Sunday, June 15, 2008


I had just about come to the conclusion that I was pretty happy with the person I have become, when I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which brought home to me just how far I have yet to go. The essays contained in High Tide in Tuscon and Small Wonder came much later, when I was in my early twenties, and it gave me a new awareness of the fragility of our planet, that we had a moral obligation to take care of it, because it was going to disappear. I was not going to give up my car, grow my own vegetables in my garden, raise chickens for eggs and meat in my backyard. I don't have a backyard, let alone a hundred acres of Appalachian farmland. After twenty-five years of living in houses (twenty of those years in one house) I now live in a condominium ideally located within walking distance of both my job and downtown Seattle. (I would try to grow beans and tomatoes behind my building, but I don't think the other residents would let me, although there is a tiny herb garden in the courtyard).

I would not go as far as to say that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle instilled a sense of guilt in me; it is not so much guilt as a heightened sense of awareness. Already I mostly eat asparagus in the spring and strawberries in the summer, pass by the icy pink halved watermelons wrapped in plastic on beds of ice in the dead of winter. It is as much a matter of taste as it is of morality, I think; things taste better in season, and you should enjoy them when they are available, so that you might look forward to them again when they are not. It goes back to my feelings about exotic fruits, how much I enjoy them when I am in their native climate and how strange it seems to eat their pale shadows on my home ground. Free-range (organic or not) chickens taste better than those that are not. Wild salmon tastes better than farmed. I have not voluntarily eaten (and certainly not cooked) non-free-range chicken or farmed salmon in at least a decade, or more, which means for me both become a treasured event, particularly the latter, as our wild salmon (indeed, most wild fish) supply dwindles and therefore becomes rarer and more expensive. Now I think of wild King salmon as an extravagance, a luxury, and when it appears before me I fall upon it like a starving beast.

Sometimes the produce I buy is organic; sometimes it is not, but my milk and most other dairy products nearly always are. I often think of the writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote about shopping organic in the early 90's, about buying food from the greenmarket or the butcher or the fishmonger. Part of her desire to shop in that way was rooted in her desire to show her daughter how to love food, how to be adventurous at the table and in the kitchen, as much as it was about supporting those independent producers of food. But she was a realist. Tell a mother that she should provide her child with organic food, she said, and you will understand what despair is...There is often not enough time and not enough money. The landscape has changed a lot since she wrote those words (which have haunted me for the better part of a decade), but it is still a reality, of time and money at odds with the desire to do right by our planet, by our farmers who are struggling to keep going. We have to do the best we can. I think you have to decide the amount of change you can live with, what you can accept about yourself. I will continue to eat meat, but not as much of it, and wild fish, when I can. When I want a cheeseburger I try to go to my neighborhood pub (a gastropub, they call themselves), where the beef is from a local farm, humanely raised (I think), or I make my own. I am not ready to eliminate all fast foods, junk foods, processed foods; I am not ready to eat only things produced within a ten-mile radius of my home, or even a hundred miles.

I think of Kingsolver as my conscience, and Colwin as something of a patron saint. The latter was not immune to imported cheeses and tomato paste that came in a tube and she didn't mind if you used broth from a can (preferably low-salt) and she even thought instant mashed potatoes was perfectly fine on top of a shepherd's pie that would serve twenty people (or maybe it was forty). She made her own bread and didn't own a tv and pretty much all the food that her child ate did not come from a package, and she believed that it was not difficult to cook from scratch, as long as you had an arsenal of easy things at your disposal (and these recipes can be found in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, two of the best collections of food essays I have ever read). Most of the time I can live like this, or at least I try to. Then again, I am young and single and have what by most standards is a fairly decent amount of disposable income at my disposal. It is not difficult to make the choices that I do. I don't have three children and a husband and spend my days running from school to soccer practice to piano lessons and somehow have to keep a household running and come home to six loads of laundry and five mouths to feed. I can eat cereal for dinner if I want to, and sometimes I do. Ultimately you have to weigh these things in the balance, time and money and desire and what you are willing to do for yourself, for your family, for the planet.

(This post, mostly written en route from Houston to Seattle, was fueled by a plastic-wrapped microwaved cheeseburger which most likely came from feedlot beef but was reasonably edible all the same, certainly tastier than the so-called pizza I ate four days ago. This *snack* was accompanied by a very sad little salad, this time without carrots, and a fun-sized Hershey's bar, all washed down with ginger ale, my drink of choice on airplanes).

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