Cynthia Lair is a Culinary Arts Director at Bastyr University. She is the author of Feeding the Whole Family (Sasquatch Books, 2008), Feeding the Young Athlete, and contributing editor for Mothering Magazine. Watch videos of her recipes at www.cookusinterruptus.com — a humorous online cooking show.
Not that long ago the foods we ate were either hunted, home-grown, or gathered. We knew exactly from whence our food originated. During the last century though, first-hand contact with our food sources disappeared and that separation is reflecting badly on our health.
Today food is produced in large-scale industrial operations designed to minimize production costs and food prices while maximizing shelf life. Plants grow abundantly thanks to industrial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In large factories, the plants are turned into prepared foods containing additives to keep them shelf stable. The animals we consume live their lives indoors, or in unnatural and crowded environments, and eat substances that are foreign to their natural diet. Most fish and shellfish come from fish farms. Prepared foods often travel thousands of miles before they end up in the grocery store.*
* McGee, Harold, Keys to Good Cooking, (Penguin Press, 2010)
Medical professionals, authors and chefs all over the country are challenging us to question and redefine what we call food; to know where and how our food is produced. Sometimes serious investigation is required to understand exactly what we are blindly eating. Take the pastel-colored packets of artificial sweeteners found in any restaurant or coffee shop in the nation — how are they made? Find out before you empty it into your Americano.
I have been designing workshops for school food service workers as part of a state grant. The intent of the curriculum is to stimulate thought about where food comes from and to facilitate hands-on cooking lessons using delicious whole foods. In one of the power points I post the ingredient list from some cheese quesadillas that are frequently served in the public school lunch program. The ingredient list looks like this:
The intent of showing this information is not to scold. It is to create questions such as: How much effort did it take to make these quesadillas? What type of energy was used to produce all the ingredients they contained? Are the ingredients made of stuff that my body can utilize to create energy or growth? If not, what happens to these ingredients after I eat them? What the heck is 2-propylene glycol?
I teach a course at Bastyr University tracing the journey of many foods we eat from harvest to table. Often students insist that I cut to the chase regarding a particular food, “Is it good for me or bad?” they demand. I stubbornly refuse to answer. If a student asks me, “Is soymilk good?” My typical response is, “Where does it come from? How is it made?” Piquing curiosity is one goal, encouraging critical thinking is another, but the long-term objective is to spawn consciousness about what we put into our mouths and call food.
There are endless benefits to understanding the originso of our food. Not only can we begin to improve our health, but when we “vote with our fork,” we end up supporting food production techniques that are more sustainable for the environment and humane for animals. Consciousness about where our food comes from may stimulate mindfulness in other parts of our lives as well.
Yet this same information can also have the opposite effect. Discovering that your eggs came from hens that were caged their entire life and fed antibiotics and bioengineered corn is a bummer. The revelation can lead to sympathetic thoughts where we feel sad or guilty and start setting rules for ourselves. Vegans and other proponents of restrictive diets abide by such boundaries. Strict food rules can result in better health, but they can also lead to self-recrimination when not adhered to or feelings of superiority when maintained.
We must cautiously examine the criteria for banning certain foods and embracing others. The media mostly gives us fear-based stories such as E. coli scares as well as false promises such as “acai berries increase longevity.” I got a call once from a woman who was buying a copy of my cookbook who proudly told me that she only fed her children food she grew on their property and taught them that eating food from other places would “poison their insides.” My heart ached for these children and the obstacles they would face all their lives. Once you become aware of some of the practices involved in food production, there is a danger in labeling foods as saints and sinners. Sectarianism, when applied to food choices, could take compromise and negotiation off the table.
After you have the dirt on how food moves from farm to plate, the real work of watching your thoughts begins. There are bound to be struggles in your mind. For instance, I know that most conventional eggs come from mistreated hens and I’m aware that English muffins are made from refined flour and nonfood- like additives. Does this mean that I can’t enjoy eating an Eggs Benedict brunch in a restaurant with a friend?
What if I let the thoughts about livestock production (eggs) or refining foods (muffins) just happen without becoming attached to them? What if I just KNOW how the food was made; am simply aware of all the terrible and wonderful things that go into producing certain foods without making rules or creating fears? Being conscious of where your food comes from does not necessitate bringing menu choice to a screeching halt. One choice can be a simple “Huh? How about that?” The homemade quesadilla made from scratch may be more rewarding than the one served for school lunch but there is no need to make it more than it is. I know when I am making an effort towards something better and when I am not. Information noted.
When handling food (as in “cooking”), I notice the stark difference between food with which I have a relationship and food from unknown origins. I visited Kenneth King’s farm in Hutchinson, Kansas a couple of years ago. He raises cows and chickens “stress-free.” I feel confident in claiming that his animals looked blissful. I bought some of his eggs and hand-churned butter — meaning I dropped some cash in a jar on the table of the “store” — a small room with a few refrigerator cases and an open door policy. The next morning I really looked at the eggs. I noticed the variety of shell colors, the difference in sizes. I didn’t grab one; I chose one. As I broke it open, the vibrant orange yolk seemed to gaze back at me. I poached the egg for breakfast and served it on a piece of toast slathered with some of Mr King’s rich, golden butter. I was present for this egg.
BE BOP BREAKFAST
We are so nutrition nerdy at Bastyr University that the students make “I Love Kale” t-shirts and sell out. I have combined this super vegetable with brown rice, egg and condiments to make this take-off on the traditional Korean Be Bim Bop.
Get out a big skillet; cast iron is perfect. Heat it up. Put about 2 teaspoons of butter in it and add scallions. When they are bright green, add the cooked rice. Shovel it around until it is thoroughly heated. Divide rice and put into 2 large bowls. Sprinkle rice with a little bit of tamari if desired.
Put 2 more teaspoons of butter in the skillet. Add kale and toss until the kale is starting to wilt and glistening. Put two tablespoons of water on the kale and cover until water is gone and kale is tender. Divide kale into the bowls with the rice. Sprinkle kale with a little bit of vinegar if desired.
Add remaining butter to skillet and heat until it sizzles a little. Break eggs into skillet. When whites are no longer transparent, flip each egg. Up to you how long to let the egg cook. I like my yolk thick but moving, which means about one minute or less on the flipped side.
Put one over-easy egg into each bowl. Add a tablespoon or two of kim chee or sauerkraut. Dress it all with a tiny trail of Thai chili sauce. Have a supercharged morning.
Preparation time: 12-15 minutes
Makes 2 servings
© 2010, Cynthia Lair. Original recipe.