History as a Two-Course Meal

I think it’s safe to say that I am an “Eat Local, America!” sophomore. I have marked up my map, made a few dumb jokes, and even eaten weeds out of my own backyard. I want to make sure you understand two things right up front, though. First, I have never managed to eat exclusively in the 100-mile food radius* in any of the years I have tried this experiment and second, I have become less strict with myself during the challenge period (June through September) and more strict throughout the rest of the year.

I am pointing these facts out because I know trying to eat local can be a daunting experience. And who needs to feel like a failure? The point of this project, in my view, is to discover how easy choosing a local food alternative can be. Additionally, the project enables communities to educate themselves about the many different ways to eat more sustainably (that is to say, to eat food that travels a smaller distance, food that comes from friends and neighbors, and food that depends less on pesticides and fertilizers to grow and ripen). If we make progress in these areas, we can enjoy a lower impact existence that enhances our own social and physical health as well as that of everyone around us.

When I was young, I ate ahistorically. I can hardly imagine worrying about how my food choices affected the land around me when I was six. Food was just food.  People (usually my mom) put it in front of me. I ate it. With its energy, I did all the things children do—I ran, read, watched television, cried, laughed, slept, and thought. As I matured, I developed preferences (green beans, potato chips, pistachio ice cream, pot roast) and antipathies (soup, overripe bananas, white fish). I didn’t cook much for myself until I was in my mid-20s; before then I ate a lot of sandwiches, bagels with tomato and melted cheese, and dried cereal.

When I began to cook, my food vocabulary became more active. But that activity was still restricted to the making of dishes, not the origins of their ingredients.  When I had my first apartment in Houston, Texas, I made pork chops with my mom’s recipe, never stopping to wonder where that pork, onion, flour, salt and pepper came from. In fact, it was moving to a rural area that really forced me to think in more than the laziest way about the food web I had been constructing and within which I had been functioning since birth. Looking at a calf gamboling in a pasture or being mesmerized by geometric rows of young corn or the great metal turkey hauling trucks braking ahead of me on the highway, I couldn’t help but connect with all these living things (some beautiful, some ugly) around me.

Remembering where and when I encounter foods makes history real, connecting us to the past and to strangers in ways that formal history classes don’t always do. I try not to take that food’s presence for granted. Neither do I want to assume that I will always remember as much about the foods I have eaten and prepared as I do right now. In fact, I can guarantee that there is much I have forgotten already, including the first time I picked a green bean or held a spoonful of ice cream in my mouth.

With all this in mind, I am sharing my favorite meal with you, though sadly I can’t actually have you over for dinner. The meal is venison stroganoff, green beans and rhubarb crisp. This meal, like any meal, is a Rorschach test and a palimpsest. It mirrors my foibles and fantasies; it shows what I know and what I think I know about America’s food system.

I like this meal because it emphasizes contrast: the richness of a cream sauce cut by the grassiness of green beans and the cheek tweaking sourness of rhubarb mellowed by fat and sugar. I have done my fair share (and then some) of chest beating about the food’s origins, loving to talk about the beautiful places from which so much of the food in this meal comes. But at the very same time, I have to point out the foods whose origins remain mysterious, the pepper corns, for sure; but even the grain and milk products are still a bit foggy. There are annual and perennial fruits and vegetables on my table; items I gather seasonally in the woods and game my husband hunts. Then there are the products that come from the region. And finally, working to the outermost portion of this food network, there are imported goods, ones which cannot be raised in my region or nation.

Cooking a meal allows for a state of absorption some people call “flow,” what I think of as a sense that the world and time have sort of fallen away for a second or two. Once a cook is fairly comfortable with her tools and materials, she simply follows one sign to the next: the clack-clack of vegetables yielding to the knife and rolling inevitably off the cutting board as oil heats in the skillet, a familiar sizzle when the first onion slides in and caramelizes, elements added or subtracted based on that day’s desires and impressions. But this “flow” doesn’t really mean that I have traveled outside of time. I try to remember that familiar things are not always simple, though some strange aspect of our brains that makes us tune out repetitive data convinces us that they are. Every time I go through my cooking rituals, arriving at a special meal like stroganoff and crisp, or a more quotidian one like an omelet or grilled cheese sandwich, I am making the history of this country. My tools and tendencies will seem quaint to a generation not yet born. Eat Local, America! is yet another opportunity to make something of that persistent, fascinating fact. So please join me this summer as I deconstruct this meal, looking at the origins of some of the foods on my imaginary table, sharing a recipe or two, and adding my two cents worth of analysis and speculation to the history of food making in 21st century America.

* Please note: some define local as a 100-mile radius, however, the definition of local varies due to a number of factors. For more info, see the What Constitutes Local section of this Eat Local article.