Seeing Food Differently | Civil Eats

Seeing Food Differently

My new lenses are making me hungry.

I’m not talking about my contacts or my reading glasses, which are the same old ones I’ve had for a while now.

But over the last three years, I’ve begun to see the world anew — through the lens of what I’m eating.

I’ve enjoyed food all my life, but for a long time I didn’t stop to consider what I ate. Foodstuffs were something that other people—foodies, mainly—paid attention to.

Still, in our family of four, I’m the one who plans and purchases what we eat. Although my family helps me cook (hallelujah!), I’m the big cheese when it comes to our food. And yet, I wasn’t making it a priority.

What brought about the change? Maybe it was Michael Pollan and his compelling words about the pervasiveness of corn in our diets. Perhaps it was the tactile pleasure of shopping at our local farmers’ market. Maybe it was reading in the newspaper each day about the high rates of obesity in our country, or about farmland being turned into mini-malls. Maybe it was Ethicurean.

All of these things, combined, have made me more thoughtful about food.

These days, I think more than I ever have about what we eat, where we buy our food, and perhaps most importantly in the long run, how those choices carry over into other parts of our lives. The results of that preoccupation have surprised me.

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Putting food first means starting most of my Saturdays at the farmers’ market; that’s where I indulge in the local flavors of the northern Willamette Valley. But I also need to maintain a food budget that isn’t over the top. So, we eat less meat than we used to. We eat out infrequently. I buy more uncooked grains than ever; in fact, there’s a newly cluttered corner of our kitchen that’s stacked with jars and bags of dried beans and grains, and I try to build in time for soaking and cooking them.

I want us to eat minimally processed food and, as Michael Pollan put it, “mostly plants“.

So, I plan meals differently. Sometimes we eat just one or two things: brown rice with ratatouille and olives, or quinoa with avocado and ponzu, or pasta with roasted butternut squash and hazelnuts.

I’ve always loved cookbooks. But, ironically perhaps, I now spend less time reading cookbooks than I once did — and more time cooking.

Some other fine things happened, too—things I could not have anticipated.

I began to taste food differently. I could always appreciate my favorites — juicy peaches, deep dark chocolate, roasted pork. But I began to relish other foods, even foods that I once considered a little boring: squash, trout, beets, oats.

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I engaged my sense of smell more fully in the realm of food. I learned that a locally grown cantaloupe, or one that was shipped only a few hundred miles and not across the country, would smell like a melon, not an odorless orb.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned not always to trust my 20/20 vision when it comes to food. I’ve begun to love homely produce. Sometimes the best-tasting vegetable is not always the most beautiful, at least not in a shellacked, unblemished kind of way.

If I’m buying meat, I can no longer accept it at face value; I want to know a little more about the beef in its plastic package. Like, say, whether that bright red color is natural or due to carbon monoxide.

But when we’re talking about food, it all comes back to flavor. Milk from grazing cows and eggs from grazing chickens taste different — richer, brighter, fuller — than that of their sisters sequestered in barns. Grazing cows and grazing chickens themselves taste different — in a good way. So I’ve made the choice to buy local farm-grown foods as often as I can.

These days, I cook with greater gusto. I began to experiment with how to bring out flavors more fully, sometimes with salt or vinegar or cumin, and sometimes by switching cooking methods. And sometimes both: my new infatuation is a simple cauliflower, roasted in the oven with sea salt. Really!

Honestly, having food as a focus is freeing. It’s so beautifully basic; it just makes sense.

Today’s food system is complex.

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What took me so long? The world is full of distractions, especially the food world. I see things that matter more clearly now — through new lenses.

Photo © Culinate: Pastured eggs are tastier than factory eggs.

Kim Carlson is the editorial director of Culinate, a national food website focused on food awareness and home cooking. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she relishes the bounty. Read more >

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  1. My husband and I lived in Sonoma Valley for 14 years. During that time we bought our cheese and butter from Ig Vella (Vella cheese on 2nd), our eggs from the egg farm on Leveroni and our fruits and vegetables from the farmers market on Friday mornings and Oak Hill farm (the red barn). We moved to eastern North Carolina 2 years ago and we're lost!! We haven't had much luck growing our own due to the extreme heat and iffy rain. Help, if you can. We miss you.
  2. Dear Kim, thank you for sharing your thoughts and thanks also for your gem of a website that inspires me on a near-daily basis!

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