Recipe As Tribal Lore – A Note About Ingredients

Like many of you my journey with food from childhood to middle age has been one large circle. I grew up having a sense of where many of the ingredients for our meals came from. In the summer a truck pulled up every week in front of our house filled with local fruits and vegetables.
Year after year, every spring we’d greet the same driver like the captain of a ship discovering us on a desert island. After a winter of iceberg lettuce and canned fruit cocktail that first visit was indeed a cause for great celebration. I can still remember looking for things I’d never seen before. “That’s what a real pineapple looks like?” We all sat around the kitchen table while my Mom cut away the skin from this bizarre looking thorny thing that someone had managed to grow in a greenhouse not too far from our house.
The milkman delivered glass bottles of Winder Dairy milk from a dairy that has been in operation since 1880, along with fresh eggs and bread to our insulated tin milk box outside our door once a week. If we could talk Mom into it there might be chocolate milk or raisin bread. If we were feeling especially devious we’d put those items on the list ourselves. I can remember knocking six inches of snow off the box to get to our quart of Christmas Egg Nog on the last day of delivery before the holidays.
By the time I hit junior high, big grocery stores arrived and the fresh vegetable truck stopped coming – our milk box disappeared soon afterwards. The last time the truck came we bought a few things more as a farewell than a necessity. Convenience was bringing us all the food we needed whenever we wanted. I passed through my teenage years not knowing or caring what I put down my throat, like most of America.
My Mother still cooked us meals, much of them from scratch. She didn’t hop on the frozen food bandwagon, having been raised by a chef who knew the value of good ingredients. She still hunted for fresh meat and vibrant vegetables. Growing up in California she must have delighted in the grapefruit, artichokes, pacific fish and asparagus that were available for the first time since she’d moved to Utah a decade before. Its funny to think now that buying food shipped from exotic places was actually a boon. We dined like kings on fish that not 24 hours ago was swimming in an ocean thousands of miles away!
I indulged in every bit of junk food I could get my hands on, only shying away from the burger joints that were rumored to mix horsemeat in with their beef and soy. Our school lunches evolved as well. Its possible that hot school lunches really only came into being because of mass produced, petrol based food. Meals for students weren’t exactly “cooked” so much as defrosted and prepared. The longer and stranger the list of ingredients was, the more fortified with nutrients right?
Fridays I could actually get a glazed doughnut with my fish sticks. Everything really tasted exactly the same – just like Wonderbread, only some stuff was sweet and other stuff was salty. Ironically Wonderbread was one of the few “food” items we ate that was made locally. I can still remember getting my mini-loaf of fortified spongy white goodness and my Wonderbread bakers hat when we visited the factory as part of a school outing.
The marriage of fossil fuel and industrialized food has left our nation in a radically vulnerable position in many, many ways. I’ll leave the global ramification of all these changes to how we get our food to better informed and educated minds like Barbara Kingsolver (great book “Animal Vegetable Miracle“), and those working on issues like childhood obesity, the diabetes epidemic, and truly sustainable farming like Michael Pollan.
In my life the ramifications were largely emotional and physical. I didn’t realize how much food was impacting me until I decided to become a vegan. Ideas like this one appear from time to time in my life. I really don’t know where they come from, I just know I need to carry them out. It wasn’t religious or really even ethical – though I told some people it was just to get them off my back. I’d left home for college, started exercising and was exploring spirituality through meditation and other activities. All of the sudden it was time to stop eating meat, dairy and (much to my own chagrin) processed sugar.
Over a three-year period I lived a completely vegan, sugar free diet. I ran sixty miles a week, swam five miles, and biked several hundred miles all while training in martial arts and finishing my BA. My resting heart rate slowed to just over thirty beats per minute, my muscles relaxed and I became as flexible as a rubber band. I was much less emotionally introverted, much less prone to stress and seasonal illnesses. In short: happier.
This was when I first started cooking for myself again. Making my own salads, refried beans and rice dishes was required if I was going to support my workout regime on a shoestring budget. When you’re a vegan athlete you have to consume a lot of food. Think of a cow standing in a green field chewing grass ALL DAY LONG.
My food was extreme in its minimal ingredients: breakfast often consisted of raw oats, water and powdered soy protein. Salads were dressed with oil and brewers yeast. Somehow I’d received the message that I needed to cleanse my body. Not just from the years of highly processed foods but also from an emotionally stressful adolescence. I started reading food packages for the first time – were these cookies sweetened with fruit juice? What kind of fat did they use? Long lists of ingredients were no longer a good thing.
