Thursday, May 28, 2015

Food: Some Convoluted Thoughts and Some Really Good Reads

I love food.

All the happiest memories of my life--holidays, travel, vacations, parties, family events--are so intrinsically linked with food that I can't tell if it's the event that made me love the food, or the food that made me love the event.

Just seeing paprika on potato salad takes me right back to my grandma's back yard barbecues in Preston, Idaho.

Caprese salad will forever remind me of the best meal of my life in Paris.

KFC chicken smells like Christmas Eve (I know, that one is a bit weird, but somehow my family adopted this strange tradition independently of the Japanese).

And while I loved them before, chocolate covered strawberries now revive all the wonderful emotions from my wedding day.

I don't consider myself a foodie, a connoisseur of delicacies, or even a particularly good cook (my husband is generous with his compliments, but my siblings are honest enough to keep me humble). But I love every part of a good meal. I love the anticipation, the planning, the cooking, the execution, and especially that time right after a good meal of feeling full and satisfied and perfectly at peace with the world.

But as much as I love food, my relationship with it is still complex (even more so when I'm pregnant). Nothing pleasurable in life comes without it's costs, it's stresses, and it's negatives. Food is no exception. Here are some of the complex aspects of my food relationships I've been thinking about recently.

Diet and Food Philosophies

Oh, the dreaded "D" word. I think for most women in this country, the number one single biggest negative issue with food is weight. This is actually not my issue. Between some lucky genetics and the nursing factor, I'm actually struggling to keep my weight up to a place where I don't look deathly emaciated (don't hate me, age gets the better of all of us and some day this metabolism will slow down). Weight might not be my issue right now, but health sure is. While I get to eat as much as a teenage boy, I still worry about the quality of those calories. I stress every day about how I should eat more fruits and veggies, less sugar and fewer carbs.

I think a lot about what kind of "diet" is most healthy for me and my family. By diet, I don't mean some three day juice cleanse or shedding a few pounds to fit in a wedding dress. I mean the regular way we eat, every day, in a sustainable kind of way. There are LOTS of philosophies out there. Should we be vegetarians? Or vegans? Or extreme raw vegans? Or go paleo? Or stick to Whole 30? Cut out gluten? Have I missed any of the current diet trends? The choices and arguments and data on all the different sides leave me spinning, and feeling extremely guilty when I serve carb-loaded pasta to my family every week.

Cost vs. Quality

More complex than even diet issues are the feelings I have about the cost of food. As a consummate underbuyer, I HATE spending money on food, a commodity meant to be consumed fairly quickly or else it will go bad, which makes it feel like a terrible investment. I absolutely at my core believe in cheap food. I admire this woman so much for being able to feed her family of seven (!) for $300 a month, and I heart Aldi with such a passion that I will drive 45 minutes one way just to shop there once a month and load up on basics and essentials. (The cost of gas doesn't even begin to compare to what that store saves us on food. For those of you who have never heard of Aldi, my condolences. I don't even remember how I used to shop before moving to the Midwest and discovering this treasure of a store.)

However, lower cost of food does tend to conflict with those dietary and food philosophy questions I wrangle with. Refined carbs are a very cheap way to feed a family, but they certainly aren't the healthiest. I know this, and thus the inner turmoil. I'm doing the best I can to feed us healthy foods, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, I just can't bring myself to pay for grass-fed, organic, free-range, non-GMO food when the other stuff is so much cheaper. Maybe someday when those student loans are paid off I'll feel better about expanding our food budget a little to invest in higher quality food, but remember how I eat like a teenage boy? And how at that point my boys will probably be bottomless-pit teenagers? I will never completely stop serving those cheap carbs.


