Slow Food and Home Cooking

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I wrote this post three years ago as a guest writer for a Food and Faith series at The Local Cook. It was fun to write and a great way to apply some of the things I was learning in my seminary classes to real life. When my child was a newborn, I assumed I would never cook again. The thought was just too overwhelming. And I was pretty sad about it. I love cooking, I value the slow food movement and the thought that I would have to consume freezer casseroles for the rest of my (young adult) life made me depressed. But I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that I’m cooking more than ever, thanks in part to a baby that goes to bed early. We got a grill in the Spring and I grilled my heart out. Husband’s birthday was over the summer and I made an awesome ice cream cake. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house and I contributed quite a number of dishes. And  I make dinner nearly every single night…with joy! So, though this post is nearly 3 years old, it still feels really relevant in my life.You can find the original post here and the full series here

It’s About Time

As Americans, we have a strange relationship with time. Most of us understand time as rigid, segmented, limited and linear, where as many other cultures, particularly agrarian cultures, recognize time as flexible, elastic, relaxed, unlimited and circular. For us, time is tangible and extremely valuable, like a commodity (“Time is money.”) We can save it and spend it and (heaven forbid) waste it. And we dedicate time to those things we care about. We take time to be with our friends and family. We carve out time to spend with friends. We make time to complete a project. We give time to causes we care about.

In the words of Syed and Joyce Zafar, intercultural experts from the Compass Diversity Group, “Americans have internalized the clock to a degree which is beyond the comprehension of many cultures around the globe.” Our lives are literally run by the clock. Frankly, we can’t imagine life without it. Because eating is such a necessary part of our everyday life, we shouldn’t be surprised that our relationship to food has been affected by our time obsession, as well.

Good food takes time. It takes time to grow, time to cook, and time to eat. But really, who has the time? As a full time graduate student who is going through the ringer of finals week, taking the time to cook can easily become a tiresome, mundane chore. I would rather spend my time doing things that I care about. But more often than not, the time I “save” by eating something prepared by other people (either in a factory, a restaurant or a grocery store), is spent sitting on the couch with my laptop surfing Facebook or reading food blogs.

My sister recently attended a parent support group meeting in which the topic of once-a-month cooking came up. The idea involves dedicating one day to cooking and freezing all your dinners for the month in order to save time and money. For many families with very busy schedules and hectic lives, once-a-month cooking is a welcome relief. As a full-time student with suppers waiting in the freezer, I can speak from personal experience! But I do worry that our seemingly insatiable desire to save time is contributing to our ever-growing separation from the process that brings food to our tables. Poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, laments the way our fast paced culture has privileged the convenience and efficiency of food over its quality and care. And this has radically changed the way we think about food. Where it comes from and how it was made doesn’t even cross our mind. We no longer grow our own vegetables or slaughter our own animals. Instead, we rely on a vast network of farmers, laborers and workers to pick, process, package and prepare our food.

Cooking is the one part of the process of the food cycle that demands our time and attention. And in our extremely busy lives, cooking can become a sort of Sabbath from our weekday habits of hurried, careless eating or pre-prepared, processed food.  In many ways, cooking can and should be considered a spiritual discipline. The slow and careful process of washing, peeling, dicing, stir-frying and seasoning are all ways of thanking God for the wonderful gift of food. And as anyone who has ever eaten the seeds directly from the rough hide of the pomegranate knows, food tastes sweeter when you work for it.

This past Lent, I gave up prepared foods (i.e., eating out). Or, to put it another way, I took on the disciplines of slow food and home cooking. The experience opened my eyes to how much I depend upon other people to prepare my meals. Before Lent, it was easy to leave the house without a packed lunch, knowing I could buy something at school. It was convenient to swing by my favorite taco joint on the way home from class or grab a burger from the grill truck parked on the side of the road. I saved a lot of time eating food prepared by some anonymous person with unknown ingredients from distant places. But should ease, convenience and efficiency really dictate our eating habits?

