Life as a give-a-shit-atarian: On loving peas, beets, and Tom Robbins

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.

13 Responsesto “Life as a give-a-shit-atarian: On loving peas, beets, and Tom Robbins”

  1. Cherie says:

    A “give-a-shit-atarian”! I like that a lot. May have to use that one from here on out :).

  2. Joy says:

    With a twinkle in his eye the other trouble-maker, of the older and more intelligent variety who sees more to life than getting drunk behind Jesus’ back, he recommended Jitterbug Perfume to me at the tender age of 13. It took countless used book stores and 6 months to find that book but when I finally did, it changed my life in the most visceral way. It changed how I thought and I how I would feel, wholeheartedly and with passion and always with criticism.

    That book also made me desperate to try beets. No longer were beets the little globes of dirt my mother would boil in a pot of purple. Beets were something else.

    Now, when beets come in our CSA and I hold up the bag, my little ones jump up and are pretty damn happy we have fresh beets to play with because beets ooze blood and that is life.

  3. Craig K. says:

    You’re high on your own nonsense – and you know it. You (and your editors) can’t make your point without profanity? Even by your own admission; it’s disrespectful. So much for journalistic integrity. Sad. And worthless to me. See ya.

  4. Emi says:

    This would be more complete WITH your borscht recipe (please)?

    I had my first borscht in college (at the Nelson Museum in Kansas City, where you could get a big bowl for minimal money) and I’ve never had any that competed with that first wonderful experience. 30 years later I still hope to recreate it myself, somehow.

  5. JC Costello aka Man of La Muncha says:

    Emi, I use the recipe from The Moosewood Cookbook, with a slight variation. I don’t add caraway seeds, and I use fennel bulb instead of celery.

  6. JC Costello aka Man of La Muncha says:

    Emi, after some prodding from Bonnie, I’m posting the recipe below. I realized that I started with Moosewood years ago and have wandered a ways away from their recipe.

    You’ll need two pots – one medium-large pot for boiling beets and potatoes, the other a stockpot for the main cooking. Or one big pot and bowls for reserving the beets, potatoes, and cooking liquid.

    Scrub, peel, and thinly slice 2-3 beets (about 2 cups). Do the same with enough potatoes to make 2 C of sliced taters. Yukon golds and russets work fine; purple potatoes tend to get mushy, but that’s what I’ve been using lately. Put the beets and potatoes in a pot, cover with 4 C of liquid. Beef broth will make the borscht more savory; I tend to use vegetable broth.

    Boil the beets and potatoes until they are tender. Drain and save the liquid, and set everything aside.

    Chop a whole red onion. In the soup pot, melt 2 T of butter over medium heat and cook the onion until it is soft. Add 1-2 sliced carrots, 2 chopped fennel bulbs (just the white bits), and half a head of cabbage, chopped. With the cabbage, you can’t go wrong – purple cabbage adds a lot of color, radicchio might be interesting, and regular cabbage works well. Add the water/stock from the beets and potatoes and cook until everything is tender. Add the potatoes and beets, a pinch of dill (fresh or dry), 1.5 T of honey, 1.5 T of cider vinegar, and a cup of pureed tomatoes (or tomato sauce, but the chunks in the puree are nice to have). Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over medium low heat for half an hour.

    Serve with sour cream, fresh dill, and dark rye bread.

  7. Shaun says:

    I’ve settled on \fastidious food snob,\ but that may be off-putting for those that are already inclined to think that local, sustainable food is synonymous with \elitism.\ I tried borscht for the first time this summer at a vegetarian joint in Ann Arbor. It reeled me in, definitely. I’ll be trying this recipe to see if I can match the experience of my first tasting.

  8. TheCalmCook says:

    I love it. Give-a-shitatarian pretty much describes my eating habits to a “T”. What an excellent way to put it! And that borscht recipe sounds fabulous. Definitely going to try it :]

  9. Kevin says:

    Give-a-shitatarian is a bit of genius, really. It’s unpretentious, disarming, a little aggressive – nice one!

  10. Kristy Lynn says:

    Love it. Using it.

  11. Sarah says:

    I was 16 working at the local library when I first discovered Tom Robbins (through Jitterbug Perfume). Some lovely soul had made sure to fill the otherwise very limited library collection with the entire writings of Mr. Robbins. It changed my life, too. This summer I re-read Jitterbug Perfume. I also came across a beet garden that happened to be flowering. Beet pollen at last! It was a serendipitous moment, if not so sweet.

  12. Dmarie says:

    “give-a-shit-atarian”–best term EVER. I’ll have to explore more of this blog and your writing!

  13. Alison Godlewski says:

    Thank you for the recipe. And my new favorite label for myself!