When I was much younger, I would take solo backpacking trips in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. On one occasion, I found myself at a very remote campsite deep in the forest. My original plan was to commune in some vague, Thoreau-like fashion with nature, and with a congenial assist from the Almighty, discover heretofore unseen truths.
After taking two hours to fastidiously set up my campsite, I soon realized I had nothing to do. I grew nervous, impatient; paced around the site and back down the trail I had entered on.
Fortunately, the necessities of wilderness survival intervened. I needed to collect firewood to make a fire. I had to haul water from the nearby stream for drinking and cooking. Boiling enough water for three days took more wood, water and time than I thought. And before I knew it, my worries were over; I would haul water and collect wood, haul water and collect wood, haul water and collect wood.
This act of enforced simplification – reducing one’s daily life to a few essential tasks – became a kind of mantra for me later in life, and rough guidepost for the way I would approach food.
Like my experience with water and wood, I decided to narrow my range of options and take a more mindful approach to what I eat. I am trying to eat locally and seasonally, and as much as possible, assemble my daily menus from an admittedly narrower, but happily tastier range of choices that closer at hand.
I start with my household garden and then move to the farmers’ market for the produce I eat. I buy beef from a nearby New Mexico rancher whom I know personally and whose cows are raised entirely on grass. I’ve been to the facility where the cows are slaughtered; it’s locally owned, employs 10 people in a small town where every job counts and operates humanely.
Not all my food is local. I buy Organic Valley milk from Colorado farms because our New Mexico milk is produced from hormone-injected cows raised in factory farms. Connecticut is lucky; it has its own small dairies that market their milk locally. Coffee comes from a fair trade company out of Massachusetts. The rest of the I shop at conventional supermarkets for such things as bananas, cereal, and of course, beer and wine (locally produced when available).
The simplifying act is to start with what I have first and to put together simple meals around those foods. A hole, free-range chicken from the natural food store was more the accessory to the carrots, parsnips and onions from my garden a few nights ago. New Mexico beef anchored my dried chiles, canned tomatoes and cold storage potatoes the night before.
I’m not trying to imitate Barbara Kingsolver or eat only the 100-mile diet. I’m not a food purist nor do I while away my days in a state of hyper-anxiety over the health, origin or method of production of the food I buy. I love to garden; it’s my recreation, my fitness club, my calisthenics. I learn about other foods – what’s good and what’s not- when I have time. When I haven’t been fortunate enough to have my own garden, I’ve joined a community garden, shopped more at the farmers’ market and bought a share in a community-supported agriculture farm.
But there’s one more facet to the process of simplification, and its not so simple. In my opinion, it’s not enough to only satisfy your desire for simplicity and good food. You need to be a good food citize as well.
This means two things: The first is that if you believe that you should have the best and healthiest food available, then shouldn’t everybody, regardeless of income? This is what we call food justice. To that end in may be worth supporiting socially disadvantaged farmers, initiatives that protect the area’s precious farmland and projects that encourage the purchase of our local bounty by lower-income families.
The second characteristic of good food citizenship has to do with public policy. Bills will come before out state lawmakers that will promote local agriculture, healthier and locally grown food for students in our public schools, and more opportunities for low-income people to better feed their families. We need to support those initiatives. As good food citizens we need to speak up for policies and practices that promote local and healthy food for all.
This piece originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican (January 1, 2009) and the Hartford Courant (April 19, 2009)