let's get crafty
I counted down the weeks this year until soup season could begin in all its glory, but September 23 rolled around and the temperature in Pittsburgh still hovered in the 70s to 80s. In three months, when I’m standing at a bus stop flexing my tingling fingers so they don’t freeze through the thin gloves I threw on, I will crave the light of a lingering summer. But something didn’t feel right about buying a plump, yellow butternut squash to make soup that would be only be slightly warmer than the temperature outside. So I waited one more week and got my wish, the temperature dipping by 10 and then 20 degrees, calling for not only squashes but sweaters and scarves.
As I got the squash on the stove to simmer last night, I thought of all the vegetables blooming expectantly in our fridge. This has been my husband James’ and my first year trying Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which you pay local farmers up front for weekly batches of their fresh produce. Along with reaping a share of the farmers’ bounty, you also take on some of their risks; if it’s a horrible growing season, you don’t get any sort of refund on your investment. Despite a slow start to some of their veggies as they struggled through a very rainy June, being share members has exceeded both of our expectations of the delights it could bring us. Over the past three months, we’ve tried new foods like kohlrabi, garlic scapes, and swiss chard; learned a couple of ways to cook beets; and been introduced to a slew of new recipes and ideas. Yesterday evening, kale and beets were particularly calling to be cooked, and I found a Kale, Lentil, and Roasted Beet salad for which we miraculously had all of the ingredients (including leeks, which I had never tried cooking with before). After some slicing and dicing, the result was this:
James afterward asked me, tongue-in-cheek, why we eat so much delicious food. We both happen to love cooking, which helps. Balancing needing to blend the squash with checking on the lentils boiling and beets and leeks roasting, while touching up the seasonings on the dressing, gives me a sense of engagement, amplified by the realization that my efforts will produce a filling, nutritious meal at the end. However, I pointed out that being able to buy and eat so much choice food is also a mark of privilege. A couple of years ago, when I was doing AmeriCorps and he was a grad student, we had a tight rein on our grocery budget, whereas now we mostly purchase the foods that we want, within reason. Laying down a couple of hundred dollars on a CSA membership, while financially sound over time, isn’t necessarily practical for everyone.
At the same time, I think it is possible to seek out and eat nutritious food across a variety of budgets, though our society seems to do everything in its power to thwart us. Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist, said in an NPR interview yesterday: “We want the illusion of choice, but it is an illusion. If you go into a supermarket – and some large percentage of the things in that supermarket really don’t meet the dictionary definition of food and often come closer to the dictionary definition of poisons… The good choices are not the easy choices. It’s the harmful choices that are the easy choices.” This is especially true for people in food deserts, or urban areas lacking easy access to fresh, affordable food, in a nation where children are raised on a steady diet of ads glorifying sugar and fat and food “choices” making gratification easy, readily available, and cheap.
In my line of work in childcare, I hear a lot about what is appropriate “kid food”–code word for bland, high carbohydrate offerings like mac n cheese, fish sticks, or chicken nuggets. But my exposure to kids surrounded by and enjoying healthier, whole foods–like my one year old students who gobble up broccoli, and the eleven year old I ran into picking up my CSA chanting “kale chips!” upon seeing that week’s share–tells me that kids will eat and enjoy a wide variety of foods, if they are exposed to them. I’m heartened by efforts to make fresh, healthy food available to all, things like Farm Truck Foods here in Pittsburgh, a for-profit enterprise dedicated to “bridging the gap between farmers and community members” by operating a one-stall farmer’s market out of their truck in various neighborhoods. My sister and her boyfriend are trying veganism, and while they sometimes run into attitudes that view it as elite, a non-meat diet has benefits not only for the planet and people, but also your pocketbook. Lentils, beans, and nuts are pretty cheap, and you can get away with occasionally laying down more for fancier-sounding things like vital wheat gluten (for making seitan, a meat substitute) or tahini (useful for hummus and other inventions) in part because of how much we’re saving in not buying any meat.
I rounded out my weekend by visiting the source of the delicious veggies I’ve been receiving all summer, at a Pig Roast hosted by my CSA Farm. While the farm-to-table movement has been hilariously parodied, the chance to smell the dirt and meet the people who have helped to nourish me for the past three months served as an important reminder that our food comes from somewhere–from living ecosystems and human communities. I’ve run into preschoolers who express surprise at the notion that the food we eat was once alive. But how could they possibly know this? When the majority of my produce is transported thousands of miles to get to me and I can’t pronounce half the ingredients in my granola bar, it’s easy for me to forget, too. I was grateful for the reminder today.