Grace of the Table, Part 2: Fresh and Sustainable

I keep returning to the kitchen table.

As a French-trained cook that’s not much of a surprise, I realize. Almost every night of the week, I’m chopping up fresh ingredients for dinner, content in the process of assembling something delicious and nourishing to eat. And nearly every evening, my beloved and I sit down together to share whatever I’ve created. For both of us, our evening meal at the table is an essential time of reconnecting with each other, opening our senses and hearts, and sharing in the grace of a good, home cooked meal. This simple ritual is one of the things we both miss most when we’re apart.

For me, the kitchen is the warm heart of the home and my sanctuary. It’s where I frequently step to what others would consider absurd lengths to create something kitchen‘authentic’ (the most overused word in cooking and food writing these days) that transports my tastebuds to gustatory bliss—such as pulverizing by hand with a mortar and pestle all the ingredients for a Thai curry paste or Moroccan charmoula, rather than simply whizzing them up together in a food processor. If you read my post, ‘The Soulful Kitchen’, a couple weeks back then you already know this about me (click here to read it; opens in a new window).

It’s very seldom that I venture out to eat. For the majority of people, a restaurant meal (including takeaway) is an enjoyable convenience. Cooking is purely elective in our busy, modern society and increasing numbers of Americans opt not to. For most, eating out is basically a lateral move: they’re going to end up with something on their plate that is equal to—probably better—than what they would assemble at home. We’re happy to pay corporations and others to cook for us.

For me, however, unless I go to very nice restaurant, eating out is nearly always a step down in taste, quality, and freshness. The ingredients are rarely organic; the meat, poultry, or fish are not free-range (or wild caught) or raised humanely. (If people knew about CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations— and “commodity meat”, how animals are factory reared and slaughtered, they would be moved to abstain from eating it.) In America, a rapidly growing number of ingredients are now GMO’s, including the cooking oils. Damnit.

There’s also that invisible but nevertheless real quality, prana or ‘life force’, that always seems to be minimal (or absent altogether) in commercially prepared food. When you are accustomed to eating very fresh foods that are close to the source and full of prana, you immediately notice the difference when it’s not there.

I used to love going out to eat but I enjoy it less and less these days. While it can be nice to have a night free from the kitchen (my partner doesn’t cook), I’m almost always unsatisfied at a restaurant table because I could have had something much better at home (and for considerably less money). I’m willing to venture out if we’re going to a top notch establishment (though even there I can be disappointed), or if there’s some other element that offsets the step down in food quality: sitting on a deck overlooking the blue ocean, listening to the crashing surf; a charming and intimate environment that flickers with romance; the company, good conversation and laughter of friends; or a spirit of adventure while traveling abroad and seated at a sidewalk café or cozy trattoria, senses wide open.

I hope it doesn’t sound boastful that I’d rather be at home creating a meal of superb taste, highest quality ingredients, and good karma. Most commercially prepared food simply cannot duplicate the soulful nourishment (and energetic qualities) that emerges from a conscious kitchen. (Restaurants in the league of Chez Panisse, for example, might come close yet something still remains missing.)

I was prattling on about taste recently and the guest at our table said something along the lines of, “Well, you’re a foodie…” I took slight offense and bristled a bit (okay, a lot). I consider ‘foodies’ to be people who possess a jaded and trendy palate: always looking for the next hip ingredient; scrambling to get a table at the latest hot restaurant; culinary thrill seekers. Like theatre goers, they’re captivated by the flash and spectacle of what’s on the stage or plate, but less keen on the scaffolding behind the curtain or the work of the actual production.

I set my wineglass down and explained to our guest that while I’m certainly attuned to the taste of my food and have a discerning palate, I’m far more fixated upon the integrity of what’s on my plate. I’m not just an eater but a cook, one who has always been more strongly drawn to rustique rather than haute cuisine. A farm-to-table approach suits me nicely, and embraces many of the qualities that I value in food.

There’s more bubbling in the cauldron of my mind than just a love of good food. I feel a rising passion for the integrity of food (on many levels). How—and where—was it produced? Is it local? How fresh is it—hours or days since it was harvested? Is it organic? How many hands touched this food before it came to me (not in terms of hygiene but rather how far has it traveled from its origin)?

Less than 20% of what Americans spend on their food goes to farmers. Much as I enjoy and appreciate Whole Foods Market, I’d rather purchase whatever I can at the farmer’s market and give less money to the food industry corporations. Or restaurants.

The culinary mantra of ‘local, seasonal, organic’ has long been important to me, but ’sustainability’ looms ever larger in my mind. This is even more true since moving from Maui to O’ahu, an island with a population hovering near a million people and nearly every bit of food shipped in from the mainland. (Fact: if the barges and planes stopped, we wouldn’t have food to last a week. Scary thought, yet not so different than, say, Las Vegas.) Our modern, urban cities are essentially on continual life support: dependent upon electricity generated and food grown elsewhere, sometimes a great distance away.

The term sustainable has soared in popularity and general awareness but the word has been watered down to the point where its use is nearly laughable, applied to everything from plastic cups to new housing developments. Much of our current mentality is more like a BandAid approach: a merely cosmetic step aimed to make consumers feel good while business goes on as normal. In reality, the bottom line is this: anything which depends upon petrol, fossil fuel generated electricity, or the extraction of resources—either for its production or distribution— is ultimately NOT sustainable. Therein lies the massive challenge at hand, the Great Work of our time: humanity must evolve from being the single most destructive element of the planet to an interconnected and life sustaining one.

Several years ago, Wendell Berry—a poet, essayist, novelist, and gentle activist who has consciously farmed a hillside in Kentucky for more than four decades—wrote in his brilliant collection of essays, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food, that eating is an “agricultural act.” This man has long been one of my heroes (an early Soul Artist blog focused upon him; click here to read; opens in a new window). Berry was an early and eloquent voice telling us that what we eat matters, not only in reforming America’s food system but also in our intimate relationship with place and each other. His torch has been taken up by bestselling author, Barbara Kingsolver, in her worthwhile book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and most recently by popular food writer, Michael Pollan (author of the best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation).

Little is more insidious than the thought, my actions as an individual don’t matter in the larger scheme. Nothing could be further from the truth. The way that change will truly come to the world is through a slowly building wave of countless, individual actions.

As Berry and others have proposed, what we eat does matter. Hugely. Not only to our own health, well being, and sense of soul, but also in our relationship as a species to this planet of which we are an integral (and hugely influential) part. Our actions in the kitchen—and the market—aid not only in reforming our food system but also directly affect (and enhance) a fragmented and disconnected way of life. Like planting a garden, sitting down at the kitchen or dining room table is a quietly radical act of the utmost good taste. As culture becomes more globally homogenized, food can be one of the key elements that restores a sense of place and belonging. It opens our senses and heart, escorting us back to the moment in gratitude. It offers us pause to reflect, to savor and celebrate.

Among other defining key attributes, Soul Artists are attuned to their relationship with place. They heed the cyclical rhythms of nature and the seasons, celebrating the gifts of each as it passes. They sink their roots down where they’re planted and consider what it means to be in a relationship with that place. What is sustainable and what is not? Part of that conscious communion is what they bring to the table—food that nourishes the body and respects the earth (and all who participated in its production, animals included).

Here’s hoping that although you may not be inspired to dwell in the kitchen, you’ll repeatedly consider what actually nourishes your body and soul. Every so often, perhaps you’ll stay home and prepare something that is local and fresh—keeping it simple—and share that grace of the table with some friends or family. You will have dished up a plate that speaks for change. Not only will your loved ones thank you but so will the local farmers… and the Earth.