3 things about my CSA share

img_20160930_172812158.jpgI have been on the path to utter hippie-dom since my first semester of seminary. That was when I quite accidentally took a class that asked me to really face the realities of climate change, and the interconnected ways that the patterns of life defined as “prosperous” in the developed world very often actually impoverish everyone.

Those patterns are very, very slow to change, though, and I’ve had to learn to be gentle with myself as I try to adopt better habits. And now it’s been a few years, and I find myself sometimes tempted to feel that my little actions don’t really matter. But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s devastatingly lucid, well-researched, and beautiful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I expected to enjoy but didn’t expect would be a galvanizing force in my life. Reading the book, though, it was clear to me: it’s time to stop making excuses about food. I don’t mean to say that I am switching to the very most perfectly ethical diet—far, far from it. (Who really knows what that would be, anyway??) But I did want the move to Charleston to be a time to purposefully create new habits and expectations as a move toward being part of a food system that is healthier for everyone. We moved just in time to get in on a fall CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) share: we’ve paid up front for 10-12 weeks’ worth of organic produce from a local farm. We help take on some of the risk inherent in farming by paying ahead of time, and give up the chance to cherry-pick our favorite items; but the price, in the end, should be significantly lower than the cost of buying at the farmers’ market every week.

We picked up our first bag on Thursday, and here are my first impressions.

  1. This is a lot of food.
    One of many reasons I’m enthusiastic about the CSA is that, after a summer of celebrations and traveling, we are on a not-diet diet. We all basically know how to eat healthy, right? Lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans, eggs, and lean meats, easy on the sugar. For me, all of this often falls into place if I can accomplish two things: acquire lots of vegetables, and make time to cook them. Step 1 is now complete and I didn’t even have to go get them.
  2. We’re gonna be eating a lot of greens this week.
    This week’s bag included Red Russian kale, mustard greens, and turnips. With turnip greens. This is completely fine with me; I love greens by themselves—cooked, or comprising a salad that is actually filling—and you can throw them into all kinds of things if you need to use them up (eggs, soups, pizza, stir-fries…). But the sheer volume of greens does drive home the fact that eating seasonally means giving up a lot of the choice we’re used to having at the globally-sourced produce section of the grocery store. It’s not a terrible thing, but it’s a fact.
    We are so used to this state of affairs, where we can wander into the store and grab a few tomatoes, some root vegetables, a head of lettuce, some chicken breasts, and a seasonal decor item. In one sense, we have a great amount of choice in what we eat and when, what we buy and how much. Election-time talk of trade deals and consumer prices has this as its underlying goal: making prices as low as possible gives us even more freedom to do and have what we want. Yet, in another sense, we are losing choices with extreme rapidity. We have been conditioned to think that a tomato is a tomato, a bunch of kale, a bunch of kale—but the small farmers of our country could easily list you 30 kinds of each, out of the hundreds or thousands that exist. Kingsolver’s notes on raising heirloom turkeys were especially eye-opening in this regard.
    When I first decided that sustainability needed to be a priority in my life, I thought that it would be a major sacrifice. The changes I have made so far have, indeed, been a major adjustment—but they have nearly all made my life more beautiful. And I think there are ways we can balance the opportunities afforded by our newfound choices with some restraint, choosing contentment over entitlement.
  3. This food is beautiful.
    It’s not terribly hard to be content with this bounty. I could wish for lettuce and tomatoes right now, but looking at what’s in front of me, that would be the height of ingratitude for the opportunity to become a connoiseur of greens, for the heirloom okra and sunflower sprouts I simply can’t get at the store, for the incredible beauty of each egg. I know that each of these items was planted, cared for, and harvested by four people who are invested in preserving the land in and around my home. What a privilege to be sustained by the labor of their hands and to know that their work enriches, rather than impoverishing, the soil.

26 things I’ve learned about food


Y’all, I am 26 now. This sounds like the age of a person who has a career and knows how to accessorize. But I am not that person. I am mostly just a person who loves, loves food.

