A strega is a witch and I’m feeling like a strega without a
broom. No, I'm not talking about cleaning;
I’m talking about not having my familiars about, my spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, my tools of the kitchen trade.
Coming back to NYC, to an empty kitchen is one thing. But as
I go around the kitchen seeing what I need to start cooking again, I’m
realizing what a disconnect the average US person has from their food supply. I’ve
gotten used to getting my eggs from Bruce’s obliging chickens, I reach for
chili peppers that I grew and dried, I have jars of summer produce and I know I
shared the same hot summer sun as that basil, buying cheese isn’t a plastic
shrink wrapped affair, it’s a trip to the cheese maker, which involves having a long
chat about life and only then do I get the carefully wrapped piece of cheese. It sounds so romantic and nostalgic, but
that’s because how many of us feed and clean out a chicken house, or get up
pre-dawn to milk sheep? Romance is more fun that reality which is why we make
love in the dark. The older you get, the darker the room…but I digress.
Romanticism aside, I was physically connected to my food and
now I’m in the city buying food that I don’t know anything about it. According
to the last US Census in 2000, 80% of us live in urban areas. Since you are
reading this, it’s safe to assume you care about food and know what time of
year tomatoes are at their peak. It’s also a reasonable bet that you are in the
minority. After a screening of the film, Food Inc., at the New School, there
was an excellent discussion panel led by Jill Richardson, and she told of
talking to people who literally thought that spaghetti was a plant, or that
pumpkins grew on trees. Sounds ridiculous, but what if you never had any opportunity
or reason to know better? It’s like having street smarts: I don’t walk around
with my handbag open or put it on the back of my restaurant chair, but that
nice lady from a small town in Iowa who is an instant target for an urban
pickpocket, how should she know better? Tomatoes are always in the supermarket, apples are always in
the supermarket, and cherries appear at Christmas time, how would someone know
the season for these fruits?
Food Inc. is a cornerstone film in the way that Inconvenient
Truth was. It’s a wake up call to everyone that we need to look at what’s going
on with our food sources and the culture of eating. The film attempts to
highlight many of the key areas of concern: industrialized meat operations,
consolidation of crops, exploitation of workers, obesity, fuel and water consumption,
cheap junk food versus expensive healthy food, the implications of patenting
seeds, etc. etc. etc. etc. But, the part that struck home for me was the family
that ate dinner together….in their car, after getting a drive through hamburger
meal. The mother’s reason was long
working hours so cooking was impossible and it was cheaper.
She also had been under the impression that a drive-thru burger meal was
healthy. The camera then follows
them into a supermarket where we see that chips and soda are much cheaper than
I think the family may have been Mexican-American, so somewhere in that
mother’s history is a long and beautiful culinary tradition. Where did it go?
How did it get lost? What happened that we are so disconnected from our food? What
legacy will she give to her daughters?
After the film and the panel discussion with Peter Pringle, Bryan Walsh and Marion Nestle, there was Q&A
time and one audience member made a staggering point: food memories are a very
strong touchstone. If the times you remember eating as a family are shared at a
McDonalds, then the smell of McDonalds will always be warm and fuzzy and
The film cobbled
together some band-aid slogans as a tagline to make us all feel
better: Eat organic. Plant a garden. Etc.
These are noble sentiments, not a guide to a return to
respecting our food.
The last audience member asked a simple question of the
panel, “What can I do?” And a very
wise Marion Nestle replied, “Pick one cause.” She’s right; no one person can provide
us with solutions. Stonyfield's Organic Yogurt is now available at Wal-Mart;
that was Gary Hirschberg’s small step towards bringing a good product to many.
My battle? Bringing people back together to the dining room
table and letting people know that cooking isn’t so hard.