Food · rants · Uncategorized

Food with a conscience

Why I think this SOLE stuff (or something related to it) matters
Virtually every summer my family drives out to Eastern Oregon and spends the weekend in the cabin my great-grandfather build in 1914.   We enjoy the same plants, the same deer, the same trout that my grandmother loved when she was a little girl – the land she loved all her life and the land where her ashes now rest.  I grew up hearing stories about my Great-grandfather and the land he handed over to the BLM for antelope preservation and the dairy farm my grandfather lost – the tears he shed when he had to sell his “girls”,  I planted lots of little trees, and spent enjoyable time hunting and fishing while being taught (as I believe the children in most hunting families are) the importance of conserving healthy habit for the ducks and deer we hunt and eat.  My children’s brains are packed with happy memories, the stories of their family and the practical instruction of being good stewards of the land and the creatures we share it with.

I have also lived long enough to be somewhat alarmed by the nature of suburban sprawl, to see McMansions devour farmland and orchards chopped down for strip malls.   While I am not against “progress” I often wonder if we have the slightest idea what we are progressing towards and if the destination will worth the trip.   I want to see local, small dairymen who love their cows and have names for each of them thrive.  Spending most of my childhood on a cattle ranch gave me a halfway decent insight into the dignity of people in “fly-over country”.  I honestly grew up thinking that all beef cattle were grass fed till they were shipped off to the local packing plant which was owned and staffed by folks the rancher knew.    So my life experience whirls together in my brain with my somewhat pastoral, idealistic world view and I come out with this ideal of a place where farmers are like craftsmen growing food that local people eat, enjoy and most of all trust because they know and trust the families that grow and produce it.  My ideal is a world where Tolkin would smile because gardeners are important people, a place where the job title “farmer” is one held in high esteem.

So what is SOLE: Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical – that is the acronym, but what do those things actually mean?  Sustainable farming and production methods so that our children and grandchildren are given a verdant and fertile world, organics grown without pesticides, herbicides or hormones that protect the environment, local foods that help sustain your local community and limit shipping costs and ethical business practices which promote a living wage, the dignity of food producers and ethical treatment of livestock.  My sense is that like me, most people have their own interpretation of this.   Just as no one is the absolute authority no one is really completely wrong, but there is a sort of “orthodoxy” of SOLE that nests with the “Green” movement and shares much of their strengths and all of their short comings.

The Strengths of SOLE

Let’s hit the letters one at a time.

Sustainable: one of the things that impressed me most in The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the farm of  Joel Salatan.  Being a fellow Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist-Lunatic nearly everything he says seems to resonate with me.  The solution to much of our problems isn’t in regulations, government control, more restriction or requirements, the solutions are honestly to be found in more people being able to be “Joel Salatans” and that means dumping government control of our food and that also means doing away with the well-meaning, busy body, disconnected elites in the green movement who tsk tsk about the poor food choices Americans make without addressing the basic problems in reverting to a more sustainable agrarian culture.  If you wouldn’t encourage your son or daughter to be a farmer you are part of the problem.

Sustainable farming and ranching are “doable” in fact from what I have researched it would be possible for sustainable agriculture to feed a world, but not THIS world.  The suburban world that we live in, a compartmentalized world bounded by an artificial divide between work and home life driven by the ever increasing need for more,  new and (arguably) better material possessions and personal achievements and “status” can not survive on the family farm/sustainable farm model.  Not because of how many of us there are, but because of  the disconnect there is between the production of the essentials for life and the lives most of us lead.   Family farms, community dairies, local bakers and butchers could feed the world — but only a world where there were a LOT more farmers, diary men, bakers and butchers.  Because there is a mathematically certainty.  Just as cost is decreased by an increase in scale — sustainability in agriculture is decreased by an increase in scale as well.  As a rule the bigger the agricultural enterprise (in terms of production) the less sustainable it will be.   Basically you can have a lot of cheep food of questionable value at a low price or you have to produce food in smaller quantities at higher cost.  The smaller quantity model  would necessitate an increase in the number of food producers, but that would also mean more producers requiring less from the system as they could support much of their own food needs.  Which goes back to my assertion that if you wouldn’t encourage your son or daughter to go into farming you are part of the problem.


Seasonal: I can’t find a single bone to pick with seasonal other than I  would miss my out of season goodies — there are of course some places where cold winters make seasonal a matter of “store-able”  but that is in a way seasonal as well.