So yes, I enjoy cooking fun meals every once in a while and getting creative in the kitchen. But when I have to feed four people three meals a day? Day after day after day? After day? It doesn't matter how much you love something, anything you have to do that much becomes a drudge chore pretty quickly. Which is why I love meal planning and quick dinners. 30 minute meals? With a baby whose crankiest hour is 5 PM, my meal prep has to be under 10 minutes or we ALL start crying. I recognize that in centuries past, women devoted most of their awake hours to food preparation. My own grandmother was this way. As soon as the breakfast dishes were cleared she would start in on lunch prep. Honestly, frozen dinners have done more than feminism to free women from domestic servitude, and yet, food prep is STILL the single biggest time suck of my life.

Why can't all food be extremely cheap, require little time to prep, be super healthy, and satiate the appetite of a teenage boy? Is this really too much to ask from life?

These issues aside, I still love food. A lot. And also reading about food. Honestly, reading about food is almost as good as eating food itself (except no, that's not true). I love all kinds of books on food: non-fiction that explores the issues I mention above, memoir that explores all the reasons to love food, and fiction with mouth-watering descriptions that leave me salivating. Without further ado (and holy cow, have I ever had more "ado" leading up to a list of books? I mean, talk about a long intro), here are a few books I've either read or want to read about this topic near and dear to my heart.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Okay, so if there is a food "philosophy" I do want to ascribe to, it is probably the one Pollan outlines in this book: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Really, this book had a more profound impact on the way I feed my family than anything out there. It actually got me to stop buying margarine and cough up the big bucks for real butter. That's saying something. This is the only Pollan I've read, though I hear his other stuff is good too. I highly recommend.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

Gosh, I just love this book so much. This book takes all of my issues about food and puts them in perspective. Niequist makes food about people. About nurturing and feeding people. It's beautiful stuff, and I can't recommend this book more highly. It's one worth owning.

My Life in France by Julia Child

Oh, Julia. The icon, the figure, the force, in her own words. She was quite a lady, and while I didn't love everything about this book, I found her passion for cooking to be really inspiring. Also, her love of the French. I share that with her. They just know how to do food.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

I read Delicious! by Reichl, but I have a sneaking suspicion I will enjoy her nonfiction more than her fiction. I've heard such great things, I'm excited to get this one off my to-read list.

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

The tag-line to this one is "Cooking with economy and grace." Yes, please! I've read glowing reviews of this book, and it sounds fabulous. Part cooking-instruction, part food philosophy, this sounds like the kind of book I'd love to sink my teeth into (lame pun? sorry).

And in honorable mention, my favorite movie about food of all time:

Babbette's Feast

Okay, if you can remotely appreciate good foreign films, this one is a MUST WATCH at some point in your life. The food! Oh, the food! And the story! And the characters! Such a good, sweet, amazing, mouth-watering movie.

Okay, what's missing from this list? What books about food should be on my to-read list? What are your own thoughts/feelings/issues with food?


  1. I am insanely jealous of your metabolism. It took me two years to finally work off the baby weight acquired from Els and Audrey!

    Oh how I miss Aldi. There is one about a half hour from us and I can't bring myself to trek there when Costco is across the street. But I think you have re-inspired me to work on my food budget and making healthier meals.

    1. Like I said, don't be too jealous. My high metabolism has it's drawbacks, like being exhausted all. the. time. I am insanely jealous of all your endless energy :) Also, I love the quality of Costco food, but yeah, the price. Budgeting and healthy food do not go easily together, good luck!

  2. I get annoyed at the price of food and in Canada I think it's much higher than in some parts of the States (from what I've seen on blogs). So much of our budget goes to food! I feel your pain - I love food and eating but dread the constant routine of cooking and deciding what is for dinner. Especially a meal that takes 45 minutes to make and only 5 minutes to eat. But I do love those meals when everyone is quiet because they are truly enjoying their food! I really liked "Dinner: A Love Story" and "A Homemade Life" for foodie books.

    1. I think food prices are higher everywhere outside the States, but food quality is also higher too (I haven't been to Canada, but that is true for Europe). I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that you get what you pay for with food.

      Also, I think both "A Homemade Life" and "Dinner: A Love Story" are on my to-read list. I can't wait to get around to them.