I have not posted in quite some time about food or food systems. Partly due to being in Africa, but also having relocated to a place that I saw as the mecca of farmer’s markets and food. I had dreams of being able to ride my bike a few blocks and get fresh local and mostly organic produce on a daily basis. I am a devout believer in farmers and paying them for their sweat. I also believe honestly in sweat equity. I believe in reconnecting ourselves with the Earth. I did not always think this way.
After I lost my job in 2000, I could not get food stamps. I made too much money on unemployment, but not enough to keep paying my mortgage. Had I been able to get food stamps I may have been able to pull myself up, for a while. Growing up my mother was a terrible cook. However, she put what at the time was considered a balanced meal on the table daily. I have hated breakfast cereal since I can remember. Maybe it was because I got up early got ready and then ate this cold mush stuff before walking up the drive to wait for the bus, in the cold. A typical dinner would be a meat item, and she had few to choose from, a veggie, a starch and a salad. We also often had biscuits or dinner rolls, back in the 80’s bread was a staple and dinner was not dinner without it. My mothers meats typically were things like, oven fried chicken, not pieces but she bought a whole chicken and chopped it up, oven fried pork chops, swiss steaks, sausage, which was a treat. My mother at one time worked in a chicken processing plant. She knew exactly how to part a chicken, so buying chicken already pieced was an insult to the cook.
Salad for my mom was, well boring. She cut up iceberg lettuce, whipped up some “Uncle Dan’s” ranch dressing, sliced radishes and sometimes sunflower seeds. When we went to restaurants I had no idea what kind of dressing I liked. I always said “Uncle Dan’s” but apparently that was a brand of make your own at home from a packet. Once in a while in the summer my mom gave us a treat. She discovered “imitation crab meat” and we would have a salad night. Nothing but salad and biscuits for dinner. I think my dad hated those days. Her idea of a vegetable was frozen: peas, corn and beans, sometimes broccoli and cauliflower medley. I thank her for not making us endure canned veggies. I would get excited when we got Rice-a-Roni for dinner. My mother never made rice any other way, but this was a treat since it cost more. Baked potatoes were rare, mashed from a box typical, tater tots were typical as well. Sometimes she made frozen french fries, but they were never as good as restaurant ones.
My mother had her limitations, but she tried. She cooked mostly from scratch save for the potatoes. When I started dating my husband, I had a few dinners with his family. I was introduced to hamburger helper. I was never given spaghetti as a child, my dad once told my mom he hated spaghetti. The reality was that he hated “her” spaghetti. Hamburger Helper was this great introduction to pasta in every meal. It was so easy and so economical. As a young wife and mother I took my cues from both my mom and his mom. Mostly I followed the idea of out of box into a pan from his mom. My mother never allowed me to cook at home, so boxed meals were ideal. My first attempt at making a turkey was interesting. I had no idea that there were plastic bags of parts in the body of the bird. I took the bird out of the freezer rinsed it off and tossed it in a roaster with some water and in the over the night before Thanksgiving. I left it in the oven overnight at 200 degrees. Three hours before dinner I added the veggies and dropped gravy packets in the water surrounding the bird and veggies and turned the temp up to 350 degrees. Imagine my surprise when we cut the bird open to find those melted plastic bags. We all had a great laugh, but to everyone’s surprise the bird was moist all the way through. I had managed to perfect it, even though I had no clue what to do.
This change to boxed foods took its toll on my health. I gained weight and lost interest in doing anything. I even converted to a vegetarian and continued to eat packaged foods. I did this until the year that I read Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was pivotal in my transition to real food. There was also an article that I read in Vegetarian Times, which I would love to reference but I cannot find it online. The premise behind both of these were that we do not really understand our food. We have no idea where it comes from, or how it gets to us. This idea was the catalyst of my desire to go to Grad School.
Going into the Peace Corps, they had warned me that I was possibly going to have to eat meat. As a cultural courtesy, I was willing to eat meat if it was offered to me. I went in with this naive idea that I would be able to get fresh food and amazing produce in the markets. I knew cheese and milk would be difficult, but things like veggies and fruits, I assumed would be plentiful. I knew that there would be things I was unfamiliar with, but I had no idea that my vision was so narrow. You see the industrialized food system has tainted even the small villages in Africa. Liberia imports almost all of its rice from India. I thought I would find wild rice and wild grains, but sadly it was mostly white rice every meal. I thought eggs would be available from local chickens, these were also imported. In a country that is very near famine, I thought that eating veggies would be a staple. I was very wrong.
I was also wrong in my assumptions about California. I thought there would be daily Farmer’s Markets and fruit stands on most blocks. I was so very wrong. Even stranger, in a state that farming is a huge industry, I thought they would know about many of the super foods and be ahead of the curve. I asked a farmer at the weekly market about mustard greens, I have not seen any since I got here. He said no one sold them. I asked him if he even knew what they were? He stated they were weeds and none of the farmers he knew grew them. I was finally able to find some, but I was shocked at the attitude that they were weeds. At least I know weeds are not going to be GMO!
Many years ago I lost over 60 lbs by completely avoiding processed food. I gave up alcohol and biked everywhere. The weight just dropped off, sadly that did not drop me from the obese category. That still stings a bit. Sadly we are a category. We cannot escape it, no matter how good we feel or look we are still just a number on a chart. I am back where I started and have decided to really seek out the same plan again. I need to lose weight, more importantly I need to eat real food.