A year away from home can really put things into perspective. Taken out of the comfort and security of one’s own culture and personal habits, we are presented with new possibilities. And returning home, we are given the rare gift of seeing our world with new eyes.
Traveling from one home to another on our adventure, between various countries and cultures, we relied on the generosity of friends and what was provided by our hosts. In Italy, we enjoyed endless supplies of fresh pasta and house-made wine, but learned to adapt to eating dinner at 9 p.m. In Switzerland, we craved fresh fish from the lake outside our window, but given a lack of fishing equipment and the prohibitive cost of $35 per fish, we made do with pasta and cured meats.
But the steepest learning curve, with lessons that inspire me the most, were those that I learned in England. Living in a vegetarian, self-sustainable community as a meat-eater accustomed to abundance, I was gifted the opportunity of self-reflection. Building a meal on a tight budget, with limited ingredients and access to the few vegetables that were currently growing in the garden, was a monumental challenge for me as a chef and gastronome. After a long inner struggle, I now know the benefit of living with less, and have accepted the fact that our diets and habits must evolve with our changing planet.
During our period overseas, we avoided television and American media, as our days were full of work, and evening was family time, spent around the fire rather than around a television.
Back home, we are bombarded with the depressing state of the world around us — and the changing world of food seems ever-worsening. Laboratories are messing with the genes of animals and crops. Animals are being modified with legs that cannot support their unnatural weight, with breasts altered to provide consumers with larger portions of the highly desired white meat. Wheat and corn have been genetically modified so intensely that record numbers of Americans have gluten and corn intolerances. Industrial meat production is filling our food supply with cheap, chemical-ridden meat, from animals leading unhappy, horrific lives, which most people would like to ignore or deny. Chemical spills on land and at sea; nuclear radiation leaks depositing cancer-causing toxins into our oceans; contamination of groundwater from fracking — and the list goes on. Depressing!
But I don’t think curling up into a ball under the covers or pretending it’s not real is an appropriate response. Maybe we can’t change the course of events, but we can take steps to make personal change within our changing world.
Throughout history, people have adapted their diets to fit the world changing around them. During WWII, folks were rationed certain foods, while being encouraged to grow their own gardens and backyard animals. Limiting the imported stuff and increasing the fresh self-grown foods, health and longevity improved. People learned to use less sugar, replacing it with naturally sweet fruit or vegetables, using less butter by making pastry with potatoes, and using more lard, suet and meat drippings. Eggs were also in short supply, and food educators taught the public how to prepare eggless cakes and breads. Leftovers were reinvented into new dishes, and cooks were encouraged to stretch meals with dried beans and oats.
Rationing is long gone, and with it, forced limitations. But I find a lot of wisdom and inspiration from this era of shortages, as well as a call to return to more traditional food ways. Taking an active role in one’s own dietary needs — be it the planning, growing, harvesting, slaughtering or preparing — is the only sensible solution I see in our changing world.
We are fortunate to live in an amazingly lush and fertile place like Walla Walla, with a long growing season and space to be masters of our own sustenance. After a year of volunteering on other people’s farms across Europe, we will begin to till our own piece of land, grow our own animals and provide as much of our own food as possible.
The butchery skills learned in the kitchen at River Cottage will come in handy — processing and curing our own meats, head to tail, wasting nothing. Surplus from the garden will be preserved for lean times in the fall and winter months, preparing some of the chutneys and marinated veg we gained a new appreciation for over the year. And I look forward to days of foraging and gleaning the wild foods of the Valley — elderflowers in the spring, berries in the summer and nuts in the fall. This year’s going to be delicious, even if it means a little less store-bought butter, sugar and coffee.
For some folks living in cities or committed to lives too busy for such an active role, being conscious and connected is equally important. Without time or acreage to grow one’s own food, people rely on food provided by others. In this situation, knowing your food producers is essential.
One prime example involves my favorite pink seafood, the wild Alaskan salmon. Since the Fukushima disaster, rumors and studies are flooding the Internet with mixed messages about the safety of our oceans and the animals that live there. With a heavy heart and extreme caution for my family’s health, I decided to remove salmon and Pacific seafood from our diets. I met with my favorite salmon fisherman, Pete Knutson of Loki Fish, and asked the big question. If anyone would know the truth, it would be someone whose family relies on clean fish for their livelihood.
Surprisingly, he was ready for my question, with lab test results to back him: For now, the fish are radiation-free and safe for consumption! Knowing the people who grow, raise and catch our food is a vital connection, for peace of mind and clean healthy food.
There is no denying it: Our world is changing, and we must adapt to survive. Changing our food habits is a big part of that.
Despite all the unhappy changes around the world, I see hope. More and more people are connecting to their food, becoming stewards of their own piece of land and providing nourishing alternatives for their communities and families. People want to know what’s in their food, and are willing to stand up and say so. We are building a better future for ourselves and our children — one step, one person at a time.
Maybe if we each play a more active role we will appreciate more and require less. Maybe we will listen more to what our bodies and hearts are saying. And maybe we will even listen more to the ones we love. Maybe these changes will not only improve our dietary needs, but also improve our connections with each other. Maybe.
Let’s give it a try. I’m in. Who’s with me?
Melissa Davis, a local chef with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, specializes in natural foods. She can be reached at email@example.com. More of her writing is at melissadavisfood.com.