I recently attended a Food, Faith and Justice Conference. One of the topics was food culture. Food is a huge part of any culture. One of the speakers dealt with “food shaming,” saying we should never be embarrassed by the food culture in which we grew up. She went on to say that while we might need to modify it, we should never be asked to give it up as a source of nourishment, both for body and soul.
In terms of special foods for holidays and celebrations, I would agree. But what about those whose food culture was established by fast food chains? With rampant diabetes and obesity threatening the health of our country, we must make changes.
I gave some thought to my food culture and that of my husband. I was from Pennsylvania, he grew up in rural Kentucky. His food culture was predominantly sweet. Sweet tea and lemonade with meals, dessert after every meal, often a choice of several desserts. “Salads” and salad dressings were as sweet as the desserts. Vegetables were cooked long and often served in casseroles. Strawberries were eaten with shortcake, peaches in cobbler, zucchini in sweet bread and apples in cake or pie. His mother loved to bake and often had several cakes in the freezer.
My mother grew up in hotels where her father was the manager. She ate in hotel dining rooms. Only after she married my father did she learn to cook. We had a man who helped us with the outside work. He couldn’t read but he could cook. She brought him into the kitchen and read recipes to him out of her Joy of Cooking. She learned to cook by watching him. Her specialties were wonderful stews and soups, succulent roasts, or broiled steaks and chops accompanied by a fresh green vegetable or salad. Since I grew up on a farm, we often had beef in the freezer and sometimes pork and lamb as well. She loved strawberries fresh from the patch, apples eaten out of hand, peaches on cereal. She enlisted a friend to teach me how to make yeast bread and pie crusts since she didn’t do those things but thought I should know how.
Both of our food cultures were heavy on meat. While we both enjoy meat, cost as well as healthy diet concerns have reduced the amount of red meat that we eat, as as often as we can, we choose grass fed beef , lamb or pork. With summertime veggies fresh from the garden and winter soups, we often go several days to a week without eating red meat, or even chicken or fish. I seldom make desserts While we both enjoy the occasional sweet, we try not to make it an essential or daily indulgence.. I don’t think either of us feel shamed or deprived by choosing to eat in a healthy, sustainable way.
My husband has learned to like unsweetened or slightly sweetened tea and fresh raw, steamed, grilled or lightly cooked vegetables. He eats his strawberries on cereal, because I seldom make shortcake. I have learned to cook without meat or with only a hambone in the split pea soup and a puree of beans and vegetables substituting for cream and white sauce in a thick soup.
While menus and grocery stores are responding to some customers’ demand for lean meat, organic vegetables and fruits, gluten free breads and so on–I am amazed to see people still buying deep fryers and ordering fries as an automatic side. In our local seafood establishments, most plates are heaped with deep fried fish, fries, and hush puppies despite menu offerings of broiled fish and steamed vegetables.
None of us are immune from serious diseases, but all of us can choose to fuel our bodies in the healthiest way possible. There is much concern about access to healthy foods in the most impoverished areas. Efforts to change things are essential. Urban and community gardens can be a part of the solution, but education and a real understanding of nutrition is needed. The cheapest foods are often the least nutritious–but demand and supply can change that.
All of our food cultures need to include healthy food that nourishes us because it is produced and prepared for that intent. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our heritage, but we should make the best of our future and that of our children.