Some might say that the main achievement of civilization has been to allow most of us to focus the majority of our daily efforts on things other than feeding ourselves. But I would still contend that it is in our nature to treat food as life—to schedule our days around it and to treat feeding each other as an act at once vitally basic and transcendently holy.

Looking at it that way, I’m willing to say that the things I’ve learned about food in 26 years are things I’ve learned about life. Here they are, in roughly the order I learned them.

  1. You have to try it at least once.

    This was such an ironclad rule for me growing up that I am truly astonished to encounter picky adults. Why would you deprive yourself of the wonders of the food world that way? It won’t kill you. Have a chaser ready and try a bite.

  2. Pack a lunch.

    Once you’re in the habit, it’s the easiest way to save thousands of dollars and calories every year.

  3. Anyone who can read a recipe can cook.

    Pretty much all of the foods and a lot of the baked goods you want to eat regularly require no special skills. Here is most recipes: Chop. Skillet. Medium-high.

  4. Grow an herb garden.

    OK so I, personally, have successfully kept exactly one basil plant alive in my life, but my mom’s garden taught me there is no comparison between fresh herbs and dried, especially when the fresh herbs are free.

  5. Cake of all kinds is a breakfast food for the week following any birthday or major or minor holiday, and also on Sundays, or when there cake in the house.
  6. A sharp knife will transform your attitude toward cooking.

    If you don’t like cooking, it could be because all your life you’ve been machete-ing vegetables and fighting with your meat as if it were still alive, instead of slicing them with perfect economy of motion in a blissful dance of color, shape, and flavor. When your pen is out of ink, you don’t keep trying to write; you get more ink. When your knife is dull, you should sharpen it. The deli people at nicer grocery stores will often do this for you for free.

  7. Say grace.

    Just because it’s a ritual doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Even if you’re not religious, mealtime is a time to cultivate gratitude.

  8. Practice saying “it’s too sweet.”

    Sugar is one of the main ingredients in many “savory” convenience and fast foods (check out the labels on pasta sauce, teriyaki stuff, Wheat Thins, lunchmeat…). The people who make this stuff have us hooked on sugar, but if you get used to eating homemade, you’ll be surprised how much of it doesn’t taste right.

  9. Double the recipe.

    Leftovers are the best lunches.

  10. Less meat isn’t as depressing as it sounds.

    Whether you’re trying to save the earth or you’re just poor, you could probably cut down more drastically on meat, without making huge sacrifices, than you think. Just a couple strips of bacon can add a lot of flavor and heft to even the biggest pot of vegetarian chili.

  11. Double the garlic.
  12. Plan your meals.

    Everything worth doing takes a little planning. Take 20 minutes to find some recipes and make a list before you head to the store.

  13. Food connects us to everything.

    Everybody eats, and everybody eats things that come from the earth. The way we consume and share these resources affects everyone and everything around us.

  14. Don’t throw away food.

    Plan to use up what you have.

  15. Good food is satisfying.

    You know what’s not a good food? Those cheezballs in the giant tub that leave a film in your mouth but somehow you want to eat them all even though they are nothing but air, corn dust, and orange. Put down the cheezballs and pick up a food made from food.

  16. On that note, don’t buy cheap chocolate or cheap cheese.

    You’ll end up using less of the full-flavored, higher-priced ones, so the costs even out.

  17. Don’t diet.

    It’s one thing to cut out sugar  for a few weeks because you find yourself eating the stale plain Munchkins in the office break room after everyone has picked out all the other flavors, and you realize you’re on the sugar addiction train.
    It’s another thing to subject yourself to the rules of any diet for a long time. Those rules create shame and fear and even when you succeed you come out with this weird self-righteous mindset about what a good skinny rule-follower you are.
    Start with this rule: get at least 6 fruits and vegetables every day. Then make a list of healthy proteins and starches to balance out your meals, and you’re well on your way to a habit of eating healthfully.

  18. Pay attention to your eating.

    I eat stupid snacks like Funyuns when I’m bored and lonely. Whenever I want Funyuns, I congratulate myself on another victorious day of NOT eating Funyuns and put a little effort into becoming less bored and lonely.

