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“By Their Fridges Ye Shall Know them” (National Geographic)
I broke the news to my husband starting with the bad: The stove could not be salvaged. Then, the good: Once we got a new one I couldn’t wait to get cooking again. We’d been renovating for 2 months, eating takeout all the while, and making a home-cooked meal was high on my list of things to do.
My stove turns 10 years old this year. She looks pretty good, too—the top still polishes to a brilliant white. The chef, on the other hand, is a little worse for wear: Somewhere during the past decade, I lost the joy of cooking. Not the cook book—I mean the actual joy of cooking.
I’m trying to pinpoint the source of my culinary ennui—the moment when lighting a burner went from pleasure to pain.
My real problem goes much deeper than an ungrateful child. It’s been a decade in the making but the designer food movement, in rewriting the story of food, has officially killed my cooking buzz.
Goldilocks’ porridge looks a lot different today. The old man in his Quaker costume doesn’t pass muster anymore: Too much gluten said Goldilocks of the first bowl; too much lactose said Goldilocks of the second bowl. But these steel-cut oats in soy milk with organic maple syrup—these are just right!
In an article for The New Yorker Magazine, “Read it and Reap,” reporter Alec Wilkinson profiles Modern Farmer, a “stylish agrarian quarterly” which features animals instead of cover girls: roosters, goats and sheep. The publication’s editor, Ann Marie Gardner, describes the magazine as “an international life-style brand” for people who want to “eat food with a better backstory.”
There wouldn’t have been a significant enough audience for this magazine ten years ago, but today it sits on magazine racks as a shining emblem of “The New Food Culture” to which belonging, or not, has created a two-tiered food system: One for the “haves” and one for the rest of us.
I cooked a pot of beef stew earlier this week. The meat I used was on special—it wasn’t grass-fed or antibiotic-free. I can’t be sure the animal was slaughtered humanely or that he had an “amazing life.” The tomatoes were canned, not organic. I don’t know if they were farmed clean or dirty. Can the people who picked them feed their own families on their wages? The vegetables were certainly not from within a hundred miles of here, a fact upon which I sourly meditated while chopping them.
I used to think of my stew as a hearty, healthy meal. Making it felt like an accomplishment, as if I’d done something good for my family. Today, though, it’s a potentially cruel gruel, laced with antibiotics accompanied by a Godzilla-sized footprint of carbon emissions.
The December issue of National Geographic arrived recently and this month’s installment of their eight-part series “The Future of Food: How to feed our growing planet” is, ironically enough, focused on “The Joy of Food” and “food’s power to nourish, unite and delight.” That’s what cooking has always been for me: an act of love and service.
But many of the plain, simple, recipes I used to enjoy preparing for my family and friends just aren’t good enough anymore. My Granny Campbell’s scalloped potatoes—with the mushroom soup as a secret ingredient—have gone out of fashion. Twenty years ago those potatoes netted me a marriage proposal. Today, I’d have to hide the can. Campbell’s cream of anything is public enemy No. 1.
Then there’s the rapidly changing food lexicon with ‘honest’ and ‘organic’ now being used synonymously in product branding. Is my beef stew dishonest? What do you know that you’re not telling me, stew? Talk to me!
Normally I’m unfazed by designer trends, but food is more elemental than shoes, fancy clothes, cars and vacations. For those of us who can only aspire to belonging to the new food culture our challenge is to find a way to feel good about doing the best we can in spite of the fact that we know too much.
Unless I decide to go into urban farming on a seasonal basis designer food is well outside of my family’s tax bracket, as it is for many Canadians. And at this time of year, in particular, it’s worth remembering that many people simply can’t afford to buy much food at all, of any quality.
Cast in that light, it’s probably worth my while to try to find a new food attitude and be grateful—downright joyful, even—for a humble pot of beef stew.