Wednesday, November 3, 2010

michael pollan, mark bittman, and why i'm no "foodie"

This past summer, I worked at the Juravinski Cancer Centre. On my final day of work, I decided to buy a lunch as a treat. I normally don't eat lunchmeat or white bread, but I really like a good sandwich - crusty Italian bread, ham or turkey, good cheese, tomato, so I thought I'd go for something like that, since the cafeteria normally had specials that looked pretty good.

When I was in line, I saw there was a special like that, but noticed the cheese on the "display" sandwich was melty orange goo squishing out the front.

Me: "Can I get real cheese on this sandwich instead of processed?"
Worker: "Uh, no, we only have processed cheese. actually we never have real cheese unless there's a special that has real cheese on the sandwich"
Me: Uhh..... ok. (completely and utterly dumbfounded..)

I ate the processed cheese, but that was a letdown. I could have bought ingredients for six awesome sandwiches for the same price -- and probably should have. Although once in a while, I will eat the processed cheese by choice. (And to be fair, the hospital had just done a review process that also was phasing in healthier options, so hopefully this isn't always the case).

I've heard of a couple people whose views on food I find interesting, though I don't know a ton about them.

There's a guy named Michael Pollan who wrote a book called "In Defense of Food." I haven't read it, but it's been summed up as: Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The "real food" part, especially, I like hearing. Not processed cheese or "soyrizo" or Eggos... real food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (Though again, once in a while I'll do the processed thing).

There's another guy named Mark Bittman who's pretty good too - I've asked for "How to Cook Everything" for Christmas, and I like hearing about his eating choices - vegan for breakfast and dinner, and then anything (including meat and whatever else) for dinner. 

That's actually pretty close to how I eat in a typical day - usually 'oatmeal' for breakfast (boiling water poured over minute oats, because I don't want to actually cook anything in the morning), some kind of vegetarian or vegan thing for lunch (usually with beans or cheese as the protein) and then something awesome for dinner. 

I like those ideas about food.

They're simple. (Mark also says things like "Don't bother mincing, just chop").
They put a priority on real food without a lot of restrictions.
And they remind people that being able to feed yourself is a basic skill. 

Convenience foods have become so much a way of life that a lot of people think they're a right - and don't know how to make food or budget for making their own food, even as they pursue higher education. (This whole "wah, I can't afford my latte, all I can afford is cucumber sandwiches on $7.50 a day" article epitomizes that. This guy offers a cogent response.

That, to me, is so weird. Even if you don't know anything, you can always learn. And $7.50 a day is quite a bit of money for one or even two people, if you want to learn basic skills.

I started university with 2 years in residence with a microwave and a kettle - not a great place to learn about food prep. I remember the first summer I lived in an apartment, and had to figure out my own meals. I knew how to bake stuff from a recipe, and to make a few meals at home, but I wasn't used to figuring it out for myself.

I knew how to make a few things (how to brown meat and make spaghetti sauce, tuna sandwiches, baked potatoes, stir-fry) but I certainly didn't know how to do much. Between Google and a crazy work schedule of 60+ hours a week (full-time morning shifts at Tim Hortons and a night shift at the dollar store) though, I figured some stuff out. And I never, ever ate ramen noodles or Kraft Dinner, mostly because I don't like them.

Two sites taught me pretty much everything I know about recipes - and (formerly If you want to make a recipe, type it in the search box, sort it by ranking, and choose the one with 378 five-star reviews... that's been my method for years.

By year 3, I'd moved into an apartment, and the only things I really remember making were a lot of tzatziki and pitas, a lot of eggs, a lot of salad, a lot of whole-wheat toast and peanut butter, and buying huge packages of ground beef and chicken, separating them into individual portions, and freezing all the little portions. (I was also a pretty awful roommate... I even got a dog without asking my roomates, a few weeks before they moved in. Man. I don't know how they put up with me.)

