What Feeds a Family

I have picked up a new hobby.  I could call it a lifestyle, but that seems a bit prosaic.

It could be more akin to a religious conversion, but that might be dramatic, so maybe I’ll just say: there’s been a lot of food for thought (and thought for food) around here this last year.

It started innocently enough when I received the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook at a “Favorite Things” gift exchange one December evening.

Though, in all actuality, it has been brewing for awhile — a year to be exact. A year where we spent a lot of time in a minivan driving with lots of young children and cup-holders full of rainbow goldfish crackers and trips being made through the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru.

I was pregnant, we were living in a small apartment while building a home in the country — and we were driving back and forth to the job site every day (sometimes more than once). And so, as transitional times often are, we were out of routine, short on time, and fueling up on what was fast and easy.

Once we moved into the new house, we did settle back into routine a bit — better planning, better food. But still, we had a newborn by then, and I started to recognize a very scientific pattern: the more crackers I had in the house, the less vegetables my 5-year-old wanted to eat.

This was a subtle observation — and I’m not villainizing crackers. Many are really quite tasty, especially those buttery, round, salty ones with a slice of Jarlsberg on top. But what this cracker/no vegetable correlation (causation?) did is make me start thinking.

It began with just the food itself, as in: how can I get my kid to be less picky?

I am practical about these things, truly — and I give us all a lot of grace. Though my then-5-year-old was, at the time, approving only about 9 different foods on rotation, my 2-year-old bon vivant was begging for roasted tomato salad with goat cheese and sauteed onions. Personality does come into play.

But with something as human and basic as the nourishment of our bodies (and my role as the primary food-maker, nourisher), what I have fallen in love with over the last year is more than just eating “healthy;” rather, the bigger-life-philosophy of being well-nourished.

After reading 100 Days of Real Food, I went on to digest the real catalyst of my conversion, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. Pollan calls it an “Eater’s Manifesto” and it’s a fascinating discussion of the Western Diet, the history of Industrialized Food and what he calls, “The Age of Nutritionism.”

Next I read Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a deeper dive into where the steak and potatoes and tomatoes on our grocery store shelves actually come from — a wonderful book. Then on to Pollan’s Food Rules (a short little read about the cultural guidelines for eating), which nicely led to an interesting book about French food culture, French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon. I’m currently reading the beautifully penned Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which details one family’s attempt to eat only locally grown food for an entire year.

As I’m writing this, it doesn’t seem all that poetic or metamorphic — you’re eating healthy food, woopee! — but making thoughtful changes in our pantry and fridge and recipe repertoire have really enriched aspects of our family culture in ways I didn’t anticipate. My son said at breakfast this morning: Mom, I’m so happy we’re eating our bread again. (I have been making our own sandwich bread for months now and my Kitchen Aid mixer, which I use for kneading, has been kaput the past couple of weeks. It’s finally fixed, so this morning we had the first homemade batch again.)

This idea of “our bread,” the bread of our family — thick, hot slices of not just toast, but tradition and ritual and love. It’s about so much more than the yeast and the flour and the honey that falls, thick, from the measuring cup into a big metal bowl. It is about nourishment — in the sense that this is our family bread and also that it is bread that we know — down to every pure ingredient — and because of that, we have more gratitude for it.

In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust of a word, than most of us do today. A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and a little more than an hour enjoying them. For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life… Here then, is one way in which we would do well to go a little native: backward, or perhaps it is forward, to a time and place where the gathering and preparing and enjoying of food were closer to the center of a well-lived life.

— Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

And perhaps that’s why the crackers really did start to bother me — you poor crackers, I’m really not trying to pick on you, but I do need an example. I simply realized how much I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their ingredients or even how to pronounce many of them. I didn’t know where they came from. And at the end of the day, I didn’t really know how nourishing they were — and the fact that my son loved them above all else edible was problematic to me. Once we got rid of most of the crackers and boxed snackies and started cooking more home-made meals of rich, nourishing, delicious whole foods, we liked the boxed stuff less anyway.

(And because of it — and a little persistence on my part — my son has added many new foods to his rotation.)

This conversion of heart — or is it stomach? — came at a time when our family was already embarking upon an adventure as neophyte homesteaders.

As I’ve been soaking up words about food and culture and nourishment, my husband has been reading the prose of Wendell Berry and the no-nonsense farm sense of Joel Salatin. Somewhere in all of this food for thought, in the intersection of delicious cooking and apprentice vegetable gardening and chicken coop planning, we have found that the care and energy that goes into feeding ourselves is just as filling as the food itself.

My picky eater would not be motivated by my simple coercion to eat your peas before ice cream, but he is quite motivated to grow his own watermelons in our backyard garden beds and taste what truly ripe, in-season fruit tastes like. He would have nothing of trying a new texture put before him without warning, but he loves being my Sous Chef on a step stool beside me while making a new recipe (and what chef doesn’t dip their finger in for a taste?) His love for good food has become a love for the ritual of mealtime; and mostly, the routine of sharing a meal — the passing of a plate, the setting of a table, the conversations that are as sustaining as the meal itself.

French children are exposed early on to elaborate meals and learn that their parents expect them to treat these occasions with respect. Their respectful attitude carries over into everyday meals, which have a slightly ceremonial feeling. The French never, ever, eat without putting a tablecloth on the table. They even have a special phrase for setting the table: dresser la table. (The word habiller, which is the normal French word for getting dressed, is also used.)

The image of a table getting “dressed” can still send my girls into fits of giggles. But it is actually an accurate description of how the French approach the dining table. They dignify the table, and themselves, through clothing it with the appropriate item to be worn for the most important moment of the day. Setting the table is a ritual that expresses the ceremonial and aesthetic aspects of French eating, at the core of which is the belief that eating is intensely social and that it rightfully happens around the table…

Preparing the table to receive the food in this way might seem a little old-fashioned. But it has a marvelous effect on children. They react as if a stranger in uniform has shown up at the front door: it immediately puts them on their best behavior. The effect is heightened by the rules concerning how the French eat. Food is never eaten standing up, or in the car, or on the go. Food is not eaten anywhere, in fact, but at the table. And food is only served when everyone is at the table. “À Table!” is a summons that brings most French children running. Everyone waits for everyone else to be served, and for the ritual “Bon appetit!” to be said before beginning the meal. As children almost always eat with their parents, these habits sink in early.

So eating — even everyday meals — is treated like an occasion. And it is, above all, a social occasion. The French never eat alone (at home or at work) if there is someone else to eat with. And because French food tastes so good, it is an occasion to look forward to.

— Karen LaBillon, French Kids Eat Everything

The heartwarming food culture that is developing in our home has become such a fulfilling part of our family culture. Writer Barbara Kingsolver defines a genuine food culture as an “affinity between people and the land that feeds them.” And perhaps that is what is growing here.

In a world of processed food a hundred grocery store shelves wide, we are all too often detached from where our food comes from — a box of crackers is not nearly as intuitive of a connection from earth to food as the plants and animals that are fed themselves by the soil.

And so, in nourishing ourselves with gratitude and grace from the God who provides for each of us, we are reminded that every meal and every person who shares it along side us truly is a gift.

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