04 November 2007

 

Gratitude Is an Appropriate Response to a Gift

Recently, for the research part of my work, I had to travel to the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. On the flight up, I was preoccupied with work-related matters, so the fact that I hadn't brought along any personal reading was inconsequential. But for the trip back, we had done what we had to do in our meetings, and I wanted something non-work-related to read. I had gotten through the Nagel biography of John Quincy Adams a few weeks ago, had read Stumbling into Happiness by Daniel Gilbert in similar circumstances after my recent trip to Milwaukee last month, and didn't have anything light (for some value of "light") to read. (Maybe something about Stumbling... some day.)

So after a quick perusal of the tiny bookstore/giftshop there at ACY, I chose The Omnivore's Delimma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. The four meals: McDonald's (eaten in the car), industrial organic, local organic, and hunter-gatherer. It's told from what is, to me, a sensible perspective: by a party who is active and interested in his food, where it comes from, the impact producing it has on not only Earth and water, but person and word. He goes from Nixon-policy-since cheap grain, corn in particular, and cheap petroleum being the foundation for the processed-food industries (not only corn-fed (with meat by-products) feed-lot cattle, but also corn-syrup Cokes, corn-based additives, etc.), to making a meal from a wild boar he shot himself and mushrooms gathered from where a pine forest had burned. In between he considered the organic industry—Earthbound Farms and the like—and grass-based small farms that carefully husband forest, grass, cattle, poultry, pork, and the like.

His point is not so much to suggest that industrial agriculture or food production is going away, but that there is a distributions of options available, and that an aware person forms a kind of balanced relationship with food acquisition and production. Every meal can't be made from scratch—bag the meat, grown the veggies, gather the shrooms and fruit—but the awareness of the possilibities can change one's perspective to respectful and grateful participant in the food chain. About his hunter-gatherer meal, he writes:
Perhaps the perfect meal is one that's been fully paid for, that leaves no debt outstanding. This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this [the hunter-gatherer] meal. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted.
His words reminded me of two quotations you might recognize if you've read here for a while. One is via Mr. Fripp from J. G. Bennett, and it's a grace to say before eating:
All life is one and everything that lives is holy.

Plants, animals and people all must eat to live and nourish one another.

We bless the life that has died to give us food.

Let us eat consciously, resolving by our labors to pay the debt of our existence.
The other is from the TV movie of The Martian Chronicles, but the last time I looked, I couldn't find it in the stories:
Life is a gift from the Creator of the Universe. A gift to be savored. To be luxuriated in.
To be grateful for.

So, in gratitude for the read, I'm roasting a chicken. I haven't cooked a chicken in several years. As a rule, we eat meat about once a day, almost always store-bought packaged sliced meat on sandwiches for lunch. For breakfast and dinner, we rarely eat meat at home. A few times a year we'll cook steaks on a Saturday night, turkey for Thanksgiving: meat with about that 4x-per-year happening. Once a month or so we might go out for dinner and have steaks or chicken or fish—and they're really, really good when they're a treat instead of part of the ordinary—but around here, cooking meat of any form is rare. (It was just a decision to reduce the amount of meat we eat, to go higher fiber and lower fat, not something based on the phony conceit of "animal liberation" or any other such nonsense, which Pollan, by the way, refutes admirably.)

I used to roast a chicken most Sundays during the late fall and early winter when I was single. I'd roast a chicken, make meat sauce, and bake bread while the football game was on. That's pretty rare these days. But Pollan's book got me motivated to cook something beyond using faux-meat (texturized soy protein) with canned sauce.

But did you realize that "organic" (i.e., industrial organic) chicken costs 3x what store-brand or Purdue/Tyson does? Yow! (We're having a Publix chicken. I'm not paying $15 for a 4.5-pound roaster. Not today, anyway.)

(Can you smell the thyme? The skin crisping?)

I recommend Pollan's book. It's a bit heavy on eruditeness (you have to spell that out: err-ewe-diet-ness in heavy Southern drawl to both be aware of the appropriate use and make fun of the word at the same time), but it's full of respect for people, for the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon, and for the food that nourishes us all. I'm grateful I read it, I'm grateful I'm cooking this chicken, and I hope to be grateful for the opportunity to serve it over linguini with a baked acorn squash (it's fall!) and some cornbread.

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Comments:
Very nice soliloquy, and VERY sad that a huge percentage of our population, particularly children, simply have no knowledge of food source and production. I don't see it changing any time soon.

-BT
 
I loved that book and have recommended it to a lot of people. The biggest thing it made me notice was the number of products with high fructose corn syrup in them...and trying to eat more food that looks like food (i.e., not processed...). The prices of organic products are coming down and the diversity is increasing. The other piece is the environmental impact of shipping food all over the place... wowee!
 
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