  19. F*** the patriarchy.

    People sometimes seem to expect women, especially small women, to eat like we are actual fairies, sipping tea out of thimbles and nibbling micro greens while smiling fondly at our men as they devour seconds. That is so incredibly not my style. Only since I’ve gotten a wee bit angry about that have I recognized that my love of food actually helps me eat better. And that it’s one of my favorite things about myself. And that the quest for the perfect buffalo wing is a noble one indeed.

  20. Pay someone else to deep fry things.

    Not worth it at home.

  21. oatmeal + peanut butter + 1 sliced banana + 8 chocolate chips.

    You’re welcome.

  22. If you cut up bird’s-eye chilis for your super-spicy Thai curry, throw all the refuse in the trash and don’t spray it off the cutting board with extremely hot water.

    That’s called pepper spray.

  23. Feed people.

    Even if it’s frozen pizza. Even if they have to sit on the floor. They don’t care; they’ll be grateful. Don’t miss out on the love and life found in sharing a meal just because hosting seems intimidating.

  24. Instant oatmeal is a scam!!!!1!!

    Regular rolled oats microwave in 90 seconds if you use just enough water to cover them.

  25. Be kind to yourself.

    Lots of people make resolutions to cook more often or eat better, but get caught up in a lot of weird food shame when they fail one week. Congratulate yourself for trying. But don’t set yourself up for failure: recognize that these things require you to make time for them.

  26. Fulfilling the Ultimate Quadrilateral of an Excellent Food—cheap, easy, healthy, and delicious:

    Curried lentil stew.
    Breakfast burritos.

On smartphones: an excursus on coffee

I harbor a deep and abiding hatred for Keurig coffee brewers – the devices that deliver a single fresh-brewed cup of coffee in about a minute with the push of a button. To the many devotees of the Keurig whom I know, this confession may come as a bit of a personal affront; why, they might demand, should I expend precious energy resenting a machine that can perform such a miracle? As several of them quite sensibly said, when the coffeemakers first came out and I first began ranting about them: “Don’t get one then.”

My irritation, though, was not only with the sighs of neeeeed inspired by the coffeemakers in people who, weeks or months earlier, had been quite content not to own a thing they hadn’t imagined existed. Nor was it only with the inferior (but outrageously expensive) coffee produced, the bizarre noises that seem to be necessary for the Jetsons-like effect of the process, or the ecological disaster that is the unrecyclable K-cup. Rather, I have come to realize what my initially almost-unexplainable discomfort with the Keurig’s popularity really reveals: the Keurig, like any tool or technology, is the physical instantiation of a whole mess of assumptions. In this case, they’re assumptions about machines, about humans, and even about coffee which, to my mind, make the Keurig the culmination of the entire phenomenon called “late modernity”. Here are a few of them:

A machine should be designed to look nice and perform efficiently, not to perform well or to be easily understood and repaired. Watching a Keurig make coffee for the first time has an awe-inspiring effect precisely because we do not know how it works – and we do not want to know. In late modernity, we prefer and expect that our machines will work magic for us using mechanisms that are completely hidden, and would be inscrutable to us if they were not. In place of concern for whether a thing is well-made or even useful we have taken up an obsession with surfaces and “design” as exemplified by the impeccable tastemaking of Apple, Inc.

Individuals can and should expect to be able to choose between many options at any given time. The Keurig user never again has to share a pot of coffee with that one colleague who makes it way too strong. In fact, the brewer can be used to make any number of hot drinks: mediocre coffee, mediocre tea, mediocre cider, and mediocre hot chocolate can all be yours. Nor must anyone ever feel silly again, trying to make one cup of coffee in a large drip coffeemaker when she is the only one at the breakfast table. A large, shareable pot of coffee is really rather undesirable when everyone has her own preferences, schedule, and needs. I have been to a catered dinner where a line snaked around the room as an attendant made one cup of coffee at a time in an effort to offer more drink choices (at the expense of time for convivial conversation over dessert).

