I've finally approached that crossroads that I've been circling and detouring around for years. I've known that many of the foods that I grew up with and consider comfort food staples are not ideally what one should be eating and that we've probably been eating too much of them. I've been so focused on sharing my childhood traditions and comforts that for the most part I've avoided facing and dealing with this uneasy truth.
I think the catalyst was Susie Crowther's "No Recipe Cookbook." I am a pretty good "no-recipe cook," but while flipping through it I kept coming across little nuggets of "food reality" that really spoke to me. In her funny, engaging yet no-nonsense here-are-the-facts way, Susie goes beyond building recipes and talks about the reality of what we put in our mouths, how our body uses it and even some of the economics and politics of food. Not all of this is easy stuff to swallow, but all of it is a good reminder presented in a very digestible way for those who are new to the cooking and food scene as well as those of us who are familiar with it.
I am very comfortable expounding that cooking is something that is meant to be shared and enjoyed and I know that I cook for my family the way I do partly as an expression of love. And yes, I know that the key is moderation in everything, but I should be taking a harder look at our daily eating habits to see if there are things that we can change for the better. I've been dancing around this for months. You've seen my columns ranging from Ayuervedic kitchari cleanses to gourmet cupcakes and everything in between as I have gone back and forth as I've tried to get a handle on this struggle
So where to begin when you have the technical ability to cook most anything, have a pretty good understanding of nutrition, read "Omnivore's Dilemma" and found it to be life-changing, follow various food system trends and serve on the board of a local food organization, but were raised on the flavors and traditions of Midwestern farmers from the depression era who splurged on the likes of white flour, processed sugar and Crisco? How do I reconcile much that is comfort food and treats with the better choices for feeding these amazing engines, our bodies?
I've spent a long time instilling in my family what I was raised with for traditional fare and now, suddenly (well, not really that suddenly) I'm concerned with the path I've laid. Well, I am and I'm not. I don't regret a minute of the time I've spent in the kitchen with my daughters, nieces, neighbors and friends sharing recipes, swapping stories and teaching the not just the life skill of cooking but also of community, cooperation and fractions. This includes everything from how to measure Crisco by using the water displacement method, coming up with dinner from what you have on hand and how to choose the best local produce at the market. These skills and that time spent together are things that they will have forever. But now is the time to dig deep and make some changes at the base levels.
When I was a tween my poor mom must've been going through a time like I am now -- suddenly there was lots of tofu, bulgur and stir fry showing up on our dinner table. Much of it didn't go over well and I sometimes joke that while I really would like to learn to cook and eat tofu, I am scarred for life. Times have changed and my family has changed some of its eating habits along the way -- we buy local whenever we can, including locally sourced vegetables, fruits, grains and meat. We grow some of our own food -- some years are better than others, but we know where to go in the bad years to supplement what withered on the vine (or just didn't get planted in the first place). We've cut down on the amount of meat we eat, we try to shop the perimeter of the grocery stores where there is less processed food and we make it our business to read labels.
I know we are in better shape than lots of folks. But kids in particular follow by example and my example feels like it needs to shift a bit. For our daily eating I'll be working with more whole grains, including whole grain white flour, which might make the transition a little easier. Trying to make heart-healthier oils and natural sweeteners the norm rather than the exception. Mixing up cuisines, ingredients and spices to add some new flavors and nutrients to our table. Stretching our meat "ration," experimenting with a pie crust that doesn't use hydrogenated oil and adjusting the budget to accommodate these changes. By looking at our usual menu a little harder, and with a bit more planning and experimenting, I am confident that, after the anticipated initial squawking, we will come out with a both our family's health and traditional comfort foods delicious and intact.
Will I draw attention to these changes that we will be making? We won't have a big family meeting about it -- too much pressure. But neither will I hide or disguise these new tactics and techniques. By teaching everyone these new tricks to be used within what they consider our normal menu as well as expanding our variety I will be showing them how to be better consumers, both for their bodies and for our food systems sake. And this is a road that we will all be happy to have taken.
Have you made this change or are you on this road already? Any thoughts and suggestions would be more than appreciated and don't worry -- I will still be writing plenty about "the usual" fare. Remember, moderation is key!
Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn't have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.