Monday, November 25, 2013

How learning to appreciate food taught me to appreciate life

Growing up in the Midwest, you eat a lot of meat and potatoes. Pork chops, liver and onions, meatloaf, and ham are paired with mashed, au gratin, and baked potatoes in combinations that defy probability. We ate veggies, too, but they were nearly always frozen, and usually added as an afterthought, a "side dish" to go with the meat and potatoes. For years into adulthood, fresh broccoli scared me because I just didn't know what to do with it. I bought boxes and boxes of frozen spinach for the same reason. Our version of a restaurant was a chain like Olive Garden or Red Lobster - it was special if you got to go to one of those places. Sigh...

In college, aside from the year in Luxembourg, I lived in a dorm and never had access to a kitchen. While the dorm food wasn't bad, it was repetitive, and there were times when it just wasn't worth the effort to make the trip to the dining facilities. I had a small refrigerator in my room, and we had a microwave in the common area, so it was possible to radiate food, which I often did. To cure some of the food ennui, I'd come up with combos like strawberry yogurt and sliced bananas on a bagel. That was a sandwich. I also ate a lot of stuff from boxes. On the good days I could afford a pizza from Bruno's or a sandwich from Bagel and Deli, but as I already had paid boarding fees, it was a waste of precious gold to pay for other food.

In Luxembourg, I shared a common area with two other girls and we had access to our host family's kitchen. We had a bit of a food issue, which, looking back, was more of a cultural issue. Breakfast was supposed to be included in our school fees, but our host family never offered it to us. The problem wasn't that they were trying to get around it, but that they left in the mornings before we got up. Some students had breakfast prepared in the mornings; we were left to fend for ourselves, and I just think our conceptions of breakfast were different than that of our hosts. I didn't know that the goat cheese and salami were meant to be breakfast items. I don't think I even knew how to cook an egg back then.

In the common room was a kitchenette with a stove that didn't work, though our host father swore it did, because he could put his hand on it and feel heat coming from it. I tried to explain that if you can put your hand on a burner, it isn't hot enough to cook anything, but he didn't seem to get it. You could get water hot enough to cook pasta, if you had an hour, and I did eat quite a bit of pasta, including boxed macaroni and cheese, if you consider that to be pasta. At any rate, it wasn't the appropriate place to learn how to cook.

But Europe is where I first learned about food as something more than a necessity for the sustenance of body. From the very beginning I was exposed to fresh fruit and vegetables at small markets, and when I went to Cinque Terre, Italy early into that first semester, I tasted fresh pesto that opened up a whole new world to me. Eating in Europe and in much of the world is an experience, not a necessity, an esprit d'corps, something shared with friends and family and the occasional stranger. And in most cases, the food doesn't come from a box.

I learned to eat Indian food in Monterey, California, where I spent two years trying to put the Arabic language into my head. It was Stanley who introduced me to it; eating at the Indian buffet became a Sunday ritual for us. When we shared an apartment in DC, I picked up some key tips about food, as he cooked frequently, and his dishes always used an extensive list of spices.

Spice. That was an unheard of concept back in the Midwest. Sure, you had salt and pepper and oregano and basil, but you added those to casseroles and stuff written on recipe cards. Nobody ever thought to put garlic in the mashed potatoes, or to sprinkle some cumin onto cauliflower, or to put coriander and honey into some yogurt. That just wasn't the way it was done. Now, I salivate at spice markets and dare try the ones I've never heard. There's a great spice market at Union Market that I'm glad is sort of out of the way for me to go to, otherwise the bank would be calling for my head.

I started cooking in the house we shared after that first apartment and though I didn't know what I was doing, I experimented with flavors. I'm pretty good with the stove these days, but the oven is still somewhat of a mystery to me. I had to learn how to do basic things like browning and still can't fry an egg without worrying about breaking the yolks. But you have to start somewhere. I make a lot of the kind of stirfry pictured above - I perfected them - at least to my tastes - in Lebanon, where olive oil is a dollar a bottle and fresh vegetables are just a few doors down from you anywhere you go. They are so healthy and so good, and what's more, don't take very long to cook!

Try throwing the above recipe together if you're in a hurry but want something that is completely filling and gives you a lot of energy. I like to start by heating the olive oil with some chili powder, curry, and Frank's before throwing in the potatoes, spicing them as well. Once they start to get a bit brown, I throw in the broccoli, onions, jalepeno, and garlic. One thing I forgot to add to the photo was the half a zucchini I threw in there. You'll want to throw that in next. It's a nice complement to the potatoes. When everything is just about cooked, throw in the spinach. When that's shriveled, it's done.

There's an entire industry devoted to "health food," but a lot of that crap comes in boxes or frozen, and one has to wonder how healthy it really is. It's fascinating that we even talk about "health food." We need food to survive, and food that isn't healthy runs counter to our survival as a species. Think about how stupid that is, especially when it's so easy to throw something together as I've mentioned above. Food is necessary for health; therefore to label something as "health food" is ridiculous. We should be labeling "unhealthy foods" instead. Maybe it'd deter people from making poor eating choices.*

What we did for awhile was lose sight of two things: that eating is something we need to do to maintain our bodies and that eating is something to celebrate with friends. The drive thru window is an abomination.

*Every now and then eating something that isn't good for you is ok, but some Americans' entire diets are unhealthy.

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