Self-identification is one of those never-ending challenges that occupy humans. Even highly self-aware people seem to spend a lot of time defending and refining their self-definition. Last week, someone proposed that people who care about climate change be known as “climate hawks.” There are the endless arguments over word definitions and the appropriation of terms, from artisan to organic. Life, like language, is continually changing, sometimes for the better.
Take my own life as an example. I’ve been rereading Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, wondering what the 20-year-old version of myself made of the fantasy about a couple who strive for immortality. I suspect that the majority of my brain focused on the sex, a sizable minority thought about immortality – at 19, I was going to live forever, right? – and a small portion of my thoughts turned to beets. I liked beets when I was a toddler, grew to dislike them, and then, through the influence of Robbins and Russian studies, came to love them again.
My renewed acquaintance with beets occurred around the time I stopped paying as much attention to food. In college, I survived on coffee, rice, and peanut butter. After college, I got a job. I moved to California. Life moved fast. When I cooked, I made borscht, recalling the savory soups I’d tasted in Russia. Cooking was the exception. Eating out became a habit. I patted myself on the back because I, at least, didn’t eat fast food and did buy organic groceries. When I bought groceries, that is. There were a few years when food was an afterthought.
I reclaimed my childhood attentiveness to food a few years ago. Several factors triggered the change. The shine of immortality and the haze of sexual desperation, fun blinders of youth, had worn away. My then-partner (now wife) and I returned to the Pacific Northwest, where the slower pace of life allowed time to think about what we ate. She subscribed us to a vegetable CSA, which introduced us to new foods – kohlrabi, kale, and chard. My friend Bonnie recommended that I read a new book by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and invited me to join her in starting The Ethicurean. Life changes, and we are fortunate when we steer those changes. Life changed, and I remembered some of the foods that I’d loved as a child.
In Jitterbug Perfume, Robbins writes, “The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.”
When people say that they love food, they probably don’t mean “love” in the sense that Robbins expresses. Food is important, and irreplaceable as long as we want to continue living, but food by its nature is not unique or irreplaceable. We consume food, destroying it, and replace it with the next mouthful.
Our experience of food is what is unique and irreplaceable. I can trace my love of food, specifically homegrown garden vegetables, to a moment at my aunt Ellie’s house. It was a warm, sunny summer day, and I was eight or nine. I picked a fresh pea pod from her garden and squeezed the peas into my mouth. The bright taste of peas remains in my memory, overriding other aspects of that visit (including a burn on my right leg). I have no earlier memory of food tasting that good, not even beets. I had to rediscover beets in adulthood.
The beet, of course, is the humble root that links together the divergent stories in Robbins’ novel, and connects the novel’s main character to his homeland. Similarly, beets link varied parts of my life, from the sugar beets of my native Idaho to the borscht beets of adulthood.
Peas are delicious, but beets are irreplaceable. Borscht is just that good.
It is tempting to claim a love of food as the defining factor of the people who write and read the Ethicurean and similar sites. I need only consider the situation of another aunt to know that this claim is untrue. This aunt loves food and once shared her fondness of raw potatoes, a less momentous memory for me but a fond one nonetheless. For her, good food is represented by the variety of processed foods that she can buy from a store. Raw potatoes are an exception. Her experiences reflect both the rationing of World War II, when a raw potato might have been a treat for child, and the plentitude of processed food that came after the war.
Calling someone a “food lover” can hint of gluttonous, in the discriminate sense. We think of gluttons as people who eat everything in sight. Once they were the people who were too picky about their food. This is another example of how language changes.
Instead of “food lover,” I prefer the term “give-a-shit-atarian.” Being a give-a-shit-atarian means exactly that, giving a shit about things, in this case food. It’s a profane way of saying that I care about how my food is grown, that it is grown, and how the creation and transport of that food affects the world around me and everyone else.
The early Ethicurean mentioned somewhere in our mission statement that it’s about S/O/L/E – Sustainable, Organic, Local, and/or Ethical – food, and figuring out what “ethical” meant in this context. I would love to ignore the changing landscape of food – Artisan popcorn, people? – and settle into memories of food past, but that behavior is as unhealthy as the high-fructose corn syrup in the food that my mother’s sister loves. To live only in memories is, to quote Robbins again, “an unhealthy symptom in anyone, suggesting as it does that life has peaked.” It is to believe that we are in End Times, not merely Hard Times.
I give too much of a shit about food and the world to believe that life has peaked, or that the peak of our food culture will be synthesized in a lab. Once I figure out all the answers, I’ll be certain to share them, but until then, I will make a delicious and Halloween-appropriate dish: borscht.