The laws of physics should be manipulated to minimize wait time. To make a good cup of coffee requires a certain (rather small) number of minutes which we refuse to acknowledge we “have”. We prefer to make a terrible cup of coffee by blasting hot water through a plastic capsule of powder. The value of technology is in speeding things up, not in making them “better”. Things can always be faster.

Throwing things away is preferable to cleaning them. From start to finish, the Keurig hides those pesky coffee grounds from us, containing them so there is no measuring, no spilling, and no ugly waste (that we can see). Compared with the value of being protected from our own waste and saving the time required to clean anything, the cosmic demerits of throwing out an impenetrable plastic capsule are immaterial. In fact, we have come to expect this of ourselves: “In the ‘nowist’ life of the denizens of the consumerist era, the motive to hurry is partly the urge to acquire and collect. But the most pressing need that makes haste truly imperative is nevertheless the necessity to discard and replace.” New moments, new desires, new opportunities require that we abandon anything old, bulky, or high-maintenance.

It does not matter where things come from. The powders in K-Cups bear only a glancing relationship to coffee beans, milk (for lattes), tea leaves, apples, or chocolate, but this is no matter. The authenticity of the ingredients or depth of flavor derived from “real” foods has little value compared with the ease of acquiring a similar, pale and limpid cup made from dried, processed, and imitation foods.

Coffee is a caffeine-delivery system. We don’t care much for the quality of our drink because the drink is only a means to an end. It is a surreptitiously-snatched “treat” to get us through an interminable day, or a substance we treat (with respect to caffeine) in a manner similar to abusers of wine, in Robert Capon’s estimation: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system… With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation.” The addictive qualities of coffee, likewise, have come to overshadow the conviviality of the coffeehouse or the savored subtleties of flavor afforded by various growing regions and roasting methods, which historically made it so valuable. Demand for caffeine in coffee form has, in turn, driven prices down so that a labor-intensive luxury food has become a commonplace whose existence depends on the exploitation and degradation of workers who have, in all likelihood, never seen a Keurig.

By insisting that a machine for brewing coffee can have moral significance, I do not mean to condemn all instances of its use. It must be said that I harbor no animosity or ill-judgment towards Keurig users, and I readily acknowledge that certain situations or certain life patterns may make the Keurig a good choice of hot-drink-production apparatus. Moreover, like most people, I am quite willing to abandon all matters of principle in situations I consider dire, and will happily accept a cup of Keurig coffee on mornings when no other is available. I only wish to raise the point that it is worth asking questions before rushing to adopt an expensive space-age apparatus: What do we lose by being too busy for fresh-ground coffee from a drip machine or French press? Is the convenience of a K-Cup really worth the money ($40 a pound)? What exactly makes the Keurig so desirable, and what does that say about our way of life? And what is coffee really for? Though we have learned to regard everyday choices and the pursuit of real, full enjoyment as trivial, it might yet be important to return to Capon’s meditation on sin and human vocation:

“Wine is not – let me repeat – in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us…Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of His decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God… Poor earth, poor stars, poor flesh. Without a Giver, they never become themselves.”

By forever turning the ends of God’s good creation into means, by asking that machines hide work that can be enjoyably done by human hands, by prizing the choices of individuals over the complex rewards of sharing, does it not seem that we late moderns commit the sin of continually rejecting a priceless gift?

this (food) is (God’s) body

Week after week,  I shuffled through the pantry with friends and acquaintances who had come for food, begging them to take the beans.
“As many dry beans as you want – kidney beans? white beans? chickpeas? as many as you want, all free! Throw ’em in some chili, stretch that ground beef you’ve got there. Casseroles… beans and greens… yummy soups…”
I was totally annoying. People would sometimes look a little sorry for me before grabbing their maximum four cans of ravioli.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I don’t cook anything.”

click for a yummy crockpot recipe!

