I would have thought that, three months into retirement, I’d have made a big dent in my to-do list by now. But it seems my time has been divided between the garden and the kitchen, with kitchen time growing as summer has waned. My time has been spent “putting food by,” and I’ve done more canning, dehydrating, and freezing than I’ve ever done in my life. My pantry is filled with jellies and jams, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, salsa, bruschetta, fire-roasted tomatoes, applesauce, dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, and more.
One day just last week I canned five pints of beets, blanched and froze a package of beet greens, baked a batch of apple-cheese bread, put my bread machine to work with a loaf of oat bran bread, and dehydrated and ground a bunch of peppermint. I had my eye on a zucchini that needed to be turned into zucchini bread (or something), but decided I’d reached a stopping point. When I commented to my husband that I’d spent the whole day in the kitchen, he scolded, “Well, it was your choice.”
Yes, it was. It’s one of many choices I’ve made related to putting food on the table. Uppermost in my mind have been the guiding principles, “Grow it yourself; make it yourself; make it from scratch.” Those principles have grown out of a desire to become less dependent on the commercial food system and to become more in control of what my family eats. Yet those are only three of the many considerations guiding my food choices today.
When I was a kid, the only decision I had to make about food was whether or not I liked it. And regardless of the outcome of that decision, I pretty much had to eat what was put in front of me. I don’t know for sure, because I never asked my mother when she was alive, but I think her decisions about what to serve the family had to do as much with stretching every penny in her food budget as it did to giving us balanced exposure to the three food groups.
Modern Food Decisions: Questions of Sustainability
Now, in addition to considerations about the food budget and representation of the government-established food groups, decisions about what to put on the table are based on the detailed nuances of a food’s nutritional value and concerns about its safety (was it made with genetically-modified crops?). Then there are the questions of where and how it was raised; how far it had to travel to get to the grocery store; and how far we have to travel to buy it. Often these considerations have ethical components: Were the animals that are the source of our meat, milk, and eggs raised humanely? Were the people who picked the coffee beans that help fuel our passion for java treated fairly? Did the farm that provided the bags of corn in the grocery store’s frozen-food section help put local farms out of business? Does the store where we shop support the local economy? Were petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops that landed in the grocer’s produce aisle? Does the transportation of the foods to the grocer’s and to the dinner table contribute to excess consumption of petroleum?
It’s enough to give you a headache. But there’s more: if you’ve become aware enough of food-related issues to even ask some of the ethical questions, it’s easy to fear the judgment of others for the choices you make and to feel guilty for knowingly making a choice with which others might disagree. Yet there are some considerations that might trump all the others and force you into one of those choices that both you and others might frown upon: “Do I have time to make something for supper between the time I get home from work and the time I have to get the kids to sports practice? Where can I grab something quick? What can I give my kids for a snack, to tide them over until supper?” (Convenience—a big factor in food decisions.) And then there’s the biggie—what will your family actually eat?
The Evolution of Food Decisions
Early on, government food scientists started to weigh in on what we should be eating. After they deemed that there could be dire consequences from eating butter, a whole generation switched from butter to margarine. Old recipes in my mother’s cookbooks don’t even make mention of butter—only oleo or margarine. I used margarine myself, almost exclusively, for years, until recently, when, after weighing the evidence, I decided I’d rather take my chances with the “real thing.”
As I got older, married, and had a family, the decisions about what we were going to eat became more complicated than just making sure all the food groups were represented at each meal. Scientists began to raise our awareness about the nutritional value of the foods we bought, the government insisted that those values be included on package labels, and parents everywhere, myself among them, became students of the ingredient and nutritional labels on that packaging.
The nutritional information about foods was—and is—enough to make your head spin, with scientists changing their minds every few years on what is and isn’t good for you. Years ago, they pronounced that eggs should be avoided (contained too much cholesterol), much to the chagrin of chicken farmers all over America. Now, new information suggests that eggs are perfectly OK to eat. (Although the ones from free-range chickens are best, having been shown to be lower in cholesterol and higher in overall nutrients.)
