Sometimes I wonder about how my twelve-year-old self would view me as I am right now. I think she would be surprised that I was practicing yoga for over ten years and now work as a teacher. She’d also lift an eyebrow to the idea of people coming to me for food advice related to nutrition, growing, and cooking.
Growing up, both my parents worked. While I do remember some meals prepared by my paternal Grandmother (Spaghetti and meatballs! Chicken cutlets!) and different babysitters when I was very, very young, most of my food memories involve takeout and things coming from a box. Let’s look at breakfast first. Often, I hear complaints about sugary cereals. I typically didn’t consume breakfast, although I do remember three things: (1) The Saturday morning ritual of making Bisquick pancakes with my Dad, (2) Being forced to eat a blueberry muffin by a pissed off sitter while the school bus honked for me outside (and then proceeding to throw it all up in the entrance way of my kindergarten classroom, stranding half the class out in the hall; the sitter was even more pissed she had to pick me up sick from school), and (3) going through a phase of eating chocolate Teddy Grahams (blue box!) as cereal. Yes, I actually ate cookies (not a cookie-equivalent cereal) as my breakfast! Combine this with a steady diet of either Lunchables or whatever sloppy, gloppy entrée was offered in the school cafeteria and take-out dinners, and one can imagine how I had a messed up understanding of what food is.
Six years ago, I was sorting through some old boxes stacked in my parents’ basement. In my elementary school relics was a contract I wrote with myself at age 10 in an effort to lose weight. The parameters involved a series of extreme of food restrictions. For the next decade, my problematic relationship with food was not only a misunderstanding of source, quality, and substance, but it also became an obvious focus point in the war I had against my body.
Turning to vegetarianism was key in saving me. I absolutely credit it with the dramatic shift I made. My sister went vegetarian first. She was a college activist and many of her peers were vegetarian for ethical reasons. I learned about factory farming. I recognized and connected more deeply with my love of animals. Eventually, at my own college, I learned more and I had wonderful, vegetarian-friendly food options by way of cafeteria choices and special events. By 18, I took the plunge. It wasn’t very hard because I wanted to do it. But I did gain more weight. A diet of full of processed food, heavy on carbohydrates and dairy will do that (grilled cheese, burritos, pasta, etc.). So, I learned by trying new things, eating a greater variety of cuisines from around the world, and experimenting with cooking.
Visiting my college’s farm, I had an encounter that radically changed my ideas and ultimately the course of my life. “People will spend $100 on a sweater, 50k on a car, a million on a house, but when they go to the grocery store and choose between a head of lettuce grown in South America with all sorts of unregulated chemicals for 95 cents and the organic lettuce from their neighborhood farm for $1.75, they go with South America. Meanwhile, this is what goes in and becomes your body.” I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons and my bodily experience made me more interested in the health and nutrition components, but from here it shifted into something larger: environmentalism, globalization, and scales of production.
After earning my bachelor’s degree, a couple of successful stints in 9 – 5 jobs, and a certificate in Health Counseling, I drove out to Northern California where I spent a year apprenticing on an organic farm. Make no mistake, it was one of the most rewarding times of my life. The experience of working all day in the fields under the sunshine, building up a hunger that would be fed with what I just created in relationship with the earth, it just all felt so complete and real. I was part of a system, and I was happy and spiritually fulfilled in a very different way than I had ever been before. This helped to support the idea that aided me in getting over my disordered relationship with eating: seeing food as natural, as fuel, and as joyful. Ultimately, while gardening and farming are so essential to who I am, I realized that I have skills and drive to work at a different layer of the system. One of my favorite parts was the Saturday morning markets where I’d describe the process of growing and recommend recipes to our customers. Since then, I worked in an urban gardening program with youth to support job skills, social justice, and nutrition education, become more interested in policy, and hope to work to legitimize gardening’s therapeutic value.
Because of my first-hand experience, I’ll never forget that I am a part of a system that is much, much bigger than me. Our little farm was a jewel. We used the land well, planting rows of garlic and onions between the lettuces, seasonally rotating crops, and trying to reduce waste and excess at every turn. But our electric perimeter fences kept the wildlife outside our limits, displacing them from what was once, undoubtedly, their home. When we didn’t have enough rain (which includes nearly all of June, July, and August), we’d draw from the Trinity River that ran behind the property, impinging on the life within and on the banks. In our efforts to avoid all chemicals, we used chicken shit to add nutrients to the soil and sprayed some plants with ground fish emulsion, meaning more animals raised (and killed) to support our human food systems. And when I used my hands to till, prepare, cultivate, and reach deeply into the soil, I would watch frogs, snakes, and bugs scurry away, sometimes not making it out of my path.
When I studied nutrition in my certificate program, I became interested in eating meat. The program I was in emphasizes bio-individuality, so while some people are perfectly healthy on a vegetarian diet, not everyone is. And even if your body agrees, there is a lot of cooking and planning to ensure proper nutrition and absorption. While investigating individual diets, my school suggested to look at what foods a person was attracted to as a child. While most of my childhood was filled with crap, I remember the looks my sister would throw me when I ordered steaks at restaurants and ate ham and turkey on holidays (she wasn’t big on meat even then). I made an effort to quiet the noise of my mind analyzing every issue from twelve or so perspectives, and instead simply to listen to the needs of my body and experiment. Still, I couldn’t immediately bring myself to eat meat. The thought of factory farms and animal torture disgusted me. And as someone who practiced restrictive food behaviors, it was much easier to just stay away. While farming I still ate no meat, although I increasingly thought about it as a “what if?” One day on the farm, we had a party and an old farm partner came. The current farmers were pescatarians (occasionally trading vegetables with the local tribe members for salmon), but this guy ate meat, so he and some friends had a few chickens that they slaughtered and cleaned. I watched and it didn’t bother me, but I still didn’t eat it.
A few months later on the east end of Long Island, I got up the guts and tried some fresh fish. Almost immediately, I felt different. I grabbed my friend’s arm and told her, “I kind of feel high!” Over the next year and a half, I purposefully and intentionally incorporated fish and seafood in my diet about one or two times per month. Still, other types of meat attracted me and I wondered what their effect would be on my health. With the support of V., I began to incorporate small amounts of meat in my diet in June of 2010, increasing each year to my current level. I am stronger now in both body and mind. And in these three years, no more than fifteen times have I personally prepared non-fish meat (and I cook at least 6 days a week), opting for it when with friends or particular restaurants.
This weekend, I sat and made my grocery list as I always do, taking stock of what is in my cabinets and also checking in with my body and my cravings. I wrote chicken on my list, a rarity. When I walked through the aisles of my local German grocery store though, I couldn’t do it. I still get skeeved out by shrink-wrapped dead animals overflowing from their cool cases. (I decided to make eggplant cutlets instead.)
It’s not meat that is my problem. It’s the broken system. It’s the disconnection between source and plate. It’s the violation of animal rights and dignity. It’s how large the system has grown to fulfill the need of folks who eat meat at literally every single meal. And how corporations have grown so large and they have consolidated farms and slaughterhouses. It’s how policy has been corrupted and food is unsafe and unfit to eat.
I am certainly not perfect in my eating. I don’t know from where every single item on my plate comes. But I try. And most of all, I keep aware, both of what my body needs (so I can consciously choose and not live in extremes and restrictions) and of the facts of this great, complex system of which I am a part. In order for me to live, regardless of being a vegetarian or not, things die. And for that reason, everyday, I say a heartfelt thank you and work hard not to squander this very beautiful opportunity I have to walk this earth.