Saturday, January 26, 2013

what's in the pot?

I'm cooking stock--a lot of it--hoping for about 36 cups.  There's something so completely satisfying about this pot, simmering and smelling so heavenly on the stove.  It seems a culmination?  A witch's brew? A recycling? A pot of healing power?  I don't know.

Why do I get so inspired by a pot of soggy boiling stuff? 

I think it brings together a lot of things.

I remember sitting with friends in college, eating some sort of frozen meal - a creamy, but fat free, chicken cordon bleu, I think.  I held up a forkful of this "delicious" frozen dinner and said with amazement: "They can turn anything into food!" 

If you asked me to eat that same meal now, I know I'd gag in the trying. 

I also remember the first time it occurred to me to question the source and content of my food.  A friend of my sister's, Mary, had researched the possible causes of her husband's cancer.  Mary told my sister she believed people were getting sick from all of the preservatives and additives in food.  My sister repeated this to me in almost hushed tones.  "Really" I said, in that weighted way you do when you've just heard some very juicy gossip.   I can't say a light bulb went off bright white and hot over my head, but it set to humming in a dim but persistent glow.  Was our food safe? 

Already foodies who loved to cook, my sister and I set out on a journey.  It wasn't a mission at first, just a journey.  It involved a little accidental discovery here, a little shock and outrage there, a medical problem or two thrown in for good measure, some research as it came our way, and overall, a general pattern of gradual adoption and change.  We're still hunkering our way down the path of it now. 

There are so many different reasons for avoiding highly processed or industrial food.  From health, to the environment, to ethics.  You don't have to learn about them all at once.  You don't even have to care about them all at once.  It would take years before I would begin to avoid the preservatives and additives that Mary warned us about.  Her concerns simply served as an impetus that set us off, to find our own way. 

I started with organic milk in 1998.  I remember the first time I bought it, paying twice the money (about $3.50) for a half gallon than I used to pay for a whole gallon.  This felt like a huge extravagance to me (one I, of course, hid from Steve like another new pair of designer shoes), but I was learning about the "true costs" of cheap food, so I made the leap and spent precious extra dollars on just that one thing. 

Doing it, I felt empowered, like I could change the world.

Over the next few years, I heard increasing rumblings about organic food, but Gareth was a toddler, and  I was buried deep in my Ph.D. program.  We ate fresh and homemade meals, but our food choices centered around creativity and pleasure more than they did politics or spirituality.

Then I did some reading: Your Organic Kitchen (a cookbook) by Jesse Ziff Cool in 2000, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser in 2001, and The Healthy Kitchen  (another cookbook) by Andrew Weil, M.D. and Rosie Daley in 2002.  These three books introduced me to the realities of mass produced food and the attendant need to eat local and organic whenever possible.  The books came out over the course of three years, so I had time to absorb and process the information. 

At the time, organic vegetables showed up in the grocery store about as often as salami showed up at the doughnut shop.  Still, I fell into the rhythm of seasonal eating, organic or not. I began to feel annoyed with my usual cooking magazines and their insistence that I rustle up fresh tomatoes or cilantro in February.  Never a fan of fast food for its obvious health implications, I also began to think, for the first time, about food choice as connected to something larger - a petroleum dependent industry laden with questions about the ethical treatment of animals, use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, loss of biodiversity, and the disappearance of the small family farm.

My new convictions about food gathered steam after that.  I discovered my organic CSA (community supported agriculture, or coop) in 2003.  My sister randomly met a woman who ground her own grain for bread (and who taught us to do the same) in 2005.   And at some point, we made a trip to a local pick-your-own farm and came home with 90lbs of strawberries between us.  I don't know what came over us--some sort of bizarre frenzied panic to gather way more than our fair share?  We had all of those berries either in a jam jar or the freezer before the sun went down that night, so I'd say we officially had the fever.  We canned applesauce that fall and gradually added other things like tomatoes and peaches as the years went by. 

Over those same years, I'd gradually shifted my produce shopping from the grocery store to the farmer's market, supplementing what I got from my CSA with food from other local farmers.  I had a growing sense of control--I thought I had it all figured out!  Then, in what felt like a huge setback, Olivia was diagnosed with food allergies and sensitivities in 2009.  To resolve digestive issues, rashes and trouble with excessive hyperactivity and inattention, the doctor advised no wheat, gluten, dairy, egg, or peanut. No food dyes, preservatives, additives or refined sugar either.   She couldn't eat my homemade bread!  More eye opening, however, she couldn't eat most of what we had in our cupboards: cereal, cookies, crackers, pasta, cheese sticks, yogurt, carrots dipped in ranch, granola bars, pretzels, toast, sandwiches, waffles, butter. 

