WE’VE been spending some pleasant hours recently on parts of Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Trail, a province-wide network provided by the disused railway bed.
In the cooler air of fall, the mosquitoes have gone and it’s beautiful, easeful, relaxed and conversational walking weather. And, as we’ve walked, we’ve picked up wild apples, stuffing our pockets with fresh windfalls and plucking fruit from low-hanging branches. Few others seem to bother.
Some of the apples are pretty awful. But many are delicious, their wildness intensifying the flavour. We’ve turned our freezer into a winter cache of wild applesauce for tangy meat sauces, marinades and sweet desserts.
In Scotland, it was brambles (“blackberries”) that were there for the picking… in New Zealand, shellfish could almost always be harvested… wherever we’ve been, it seems, there’s been delicious food lying around waiting to be picked up.
And I’ve long found food itself a fascinating pathway to joy.
I have Polynesian and Italian friends to thank for that: not just for some of the magical memories but also for a few liberating attitudes.
At a time when my social life was almost wholly Maori, and hangi (earth ovens) were a frequent part of it — my young adulthood in New Zealand — I discovered that food has a lot to do with relationship. It’s about drawing people together, about sociability and community. Food, not booze or loud music, was the making of a party. The beer was there, sure, and it was shared; the music was made by real people right there on real instruments that, as often as not, were passed from hand to hand. And everybody sang, everybody danced: the wooers and the heartbreakers, the cousins and the couples, little kids and great grandmothers. And everybody ate. You can’t have clique and community.
Much more recently I’ve been welcomed to Italian communities, most especially to Isernia in the Molise Region. Italian culture values beauty, style, taste and family. Here, food has a special role too. There are still rural communities in Italy where almost everyone produces olive oil, cheese, wine, bread, herbs, smoked meats… and they pass it around. So every meal has a special intimacy because the hands that produced the fare on the table are familiar, nearby and known. It’s a sincerely felt privilege to have a neighbour’s cheese, declared the best in the vicinity, on your table, just as it is to know that, at that neighbour’s table, it’s your olive oil they’re dipping their bread into.
So, as a matter of course, the courtesies are followed of presenting food at its best, at its most attractive. Food feeds personal bonds as well as community pride, and is respected whether or not the person who produced it is actually present.
And the Italian way of presenting small course after small course allows each main ingredient to be singularly featured at its best: its smell is accessible, its flavour is uncluttered, it is seasoned uniquely to enhance its best attributes, and it is displayed attractively, not lost in a heap of other ingredients. It was in Italy that I “got” the idea of using fresh green herbs by the handful and meat more like a seasoning than as hunking great steaks, of keeping pasta toppings as simple as fresh tomato and basil chopped together, of the unique voice of each ingredient… of simplicity and purity, freshness, flavour and variety.
And each course is likely to be accompanied by a carefully chosen wine that enhances that particular course in ways far more subtle than “red or white”. The campagna wines (the local “country” wines) tend to be fruity and less taste-numbingly alcoholic than exported wines… and, originating from the same soil and surroundings as the food, a carefully chosen local wine helps to draw best attention to the hidden beauty of the landscape. As ingredients often come with their own folklore as well as a neighbour’s name, a rich relationship with food, land and community is sealed at the table, and so much is shared, that memorable meals are affordable.
Here in North America, such attitudes are scarce and, even allowing for the difficulties thrown at us by our northern climate, it’s surprising how badly we eat. Tragically, despite, or possibly because of, our wealth, we have managed to consign ourselves to a culinary hell in which going to McDonalds is considered a “family treat” and frozen packaged dinners are advertised on the basis that they can be on the table in two minutes flat.
Today is the day chosen as “World Food Day” by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. It’s a time to remember that a billion people around the World live in hunger. We can sign the petition and think, “how sad”. But it’s hard to know what WE can do to change things.
Well, we can look at our attitudes toward food: for our own sakes it’s all good if we appreciate food more. It’s important that we respect our food, and the sources of our food, and experience it in ways that fill us with gratitude. If we can do that, I think we can approach the global issues more effectively.
