The Five Minute Pitch

Last night a woman asked me about this blog and what I write about. It gave me the opportunity to practice my “five minute pitch” – that is, the distillation of the ideas you’re considering for a book that can be given in an elevator ride. Technically I realize five minutes is too long. But once I get going I tend to keep people’s interest. ūüôā

Anyway I failed at being very coherent last night (granted, there was wine involved, which I felt the need to imbibe while speaking so as to underline my points about eating well), so I thought I’d better get this figured out on here and then I will hopefully have a better spiel for next time. And Tina if you read this, hope it clarifies things for you!

Many Christians want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives, but often don’t think about how to do that with their choices around food. Yet the way that we shop and eat is so deeply important to our ethics and our general approach to life, and absolutely can and should be a spiritual act. To make it simple, I take as my starting point the three tenets of the Slow Food Movement: food should be good, clean, and fair.

Food being “fair” means that the processes by which it is produced respect the dignity of all creation. This starts with treating the earth well: not poisoning it, tending it with patience, etc. It means allowing animals to be the creatures they were made by God to be: so pigs, for instance, will root in a forest, not be crammed into a crate. It continues up the chain to human beings: paying the farmer a price that reflects his or her work, ensuring that slave or near-slave labor does not continue, and supporting legislation that lifts up the individual, hardworking people who labor to bring us food. Respect and Fairness also means giving all created beings, including the land,
the Sabbath rest it deserves.

Food being “clean” goes right along with this. Christians can think of it as purity, as not polluting our bodies with inventions masquerading as food or poisons that may give a moment of pleasure but contribute to a lifetime of illness. It means having a clear idea of where your food has come from, and connecting to the people (and animals, if you like) who are part of the process. It means personally knowing your farmer and even visiting the farm, showing your children the beauty of the earth and its abundance. Again, it can mean supporting certain types of legislation. And the best way to ensure you’re eating clean food is by growing it yourself: a wonderful way to connect to God’s creative work in the world.

Finally, food should be GOOD! It should taste good, it should make our tongues and our tummies happy! That means we eat real food, not foodlike substances (it means we throw rules out the window now and then, too). We take time to cook and honor the recipes of our ancestors. We use premium ingredients from around the world, that remind us just how varied and exciting God’s handiwork can be.

And it should be good for you, not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional, social, and definitely spiritual senses! Pondering your apple while you eat it will settle your mental state and put you in a place of gratitude and connection with your world. Eating with other people will bring you close together and cement community. And there is a great reason why the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of Christian discipleship: it is through daily bread that we return thanks to our Creator for sustaining our lives, and it is through wine that we return thanks for the grand enjoyment we are given in life! Blessing God for the gift of food makes us priests before him, sharing and stewarding, correcting the selfish error of Adam and Eve who took for themselves alone.

Good, clean, and fair food connects us to our families, our communities, our God, and our best selves. And that is why eating well is, inherently, a spiritual act.

(ok that is probably over five minutes….like I said, I really get going. It’s a work in progress!)

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Eating as a Spiritual Act, Part 2

Remember when I said I would write up more of my notes from the panel I attended on this topic? I’m finally getting to that! Here is Part 1 in case you missed it.

So, the last thing I said was how eating opens us up to a number of realities: ecological, agricultural, social, and so forth. Dr. Wirzba maintains (and I concur) that religious traditions are an excellent key to helping us think through these realities. He said, “The opposite of religion isn’t atheism, it’s negligence.” In other words, by shirking our responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation, we are denying our very connection to God.

The fact that the creation story takes place in a garden is significant: the Deity of Christianity (and all the Abrahamic faiths) is not violent and powerful, but a farmer, who picks up and uses the soil to create life. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. “God loves the soil first, because without loving soil, there is no you or I.” The creation is ultimately an act of hospitality, wherein God “makes room for another to be…to become what they are most able to be.”

I would add that the story of Christianity ends at a great banquet – the telos (a word meaning ultimate destination, destiny, fulfillment of purpose) of the garden is this hospitable act of celebration and communion. The Sabbath was the culmination of creation (it was seven days, not six: humans aren’t the final word, but rather REST and appreciation).

Our life now is the growing, in the garden; our afterlife is the harvest, the enjoyment of the growth we have allowed and fostered in our lives. We are not meant only to sustain life together, but to celebrate it. To be hospitable: helping others – and ourselves – become fully who we are.

How would our worldview and self-image change if we thought of God primarily as a farmer or a gardener (or a vintner)? If we thought of the world we inhabit as a garden¬†(and not a “resource”, another word for “superstore” in consumerist mentality), and of ourselves as the plants God is tending? A gardener understands virtues such as attention, patience, long-term commitment, the value of hard work, and the vulnerability and fragility of life. If we modeled our lives after God’s in this way, oh how our eating habits would change.

