Since the year began, I have been trying to eat as little processed food as possible. My decision is the result of a variety of concerns–concerns about what processed food could be doing to my health, and concerns over the environmental impact of the production. And truth be told, Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food went a long way toward convincing me that whole foods are the way to go.
This new lifestyle (and, indeed, it often feels like just that–a lifestyle) isn’t a complete redesign of my life; I’ve been an enthusiastic home cook and baker for as long as I can remember, and already cooked most of my dinners myself. Still, for lunch I often relied on “Healthy Choice” frozen foods or canned soup, but going “whole foods” on my food meant that I would have to think about what to prepare not just for dinner, but for lunch as well.
I knew going into this, some allowances would have to be made, lest I get frustrated with myself for buying that can of emergency stock, throw up my hands in defeat, and run straight to the Safeway for a frozen pizza and a bottle of root beer. So I told myself certain things could be slowly phased out until I either learned to make them well or had stockpiled enough of my own that I no longer needed to rely on the grocery store to provide them. So until I have quarts of chicken stock in my freezer, I’m occasionally buying it from Trader Joe’s. And because it’s winter and therefore canning tomatoes myself is not an option, I’m allowing them into the pantry as well.
Some things I won’t be able to substitute myself, like milk which is, to a certain extent, “processed,” being that it is homogenized, pasteurized and put in a carton, then shipped to my local market. But my landlord doesn’t even allow dogs in my building, so a dairy cow is sadly out of the question, which means I’ll be buying my milk from a dairy I trust.
Also on my “OK to buy” list are yogurt, cheese, and pasta, three things I can’t live without but am not prepared to start making myself. (I might eventually get around to the yogurt and the pasta, but cheese is just plain out of my league.) I am also allowing myself the occasional crepe with Nutella from Genki.
Even the little cone it comes in agrees with me:
Actually, even the crepes will likely fall by the wayside, as I remembered recently that I used to be quite skilled at making crepes and made them often when I was in college. So I am finding it harder to justify my trips to Genki, when I could make my own little pockets of perfection at home.
Still, even as someone who feels quite comfortable in the kitchen, my unprocessed life requires a lot of thought and planning–and when I say “thought,” rest assured that I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Take, for example, the fact that I am coming to the end of my stash of bread crumbs in the fridge. Normally, I might go out and buy a can of bread crumbs or buy a loaf of bread and throw a few of the slices in the blender. But living la vida unprocessed means that if I want bread crumbs, I will first have to make bread, then grind some of it for crumbs to keep on hand for when I need them.
Consider, too, that the other night, I polished off what was left of my supply of homemade chicken stock (my first!), which means it will soon be time to make that again (stay tuned for a post on the stock, which will be both a recipe and a reflection on the process). To make stock, though, I need to have bones. I have one chicken carcass in the freezer right now, but I need two more in order to make a good amount of flavorful stock. And to have the bones, I will, then, need to have chicken again soon.
So you can see how living without processed “convenience” foods might make a person think about food all the time–not only about what to cook for lunch and for dinner today, but also about the staples one would need to replenish–like bread and chicken stock–in order to make tasty lunches and dinners, not just today but for the next few weeks. I imagine that, as the year continues and I have good amounts of bread, stock, and other building blocks for great meals safely packed away in the freezer, I won’t spend so much of my time worrying about what I need to make. But for now, as I adjust to this life of “not the processed food, but the food itself,” I will continue to devote a good amount of time and energy to the meal-planning process.
I fear that I am making this experiment (which every day is becoming less of an experiment and more of a way of life) sound like pure drudgery–or, at the very least, an extensive exercise in anxiety. But really, it’s quite the opposite. When I decided to eat less meat (because I am committed to eating only meat from animals that have been ethically raised, meat that is therefore more expensive than what you can get at a chain supermarket), I worried that I would lose the variety in my diet. Instead, my experience has been exactly the opposite. Because many of the dishes I make now are meatless, I’ve had to really think creatively about how to make a substantial, satisfying main course built around vegetables and grains. I have always been an enthusiastic eater who never met a cuisine I didn’t like, but I didn’t always prepare a variety of cuisines at home, relying instead on old standbys like chicken, pork, and ground meat to take center stage at dinner (and often at lunch as well). So I sought out help from Carol Gelles’ fantastic cookbook, One Thousand Vegetarian Recipes, and now I have staples in my culinary repertoire that include Burmese Yellow Curry with Crispy Vegetables (one of my favorite things to fix for lunch), Curried Chickpeas and Kale (which is incredibly inexpensive to make, fast, and so flavorful), and Mushroom Paprikash (pure comfort food, perfect for a rainy winter’s night). I also have gotten to experience real moments of pride in the kitchen, not the least of which was the homemade stock, something I had long avoided making for fear that it wouldn’t come out right or would lack flavor. How wonderful it was to taste the end result and find it was really quite good!
One of my favorite pieces of advice from Pollan’s In Defense of Food is this: “Shake the hand that feeds you.” I am lucky enough to live in a city that boasts several wonderful farmer’s markets, so I can do exactly that: meet and talk to the people who grew my food and thank them for what they provide. I find that now even my trips to the market are enhanced; because I am trying new foods that I didn’t used to cook very often (like broccoli rabe) and some that I had never prepared before (like arugula flowers), I am having longer conversations with the growers, asking them how they like to prepare what they grow. I feel more connected to my community, and more grateful for the food I take home and enjoy. In that way, embracing whole foods (as much as I can) has done what food has done throughout our history: bonded us in the sharing of experiences that food provides: its tastes, of course, but also the conversations that it inspires–those that begin with, “How do you cook this?” or “Should I roast the chicken bones before I use them for stock?” These conversations make the event of cooking that much more fulfilling, a real collaboration between all who had a hand in making the event possible.
So for now, I am enjoying my mostly unprocessed life, even on days when I get home from work and think I would prefer to just run across the street and grab a box of mac and cheese for dinner, rather than chop vegetables to saute or roast. I can’t say for certain that, come summer, you’ll find me in my kitchen prancing around barefoot, up to my elbows in jars of jam. But should you drop by in a few weeks, I’ll probably have a pot of stock simmering on the stove and a loaf of bread in the oven. You can stay for dinner, and maybe afterward we can go to Genki for a crepe.