As it is, we’ll happily heap into a whole lot of different foods piled onto one plate — starch, meat, greens — and lose the flavours of them all under gravy, ketchup or pickles. It’s not possible to bother ourselves overly about the identity, source and nature of a particular ingredient because particular sources are erased by the homogenising manufacture and delivery of low-cost, high-volume bulk food “products”. The tendency has been to let most flavours subside into blandness. Food then turns from beauty into bulk, and we no longer get to dine; we just make quick refuelling stops.
So we don’t get a chance to be tantalised by freshness, flavour, simplicity and diversity… and this is perfect for the supermarkets: supply can all fall back onto refrigerated container loads of water-gorged chicken breasts, pork cutlets and bright red roasts of beef to be over-cooked and doused in starchy, salty, preservatives-laden store-bought gravy. Cooking (and eating) has become “too hard”, “too time-consuming” and this strips most of nature’s more interesting (and less expensive) foods from our menus, homogenises our diets and makes eating one of our society’s least interesting activities.
An oft-quoted study by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona in 2004 found that, on average, American households were throwing out around 14 per cent of the food they’d queued at checkouts to buy, almost a sixth of it still in its packaging and before its “best before” date. That was about $43 billion worth of food that was being tossed — more than 14 times the value of the World Food Programme’s 2006 global food distribution. Almost half of America’s annual food harvest wasn’t making it to the table, thanks greatly to wastage in the supply chain. In Canada, we can't assume that the picture is much different.
Eating without interest or enjoyment, it is easy to eat too much too quickly and too indiscriminately: the ten-minute meal is as good as it gets. Instead of “eating”, we talk about “nutrition”, and get bullied into fad diets, supplements, extracts, additives, vitamins and “health” foods. We are conned into thinking about food as doses to be “taken” like cough syrup: calculatedly, and without passion. The frustration of it erupts in occasional, guilt-engendering sugar-binges, preferably involving a wallow with cream, pastry and chocolate.
At the same time, we’ve habituated to levels of food processing that ruin and contaminate the food’s original health value. When I started baking all of our bread again, using plain, unbleached, additives-free flour, I found I was unexpectedly freed from several puzzling little allergies… and we began to taste and enjoy bread again. Contrary to all of the propaganda, baking bread is NOT that much time or trouble. The most demanding part is the 15-20 minutes it takes to get your dough going in the first place. And I’ve found that the fun bit.
Our “health” regulations don’t help, effectively protecting monoculture, agribusiness and bulk handling — all of which are wasteful and energy-hungry — and curbing opportunities to add value to fruit, meat, milk and vegetables on the farms and in the rural communities that produce them. Employment is shifted to the towns and farmland gets taken over by speculators. Rural communities dwindle; families are separated. By industrialising food the way we have, we’ve produced some short-term financial “efficiency” (mostly expressed as profit-taking opportunities for “middle men”) at the cost of, rather thanks to, bio-efficiency.
There is a lot of enjoyment to be had in pursuing an alternative by learning how to turn what may be low-cost, generally unfavoured foodstuffs into unusual, tasty and beautiful meals. It is done all the time in places like Asia and Europe, South America and the Middle East. And cultures of the African Continent have an array offood preparation methods we can learn from.
It can be nice to take a little more time out of the day and break a meal down to a number of courses to make the most of fresh herbs or vegetables straight from the garden, or a particular cut of meat, and let them contrast against each other. Marinades (plain apple or orange juice can be a brilliant place to start), stocks and sauces can save money and add uniquely created flavours. Planning around seasons and celebrations is fun.
Cutting loose, taking the time… and setting out to enjoy what we eat, and to play creatively with food, are worth it for the delight, the pleasure, the joy.
Eating leisurely with family and friends, and making an art rather than a chore out of preparing and presenting food open us to worlds of pleasure, meaning and deepened relationships, as well as to healthier diets, a less-stressed life, and saner, less wasteful supply chains.
Let me urge you to think Italian… and party Polynesian… and make good food fun.