My food pantry days flooded back to me as I read two essays on food and theology this week, from the book Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans on Popular Culture and Religious Expression. I would argue that the food the authors speak of doesn’t belong to the realm of “pop culture” (mass-produced and mass-consumed) but to “folk culture” – the product of a people and a place, locally consumed, non-commercialized. Still, I think some of the best works of pop culture hold something in common with folk culture; and food is the perfect subject for coming to terms with those things our cultural products mean to us that we just can’t explain.

Dominican friar Angel Montoya compares doing theology to making the Mexican dish mole, which combines complex flavors into new flavors, and can be made in hundreds of variations; yet to be mole, it must always contain chiles and chocolate. Christian theology, too, combines many sources and subtle variations, but it must contain crucial elements to maintain its own character. Beyond this simile, though, Montoya compares theology with mole in another aspect: he names the subtle, complex, mysterious flavor of mole “a mobile signifier beyond the signified”. Mole is not just “chiles and chocolate”. It is something else entirely – you cannot know it without tasting it. You cannot describe it, and you cannot even make it from a written recipe if you do not already know it (“one learns in the making of it”). So theology. We try to use words to share knowledge and experience of God that, by God’s nature, cannot really be described; we fumble to practice what we have learned, because the recipe is not the food.

Montoya pushes his readers to think of Eucharist once again as food. God comes to us in this incredible intimacy, meeting us and teaching us through our sense of taste, beyond verbal processing or “knowledge”, into our very being. As the Christian community is nourished by the same meal, we become, in some tiny scrap of each self, quite literally composed of one substance – Christ’s body and blood.

Food is a (maybe The) great human leveller. All people need to eat. People, regardless of class, country, or culture, have powerful memories and deep loves associated with food. Food is as sacred of an everyday practice as there can be, maybe comparable only to music. And like music, it has tremendous power to bring diverse people into community with each other. The second essay on food, by Lynne Westfield, reflects on Westfield’s mother’s life as a political organizer for public schools in Philadelphia. For Nancy Westfield, “her speeches, letter writing, and marching were not the most significant and influential practice she employed. Instead, she claimed, her most effective practice for community organizing was to invite people to her home to share a meal.” By putting immense care into her cooking for others, she turned politicians and other power players into friends – not just for the sake of public education, but for the sake of hospitality, love, and friendship itself.

Lynne Westfield insists on seeing this as a subversive “political” practice and not simply a “Christian” practice (although she is still willing to find wisdom in her mother’s point of view that “Christian friendship” was a more important goal than political change). It seems that Westfield wants to resist viewing her mother as being in any way complicit with old “Aunt Jemima” (347) images of black female cooks. However, I join Montoya in disagreeing that theology or Christian spiritual practice can be dichotomized from politics in such a way. In his response, he points out that the church must act as a political body in the public sphere, but that in Eucharist we act as a transformative presence in societal relationships. Friendship expressed in food is therefore a powerful “theopolitical” act of transcending antagonism and walls between people, in order to foster justice in society.

In fact, this is the conclusion of Montoya’s own essay, which seeks to combine theology and food in fundamental ways: “I envision alimentary theology as a practice of power that is noncoercive, communal, and rooted in nurturing loving care for one another and imitating God’s own radical gesture of love” (emphasis mine). We “taste and see” God’s goodness in the food that we share – and it is because of this that Montoya’s theology necessarily includes the praxis of opposing hunger. Hunger is one of the most fundamental injustices in the world, robbing humans of humanity in multidimensional ways. This, again, requires profound, active transformation on personal (greed) and societal (broken food systems) levels.

Montoya’s beautiful essay profoundly illuminated a food pantry experience I had almost every day of my year working there. I have been almost uncomfortable articulating this in the past; but I could never shake the feeling that the injustice that so many poor people have no skills or time to cook (and innumerable other structural injustices contributing to this situation) extends far beyond the fact that metric tons of free beans go to waste while they struggle to live on a minimal budget. It is just as terrible to me that they cannot experience the simple nourishment of bean soup on a howling winter’s day, or the satisfaction of a chili well made and well shared. Even in times of scarcity, these are immense, humanizing, and God-revealing pleasures. A food system and an economy that does not waste so much is a most basic matter of justice because good food, made and shared in love, connects us to our own cultures, to others, and to God.

notes on a fast

I will never preach again.