I don’t recommend years of a vegan diet combined with long distance athletics. Though I could fly through ten miles of steep cross country trails, my reflexes started to go. The body needs fat, avocados just don’t cut it at some point. After three trips to the hospital for minor injuries it was time to rejoin the world of omnivores. It had served its purpose though, I felt like I’d really given my body a chance to recover from what I’d been doing to it all those years. I literally felt like a new man.
Senses become extremely acute when you’re engaged in years of endurance athletics. Your body is on edge, somewhat in survival mode. The removal of processed and richly seasoned food only added to my heightened awareness. Wilting lettuce just wasn’t worth eating. Of course it didn’t hurt that I went through this process in Santa Cruz where the start of pesto season (fresh basil) is a city holiday second only to lectures by Noam Chomsky and the arrival of the first heirloom tomatoes.
It would be many years before I was able to keep my own kitchen, find the time to cook and sources of the best ingredients – but a lesson was learned. Food is about relationship in every way. Not only the people we cook for, but the people we get our food from. What’s our connection to our ingredients? How many miles has this orange traveled? What of the tribes that provide our cooks with their ingredients?
I was at a farmers market recently and spied a booth selling wine. During my training as a sommelier I learned a lot about the importance of ingredients. The French have a word for it “terroir”. Everything that goes in to making a grape impacts the wine. The sun, soil, noise, nearby wildlife – essentially the spirit of a place becomes manifest in the flavors of a wine.
I was struck by this wines label: the grapes were from Southern California but it was being marketed as a local wine. “Do you press the grapes at the vineyard?” “No” the young woman replied with pride, “we ship them up here and press them”. I imagined open crates of grapes making the trip up the interstate I’ve driven a dozen times. Did they wave at the thousands of warehoused cattle as the diesel of other semi’s wafted over them in the baking heat? If you’ve ever smelled undisturbed grapes on a vine you know their bouquet is only a little quieter than roses bound to be distilled for perfume. Not interested in Interstate Terroir, I passed.
She felt the same delight many of us have at the power of progress to enable us more access to more unique goods. If it came here in a truck it must be better! Until we find a reason to turn that corner from blind obedience to progress to a little selective sensibility, its hard to imagine criticizing our petrol based diet.
This last summer was the first year many meals were cooked straight from our garden. These meals were not solely the product of my imagination, they included what the world was able to bring forth in its own good time. They were not harvested by me driving five miles to a grocery store, but by me walking up the hill a few hours before dinner and seeing what was available.
Our tomatoes were a bust because of my over watering and the foggy summer. Our local compost brought us a bumper crop of tomatillos, which tasted as sweet as the juiciest heirloom tomatoes. Our battle with gopher’s rages on. The big winner was basil. Grown straight from seed at least fifty plants matured this year. For the first time in our lives we ate enough pesto to grow tired of it. We surely have died and gone to heaven.
This was the most fulfilling cooking I’ve done to date. Being challenged by my ingredients, stepping out onto our land to connect with the green world and have a relationship to what I’m harvesting has transformed the way I cook. I started to get excited by how few trips to the grocery store I could make. I went a week without leaving home for any reason. I was delighted when I lined my vegetable drawer with straw to keep my latest harvest of carrots and beats fresh and dry.
And what of my tribes? There was one moment when someone paused while eating a salad packed with spicy and bitter greens. “God these greens are so good, did these come from your garden?” She wasn’t just talking about flavor, though that was part of it. She was eating something profoundly nourishing to her. She was eating something harvested minutes before that was feeding her body and soul.
I suspect many others from my generation have made similar journeys. We go decades without giving food a second thought. Then we have kids, or a health crisis, or a dinner cooked by a Slow Food devotee that blows our minds. That’s when we remember the ingredients from our childhood, and how excited we were to sit down for a good meal. We begin to calculate the price of changing our relationship to food or not changing it. Hopefully we remember that our relationship to food is sacred, and the ingredients we choose can reflect that.

Followup Note:
The Winder Dairy of my childhood has become Winder Farms. They’ve started back with home delivery and expanded what they deliver. They’ve added a huge number of products (total=200) and much of what they deliver is organic, pesticide free or locally grown. It looks like they’ve come full circle too.

< -previous posting – Guerrilla Dining –
back to introduction – next posting – Small Houses Big Tables – >

One thought on “Recipe As Tribal Lore – A Note About Ingredients

  1. …And you don’t need to move to a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains to grow your own food (as dreamy as that may be). I have a friend who grows at least half the food he eats in “square-foot gardens” in a trailer park in Long Beach. And I know a family that has a small organic farm in their back yard — in downtown Berkeley. Local is groovy!

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