Friday, August 13, 2010

A Food Journey

Growing up on a small "hobby" farm in Southeastern Ohio, I took local food for granted.

We always had a huge vegetable garden in our own yard. We had chickens to provide us with eggs, and it was my job to collect eggs daily. (I was even able to sell the surplus brown eggs to our local health food store for some spending money.) We drank fresh, unpasteurized milk from our dairy-farming neighbor down the road. We even raised our chicken, pigs, and Angus cattle.

My mom was born in West Virginia, but contrary to the stereotypical hillbilly jokes about her home state, she spent her childhood in towns like Charleston and Huntington. She grew up purely as a city girl, thinking tomatoes came from the grocery store--not a garden. As an adult, she became fascinated with farm life and learning how to make, grow, and raise her own food, direct from the source. So, when she and my dad had the chance to move our family out to a 220-acre Ohio farm, they jumped at it.

Looking back, my parents gave DIY a whole new name. Purchased directly from an Amish family, the old farmhouse lacked indoor plumbing; it had some wiring, since it was not always an Amish home, but, according to my dad, it was just "shoved up" in the walls. Naturally, my parents had a few projects on their plate--not to mention responsibility for me and my sister, then three and seven, respectively.

In the midst of all this home improvement and child-rearing, my parents started right into farming. My dad took main responsibility for the livestock, and the vegetable garden was a joint effort. My mom also dove into food preparation, teaching herself how to make homemade bread, can fruits and vegetables, and even churn butter.

"There was a time when we could say that everything on our table, we raised ourselves," my dad recalls proudly.

As my sister and I got older and more involved in activities, and as my dad traveled more and got busier with work, my parents found that they couldn't keep up with raising so much of their own food. Little by little, the food on our plates changed. The bread was no longer homemade; the meat wasn't our own. But, we still did better than many of our fellow Americans--we got meat from our neighbor who raised her own cattle, and we always kept a big vegetable garden.

I grew up, moved away, and stopped really thinking about my food. In college, it was all about what was cheap and easy. After college, things didn't change too much, until I started subscribing to food magazines and becoming interested in cooking more. But, even then, it was about finding a recipe that looked good and going off and buying all the ingredients--regardless of what was in season, or local, or organic. The food's pedigree didn't even enter into my thinking. Then, kids came along, and I found myself doing things I used to turn my nose up at--making cream-of-mushroom-soup casseroles and crock-pot concoctions that included ginger ale and ketchup, and nuking chicken nuggets and easy mac and spaghettios.

Every now and then--for special occasions and when I got totally bored with our usual food--I'd go on kicks where I'd dig out my cookbooks and make good food again. But, by and large, I'd fallen into the trap again of looking at food in terms of how cheap and quick and easy it was. After all, I reasoned, I had little kids, I had work--what I didn't have was time to prepare elaborate meals.

Then, I got tired. Got tired AND educated. Got tired of sub-par food. Got tired of fixing a meal that I didn't even want to eat. Got educated about our food system in the U.S. and how far away from the source we've gotten. I learned how laden our foods are with preservatives, chemicals, and stuff we really shouldn't be putting into our bodies. I became convinced that it wasn't just a luxury to feed my family well; it was a necessity. Our health--our very lives--depended on it.

I learned to make food shopping and prep a priority. I learned again to take pride in where my food comes from. I'll be honest. It can take more time and money. And, there are days when we throw in the towel (literally, because let me tell you, this approach does up the dish-washing ante quite a bit!) and order take-out pizza. We also indulge far too often in things like supermarket ice cream in elaborate flavors and with an ingredient list a mile long; and our kids still partake of decidedly non-healthful things like juice boxes and candy at parties and kid events.

But, at least we are informed now. And, we're making a conscious effort to tell our food's story with pride.

"These apples are organic."

"This bread is made at a small bakery that doesn't use preservatives."

"This came from a local farm."

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