Organic: The concept of organic is a bit more straightforward.  When I can I want to purchase food that has as little chemical additives and as much nutritional value as possible.  In theory organic food works toward solving that problem, but since “organic” is a FDA regulated term it might well be quickly turned against the very ideals that breed it.  We are already seeing this to some extent. I want to say Organic is great!,  but I am not totally sold on it since the lable “organic” doesn’t mean as much as it should, or even as much as it is perceived to.   I am convinced of the damage pesticides, herbicides  and artificial fertilizers can have on the environment and I question the sustainability of  large scale monoculture farming without them and do not trust the argi-business behind it all.

And that is the rub.  Agriculture has become a huge corporate enterprise that doesn’t see individual people, doesn’t honor the dignity of the person, it only seeks to squeeze the most production for the least input at the lowest cost possible.  This is completely contrary to my ideal of the farmer-craftsmen who are honored by the communicates they serve, yet it may be in some ways unavoidable.   Since we are no longer a nation of farmers, since we have endless rows of houses with no space for gardens ( even HOAs that explicitly disallow vegetable gardening)  and apartment dwellers who can’t do more than have a pot or two on a window sill we need a mechanism to feed cities.

Large scale organics have a selling in point in that they can, right now, get a large amount of food onto the American table.  The problem  is that as the food industry has awoken to the idea that “organic” is a new consumer desire, it is not just the reaction of the moment, another Alar scare splash that will quickly fade, the idea of large scale organic becomes something much different than a natural system driven farm like Joel Salatan’s and become something entirely different.  The large food production machine has set its sights on organic.  Which will inevitably lead to the term organic favoring large commercial interests.  The more we allow (or even demand) that government solve our problems the more we place our welfare in the hands of politicians who will sell us out to the highest bidder who will always be big business.

Local: Recently I saw a complaint against the local food movement.  It was another take on the efficiencies of scale.   Overall what is worse for our selves and our environment: a local hot house tomato in February or one shipped from Southern California?   Is Local Food Better? Of course the most local food is the food in your own backyard.

Ethical: And here is the big problem, what is ethical?  Is it more ethical to feed the world on conventionally grown food, are we raising the prices of food by pushing for more expensive farming methods?

Admittedly my ideal is a touch different than the typical SOLE enthusiast – who would doubtlessly cringe at my brood of six carbon footprint producing offspring  – so it might be more fair to say that I am something all together different.  For example I do not shop in fancy fair-trade stores or purchase certified organic clothing or even think for a moment about the songbird holocaust caused by my coffee habit.    It isn’t that I feel that fair-trade is not worthy of supporting, it isn’t that I don’t want my clothing to be produced in a way that isn’t poisoning the water table somewhere, and I have nothing against songbirds, but I find there to be an elemental sophistry in much of the “green” movement.  The reduction of consumerism is far more relevant to living lightly on the earth than shopping fairtrade.  I might love a nifty, colorful purse made by hand by hemp growers in Bolivia, but isn’t it better for me just to do with one sturdy leather bag that I use for five years or more?   It is  more green to wear organic clothing if your alternative is to own less or shop garage sales and thrift or resale stores?   And if I am concerned about the songbirds shouldn’t I just deal with the withdrawal headaches and learn to love mint tea instead of shipping coffee beans halfway round the world?  So I find myself more often than not confused by my betters in the SOLE universe.  They espouse their particular version of what is sustainable and ethical but I find their views  seem wasteful, commercial, based on poor science and basically good for nothing but diminishing a sense of affluent guilt.  I am at heart a conservationist not an environmentalist and I am frugal and “simple” more than “green”.  But then again I know there are a lot of people much better at putting their ethics in the fore of their families food choices.  So I am not at all above reproach on this and I certainly don’t claim any moral high ground.

I am really not sure if this has a point or not, but since this is my own collection of vagrant thoughts called a blog here it is.

Food · rants · Simplicity

Food – SOLE food, frugality and where the rubber meets the road

Last Monday I linked to an article “SOLE Food: Eating organically (and responsibly) on a food-stamp budget” penned by Michelle Gienow,  which intrigued me at first because, like so many other families, we are trying (having) to trim where we can and the food budget is getting a good, hard look.  I also, like so many other moms, am concerned about the quality of the food I feed my family,  conserving the natural environment and the ethical dimension of food production.   But the “SOLE Food” article left me with bad taste in my mouth.