To drive this point home, Wirzba asked, “What if we thought of food as ‘a Gift'” – pointing out that the name we give to food is important. For example, thinking of a plant as a weed, or a flower, or a vegetable gives us different ideas in our mind of what that plant’s use is and how to relate to it. So with food: we relate to it differently if we think of it as fuel, or a commodity, or a Gift.¬†“Naming something is the act of establishing a relationship with it.”

When we vote for “cheap” as our primary value around food (voting being what we’re doing with every dollar we spend – particularly on the Dollar Menu), we are not honoring the life that food represents (remember the quote, “for any of us to eat, others have to die”). We want to be able to say grace before meals with a clear conscience.

I wonder, how can we spend ridiculous amounts of money on our pets, or put up huge fights about abortion, but not honor the life that is represented by what is on our plates?

So how do we honor it? Here is Wirzba’s short list of suggestions:

1. Grow something (or if you’re like me, try¬†and fail and appreciate your farmers that much more).

2. Know the people who grow what you cannot grow yourself.

3. Participate in your local food economy.

4. Share food with others.

5. Grow your food imagination: for instance, ponder the miracle and achievement that is a single loaf of bread.

6. Say Grace before meals Рmake eating a mindful act. Make that a time set aside to think about economy, politics, celebration, gratitude, mercy, and honor of the other lives sitting before you, which you are about to consume.

And one final word of wisdom from Dr. Wirzba: “The point is not to become the food police…the point is to become more merciful with each other.” We learn how to do that by paying attention to the incredible mercy God offers us through our daily bread.

Amen.

Less Meat-i-tarian

 

My family enjoys the full range of God’s gifts of food. This means that we are an omnivore (omnivoric?) household, but try to be responsible about it (the title of this entry is how Mark Bittman describes his eating choices; we follow suit). We don’t eat a lot of meat. This is largely for financial reasons: we try not to purchase meat that isn’t organic, free-range, sustainably raised, and from humanely-treated animals.

This necessitates our eating meat¬†much¬†less often than the average American, who can pick up chicken thighs for 99 cents a pound (one of my favorite quotes is from Jamie Oliver: “A chicken, which was once a living being, shouldn’t cost less than a pint of beer”). Because we eat meat less often, and not from industrial production, we contribute to the reduction of all the nastiness that factory meat production brings to our world: environmental devastation (especially greenhouse gases), animal suffering/commodification, worker accidents/forced labor, and all the health problems that come from over-consumption of animal products.

Obviously one can contribute even more meaningfully to this reduction by becoming vegetarian. I salute my friends who have done so. I don’t for two reasons: one, I don’t believe it is wrong, in and of itself, to eat meat (see first sentence of this post); and two, I am voting with my dollars towards the changes I want to see. Boycotts don’t always work: the producers can just write off the people who don’t buy at all. But those of us still spending money on animal products have a real say – producers have a vested interest in pleasing us, as we are still customers.

It’s not easy, though, to find producers who treat their animals well, run a clean and open operation, don’t harm their workers, and work with nature, not against it. You can’t always trust a big corporation, even one like Whole Foods that seems to be really trying to change things. Just a quick overview of the “big organic” chapters in The Omnivore’s Dilemma¬†will reveal just how confused and misleading the whole system has become.

For us, the solution was to join a ranch CSA. We eat meat usually twice a week, sometimes thrice. A box of their meat ($220 including a $20 drought supplement) lasts us at least 3 months, and includes premium items such as pork belly, whole brisket, incredible bacon, steaks, and the best hot dogs you will ever eat. Seriously. I actually started drooling thinking about them.

Talk to the farmers at your local market. If they don’t do a CSA you might be able to get one started; or if they do, joining it will be one of the best decisions you can make. To have almost all of your meat locally-sourced from a place where you personally know the farmers, who run an open operation and treat their animals well, is not only healthier and better for everyone involved, but it teaches your kids valuable lessons about honoring life and living in harmony with creation.

(I do still, btw, shop at Whole Foods for the 10% or so of meats I cannot get from the CSA, such as fish. It’s about taking steps, not being perfect.)

And if, by this teaching, one day my child announces that she cannot in good conscience eat meat any longer, I will honor her decision. Fortunately since I’ve tried (and failed) being both vegan and vegetarian, I have a great shelf of cookbooks to pass along.

A Cruelty-Free Easter

I thought about titling this post “The Only Cruelty on Easter Should Be the Cross,” but that was a little long and not exactly liturgically accurate, seeing how Christ wasn’t crucified on Easter per se.

Pain to chocolate bunnies notwithstanding (but check out this¬†cool slide show¬†of fair trade, vegan, and organic candy options!), let’s consider a few ways to make this a more friendly holiday for all.

If you’ll be dyeing eggs this season, consider their source. This article lists some ways to find a humanely-produced egg.

Consider also the cruelty to your own body (or your kids’!) that comes of using artificial dyes that seep through the porous shell. Look here for a great tutorial on naturally coloring your eggs.

Finally, for Easter dinner, may I remind you of the succulent and healthful benefits of locally and sustainably raised meats from your friendly neighborhood rancher, or the abundance of delightful spring vegetables available at this time of year at your farmer’s market?

