For as long as I can remember, food has been an important part of my life. “Duh,” you say. Food is culture. And necessity. Food is part of everyone’s life.
But not everyone likes to cook and, for those who do, food is an integral part of how we plan our day or look at the world. I’m often planning dinner a day or two before it occurs, conjuring up some recipe in my head, based on one I read about in Bon Appetit—substituting one herb for another, or employing some leftover I have in the fridge. I’m constantly scouring the landscape for local good eats, fresh produce, and farmers to buy from. I am passionate about food and passionate about eating.
So why, at age 43, is 2009 suddenly The Year of Food for me? Here’s the journey that brought me to The Year of Food and my blogging about food—happy food, in particular.
You get the picture if I tell you I grew up in the 1970s: Twinkies, Jell-O, TV dinners, La Choy “Chinese” food from a can. The new age of industrialized food. It’s not like I ate this way all the time. Twinkies were a rare treat. Jell-O was what I ate the days the braces on my teeth were tightened. TV dinners were a substitute for Mom’s cooking when we kids had a babysitter. And La Choy, I have to say, was part of my Mom’s pantry, however. I can’t blame her. Feeding five kids takes good planning, a thrift budget, and—understandably—convenience foods.
I’m not knocking my mom’s cooking, but let’s say I didn’t experience a breadth of cuisine—even growing up in New Jersey where there is so much culinary variety. I think my mom must have gotten her ideas from Ladies’ Home Journal, the church cookbook, and her New England upbringing—perhaps a combination of Yankee tradition and the industrialization of food happening in the 70s. And, I was a picky eater—avoiding tomatoes, mushrooms, shellfish, eggplant, cucumbers, and onions until I was at least a teenager. (With the exception of mushrooms and shellfish, I’ve broadened my palate with age and travel experience. And I’m allergic to eggplant, thank god.)
Both my mom and my grandma were very influential toward my experience in the kitchen. They encouraged me to bake cookies at the holidays or when I was bored on a rainy day. Since fifth grade, I made my own lunches—usually Fluffernutter sandwiches—to bring to school because I had a preference (i.e., I was picky) about what I ate. As a Girl Scout, there was a cooking badge I needed to earn. And I was the breakfast cook one day each weekend, delivering either pancakes, French toast, or waffles for our family of seven.
In 1978, when my mom died of cancer, grocery shopping and cooking was left up to my sister and me, since the older two kids had gone off to college. When she finally left, too, I was the sole cook for my brother, my dad, and me. Luckily, my best friend Cathy also had an interest in cooking, and was chief cook at home while here parents both worked at their family business. In high school, I avoided extra-curricular activities (except those I needed for variety on my college applications) so I could focus on what was for dinner. I would cook and my dad did the dishes. And once a week we picked up a pie from Oakland Pizza (Oakland, New Jersey, that is)—I must say, the best pizza in the country. But many times, I’d be on the phone with Cathy, discussing a particular recipe that we were making for dinner. We still do it today.
When I went off to college in West Michigan (where I have lived ever since), it was sort of a relief to go on a meal plan when I lived in the dorms, rather than be executive chef. The warning on campus was about the Freshmen Ten—how much weight each new student was bound to put on in the first year of college—and I managed to skirt it at first. But I definitely gained weight at school. It was probably a combination of the richer, carbohydrate-laden cafeteria food and the amount of beer I was drinking. Even as an active young adult, I learned quickly how institutional food increased my body fat percentage.
Lots has happened since college: I traveled overseas and explored new flavors and cuisines. I got married to someone who loved my cooking. I got hung up in the “wonderwoman” mode of working, step-parenting, and over-achieving to attain a master’s degree. (I even tried out for the 2000 Olympics Women’s Sport Pistol event.) I divorced the guy who loved my cooking.
Then I found simplification. I realized I was in over-achiever mode because I wasn’t content with me. It took a lot of shedding—activities, commitments, facades—to realize that life is short and the list on my resume doesn’t matter.
But food—and eating—did matter. I resolved to not cut corners when it comes to cooking, eating, and pleasing my palate. That sounds so very gourmand but it’s not about sophistication. It’s about feeling good. You know that old saying, “you are what you eat”? I believe in it totally.
In 2008, I married Bill Holm. (We eloped to New York City where we feasted for five days on the best food in the country.)
For those of you with food allergies, you’ll appreciate the challenges of Bill’s combination: wheat, dairy, and corn. Bill taught me how so much of the processed food in this country has corn in it. I was blown away, and learned quickly what he couldn’t eat from the mainstream supermarket: ketchup, bread, milk, butter, tortillas, most cereals, waffles, cookies, crackers, yoghurt, cheeses from cows, breadcrumbs, pasta, etc.
But he could eat meat—one of my favorite food categories—and plenty of it. A friend of mine told me about (the-no-longer-operating) Providence Farms, a local farm that raised grass-fed cows, pigs, lambs, chickens, and turkeys. This seemed like a good idea because I was already gravitating away from preservatives. And I remembered Michael Pollan’s article, “Power Steer” in The New York Times about the life of a steer in this country. Since then, we have stocked our freezer with grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, and chickens.
I then took on the challenge of cooking for Bill’s food allergies, and learning about the foods he cooks for himself. Chicken parmigiana? No problem. I just substitute pecorino sheep’s cheese for provolone. Meatloaf? His recipe calls for rolled oats instead of breadcrumbs. Vichyssoise? Skip the bourgeois name and use Bon Appetit’s Creamy Leek Soup with Bacon and Shallots (substituting olive oil for butter).
But this year, my foodie practices took another twist. In the winter, I embarked on my annual fasting/cleansing weekend…just a ritual I got into after reading some health articles. In today’s world I totally believe we’re absorbing toxins from every angle. I also believe our bodies are made to withstand, and eliminate, many of these toxins. Why not give our poor ol’ bodies a little help once a year?
My little ritual is a combination of ideas I’ve read about. Basically, I just pick a weekend in late winter or early spring when I have no plans. I follow a specific antioxidant-rich diet and avoid caffeine and alcohol for about a week, then do a two-day juice fast. The week after that is followed by the same preparatory diet. It’s important to rest during the juice fast, but afterward, I feel energized.
During that weekend, I read a lot of articles or books that I’ve saved for my fasting period—usually about lifestyle, nutrition, health, stress, etc. I was catching up on some old National Geographic articles, when I came across “Toxic People,” a piece about toxins that are in all of us and where they come from.
At the same time, a friend of mine at work told me about The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. She said it talked about how corn was in everything, of which I was already aware because of Bill’s teaching me. She highlighted key points in the book and it sounded vaguely familiar. Then I remembered: It’s the book that Michael Pollan’s New York Times article came from. It took about three months on a waiting list at the local library before I finally got a copy. It has changed my life.
When the movie Food, Inc. came out this summer, it sealed my decision. I am no longer going to eat feedlot meat. It’s one of the few times I felt so passionate about something politically, ethically, and culturally. So all it took was a viewing of “Julie & Julia” to realize I can write a blog, too. It’s one way to get the message out. Life is fare and the best way to live it to the fullest is by eating the happiest food possible.