Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Food for Thought

We hear a lot about food. From Supersize It to the epidemic of obesity to slow food, from vegetarianism to veganism to macrobiotics to the various diets formed around the explosion of food allergies, food seems to have taken on an increased complexity.

At my Quaker meeting, we try to juggle the needs of vegans with those allergic to soy, wheat, nuts, dairy, etc. ... There was a piece a few years ago in a Vogue (or perhaps Town and Country) magazine that I read at the hairdressers by a woman living in the south of France who got so tired of guests e-mailing her ahead time with what they weren't eating ("Please be informed that I'm on a no-tomato diet ... and of course, I only drink soy milk") that she refused to cater to anyone's food needs at all!

My children were transformed -- or perhaps traumatized in a good way!-- by seeing "Supersize Me" in school. This documentary records the ill health effects of a man who eats nothing but MacDonald's food for a month. Anytime he is asked to supersize a meal, he does. At one point, he throws up. Since seeing the movie, my children refuse to eat at MacDonalds. Truly, there is a God!

Anyway, Will tells me that MacDonald's no longer supersizes but instead offers "value meals." He also told the story of a friend's father who ordered himself three quarter pounders, two fries and two milkshakes at the drive-through window. The mind boggles.

When my children were in the early elementary years, their school was chosen to be part of a program in which all the children were given breakfast at school. The rationale was that breakfast helps children learn and yet a. some children in poverty weren't getting breakfast and their parents were ashamed to send them for free breakfast (which unlike lunch, most kids didn't participate in) and b. some children in before-school care were getting breakfast so early that they were hungry well before lunch.

I was happy about the idea -- as was told to us -- of children going to school and getting a balanced, nutritionally complete breakfast. Somehow, I pictured steaming plates of freshly cooked foods: eggs, bacon, French toast, orange wedges. What was I thinking? What the kids got was processed cold food in little wrappers pulled out of a bin beside the teacher's desk: packaged danishes, sweetened yogurts, milk and cereal boxes, bottles of juice. Nothing fresh, nothing warm. Not enough. Airplane food. It was a disappointment and, I thought, radically wrong to teach children that this is what "healthy" eating is. At the same time, I recognized that the school wasn't in the food service business, and wasn't going to hire short-order chefs to stand at the back of the classrooms and toss omelets for the little ones.

So I am surprised and delighted by the --dare I say?-- old-fashioned approach to food I've seen at Olney Friends School. After breakfast the last time I was there, I asked Helen where they bought the cinnamon buns.

She told me they do all the baking themselves, except for hamburger rolls, hot dog rolls and sandwich bread. I was amazed.

Eggs laid by their own hens, lettuce grown in their greenhouse, potatoes grown in their own fields and what we now call "free range" beef cattle grazing nearby. The school even has a gardener on staff. Real cooking from scratch. And the students helps out, from gathering eggs to harvesting potatoes to making maple syrup to planning and cooking a meal from time to time. It's almost like stepping back in time or into an alternative universe.

Real food. Locally grown. I can't get over it. I keep thinking there must be a down side but I can't figure out what it is.

At home, we try to cook and bake and make things from scratch, but also often fall back on carryout pizza (but never MacDonalds!) Last fall, we even made our own ricotta cheese, though we haven't repeated the experiment. I love having a garden, but this year, with the move, we haven't put one in. What kinds of things do you do to cook from scratch?


Regina said...

This was a wonderful post, Diane.
I cook more from scratch now than I ever did, making my own soups especially. I make homemade pizzas- yummy- and all homemmade desserts and goodies. I have an Amish cookbook that has never failed me yet! In fact, I made my own cupcake icing the other night! Better than store bought and without the preservatives!
I love my crockpot- truly I do. We had a wonderful chicken chili over homemade cornbread last night...
I think it's great that your kids saw Supersize Me- although we never ate at McD's or at most fast food restaurants, it did give us pause as to where we ate out (when we did).

Diane said...

Thanks for the comment Regina.

Roger makes homemade pizza too! I love to cook from scratch when I get the chance and am not in one of my "I hate cooking" modes. Sounds like you are doing a lot of good cooking, and it sounds as if you love it.

This past year for Lent (which we took note of despite being Quakers) our family (meaning me!) decided on no store-bought desserts. So we made everything from scratch (counting cake and brownie mixes as
"scratch.") The idea was to work for our desserts. It was a great experience.

Anyway, I'm glad there are people like you still doing real cooking!