Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why Do I Bother?

I'm working on a Q&A post right now, answering some of the questions that have been emailed to me over the last few weeks ... but in the meantime, I'm going off on a tangent here.

Lately, the question of "Why do I bother?" has been on my mind. When you get into something like growing tomatoes and veggies in your own garden, if you're like me, at least a tiny part of your mind (or perhaps your spouse) is like, "Why are you doing this? There's a whole grocery store of fresh veggies down the street, and if organic is so important to you, just buy organic." Why bother indeed?

To me, growing vegetables is about more than plants ... it's about food, and food can be a complicated thing. It has a moral dimension to it, whether we like it or not. I find it depressing that, for a lot of people, they view their food as a moral failure. Perhaps they don't eat as well as they wished, perhaps they eat too much sugar or just too too much of everything, and their food becomes all wrapped up in self-loathing and body image. It ceases to be fun. It stops being a source of pleasure.

On the other hand, I know lots of people who bring an overriding moral and ethical dimension to their plates. They are concerned with the source of their food—they want food that was raised in an ethical, humane, environmentally responsible way. I have vegan friends who don't really LOVE vegetables, but to them, the trade-off is simple: their eating is an expression of their ethical concerns over the way we raise, slaughter and consume animals. This camp—the food ethicists—is varied. There are the locavores, the vegans, the raw foodies, the people who buy only organic, the people who go way out of their way to buy humanely raised meat.

I've written before that I'm not a "point of view" gardener—I'm not doing this to impose my values on your food. This isn't the blog where you'll find me railing against corporate food (flawed as it may be), nor the place where you'll find a stout defense of using (or banning) GMO organisms.

Which leads me back to my question: Why bother? If eating ethically isn't my point—if I'm even willing to ditch organic methods in the face of persistent fungal problems—then why go through all this trouble?

I grew up in a food family—in my house, cooking was communal. We'd plan meals as a family, shop for ingredients, then spend a day (or two) making obscenely difficult meals. As an adult, I've gone through probably a dozen food phases ... for a long time, it was nothing for me to spend 8 or 9 hours tending a wood fire to smoke barbecue. Then there was the artisan bread phase, when I was spending two days on hand-crafted loaves. There was an Asian food period. A soup era. A year of learning how to use Indian spices.

So the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my relationship with food has traditionally been without an ethical or moral component. My primary concern has always been quality. Because for me, food has always been about community and the privilege of feeding people things they like. To me, food has always been about people. About taste. I approach food as a cook, not as a cause.

And if my interest in homegrown, prime quality veggies happens to overlap with the crunchiest of granolas, then so be it. The fact is, homegrown, properly raised vegetables and fruits picked at their peak of ripeness, handled lovingly, and prepared immediately are by far the best. You know how many tomatoes I ate sliced and raw before I started growing my own? None.

Lately, I've noticed a quiet friction in the overlap between me and the people who want me to support their cause because I happen to like their food. But maybe my viewpoint is skewed. I spent two years covering the global produce industry for a leading trade magazine, and I really learned how the modern food chain operates. The truth? It's a miracle. Yes, there are trade-offs—and yes, there are many, many issues with mass agriculture—but I think the fact that anyone can walk into a grocery store any time of the year and find fresh, ripe produce is an amazing development. Anyone in this country today ... ANYONE ... can eat better than the richest kings of antiquity. It's true we have the choice to kill ourselves with processed food, but we also have the option to buy fresh cherries in December. That's something.

But lately, my ethical awareness of food has been growing. Having written extensively about agriculture, the meat industry, and farming, I'm finding new dimensions in my relationship to food. Not only am I eating many more raw tomatoes than I used to, I'm finding more satisfaction in it for reasons that have nothing to do with simply awesome tomatoes.

Ultimately, though, I suspect for me the issue will always come down to taste in the final sum. Call me a hedonist, but I'm indulgent by nature and I'm willing to go great lengths to satisfy these more basic urges. So even though I have an increasingly complicated relationship with the moral dimension of food, I know one thing for sure: I would grow all my own food if I could, or get it from people who I knew and knew how it was raised, when it was picked, and how it was treated. As miraculous as Mexican peppers in January might be, there is still nothing that compares to the variety, taste, and freshness of an heirloom pepper I grew in my garden, treated with minimal chemicals, watched warm in the sun, and picked a half hour before we ate it.

1 comment:

  1. Jon - I'm with you. I'm not anti GMO, big box store or NAFTA. I love being able to spend time growing stuff, whether it be peppers, tomatoes, or hydroponic lettuce. The time I spend in the garden is time that I'm not working. Odds are my daughters are in the garden with me, making memories that will hopefully teach them to appreciate the hobby as well.

    Besides, as you said - nothing beats the taste of a just picked, home grown fruit or vegetable.