While this news turned our worlds upside down for a time, it also taught us the hardest of all the lessons about food:  regardless of where we got our produce, we also needed to stop eating all that crap that populates the shelves in the bone dry desert of nutrition we call the center of the grocery store.  For Olivia's sake, we had to, and in so doing, came to understand the real meaning of eating whole food.  That means food that hasn't been divided up into its smallest parts then recombined in unnatural proportions, pulverized, salted, sweetened, packaged and shipped. 

Living without it sounded so complicated, but it turned out to be so simple.  When we went to the grocery store and read labels, there was very little Olivia could eat, right down to the ketchup (complicated!), but when we started out with meat, fish, fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet, there was very little Olivia couldn't eat (simple!).  Olivia's body was telling us it only wanted real food.

And the changes transformed her, both physically and mentally.

Figuring out this new diet really turned up the power on that light bulb over my head.  I now had a sense of urgency burning hard and bright.  By then I'd also read Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  I stepped up my efforts to eat locally, canning a wider variety of foods each year, finding Polyface Farm for our grass fed meats, and last year, finding a winter coop through a fruit vendor at my farmer's market. 

This year, I've discovered something I should have know more about a long time ago: winter markets!  More on that in another post, I think.

So, you see, when I tell you I'm making stock, I think what I'm telling you is that I have this story in a pot on my stove.  It holds celery and onions from my winter coop, the carrots frozen from my summer coop, chicken carcasses we've kept frozen and recycled from several previous meals of whole, local and grass-fed chickens, and the herbs (save the bay leaves, salt and peppercorns) dried from my herb garden.  It sounds a little bit like I'm a wizard.  Should I tell you I hand pumped the water from my backyard well?  I won't--I didn't. 

On one hand, it took me longer to get that pot boiling than it took to put it together, but on the other, it took me fifteen years to put it together.  Stirring it periodically throughout the day feels deeply spiritual - a culmination of a lifestyle, of a season of eating, gathering, storing, loving and coming together in one delicious place.  Even better, the end product will go into the freezer to serve as a homemade base for multiple future meals.

While I say the pot of stock feels like a culmination, I don't mean to suggest it's an end point.  I still have a ton to learn. I have broccoli frozen in the garden right now because I never bothered to pick it!--plant killer - see!? I'm still wondering where I can get local grain for my flour; I marvel at how full my grocery cart is every week, despite all my efforts to prepare food myself, and where the heck is my vegetable garden!?! 

But still, I'm so rewarded by where I am in the process, because it is the process, not the end point that matters, right?

So if you're feeling overwhelmed, like you could never get a pot to boiling like that in a day, well, you're right.  You can't.  But that doesn't mean you can't make it at all. 

What do you have for your stock today?  Whatever you have will be good enough.  If you see yourself as simply on a continuum towards preparing more eco- and body-healthy food, then no day's cooking falls short; it's simply another step on your journey. 

Perhaps this blog could be to you, what Mary's cancer theories were to me.  A spark.  The impetus to question, to act and to find your own path. If you've gotten this far in this horrendously long post, then I assume you have some kind of interest in the subject of food and where it comes from.  If so, I'd suggest you find the thing that matters to you and follow it.  Pick something to read, or a documentary to watch.  See what inspires you, what outrages you, what makes you move. 

Follow it and see what ends up in your pot!  


  1. Inspires me - Gardening, YAY! Love it, miss it, awaiting it.
    Outrages me - slave labor, BOO, dammit. Only organic, sustainable coffee, chocolate, and bananas for us. So many more products to purchase like this, I know.
    Moves me - delicious food, fulfilling food. This is why I am learning that REAL food takes much of our time and treasure, but it is worth it. Our food choices are building our kids and shaping their world. We are what we eat. So trite, I know. But so true. More so now than ever.
    I don't have your pot of stock on my stove, but I have more organic and local food in my home than the average mama bear, so I am somewhat proud. And I am progressing. I cannot say I can avoid the middle of the grocery store, but I can say that Costco's huge, plastic-packaged produce from far and away disgusts me. If a fruit or veggie is huge and flawless, it probably is a chemically fed copy of the real deal.
    But now, I am hungry and inclined to eat a cookie. Michael Pollan says we can eat what we can make ourselves, right? I actually have some brownies made with fairly traded, sustainably produced organic coconut palm sugar. No flour! But not made with duck eggs, so yeah, you got me beat again.

    1. hey franny - great to hear from you! "our food choices are building our kids and shaping our world" - well said!

      your brownies sound wonderful! and we don't have duck eggs right now either - not until at least april (is one of ur kids allergic to chicken eggs? i've forgotten).

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