Marketing Muddies the Waters
As globalization took hold in this country—aided by massive advertising campaigns designed to let us know we’d arrived because we could, in our own homes, eat foods from anywhere in the world—exotic foods flown in from all over the globe grew in demand. Imagine—truffles from France, chilies from Mexico, green peppers from Holland! We considered ourselves fortunate—no, privileged—to have the world’s foods at our fingertips.
And on the food-value front, manufacturers and marketers stepped up their game, promoting the nutritive values of commercial foods. That cereal? Made with nutritious whole wheat flour (er, yes, it is coated with sugar …). That soft drink? Infused with vitamins! This yogurt is fat free! ( … with high-fructose corn syrup added as a sweetener) and made with natural ingredients.
Many adults and children became conditioned to want what they saw advertised, adding yet another layer of decision-making to the task of deciding what to put in the grocery cart.
The New Decision Factors
It is becoming clear that buying locally-grown foods is better all the way around: many, though not all, are raised organically—that is, without the use of petroleum-based chemical fertilizers or pesticides; buying locally-grown foods helps support small farmers; buying locally conserves oil and gasoline. In addition, there is a greater variety of foods available locally, since what gets grown for the supermarket are foods with long shelf lives, which significantly narrows the field of what you’ll find there. If you’re committed to eating locally-grown foods, you know that this also means getting used to eating what’s in season, a hard choice to make for people who are used to eating fresh greens in the dead of winter.
With all of the decisions to be made about what to buy and where to buy it, choices are becoming more difficult, and some of those choices present conflicts with the new guiding principles. For example, if you’re dedicated to both buying organic foods and conserving the country’s oil supply, do you travel the 15 to 20 miles to the nearest Whole Foods Store? Think of the gas used! If you’re committed to shopping locally, you might wonder: is Whole Foods just another “big-box” store that has put local grocers out of business? And what about your food budget? If you really hate the idea of Walmart, but King Arthur unbleached flour is nearly $4 cheaper there than at a closer, not-locally-owned grocer’s, where do you buy it?
Really Local: Do It Yourself?
For me, the best way to answer many of the food-choice questions is to grow it myself and make it myself. But I live on just under an acre of land, so I’m limited in what I can grow. I still have to buy staples and dairy products (no room here for a cow!), and I’m committed to traveling as little as possible to do it. I want to—and enjoy—making as much of our own food as we can, minimizing purchases of processed foods.
But I’ve discovered that creating all the things my family actually eats becomes a serious time-management issue. I’ve mastered the drill of making bread in my bread machine while I’m working up a whirlwind in the kitchen, and I frequently make an artisan-style bread that needs little intervention from me. (Yes, I know—the bread machine uses energy …) This summer I experimented with homemade mayonnaise, soft pretzels, pasta, and from-scratch cinnamon rolls. I want to take on crackers, cheese, and pita bread too. I’d love to incorporate all of these things into a regular cooking regimen. Yet, there are only so many hours in a day.
Even so, my husband has started to appreciate the up-tick in the home-cooking at our house. And my grandchildren have been paying attention too. One day, when they were visiting, we sat on the bench swing in the backyard for story time. My 8-year-old granddaughter started off the story-fest. Looking at me with a sly grin, she said, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who was obsessed with baking ...”
Trying to live what amounts to a 19th-century life in a 21st-century world isn’t easy, and I don’t even know if that’s the ultimate answer to the food-decision quandary. It does take a lot of time and energy to grow and make your own food. (Isn’t that how people spent most of their time in the 19th century, before modern conveniences freed up time for other pursuits?)
In the end, the effort of doing it all can be another thing that influences decisions about what to put on the table for dinner. I’ll have to confess that there have been times when, after a day of cooking, canning, and baking, with suppertime approaching and the kitchen looking like a war zone, I’ve said to my husband, “Let’s just send out for pizza.”