Reconnecting consumers, producers, and food is a complex task, but one that is actively taking place in the United States; the thing is, we don’t realize it, or we call it something else. For example, the organic food movement is one way of raising awareness among eaters about what they put into their bodies. Though there has been some backlash in the eating community, particularly from people who tend to hate anything new (I’m looking at you, message board posters), caring about what’s in the food we consume is perhaps the most important step we can take as eaters.
A year ago, I remember having a conversation with someone about food. My description, which hovers vividly in my mind, depicted food solely as fuel which keeps me running. It’s an interesting metaphor, and one that I’m sure many Americans share while making quick stops for fast food. We marginalize our meals as an afterthought of daily life.
My philosophy on eating has since undergone a stark, contrasting change. As it turns out, I actually enjoy preparing my own meal in the evening. Sure, I still take shortcuts (like buying tortillas from the market instead of making them myself), but it’s a lot more involved then making a pit stop at Qdoba or Taco Bell. I have even begun eating at “slow food” restaurants that serve terrific natural and organic food meals, though much less frequently than I used to dine out. There’s something spiritually consuming about chopping up vegetables and turning those knobs on the stove. Why didn’t I start doing this sooner?
I’ve also enjoyed cooking for friends. While I could lecture from a pulpit all day about the benefits of natural and local foods, a simple taste of real food is all it takes to change minds. The difference between ground beef from a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) and one raised on a pasture 20 miles from your home is … well, it’s amazing. It’s hard to even think about eating a fast food hamburger again. So I don’t mind preparing a meal for friends, conversing about food, and catching up—in my kitchen, a bite is worth one thousand words.
Indeed, learning how to care about my food has been the most important step in changing my eating habits. Instead of accepting all chicken as being of similar commodity quality, I seek to break the opaque glass separating producer from consumer and discover the story behind the animal product sitting in the grocery store cooler. Frequently, it’s not a story I like to hear, and because of that I don’t buy it.
Last week I spent ten minutes agonizing over a selection of feta cheese, trying to determine which brand I should buy. Comparing ingredients, cost, and size, I eventually decided that the block with fewer, natural materials was the better buy. You would be surprised how much variation there can be—one block of feta cheese is not necessarily equivalent to the one next to it. I feel my decision would have been a lot easier if I had been able to speak to the farmer or cheese-maker who was directly involved in the production of the feta. Being restricted to labels still leaves much to chance.
Regardless of whether or not I made the “right” choice in feta cheese, my experience that day is direct evidence of how much I have personally changed in the last year. 12 months ago I would not have thought to care that there was a difference between brands and stores. While I knew what organic food was, I didn’t understand what it meant. For me, the journey of learning how to care about food has been incredibly valuable.