On a recent weekend trip, I ate a sandwich. Not just any sandwich. Store-bought wheat bread, pre-sliced cheese, yellow mustard, deli ham. I ate it by a river with my friends, and it was a wonderful dinner experience. I was appalled.
Nothing was organic; nothing was homemade. The bread had almost no nutritional value. The cheese was a bright orange cheddar of unknown provenance. I don’t even want to think about the origins of the ham. There wasn’t a vegetable in sight, let alone a seasonal one.
As I’ve become more aware of cooking, eating healthily, supporting local farmers and being environmentally conscious by eating seasonally, I’ve found myself becoming more and more of a food snob. In my day-to-day life, it’s hard to notice. Living in New York, it can be easier to find artisanal crispbread than Ritz Crackers. The city caters to the well-off, eclectic, specific eater. I know where to go for the best salmon onigiri and the best Neapolitan pizza. I buy milk from the Union Square Greenmarket to make homemade ice cream in the summer and persevere through endless rutabagas, parsnips and turnips from January to March.
But visit a friend or family out of state, and my carefully cultured food tastes bring me to a halt. “Oh, is that milk organic?” “I don’t eat anything with high-fructose corn syrup.” “Sorry, you don’t have any plain 2% Greek yogurt? This blueberry Dannon has 22 grams of added sugar.” “What if we have kale chips with our lunch instead of potato chips?” “Um, ‘carrot sticks’? More like ‘sugar sticks’ with that kind of glycemic index!” Basically I become a terrible boor.
Life-threatening allergies and health issues aside, self-imposed dietary restrictions can be a bit of a joke. Gluten-free, dairy-free, no-carb, caveman, vegan, vegetarian: we define ourselves by what we’re (not) eating. Or maybe we overdo it, with juice fasts, locavorism, organic-only, CSA farm-to-table menus. They are rarely lifestyle choices that involve scaling down, buying off-brands or bringing more simplicity into our eating habits. Typically they involve spending a lot more money: I love green smoothies, juices and places like Liquiteria as much as the next person, but $9/drink is a tough way to get your vegetables.
At the same time, what you eat truly is important. Obesity has become a huge problem around the world and impacts things from health to the environment to family dynamics. And snobby or not, my homemade bread is healthier, cheaper and tastier than the store-bought sandwich bread from my weekend sandwich – without relying on corn subsidies. Scoff if you will, but everyone I’ve ever offered kale chips to has thoroughly enjoyed them.
What’s more intriguing to me is the impact this has on relationships. Get-togethers become more about the individual: what can I eat? What fits my lifestyle? How can the menu fit me better? Hospitality is transformed to consumerism as guests expect their demands to be met. In the end, it’s easier to eat out or order a pizza (gluten-free, natch) than make the sacrifice of time, thought and effort that goes into creating a meal. Or accepting and enjoying that meal, even if it’s something you’d prefer not to eat.
When I think about my memories of family, holidays, vacations or just good times with friends, often as not we’re sharing a meal, conversation and laughter over a table (or coffee table, for us New Yorkers). What’s the actual food? Funny; I don’t remember. My individual interest in eating only local blueberries fades in a conversation with a friend who’s struggling to find a job – as it should. As the old Psalm says, it’s the simple rhythms of life: “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” As valuable an effort it is to cook and eat well, in the end, whether a friend serves me artisanal rye or Wonder Bread, it’s breaking that bread together that’s important.
So whatever you eat – homemade, organic, fast food, microwavable dinner or Top-Ramen – eat it with a friend or two or three, and eat it with gratitude. Just eat it with seasonal, local vegetables if you can. To quote Julia Child, “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”
Dinner: reuniting broken families since 1961