Real Food: My Lifelong Quest for True Flavor
Zena Farm, June 2011
Everyone associates certain foods with childhood; one whiff of homemade soup brings them right back to that rainy day in 4th grade when Mom made it for them to feel better. I too catch a scent of something comforting and reminisce of times long past. The same is true of the reverse scenario; I look back fondly on my childhood years and think about the food that I loved: my mom’s split pea soup, my father’s enchiladas, and my family’s super secret almond roca recipe. I prefer all of those things exactly the way my family makes them, and although I wish to write that I was consistently fed this degree of heavenly nourishment, these recipes were reserved for special occasions only. My reality: a pre-teen inhaling as much food as humanly possible in-between swim team, homework, and soccer practice. During these hectic suburban times, my mother’s best friends were fast food and the freezer isle. I wish I could lie and tell you that frozen corn and mashed potatoes from a box are revolting, but they too belong on my long list of comfort foods.
Then it happened. In middle school I started to think about what I was eating. Scarfing down Cup O Noodles was no longer satisfying me, and I craved to know more about where food comes from. I read Fast Food Nation and received PETA propaganda frequently at community events. The accounts of factory farm practices and the images of suffering animals forever burned in my deepest consciousness, I morphed into a vegetarian. “A vegetarian?!” My parents exclaimed with worry. What would this mean for dinnertime? This dramatically changed up the household dynamic at family dinners, with my parents worrying about my protein and iron intake, or if there were hidden bits of meat chunks in whatever they heated up. Now instead of us all eating the same thing, the youngest family member was challenging the parents’ notion of “dinner” in a serious way. We started actually cooking more often so that there was a vegetarian option. Next to my healthy looking plate of vegetables and grains, I assume that my brother’s hot pockets no longer looked as appealing. We started eating together for family meals after several years of dining individually. I noticed and enjoyed this change. This situation did not improve when I switched to a vegan diet in high school. I researched and learned that the milk and egg industry was equally screwed up as CAFO meat production. At the time I didn’t know about “free range” and “pasture raised” options and these arguably have become more accessible recently. It was all or nothing at that point. Either live as a hypocrite chewing my cheesy omlettes or change my lifestyle more dramatically. That is when food started to become “real”. My family threw their hands up (and oven mitts) with no clue what “vegan” even meant. “Is vay-gan a religion?” one family friend asked. Oh man, why could nobody pronounce this word correctly? And why did I have to defend myself constantly? I was completely on my own and had to learn to cook for myself. That is when my exploration into a complex world of food knowledge began.
Flash-forward 4 years later: I am at Zena farm where each dinner is a discussion about sustainability. We have to think about what constitutes “real food”. Our group has loosely defined it as “sustainable, from within 100 miles give or take, and usually organic”. But then there are the days when all we want to eat are bananas, and we have to give in a little bit. I have felt so healthy here because we are so focused on eating whole foods and incorporating food grown on Zena Farm: a lot of spinach and eggs, but with some special items like asparagus, garlic scapes, and strawberries thrown in. These are not gobbled up immediately but shared amongst the group and eaten together, so we can all enjoy the bounty that the farm offers. At the end of the day I work on my daily Zena journal, which helps me reflect on our activities in class and in the field but also to ask questions and explore more deeply about what it means to be a human now on this planet. Although I have written about everything from soil science to strawberry jam, most of my journal entries revolve around notions of “real food”. The definition of real food has changed not only for me as an individual but also for the country as a whole. What exactly does “real food” entail? Is it purely the distinction between the packaged and the untouched, organic and conventional, or healthy and unhealthy? Although my ideas regarding real food are in almost constant flux, I deem an exploration of the way that I eat to be imperative after 5 weeks at Zena farm, 1 year abroad in France and Morocco, and 8 years as a vegetarian/vegan. All of my experiences with food have amounted to the vision I have now for real food.
What exactly is real food? Everyone’s idea of real food ideally will be different because we all are shaped by separate but similar histories. Furthermore, we cannot define real food by explaining what it is not. I could take up these pages with lists of what does not constitute real food but I find it more helpful to discuss what it means for me. This way each person has room to define it for himself or herself. This is primarily what the American way of eating does to us. We see fat, carbohydrates, sugar, cholesterol and salt as our biggest enemies. There are no 10 commandments applicable to all global citizens about what should be for dinner, but there are guidelines that can help make our encounters with food a more positive experience.
Before anything else, real food should be tasty. Tasty food doesn’t always depend on the person cooking the food, but instead can rely on where the food came from. Tasty is achieved by eating locally and seasonally. In my opinion, local and seasonal products are more fresh and retain more flavor. I notice a remarkable difference between Zena’s farm fresh eggs and the eggs in the supermarket. They look, feel, and taste completely differently. Zena’s farm fresh eggs have bring yellow-orange yolks that stand up and easily separate from the whites. Fresh produce purchased at the Farmer’s Market seems to retain more taste than the stale shelf-saving produce of most stores. Perhaps one can also make an argument for terroir: the taste of the land, or being able to tell where food came from by tasting it. Eating the soil I also live on seems more “real” to me than triple-washed exotic fruits from who knows where. Eating local keeps food fresh and forces seasonal eating habits. Some authors have argued that our bodies are designed to crave and appreciate certain foods more during some seasons that in others. It even comes down to nutrition. Watermelon in summer is hydrating and replenishes electrolytes, while hardy greens in the winter donate vitamin C and calcium. We know that watermelon tastes better in the heat of summer just like warm greens soup is phenomenal on a snow day. Real food should leave a belly feeling happy and satisfied instead of disappointed. During the early summer, I do not crave lathed baby carrots, but freshly pulled carrots covered in dirt. The farther away you live form your food source, the more likely it is that your food bounty will be lacking some serious taste. Staying local and seasonal are key ingredients in the real food manifesto.
