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On Knowing Food

For the last 5 years, I’ve been fixated on the question, “what is my relationship to food?”

Growing up, food was always at the forefront. I spent the first 18 years of my life sitting around a table with my family, eating a delicious, simple meal prepared by my mom. For years, and still now, I watched her churn out perfectly flakey salmon and quajado and Hungarian mushroom soup and chicken marbella that made the whole house smell like sweet prunes. I had the great joy of eating my Noni’s keftez and Spanish rice, thick with tomatoes and chickpeas, and crispy roast potatoes for holidays or special occasions. My 86-year-old Papu still whips up currant scones or French madeleines on an ordinary Saturday, just ’cause.

I remember playing outside with my siblings as kids, munching on “sour leaves” and plucking cherries and apples off of the trees my parents planted when we were born. I remember waiting all summer long to pull a carrot from the ground, so I could wipe the dirt off and crunch into its sugary sweetness.

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Apple trees planted on my sister’s first birthday

I see now — after finishing college and watching so many women agonize over how to eat — that having any sort of positive relationship to food is undoubtedly a result of what my family instilled in me as “normal.” I was lucky to be raised not just to eat good food, but to grow it, prepare it, and most importantly, enjoy it.

But of course, we weren’t perfect. We, too, adopted the terrible food trends of the early 2000’s. From eating “baby” carrots and throwing away perfectly edible broccoli stems, to using fake sweeteners in coffee, there were plenty of unhealthy, wasteful, or even harmful food habits that we were blind too. One of the more significant ones being meat.

Eating only Kosher meat in the house, we were certainly one step ahead in terms of ethics, as the laws are intended to minimize animal suffering. I spent years enjoying roast chicken, corned beef, steak, or the occasional cow tongue sandwich when my Papa Joe was in town. But when I read about a raid on the country’s largest Kosher slaughterhouse, I realized I didn’t really know the story behind the meat I was eating. And only until recently, did I even think to care.

My question-asking continued after watching a cow get slaughtered in rural Uganda in 2010. For months I couldn’t get the image out of my head, wondering why it was so hard to watch the process of creating the cut of beef when the actual eating part was so easy. I recognized that despite the incredible food foundation my family had built for me, I still had a lot of learning to do.

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A boy taking a cow to slaughter in rural Uganda

So I began voraciously reading about our food system, and like many others, was surprised and saddened by the realities of the meat industry and industrial agriculture as a whole — so much of which contribute to our daily eating experience as Americans. I suddenly became overwhelmed by the number of products for sale at the supermarket: fifteen different kinds of peanut butter, only one of which was made from just peanuts. I began to see the rows of perfectly packaged meat at the store with new eyes. I learned even the produce had a backstory that I didn’t want to hear.

So I created a code for myself, as a way to navigate the overwhelmingly complicated world that is food consumption. Plant a garden. Shop at the farmers market. Don’t buy things with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat things from the ocean, because you live near it. Eliminate all other meat, because you don’t have the money or time to buy it the right way. Most importantly: get close to your food. Educate yourself however you can.  

And for 5 years, I’ve executed. I’ve stuck to this arbitrary set of rules — be them vegetarian, pescatarian, or some other buzz word I haven’t heard yet. And they’ve allowed me to feel happy, healthy, and fulfilled (with still plenty to eat on Thanksgiving). But what good is a set of rules if they are simply followed habitually and never reflected upon?

In June, I began my reflection by eating my way through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and most recently, Italy. I plucked sea creatures right from the South China Sea and ate them whole with cilantro and lime. I learned to grind red curry paste in a mortar and pestle with my own two hands. I trekked through rice paddies by day and ate steaming bowls of that fragrant, sticky, perfect rice by night. I watched seasons change and learned to wait patiently for new fruits and nuts and herbs to show themselves. I got lovingly whacked over the head by Vietnamese and Italians alike for asking for “the vegetarian option.” I harvested olives from hundreds of trees and then drizzled their freshly pressed oils over garlicky toast. I watched pigs romp through the woods foraging acorns and chestnuts while their sibling’s legs hung in a prosciutto cellar next door. I ate wild boar stew with polenta after weeks of fixing fences that those very wild boar had destroyed. I sat at the wood-burning oven with an Italian butcher making lardo pizza.

It has been humbling, enriching, challenging, and rewarding all at once to discover and experience food in so many beautifully different contexts. It taught me that being a conscious eater is a privilege, and that, in order to truly eat well, we must balance our food ethics with a deep respect and openness to the cultures and traditions around us. If we become too rigid in our food habits, we overlook so much of the beauty, fluidity, and rich history of food making and eating.

Simple activities like cracking walnuts and watching wine ferment, or weightier ones like corralling pigs for slaughter, ignited something in me these last few months. It reminded me that such immense effort and care go into the food we eat, and the further we get from those processes, the more harmful consumers we become.

Above all, I learned that I’ll never be a perfect eater. We’re all motivated by different factors — social justice, the environment, gastronomic curiosity, or simply survival. We’re always going to be compromising something. So long as we’re able to bring a sense of awareness, intention, and care to our food — what we buy, cook, and eat — there will be plenty more joy in the world, I’m sure of it.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this, Molly. This is something that I spend so much time thinking about and grappling with (the meat part, especially.) Would love to get drinks or coffee whenever our paths cross next! xoxo

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