I suppose this is entirely my own fault.  I wanted an article, thoughtful and well reasoned by someone who is either talented at pinching a penny, a seasoned SOLE food practitioner, or at the very least someone who is somewhat familiar with both.  What I got felt more like the ramblings of a spoiled suburban mom who shops at Trader Joe’s and fancies herself environmentally conscious because she frets over how many dead song-birds her coffee represents,  gets a CSA box, shells out 7$ a gallon for milk and has the good sense to be appalled that she bought her children Chickfil-a kiddy meals.   And no, I am not exaggerating anything there.  So, yet again,  my judgment on this might be a tad harsh because of the expectations I had going in.  I am sure she is a lovely person and yes, she is at least “trying”, but it still me off a little (and really pissed off some people in her comments).

As happens every once in a while I sat down to write a response to this and ended up with multiple  tangents going off in different directions.  So I am just breaking them apart instead of sitting here with a blog with no new posts for days on end.  My thoughts meandered off into several  different directions.  First there is the thought about SOLE, what is means, what I think it should mean, where it fails and where it can be better. Children of that tangent spring their own full blown ideas:  Why we need to rethink what we think of labor, can the world be sustained by small farming and what would that mean, and why we need homemakers and how homemaking promotes a truly sustainable world. And finally I realized that I can take on the “foodstamp” budget challenge pretty much anyway I want.  First off by dumping the concept of  “Foodstamp budget” and then going ahead with just a thrifty budget  and secondly by changing the SOLE idea to more match what I think is a real-life friendly way.

So I will be popping these up as I get them complete and then linking them all back together.


I am so totally re-inspired

Last year I read both “In Defense of Food” and “The Ominvore’s Dilema” by Michael Pollan and had an epiphany of sort about food.  The quality of our food both in terms of nutritional value and enjoyment and the ethics of getting our food suddenly seemed more important than just the basic idea of getting the most for the buck.  Never again would I look at a “frugal” shopping site where mom buys a ton of cheap, crappy food for $35 a week and think “wow, I wish I could do that”.

Then, of course, reality sneaks in and my shopping and menu planning get swept aside as I try to balance all the different parts of my life.  But this morning I read something that so inspired me to start thinking about food quality again:  “ I saw a rat roasting in Peanuts Plant

All I can say is “ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww!”

Catholic homemaking · Food · Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha · My world

Serving sizes, serving less and eating better

Jan Steen — Wirtshausgarten

Recently I have been reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by  Michael Pollan.   At the moment I am about half way through, but it has been expanding and reinforcing my growing concern about food.  Not just what and how much we eat, but also how the actions we take as individuals in acquiring our food shape and change the world around us.  It has also given us our latest running joke.  “hey, guess what you’re eating”  — “CORN”.  It will eventually get old, but we will run it into the ground and stomp on it a few times before we give it up.   But back to diner. 

Gestational diabetes has been the worst part of my last two pregnancies, but it has also been positive in helping me focus on two important facts.  I need to eat better and I need to exercise more.   These facts were drilled how when I met with the nutritional councilor who talked about managing the carbohydrates I eat and balancing my menus for better nutrition.  The other item she highlighted was serving size.  Portion control is important.  Not just to my waistline, but to the family budget as well.  

Rethinking serving sizes for health: Portions have gotten larger over the past 20 years.  To see this in a compelling way check out Portion Distortion from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.  (They also have a nice menu tool  where you can input your menu and see a breakdown of the calories, fat and carbohydrates. )   I know as I have gotten older I have seen this on my own plate.  I have allowed myself to be tricked into the idea that  more is better with regards to food, but that is just not true.  More is unhealthy.  The most expensive calories you buy are the ones that you over eat.  They cost money to purchase, time to store and cook, and money down the road dealing with health problems, they cost time to burn off, and they hurt your quality of life.  They are not a good deal.

Reason dictates that children need less food than adults, teens need more, older adults need less, but when I look at most serving suggestions (including those on packages and in reciepies) there is one serving size.   Menu recommendations for children usually reduce the number of servings, but this doesn’t work so well when I am cooking for the whole family.  So instead of changing the number of servings I am changing the portion size.