Real food should be familiar. I don’t mean only eating food you have eaten before, but eating food that you know the origin of. Economically, this helps us support local economies and create bonds between producers and consumers. For city dwellers, this may mean scouting out the perfect farmers market stall or shopping at a local food co-op that provides information on the source of food, which honestly is thrilling for me. For those living in a more pastoral setting, perhaps your neighbors or even your own backyard are the secret to a happy dinner. I used to subscribe to a CSA (community supported agriculture) from a farm in western Washington. Each week when I went to pick up the box, there was someone from the farm who could answer any questions I had about the food, and there were other members of my community to meet. Picking up the CSA box was always the highlight of the week. Opening the box would reveal many shades, shapes, and smells that I may have never experienced had it not been for that CSA. Purple potatoes, delicata squash, and rainbow chard all in one box! One day the farm invited its CSA members to a harvest party, where we could all come glean whatever was left off of the farm courtesy of the farmers. It was such an amazing way to meet the people who worked so hard to make each week a wonderful surprise. The farmer also was able to see the people who spent their hard earned cash on their products. This rural-urban mingling proved to be something I will always strive for in my eating choices. It makes such a difference to me to be conscious of who makes your food, to thank them, and to think about them while preparing the fruits of their labor. I miss this community connection when I shop at a grocery store and it often makes the true source of food a complete mystery.
Take for example the beet: In one hand I hold the locally produced beet, still with its veiny reddish leaves on, the taproot extending down. I can smell the dirt and the sweet sugar and I crave that first bite. I can see my farmer friends moving dirt with their hands, with tools, with machines to keep this beet alive until it has found me. My pocket money goes from my pocket to theirs: a truly delicious and gratifying beet. Compare this to my other hand: the can of beets. Where did this come from? Where did the can even come from? My hand is spotless, free of dirt -- a sterile environment. The canned beet looks nothing like the earth beet. There is a glorified picture of the jar’s contents on its label. This aluminum can could be from anywhere. The beets inside will taste identical to other canned beets. In this case I will be eating a beet, but the experience has changed dramatically. Familiar faces make real food.
Real food should also be equitable. There is no reason why a wealthy housewife and a working-class person should have unequal access to good food. If only a certain class of people can buy a kind of food, then it’s not real for the rest of the population, and thus cannot be considered real food. Unfortunately, right now real food is not available to all people because of distribution problems. Some neighborhoods only have small convenience stores and are miles from the nearest farmer’s market. Those people still deserve to meet farmers and to have the same experience that I have had with fresh food. Living in Portland, Oregon has made me appreciate the fact that most neighborhoods have a farmer’s market and there is always competition between vendors for spots in the markets. Although some neighborhoods still lack a farmer’s market, I predict they will get them soon. Growing, selling, and buying food from Zena Farm is currently limited to students of Willamette University (and in my case another similar liberal arts college, Lewis and Clark College). Not everyone can go to college and enjoy this kind of produce, however there are ways of leveling the playing field like starting community gardens or opening new farmer’s markets.
Finally, real food should be alive. I don’t mean this in the way that raw foodies say food is alive if uncooked. I mean that food should look like where it came from. Meat should look like it cam from an animal instead of a machine, and vegetables shouldn’t be sold in shrink-wrap. I smile when I can guess all of the ingredients in food. “Oh this bread has yeast, flour, salt, and is that rosemary?” Instead of “water, flour, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, citric acid…”. Conversely, I enjoy finding new things at farmer’s markets and having to ask “What in the world is that?” A green zebra tomato, heirloom potatoes, and sweet onions the size of my head -- heaven! At Zena for the first time I have considered making my own crackers and potato chips, as no one should have to live without delicious treats. I have succeeded in making cereal, cheese, jam, sushi, pasta and pizza. Some kids never even think this stuff can be made from scratch. Now when I am craving food that I don’t consider to be real food, I can think about how I could replicate it in my own kitchen. Pile up the flour, throw in the eggs, flatten the dough, cut into shapes, and throw into boiling water and presto! – a homemade meal of pasta. Although not everyone has the time for such activities, it’s comforting to know that I can make pasta if the world is ending and everyone has purchased all of the pasta in the store. Real food is recognizable.
In the end this isn’t even about “the Environment” or morality, but about knowledge, taste, and general celebration of the food that is available. It’s about replacing a somewhat spiritual component of food long gone from the freezer isle. There is such joy in picking strawberries and making jam with them, such pride in catching a wild fish while knee deep in a stream, and such infinite wonder in the first carrot pulled from the earth each year. These senses and feelings disappear when we buy them all in plastic containers, a contraption meant to keep out human contact and human emotions. Some people are revolted by the twisted root vegetable, the bumpy tomato, and the baseball bat sized zucchini, all which often occur naturally and should be celebrated rather than returned to the supermarket with a complaint. I hope in my many years to come, I strive to keep a real food lifestyle. I am sure my notions of real food will evolve constantly, because they already have. I’m sure they will even change this coming winter, with less seasonal produce and on a tight student budget, but I am honestly excited for where the future of food will take me and how it will continue to change my life.
- "Into the Woods" - Kristin Light
- "Farming, eh" - Amanda McCLelland
- "Thinking of Sustainability and the Future" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "Journal Entries for the Zena Farm Program" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "A Brief Anatomy of Zena Farm" - Sarah Spring
- "Real Food: My Lifelong Quest for True Flavor" - Michelle Tynan