When I was much younger I would take solo backpacking trips in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. On one occasion I found myself at a very remote campsite deep in the forest. My original plan was to commune in some vague, Thoreau-like fashion with nature, and with a congenial assist from the Almighty, discover heretofore unseen truths.
After taking two hours to fastidiously set up my campsite – tent and sleeping bag placed just so, lofting my food bag into a tree to protect against bears – I soon realized I had nothing to do. I grew nervous, impatient, paced around the site and back down the trail I had entered on. With 72 hours to kill before I needed to return, I was not ready to receive whatever wisdom might be awaiting me.
Fortunately, the necessities of wilderness survival intervened. I needed to collect firewood to make a fire. I had to haul water from the nearby stream for drinking and cooking. Though the water was clean, boiling was required to protect against Giardia. Boiling enough water for drinking and cooking for three days took more wood, water, and time than I thought. Before I knew it, my worries over what I would do for the next three days had been resolved. I would haul water and collect wood, haul water and collect wood, haul water and collect wood.
This act of enforced simplification – reducing one’s daily life to a few essential tasks – became a kind of mantra for me later in life, and specifically, a rough guidepost for the way I would approach food. The columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote that she did not regard the nearly infinite choice of food items in today’s supermarket as an emblem of her freedom as a consumer, but more as a chain around her neck that enslaved her to a never-ending onslaught of superfluous food items that left her confused and disoriented. Like me wandering about the forest with nothing to do, she rambled about the supermarket finding nothing to eat.
A large supermarket has tens of thousands of different food items to choose from, and the food industry introduces as many as 15,000 new food items every year. Holding aside the health and dietary consequences of our food choices, which of course are enormous, how are we to choose from this maddening array of food? Has this so-called abundance made our lives simpler, or simply crazy?
Like my experience with water and wood, I decided to narrow my range of options, and in so doing, take a more mindful approach to what I eat. I am trying to eat locally and seasonally, and as much as possible, assemble my daily menus from an admittedly narrower, but happily tastier range of choices that are closer at hand. I start with our garden and then move to the farmers’ market for the produce we eat. We buy beef from a New Mexico rancher whom we know personally and whose cows are raised entirely on grass. I’ve been to the facility where the cows are slaughtered; it’s locally owned, employs 10 people in a small town where every job counts, operates humanely, and on a good day, is able slaughter only four cows compared to the thousands that are slaughtered daily in a large, corporate meat packing plant.
Not all our food is local. I buy Organic Valley milk at the supermarket which is produced by dairies in Colorado and across the country. I’ve investigated that farmer-owned co-op and I’m convinced that it protects the environment, the cows, and the health and safety of their milk more than the factory dairy farms that operate in New Mexico. A trip to Whole Foods is a treat that we can only afford to indulge in every other month. We buy coffee from a fair trade company out of Massachusetts. The rest of the time we’re shopping at Albertson’s for such things as bananas, cereal, and of course, beer and wine.
The simplifying act is to start with what we have first and to put together simple meals around those foods. A whole, free-range chicken from Whole Foods was more the accessory to the carrots, parsnips, and onions from our garden a few nights ago. New Mexico beef will anchor the chiles, tomatoes and potatoes from the garden for tomorrow night’s stew. We store produce, can produce, freeze produce, and when the food dryer is working, dry produce. Like little squirrels storing nuts, we stash food everywhere.
I’m not trying to imitate Barbara Kingsolver or eat only the 100-mile diet. I’m not a food purist nor do I wile away my days in a state of hyper-anxiety over the health, origin, or method of production of the food I buy. I love to garden; it’s my recreation, my fitness club, my calisthenics. It’s also the focal point for as many meals as possible. I like farmers and ranchers. I spend time getting to know them, and sometimes, much to their chagrin, even write about them. I learn about other foods – what’s good and what’s not – when I have time. I don’t read labels obsessively, but if I can’t pronounce most of the words in the ingredients list, I generally put it back on the shelf. When I haven’t been fortunate enough to have my own garden, I’ve joined a community garden, shopped more at the farmers’ market, and bought a share in a community supported agriculture farm.
When we sit down to dinner, my wife and I often count the number of items on the plate that are “local.” Many nights we hit 100% and will toast that fact with a glass of New Mexico wine; other nights it’s much less. But every night we strive for a least a token morsel of something local, even if it’s a dried up clove of garlic from the last year’s garden. This is the emblem of our freedom and the simple ways we celebrate life’s pleasures.
But there’s one more facet to the process of simplification, and it’s not so simple. In my opinion, it’s not enough to only satisfy your desire for simplicity and good food, and to be an informed consumer. You need to be a good food citizen as well. This means two things: The first is that if you believe that you should have the best and healthiest food available, then shouldn’t everybody, regardless of income? This is what we call “food justice.” The season of charitable giving is with us, and I believe that we need to think a little more deeply about who and what we give money to if we are going to achieve food justice. It may be worth looking at programs that support beginning, socially disadvantaged farmers, or initiative that try to protect the area’s precious farmland. Maybe it’s worth pulling together a group of people from your school, neighborhood, or faith community to buy shares for low-income families at an area CSA, or otherwise encourage the purchase of our local bounty by all.
The second characteristic of good food citizenship has to do with another season that’s upon us, and that’s New Mexico’s legislative season. Bills will come before our lawmakers that will promote farming in New Mexico, healthier and locally grown food for students in our public schools, and more opportunities for low-income people to better feed their families. We need to support those initiatives. Private charities and local farms are not enough. As good food citizens we need to speak up for policies and practices that promote local and healthy food for all.
So there you have it, my recipe for a simpler and more fulfilling life. Eat local and seasonal, support causes that are promoting the same for everybody, and get loud with the New Mexico State Legislature.