Easter celebrates new life. Let’s not taint it with cruelty and ugliness towards the earth, animals, or our fellow human beings.

My kitchen smells so goooooood….

Photo by Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman herself. I hope mine tastes as good as this looks.

…because I am cooking this:

The Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Dr. Pepper Shredded Pork

I’m making it for three reasons:

1) I live in Texas now, and I believe there is some kind of law here that you have to cook with Dr. Pepper on a regular basis. If there is not, there should be.

I know there’s a law that Dr. Pepper must be offered in every restaurant. I’m sure of it. Also there is an addendum that you should probably oughta offer Diet DP as well, to please the womenfolk, as they say.

This has been problematic for me, as Diet Dr Pepper is my achilles heel when it comes to what I affectionately term “cancer juice.” Yes, I am powerless before its strange chemical-laden flavor profile and tiny, tiny bubbles. To hold the Big C at bay, I have promised myself only to drink it when I can get it on tap, much as my husband has pledged to the Guinness Brewing Company.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing for some time about adding soda (usually Coke) to various braised meat recipes and thought hey, since I’m in Dr Pepper land, I’d better go that route instead.

PLUS, our local grocery chain, the fine H-E-B (which is growing on me greatly), offers a CANE SUGAR version of Dr Pepper that DH (who refuses the diet stuff) actually prefers to the HFCS-sporting original.

So we actually have “Dr B” in tonight’s pork (brief aside:¬†Dr B is clever and all, but nothing will ever beat Dr Thunder for genius brand lifting), with sugar from our friends at Imperial Sugar formerly of Sugar Land, Texas, where I shop at the Farmer’s Market. What a fine Texas meal this is turning out to be.

2) Speaking of shopping locally and H-E-B, they have the freaking best tortillas ever. They even have a machine to make them (“El Machino” in Chevy’s parlance) that keeps the kiddos entertained whilst Momma visits the wine tasting station. Yes, I really am enjoying my local grocery store. And I get their tortillas almost every week, hot off the press, and it really is a challenge to keep the family from eating the whole bag before dinner is on the table.

So I intentionally look for dinner dishes that will give me an excuse to buy these flattened globs of white flour & fat. Yum O.

3) Most importantly, this all came about because I had a pork shoulder to use up from the wonderful Jolie Vue farms. Since moving to Houston not quite two years ago, I haven’t had much luck finding a CSA for veggies that I love. They’re all either too expensive (I was super spoiled in California by the cheap produce), don’t deliver close enough to me, don’t have enough variety (see: spoiled by California), or some even use pesticides, which is SO last century.

But, I had the fantastic fortune to meet Honi Boudreaux (gotta love those Bayou City names!), a genuine force of nature herself, at a talk I gave last summer at t’afia restaurant (where I also got to visit with the amazing Monica Pope, a true believer in the Slow Food cause). Later I asked the Boudreaux’s (Boudreauxes?) to come and talk at my church for my series on Slow Food: Slow Worship.

Our piggies rooting in their personal pecan forest

In the midst of all this, I got super excited about their farm and signed up for home meat delivery, which is an incredible bargain at $220 per delivery but unfortunately I can only afford to do it every second or third month (which is fine, because there’s enough meat in there – and we eat meat infrequently enough – that it lasts that long).

This is, by the way, exactly what I want to encourage all of you to do: eat locally-sourced meat from a rancher or farmer whom you know personally, who will let you visit the farm and meet the animals, who treats them with respect and honor as God’s creatures, and who uses a “glass house” butcher. No funny business in this meat. It’s so much more expensive, and it’s worth every penny. When I can’t afford to eat meat like this, I simply don’t eat meat.

OK this is getting long…my point is that like with a veggie CSA (“Iron Chef Veggie Box” we call it around here), a meat CSA loads you up with all these weird cuts you wouldn’t normally cook, or bother purchasing. At least we wouldn’t.

So in the last few weeks I’ve made a brisket (divine) and now this shoulder which will become carnitas (sort of…not fried). We had a pork belly the first month. Those things go for like 60 bucks a pound in NYC! It was out of this world braised in an agave glaze. AND we got to render the lard and wound up with cracklins (which I put in mac and cheese…OMG).

Anyway we have been really thrilled with getting local meat and I really can’t stress enough how much more delicious it is than the supermarket junk. It’s becoming impossible for me to eat white pork anymore (did you know pork isn’t actually “the other white meat”? That was made up by pork producers to convince consumers to believe the lie that pork isn’t red; a pig will only have white meat when it’s been kept out of the sun). Forested pigs like ours have a beautiful marbled ruby or garnet color to their meat, and the taste is truly beyond compare.

So now that I’m salivating (and I have like four more hours to wait, dang it!) I’d better stop writing about this shoulder. BUT I will ask a favor from any foodie readers out there: we have a NECK of all things (it’s either pork or beef, I honestly can’t tell and it’s not labeled) and also a huge blob of pork fat to use up. Any ideas???