices we have as a consumer are endless and fraught with meaning for both our families and the world: organic or conventionally grown, local foods vs those trucked in from distant countries, glass products or plastic products or no plastic at all, and the newest option: slavery free. Choosing our food has become a statement of our political opinions assuming we have the means to purchase the often more expensive organic/free range/grass fed/human trafficking free options. 
For a while the girls and I were driving 30 minutes to the next county over to buy farm fresh milk and cheese from a small family run dairy.  The best part was letting the girls walk into the barn each visit and see the cows, pet the new calf and thank the animals for their contribution to our table and health.  The connection they were making between the cow and their breakfast was not lost on them.  Abby often asked about the cows as I poured milk into her bowl or glass or served up a heaping spoonful of yogurt.  She knew that this milk had come from somewhere - and not just the cold case at the local grocery.  Farmers markets and local fruit stands offer similar opportunities of awareness for her, and Isabel, too.  This year we've put in a small garden and I am suddenly remembering why we drove 30 minutes for milk: the awe in their little faces as they dropped seeds into the warm earth and then saw small stalks and leaves leap out and slowly produce fruit.  We have a single tiny green tomato on one lone plant and it has been the talk of the weekend.

I am often asked if my desire to make it all from scratch, grow it ourselves, shop local when I can is environmentally or politically motivated, and I must answer truthfully: no.  I wish I was altruistic enough to be in it to reduce my carbon footprint, to better the community, to raise awareness for people who are forced to pick and process foods against their will, but I'm not.  There are many out there who are working against imported foods and human trafficking, plastic waste and the myth of recycling, as well as locavores who campaign for local grown, local bought to bolster an almost extinct way of life; I, however, am no such a crusader.  I do things this way for any number of complicated reasons: I like to, I think the bread and yogurt and cakes and meals all taste better; but most of all I do it to teach my daughters what honest food looks like.  A green bean you have planted and watered and coaxed back from near-death by rabbit to see bloom and produce a handful of beans for your dinner is breath taking.  It makes each bite meaningful; it suddenly, fiercely, stops you from taking your food - your meal - for granted. 

I was raised on homemade bread and jams as a girl and I'm sure that attention and time in the kitchen has deeply altered my relationship with food.  I understand that starting your dinner at 4 in the afternoon to have homemade taco meat, tortillas, refried beans and rice ready by 6 isn't practical for everyone - or even for me, some days.  But I like knowing I have the skill to prepare all those dishes from scratch even if I don't choose to use them each time.  I love knowing that I am teaching my daughters that there is more than one way to bring a meal to the table.

Here in Western NY a favorite pass time of summer and fall is fruit picking, we are blessed with endless berries and tasty crisp fall apples.  Each time we go out to a field and pick until our backs are aching and our fingers are blue or black or red depending on what we're gathering, I am thankful.  I am thankful that my daughters have stood in a field and seen where a strawberry comes from, how hard they are to find under the wide, soft green leaves, how long it takes to fill the deceptively small quart box.  I hope it teaches them to be grateful for the fruit that is toppled morning after morning onto their cereals and into their out stretched hand.  As they grow up if all they take away from their mother and her crazy kitchen ideas is that a can of diced tomatoes represents an afternoon of hard work or a sweet spoonful of jam was hard picked and painstakingly put up, then I will have done well.  I hope this knowledge will add a delicious layer of understanding to the foods they eat and the meals they so enjoy.

To me, knowing where our food comes from is the meaning of a simple, honest meal.  We can't always eat as 'honest' as I like, the farm milk was a little to pricey for our 3 gallon a week needs, the grass fed, local beef comes only in halves or quarters - of the cow! - and we don't have a deep freezer.  We all make concessions, or at least I do, but every time I turn out a homemade loaf of bread and smear a bit of this season's strawberry jam on it, I am thankful for the small things I have chosen to do.  One piece of toast at a time I am helping to create a relationship with food for my daughters that must withstand a lifetime. 

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