Page 2 of 3
Summers were good. Before that first winter broke I grew vegetable seedlings in my window, and on the first of spring I planted an enormous garden. All season long I was bathed in radiant, homegrown vegetables. I shopped at the farmers market religiously, even made a pilgrimage to a fruit grower who sold me cases of peaches and nectarines, which I judiciously preserved.
Then came winter. Without the foresight to grow a winter garden, I was left to eat a nearly all-white diet of cold-storage carbohydrates—potatoes, carrots, wheat flour. By February, I weighed 30 pounds more than I do now and longed for spring just so I could eat some roughage. When Jim's farming partner heard about this in March, he brought me a bag of Swiss chard. I nearly cried with gratitude.
Fast forward ten years to this winter, to my New Year's Eve dinner party. The meal consisted of a winter salad, artichokes, and a bread panade, but also short ribs, crab cakes, and homemade chili aioli. Butter was everywhere. Margarine, on the other hand, was absent—it has been for years.
The way I choose my food now is no less intentional—or political—than in college, but I use a different set of considerations. Where my choices used to be a protest or boycott of things I opposed, today they are instead votes in favor of the things I believe in.
The shift has come from connecting my food choices to the larger world in which they exist. After studying community development and farming in college, I became a writer who focuses on sustainable agriculture. I believe that organic and other alternative methods of growing food are not simply a matter of giving up pesticides; they are part of a larger movement to reconnect us with the sources of our food and create a bond that transcends mere supermarket shopping.
My turning point came when I moved to Hawaii, just after college. The local, seasonal diet was no problem, with papaya and bananas growing outside my window and tomatoes ripe year-round. But during dinner with my boyfriend one evening, I realized that something else had shifted.
I was eating tofu. The soybeans from which it was made had been grown in Iowa, roughly 4,000 miles away, by someone I didn't know. They had been trucked to California, processed by others I didn't know, put in a plastic container, shipped over 2,300 ocean miles and landed in the local grocery store where I had bought it, then brought it home and seasoned it with another soy concoction of anonymous origins.
My beau was eating an ahi steak. The fish from which it was cut had been caught the day before, by a man who lived down the road from us. He had caught the fish maybe a mile offshore in the ocean visible from our porch, then brought it back, sold it to the man who owns the little fish store on the highway—ten miles from the harbor and four miles from us—who cut it up on the table behind the counter, and sold a piece to my boyfriend.
Here were two things I believed in deeply, suddenly opposed to one another: I could eat tofu and boycott death, or I could eat ahi and support a local food system. How to make sense of that?
The shift was more gradual than in the past. My diet went from being a set of yes and no questions to a scale that balanced many issues at once. Ultimately I chose to eat the fish instead of the tofu, but still I did not return to eating meat or dairy products. Then I moved to coastal California, where ahi and bananas are as foreign as tofu is to Hawaii, but green pastures and milk cows are common. Cheese made its way to my plate, as did eggs and the occasional chicken—all from farms that were part of my community. Beef was off the list until years later when I visited Wyoming to interview a rancher named Tony Malmberg. He was boldly striking out on his own, slowly building a market for his organic beef among his neighbors so he could leave the world of international meatpacking conglomerates. I had my first hamburger in fifteen years.