I was at Jarod's a lot too that year, and everyone else living there was Chinese or Korean, so we learned a ton about how to cook rice, different sauces, and tried a lot of new stuff. We also cooked a lot of chicken or beef with rice on the side. And spaghetti. Always spaghetti, and we started buying only whole-wheat pasta then.

I find it weird when people are impressed that either of us cook, or that we can make our own meals. I don't think I'm a "foodie" at all, or that I particularly care for obscure or exotic ingredients. I tried quinoa a little while ago after we'd had it at a restaurant last year (with a $20 off coupon!) and found you can make some awesome things with it and it's pretty healthy. But I think a lot of gourmet food stuff is pretentious and expensive, and I don't care much for things like the exact flavours in a glass of wine or what's "trendy"

I guess if avocados or fajitas are strange to people, I can understand that -- but what's easier than half an avocado on toast or frying up some meat, peppers, and seasoning in six minutes and throwing it on some tortillas? I guess I just think about it as "quick and easy" (although with avocados I also think "expensive!")

But once a month or so, Jarod gets Kraft Dinner and I get a donut. You gotta have that stuff too, just not all the time.

We've got a jar of mild curry paste in the fridge I haven't cracked yet, and I just learned to make biscotti a few years ago. (I also tried making sushi - way more time-consuming than I'd like, for something I'd rather eat once in a while and have it made for me).
But baking's more recreation than necessity (I don't do bread or anything like that) and I don't like making anything for dinner that takes more than 15-20 minutes. I don't soak dried beans, and I don't do once-a-month-cooking. Even crock-pot stuff usually requires a lot more forethought than I like. 

I also like meat in pretty much any dinner dish (though TVP and tofu do get used once in a while). My Mennonite roots tend towards the blander, starchy, robust foods, but man, they are good - though now I can make a stir-fry or fish tacos pretty easily too, and stroganoff's quick. Stuff like jambalaya or anything like that takes a lot of time and I'm just not interested in taking a lot of time. (These took a little while but I figure I only buy pumpkin once or twice a year - making them was a good decision.) Adding vegetables is what takes the effort and thought - and is usually a salad or some nuked frozen veggie, if it's not already in the meal.

That said, for Jarod and I, one of our favorite things to do is go out for dinner - once every month or two, when we can. We like trying new stuff or really well-prepared things we know. You can get 6 quail at the farmers' market for $9 - I've got to try making those some day soon - a friend of ours made us Cornish hens and wild rice a few years ago, and maybe I'll try something like that.

And no processed cheese. 

Except earlier this week, when Jarod picked up his box of KD, and asked if I wanted it for lunch... and after I made a horrible face, he proposed that it would be mixed with cooked ground beef and spaghetti sauce. And yeah - I sure did. Nothing fancy, certainly not healthy, but once in a while that's OK with me.


Alex said...

I don't remember how I found your blog, but here I am!
$7.50 a day is a LOT more than what I lived on in college. I managed on about $100 a month & ate healthy enough.
My bf & I (both students) keep up a pretty healthy vegan diet on less than $200 a month. I will grant that we live in Saskatchewan & groceries are cheaper here than in GTA, but that girl's quote just makes me mad. I definitely have little sympathy for the wah-wah-latte girls, hahaha. A friend of mine volunteered at a coffee farm in Costa Rica & the unbalance between what the farmers get paid & what a latte costs is unbelievable.
I really like your point about people thinking they have a right to convenience foods & overpriced drinks (among other things). I have doubts about a lot of people in university. When someone can do advanced calculus, but can't cook a simple meal, something's not being covered.
Sorry for the rant!

Meredith said...

Thanks for the comment - definitely appreciated! It's good to know there's a lot of people who also are on the "frustrated with entitlement" side of the equation (though I don't much want to divide it into sides)

mystoneycreek said...

I took Pollan's credo and came up with my own version, integrating other Life Issues I believe are just as important as what you eat:

'Cook fresh food. Be active. Have fun.'

Great site, looking forward to taking a good look around.

P.S. Pollan's book is well worth reading.