Committing to home cooking involves patience, care, commitment and planning. During Lent, I ate breakfast at the crack of dawn before heading to class. I would pack my lunch, even if I was running late. I would spend some time in the afternoon making my dinner instead of catching up on the latest episode of Lost. My entire life had to change. But, in my opinion, it changed for the better.  Here’s how.

1) I waste less: Unless you are fine-dining, many (affordable) places give you food in throw-away containers. There’s no way around it. Add it all up and you are throwing away tons of plastic and paper every week. But as I started cooking more at home, I was consistently using reusable, washable containers (i.e., plates for dinner, tubberware for a packed lunch, etc.). Furthermore, the food I would buy at the grocery store would go bad before I could use it. Cream would curdle, apples would go grainy, lettuce would rot. Now, I eat everything I buy. Grocery shopping is actually a meaningful, useful activity again!

2) I know where my food comes from: Along with this discipline, I’ve made a commitment to buy much of my produce locally and in season. So, most Saturday mornings, I head to the farmers market where I buy sweet potatoes from the woman who dug them out of the ground and raisins from the man who grew the grapes! I buy bread from the baker, chard from the farmer, and ground pork from the butcher. I know their faces and they know mine. I can ask them about their ingredients and how their crops are holding up. There’s something deeply right about that.

3) I’ve become more self-sustaining: I usually hate mundane tasks (cleaning, organizing), so I was surprised to find that cooking is, in fact, a pleasurable experience! Being fully dependent on my own cooking has taught me a) that preparing food is a gift, not a burden and b) that cooking is a joy. In a small way, baking your own crackers or cooking your own stew is empowering. I don’t need to rely on massive food corporations like Kraft to feed me. I don’t need to eat Nabisco crackers made in a plant a thousand miles away. Cooking embeds me in the holy, everyday work of the household. And that’s worth my time.

4) I’ve learned not to eat alone: In my own cooking, I find it difficult to prepare food for just one person, which is the way it’s supposed to be. When I made my own granola and crackers a few weeks ago, I had a ton left over to share so I sent some off to friends. Eating is most satisfying when done with others. This is what companion means – a friend with whom you break bread. Starting a few months ago, some friends and I began meeting together every other week for a locally-sourced potluck. At our meals, friends gather to share their gifts of time and attention. We feast upon freshly baked bread, sweet potato fries, arugula salad and white bean chili, all made with attentive, caring hands.

The truth is, if we want to embrace slow food and good eating, we need a radical realtering of our concept of time. We must embrace every moment as a gift, rather than a commodity to be saved or spent.  This means developing a heightened sense of gratitude for God’s gifts, including the gift of food.  And I cannot think of a better way of thanking God than the common act of cooking, which brings us into closer connection with God, our neighbors and creation. The practice of cooking as a discipline helps us embrace the miracle, mystery and sanctity of food in our everyday lives.  As Wendell Berry writes, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 103.

Questions for Reflection (share your response below for any one of these for an entry in this week’s drawing)

  • Do you or your family have eating rituals that are linked to the seasons (not just to particular holidays?) How about weekly rituals?
  • If we embrace the idea of “slow food,” how can we make sure that preparing it doesn’t become a burden?

Challenge to Action (post one of these on your blog and add a link below to the specific post about this challenge or email me before Friday for an additional entry into this week’s drawing).

  • Make a slow meal; soak beans, simmer soup, knead bread. Invite friends to share it–or make the meal a potluck.
  • Make a list to share of creative ways you can cut down on time cooking without using processed / convenience foods.
  • Get local: Are there resources in your area for those who want to learn how to preserve food? Extension offices, community-supported agriculture farms, food co-ops and others often offer seminars in canning, drying, freezing, etc.
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We’re famous!

As I may have mentioned previously, some PBS folks came out to Anathoth about a month ago to do a story for their program, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, which appears nationally on PBS. Well, here it is! You can read the transcript here and see the short video they made. Yours truly makes a brief and pretty hilarious cameo appearance stating something obvious about some vegetables. You’ll also see Kate, my rad, very pregnant supervisor (and director of the garden) and Norman Wirzba, one of my professors, and other lovely people with whom I work at Anathoth. Enjoy!