The Sunday before Lent, I preached about fasting and how joyful and freeing this gift of a discipline is. Then I started actually fasting and it’s awful.


I didn’t decide to do this, really, I just read about the idea about six months ago and I knew that I needed to do it for Lent. Rice, beans, vegetables, and fruit. That’s it.

I came up with all these reasons after the fact – solidarity with the world’s poorest people; being environmentally friendly; eating healthy.

For the first two weeks I was moving and the whole thing was really impractical. So it’s only been a month. And I keep traveling, making mostly-veganism the closest thing I could get to the strictest sense of my chosen discipline. And I took a whole day off when I went to Buffalo for no good reason, except that Buffalo wings are my favorite food. I ate seventeen.

I haven’t even “done” that well, and it still has been this monumental effort that I’ve only kept up with out of guilt over the Earth and a general belief that spiritual disciplines shouldn’t always make sense or feel good.

Not that it hasn’t made some sense. Benefits:
– again, the Earth. Animals are not sustainable foods (giving corn to a cow when you could give it to a person). Animal products are only marginally better.
– I’ve learned to make lots of new international foods and tried creative new made-up recipes.
– I’m healthier.
– without other sugar in my diet, fruit tastes amazing.

But the costs, ugh. I know this is whiny; let’s just call it a “confession”. It just feels so difficult. I love to cook. I love to bake even more. And I love to eat even more than that. In my life, every victory and disappointment is met with a treat. I try to reign this in, treats in moderation, but I can’t quite believe this is a wholly bad way to use food.

Beyond this, I just believe in food, even apart from its celebratory and consolatory powers. It’s such a spectacular, creative gift. And it has a mystical ability to bring people together; unless someone (meeeee) is getting left out.

So even though there are lots of yummy ways to eat rice and beans and vegetables, these past weeks have been greatly frustrating to me, not least because they’ve shattered my hard-fought illusions that I was being aware, intentional about what I ate. I really thought I was. But the first week, it just took one glance at my snack stash at work to see that I’d been mindlessly midafternoon munching on pure junk food.

And of course, the hardest thing about sticking to it has been defeating my own excuses, all of which are totally irrelevant. My life is already stressful. I’m making important decisions right now. All of Syracuse is fasting from sunlight. In other words – life is too difficult to deprive myself of whatever foods I want.

Isn’t that the point though; isn’t that the point. I thought I wasn’t dependent on food to get me through rough days, but I am. I cannot say with St. Paul, I know the secret of being content, because however much I want him to be, Christ is not always my strength.

And that is all the gift there is. Just me, knowing my weakness. This winter, in so many ways, I’ve learned anew how weak I am, and in the past couple of weeks, how deeply God loves me regardless.

Lent is about to end. I need that. In the last few days I’ve started to feel the shadow side of all this creeping in: a little too much pleasure in deprivation, a road I’ve gone further down before. And then, even if I did someday perfect the art of subsisting on rice and beans, I am certain there would be that absurd ascetic pride that’s kept far too many Christians from enjoying the good world God gave them. There is a time for letting go of certain foods; soon comes the time to let go of dieting.

Likewise, there is a time for getting stronger, and a time to just acknowledge weakness. I know this year that Holy Week is not a time to be strong. Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, became weak to bear my weakness. All I know is to rest there, beneath the cross, and let the mystery tangle around us because here is the eye of the storm: that you, O Lord, are strong, and you, O Lord, are loving.*

I need Easter deep in my bones this year, because I miss the spring, because I miss home, because I wonder this year more than usual whether victory is really possible. But I also need him to rise just so I can lay into a cinnamon roll with a new and profound awakening to the world in its icing-containing glory. We are redeemed, not into some exhausting self-improvement project, but into new life, as our pitiful little selves getting stronger in time, but first there is love without condition.

Thanks be to God.

*Ps. 62

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