Thursday, September 4, 2008

How eating is a deeply political statement

Tonight I made dinner with the goal of using up some of the produce rioting around in our backyard: I went to the store and bought some organic, free-range chicken thighs (and speaking of organic chicken: I am a hard-core feminist who knows what it is to be broke, and I support Obama 100%, and I believe he supports me and women like me. And for the record, I absolutely revere Alice Waters) a bunch of scallions, some bulk quinoa (please do feel free to google "quinoa," Mr. Babbin) and some feta. The rest of the dinner--piles of sweet, juicy Sungold tomatoes, a crisp and assertive Kirby cucumber, richly pungent basil leaves, a pair of crimson sweet peppers, and a fluffy parsely bouquet--I clipped from our garden while the quinoa steamed.

The end result was a very pretty and lemony quinoa-tomato pilaf topped with the chicken thighs, which had been sauteed with pepper and fresh herbs. (The lemons, in the spirit of full disclosure, I found in the fridge--our lemon tree is still a baby and not producing yet.)

Our little garden is totally organic, and our fancy, healthful little dinner cost a total of about eight dollars to produce, for about ten servings (lots of leftovers!). Yep, I am bragging. I am proud. Not just because I can throw down a decent dinner, but because in addition to eating on the cheap, bringing much of our dinner from the backyard instead of from the other side of the planet incurred very little ecological debt, in terms of fossil fuels, air pollution, and damage to ecosystems outside of our backyard. I am proud (and rather surprised to hear Mr. Babbin trying to make me feel ashamed) that I eat mostly organically--not at all because it's a status symbol, but because it's better for my health and better for the planet. And it's better for the chicken, honestly, that's farmed organically, and if I can minimize cruelty in my food choices I can't imagine not making that choice. It's better for human beings as a species, too, and not just in terms of individual health: avoiding the use of pesticides encourages and enables biodiversity, which is essential to making sure that human beings continue to be able to farm and feed ourselves without relying on Monsanto and other corporate giants for literally our daily bread.

Given that most everyone I know feels this way, it feels sort of weird to be preaching about it--I've never had to do it before. But I read Mr. Babbin's article, which I arrived at after a Google search of "Obama and arugula" led me there--my father had called me chuckling and asking me if I'd heard about the bizarre news story he'd heard regarding the presidential elections, and how arugula, which makes an appearance in most mainstream mixed-green packaged salads, has been somehow transformed into something that's not only as rarefied as certain types of caviar or truffle, but also rampantly un-American--and I was floored (not for the first time) by the fact that parts of America have such incredibly different perspectives on something as fundamental as eating. We are a diverse country, and truly one of the best ways that is represented is in our eating habits.

And while I disagree tremendously with pretty much everything Mr. Babbit said, I am reminded that it is no more fair of me to feel disdain towards his attitudes about food than it was for him to be snide about mine. We live in the same country; we are both American and invested in the outcome of this coming election, but we are clearly living in different cultures. Which is, I am seeing, one of the nifty things about living in this country--we are so diverse in this country that one aspect of the diversity is people who do not prize the diversity; people who, like Mr. Babbit, learn a new word ["\ə-ˈrü-gə-lə, -gyə-\ : a yellowish-flowered Mediterranean herb (Eruca vesicaria sativa) of the mustard family cultivated for its foliage which is used especially in salads —called also garden rocket, rocket, roquette, rugola] and then feel imposed-upon for having learned it.

I do prize the diversity that we celebrate here, and so I prize folks like Mr. Babbit, who prefer straightforward lettuce in their salads and coin puzzling phrases like "environmentally-fashionable." [Do note that I am not touching on Mr. Babbit's apparent misunderstanding of what being a feminist entails, mainly out of respect for my own cortisol levels.]

And in all sincerity--I have never been to Iowa, and I recognize that while nearly my entire social network is comprised of people who have a healthy respect for the environment, understand the importance of avoiding chemical additives in their food and are still far from elitist rich folk, my social network hardly represents the entire country. I realize that my politics are informed by having had, in my opinion, the remarkable good fortune to have lived my entire life in culturally diverse, liberal cities full of good eats and great attitudes and understanding about the gustatory arts, and particularly now to be living in northern California, home to the Slow Food movement, the Organic School Lunch Program, and yes, piles and piles of arugula and other non-lettuce salad greens. I realize that not everyone can afford organic groceries, and not everyone has the time and outdoor space to grow their own produce. I remember struggling to pay rent on my literally crumbling studio in Manhattan and attempting to grow tomatoes, illegally and without success, on my fire escape. I know that when times are lean it makes sense to eat what you can eat, and I remember the years-long gap between when I started learning about government subsidies, genetically-modified foods, and recombinant bovine growth hormone, and the time when I could afford to make the food choices that I make today. I spent years eating things I was pretty sure were poison on some level, and a lot of today's college students and struggling artists, I'm sure, are in that boat now. I know change can be scary. I can imagine being the first person in your social network to ask your supermarket to stock free-range chicken--that has got to be one brave person.

So I'm not mad at people who don't eat organically. I am kind of mad at Mr. Babbin, but it's more an issue of his tone than his choice in salad greens. I know from stories from friends who've traveled more within the central area of North America than I have that it can be challenging to find a diverse array of available produce there. I know, again, that I am fortunate. I am finally growing my life and my health in my backyard, living and working in the garden I dreamed about from my Lower East Side tenement sublet, and I am too grateful--for all the different kinds of tomatoes, for blackberries growing wild from under the tool shed, for soil that has been farmed for generations before I even got here, for a partner that understands how a garden works a million times better than I do, for figs, for plums, for arugula, even for Whole Foods, which is still too expensive for me to shop at on the regular--too grateful, every day, to stay mad with folks that think I am not everyday people just because I like all kinds of green things in my salad bowl.

To end on a happy note, here's a close-up of the quinoa. Jam Guy is taking some of it along to work for lunch tomorrow in a mason jar. My pilaf is better than my picture-taking, I promise.


Mayumi said...

this was a beautiful, passionate, educational entry ...

and i miss you.

SurfRunner said...

I absolutely LOVE quinoa and that looked amazing. Your dinner just made me drool. Quinoa also goes well with fish. The last time I made it, I grilled tilapia, moroccan-style. try it out.

that was a fabulous post, and I hope that whoever googles the arugula gap will hit your entry before Mr. Babbin's. After reading his article, I'm sure that he only eats salad maybe every couple of months. And perhaps as a small side with only iceberg lettuce in it. As I recall, I think that iceberg lettuce may be the least nutritional leafy green.

sidewalk monkey said...

Aw, thanks guys. I kept going back to that Babbin article and getting incensed. I am not nearly as educated about the benefits of sustainable eating as a lot of people, but doing what I can makes me feel good.

And I have to post a correction--the Slow Food movement, while it is thriving like a worm in a compost bin here in CA, actually has its original roots in Italy.

I love you guys. Maybe by January we can get some arugula growing and we'll throw an arugula-based inauguration party and cry tears of joy over Obama's speech.