Thursday, April 23, 2009

How Industry Replaced Artisty and How We Can Get Back to the Garden

Let us begin on a journey backwards, to a time when people were happy to be food artists, to a time when artistry won out over industry, when we realized and appreciated the value of the planet we lived on and lived off.

What exactly is the hurry every fast food TV commercial talks about? Ready in 3 minutes? Just pop it in the microwave - ready in seconds!

Since when is one of the most primal, important and pleasurable activities of human existence - eating - something to be not thought about and enjoyed leisurely? Why is it now we have created a culture where it's an inconvenience to feed yourself? How has eating and cooking become some hasty, nasty necessity, something that has to be gotten over as quickly as possible instead of enjoyed?

Would we ever think about sex in this way? Of course not, or at least I hope not. So why do we think about food this way? Who brainwashed us into believing we should not spend time with our family over a meal, that we should not prize quality healthy ingredients over cheap manufactured ones? Who made it so that the choice between cheap and expensive was so great and that a grocery store like Whole Foods, which actually tries to educate its consumers about the food they are buying by listing the place of origin and farming practices used is systematically smeared by campaigns calling them "Whole Paycheck?" This smear is a falsehood: sure they have high end products as part of a vast selection, but that selection also includes store brand organics that are cheaper then the closest equivalent at Fine Fare. This is something I've pointed out here repeatedly. Take olive oil. It's way cheaper by many dollars at Whole Foods then at Fine Fare (a popular grocery store in poor neighborhoods).

Also studies have shown that it is harder to find healthy food at stores in poor neighborhoods. Healthy and organic foods are also way more expensive, if you can find them, in a poor neighborhood grocery store. Why even buy vegetables when you can get cheap fast food? The price of two hamburgers at a fast food chain are cheaper then a pound of green beans, so why buy green beans which aren't going to give you that full feeling? Once again we show our cultural disdain for the poor by not only giving them the least healthy foods in their neighborhoods, but also encouraging them to eat badly by filling their neighborhoods with cheap fast food outlets. Corporate America at it's worst.

It reminds me of how we dealt with DDT, after it was vilified and banned here in the States, corporate America just changed its marketing strategy and started selling it to developing nations. Mexican Mango, anyone?

What is the solution to all this madness? It's not easy and it doesn't seem to me that there is anything near to a quick fix at hand. What I do see is a new generation of young people who are ready, willing and able to give up on the existing food structure and go backwards. People here in New York, like the Mast Brothers, Anne and Benoit at Saxelby Cheese, Vere Chocolates, Rick’s Pickles, all the folks at the New Amsterdam Market, Brown Cafe, Broadway East, Marlow and Sons and Daughters and Diner and Bonito and so many more; people who have chosen to make nurturing themselves and their communities a top priority. They do this by eschewing the big bucks, choosing quality over quantity, and rejecting the mass produced commercial to embrace the authentic.

In this time of great economic despair and increasing unemployment we have to ponder how it is we live and what it is we do with our time. The last ten months of unemployment have given me the opportunity to wonder what do you do with your time when you have so much of it and so little money? What is my time worth? Does being home make me the de facto house slave? If I was one of those people who was preparing and eating my meals in minutes this gives me all the more time to ponder: now what? After a great deal of struggle I've discovered a night of making bread can be fun and very cheap, given a loaf of artisanal bread can easily cost 6 bucks it’s a thrill to discover I can make that same loaf (or similar) at home for a fraction of that price. You see, I'd rather take to the kitchen given these circumstances then take to my bed and watch Oprah. It's a choice.

It's also intensely gratifying to give to my friends as a present a loaf of bread or a pint of homemade ice cream or a container of wonderful stew or some chewy sweet home made caramel that you know now tastes so delicious made the old fashioned way, with brown sugar, butter and cream, and no GMO high fructose corn syrup required. You see immediately from the reaction on your friends' faces that they love this kind of gift way more then some plastic wrapped rose, from some chemically fogged, slave labor dependent, green house in South America.

There are so many ways to change how we do things. Prioritizing food, family and artistry in our life is, to my mind, an easy choice. I'd much rather spend time with friends leisurely over a meal then watch TV with a microwave dinner. I'd rather spend what little income I have on seeds to grow food at my community garden or buy groceries then on a grossly sized flat screen TV that's going to cost a fortune and raise my electricity bill (so much so they are banned in Europe).

Call me madcap, but I love being in the city sitting around the dinner table with friends in a room lit by candles sharing stories of our lives, being passionate about politics or whatever else our hearts and minds want to express. We don't need to escape to an idyllic country setting to accomplish this, we don't need to have a car and drive for hours to get there, we don't even need to have a fancy cut of meat to feed our friends, In our home some cheesy, homemade lasagna goes faster then almost anything else, add a salad and a sweet and you have an entire evening of fun. I don't see this as cutting back, it's more consolidating. It's the art of living. It's not complicated or expensive, it's actually really simple and straightforward.

Lastly, it's important for all of us to embrace diversity. It's hard to be home and unemployed as a man because you are brought up with the expectation that you need to be the breadwinner. Increasingly, in these times, if you are lucky enough to be sharing your life with someone you love what does it matter the gender of the person who stays home? And although it will cause anxiety and readjustment we need to really enjoy and appreciate (note to self: quit being so damn critical!) the fact that two people have come together to help each other out. Maybe if you get really lucky, when your loved one comes home from work you can say:

"Hey honey I made dinner. It's simple, but I made it myself, from real ingredients and love, for us to share." Hokey? Maybe, but true none the less.

This is how we start to create the change we need, to replace industry with artistry, at home in your kitchen, with some simple ingredients and a friend.
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