My typical family diner serves two adults (one serving each), one teen (1.5 servings), one older child (1 serving) , two younger children (.75 servings each)  and a toddler (.5 serving).  So basically I need 6.5 servings for the family for breakfast and dinner and 4 servings for lunch and snacks and box lunches for 2.5 plus “on the go” snacks for 2.5 serving.   But these can not be the bloated serving sizes that have crept onto our dinner plates, especially on the higher calorie items.  I will admit my visual judgment on what a serving is isn’t so great.  I need to measure and weigh items so that I can train myself to better judge what a serving is.  The Clevenland Clinic has a good resource for determining serving sizes.  I have a small kitchen scale and measuring cups and that pretty much lets me see what a serving size really is.  One of the fun things I did with the children we to take their favorite breakfast cereal and measure out one serving.  It was significantly less than what they had  been pouring out for themselves when they had the chance.  

Increased serving sizes leads to waste: When I cook too much it is almost guaranteed that at least some of it will go to waste.   Studies have shown that children under five won’t on their own eat more no matter how much you put in front  of them.  They stop eating when they are full.  But children older than five will eat more if there is more in front of them — to a point.  Too much food served up means food that is brought to the kitchen that need to be tossed.  Leftovers are great for boxed lunches especially, but more than one or possibly two days worth is a complete waste.   It will sit in the refrigerator until it resembles some misbegotten science experiment and then be tossed.  The second most expensive calories that you buy are the ones you don’t eat.

The sweet things in life: We are not machines.  We don’t just consume our food for energy.  We have a complex relationship with food, it is part of our culture, our family life and a real pleasure.  Or at least it should be.  Fast food, eaten quickly, on the go and alone doesn’t have anywhere near the same satisfaction as a well cooked meal, eaten with friends and family around the dinner table while talking over the days events.   Likewise we can’t eat ourselves into happiness.  While we might enjoy a piece of chocolate cake are we really going to enjoy a huge piece more than a small severing?  What is better, the small piece savored slowly or the huge piece eaten quickly?   A friend of mine once said, “With thing that you eat just for the taste just a taste should do.”  Smaller servings, prepared carefully and served in pleasant surrounds have a satisfaction that super-sized bloated servings just can’t match.   Taking the time to make food special has the double benefit of making less food more satisfying.

40 bags of stuff. · Food · Fun · Mary Mary and Martha

More this and that

Woman in Rocking Chair Thomas Pollock Anschutz
 Finally my site traffic seems to be going back to normal.

About Comments: Please note I have closed all comments on the posts about the Adam Race/Carol Race story from last week and I do moderate comments on other postings.   I will be posting updated information if and when I get it.  I want to thank again all the very good and kind people who have contacted me about the situation.  Also I ask that you all keep the Race family and their parish community in your prayers.

Stand-mixer Whole-wheat Bread Recipe:

1cup very warm water
1 tbsp yeast
1-2 tbsp sweeter (honey, sugar)
2 tbsp oil or shortening (butter, lard, olive oil)
~1 tbsp salt
mix until blended and then let sit for 10-15 mins, switch to the bread hook.
then mix in:
4 cups flour (I use 1cup bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour, and two cups whole-grain white)
1 cup warm water
alternate the flour and water until the flour and water are all in then continue to add flour until the dough forms a single mass.  The dough will still be sticky to the touch but shouldn’t be sticking to the bowl sides.  Let your machine kneed the dough for about ten minutes then stop and let it rise for about 30 mins.  (optionally: Knock the dough down and let it rise again for about 30 mins.)  Place the dough in loaf pans and let rise 20-30 mins and then bake at about 375 for about 20 minutes. 

40 Trash bag challenge:
I am on week 8.  I will be moving the challenge to the side bar so you can still keep up with it.  It has been a lot of fun especially as the children have gotten involved.

One Space a day Challenge:
I have had so much fun with my bags that I am starting an organizing challenge for myself.  The goal will be to de-clutter and organize one small area a day for thirty days in six weeks.  One shelf, one drawer, a desktop, counter top or cupboard.  I plan to do before and after shots for this round. 


Food · Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha

Eating with the seasons

In my menu planning article I mentioned that one of my goals when planning my family meals was to use in season and locally grown food when possible.  The first question I am asked about this is “How do you know what is in season?”.  Portland, Oregon has a Department of Sustainable Development  and part of their mission is to promote Sustainable Food.  If you do a google search for  “in season produce” + “your state” or “your city” you (hopefully) will find something similar.

Some websites you might want to look at (I am not vouching for the content on these sites, but they look interesting and topical,  if you know a good site please shoot me a link):

Local Harvest 
USDA Farmer’s Markets