If you can’t stand the heat, get into the kitchen

“In the last analysis, civilization is based upon the food supply.”

-Will Durant

Sarah Fuelleman is a wonderful cook at whose table I am fortunate to be a frequent guest. She is also passionate about healthy eating in every sense of the term. I know you’ll find her first dish here as tasty and nutritious as I did, even if it leaves you hungry for more.

-Rick


The food choices we make today affect the extent of global warming tomorrow.

That was part of the message when Ruth Reichl, New York Times food critic and former editor of Gourmet Magazine, spoke to members and guests of the Madison Civics Club at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin on October 23.

In her talk, “Why We Cook,” Reichl told an attentive audience that the industrial farming that has provided inexpensive food for decades is only possible with cheap fossil fuels, predictable weather and safe and abundant water. Because the age of cheap fossil fuels is coming to an end (as it should), and because the use of those fuels is already changing weather patterns and degrading our environment, more sustainable farming practices may come more quickly than even many experts expect. Back to the land is fast becoming more necessity than luxury.

Reichl is a former restaurant owner and the author of several books including Comfort Me with Apples and Tender at the Bone. She was editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine for 10 years until the print edition was discontinued in 2009.

For Reichl, cooking is a political act. It’s a conscious act, sometimes a defiant one.

Reichl contends that we cook because, on many levels, it’s the right thing to do. She lauds young cooks today for choosing local and organic food, for preparing foods that provide nutrition and great flavor with minimal damage to the environment.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

During Reichl’s coming of age in Berkeley in the 1970s, she and her friends made food choices based on what they thought was right. They did not drink Coors beer because of the company’s anti-union stands, and they did not eat grapes because of the way farm workers were treated. For a time, Reichl even lived on the food grocery stores threw away.

As an editor, Reichl expanded the idea of food writing beyond recipes. She and her staff bought 16 chickens from 16 different stores and had them tested for salmonella. Every one tested positive. That moment marked the beginning of Reichl’s education about concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, she told the crowd.

She calls the meat produced at such places “not food” and says you can’t buy pork for a dollar a pound.

On many levels, this was music to my ears, even though I consider myself to be very frugal. Reichl’s talk was not news to many, but I needed the reminder, yet again, that the low cost of food comes at a very high price.  Being penny wise about food can often be pound foolish when it comes to the health of those we cook for — and the planet.

Choosing ingredients carefully, using the whole of what we buy, and the cooking techniques we use all have broad ramifications for our climate. While extolling the joys of the Dane County’s Farmer’s Market, Reichl urged the crowd to go further. Join a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA), she said, and work to stop new CAFOs from being built.

Do these things because they’re the right thing to do for our planet, for ourselves, and for all those who follow.

But Reichl knows as well as anyone that the reasons we cook go far beyond caring for the planet and all its inhabitants. She says she also cooks to stay connected to her cooking mentors and loved ones, her family, her friends, chefs great and not so great. And she hopes that when her son cooks for his family and friends, he’ll be staying connected to her, too.

Because food is so basic, Reichl says, it’s easy to forget that preparing and eating it can be a wonderful social experience, beyond just sustenance. Food can help us visit new people and new cultures.

“It’s hard to hate someone when you’ve cooked with them.”

A lesson Reichl learned from her mother, and passed on to her Madison audience, is that food teaches us “life is delicious.”

“Taste this.”

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Love this. She is right on.
    Thanks for sharing her story.

  2. Excellent topic. I agree that our food-producing system is going to change more quickly than many of the \experts\ may be planning on. Farmer’s markets are a thrilling alternative to the supermarket. CSA’s can help people learn to deal with real food, planning and preparing meals on a regular basis. The next step, for many people will be growing their own. Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture in the ’70s, famously urged farmers to \plant fencerow to fencerow.\ I think that before long, many urban dwellers will be planting \porch steps to property line,\ as some other cultures have done for centuries. Once people understand the importance of eating healthful food grown responsibly, the only way to affordably satisfy demand will be to turn consumers into producers. A good first step for home-growers would be a soil test; healthy soil is currently the exception for the majority of city plot and suburban lots.