Before Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, was published, I read an article of his in the New York Times Magazine. It was brilliant, and, from it, I started quoting that sentence about grandmother — don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Keep in mind that some folks are young enough that they may need to remember how their great-grandmothers ate.
Says Mr. Pollan in the article, Unhappy Meals:
It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by "nutrients," which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like "fiber" and "cholesterol" and "saturated fat" rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.
My grandma came to Dakota Territory by covered wagon after graduating from teacher’s College in Minnesota. For awhile she split her time between a one-room school and her homestead claim. My father was one of the 5 children she birthed at home; three preceded her in death as did grandpa and my own mother. White-haired as long as I can remember, she was straight out of "A Prairie Home Companion" with the first issue of "Organic Gardening" that Rodale Press ever printed, a cellar full of organic food that a survivalist would envy, and blue ribbons enough to make Aunt Bee of Mayberry proud.
I was born at the dawn of "nutritionism" into a loving, albeit bottle-fed, home. A picky child, I couldn’t be tempted to eat with the promise of dessert or punishment. My mother wasn’t particularly interested in cooking, and she enthusiastically embraced kitchen convenience and all that the grocery store had for sale from the burgeoning processed food industry. She, my aunts and their friends earnestly believed the message of scientific nutritionism. Even though grandmother didn’t subscribe, she was held in highest regard especially at holiday time. Even I could find something to love at those feast tables.
Grandma recognized all bounty from her garden as food and didn’t have the money or the inclination to go to the grocery store for things she could grow and prepare herself. Grandma lived in town on a neighborhood block with chokecherry bushes and plum trees in the back yard and a huge garden between her house and the church on the corner, just around the corner from my home. I regret missing so much real food from those days; I wish I had enjoyed those heirloom vegetables and fruits that were urged upon me in grandma’s kitchen — both for their taste and food value. Having spent seasons of my own coaxing plants from the soil, I am awestruck at just her gardening successes.
It occurred to me after reading Pollan’s article that I have comforted myself and assuaged some regret by spending the last 30 years trying to recreate "grandma’s kitchen" for my own family, and anyone else who shares our meals. In fact, I’m skipping my mother, and have turned directly into my grandmother. I marvel at how much I have been influenced in nearly daily memories of her over the years, and, with chagrin, admit to the little regard I recall having had during the actual experience.
Did I mention that my grandmother, Gina, also did exquisite embroidery, knitting, rug hooking, leather tooling, and porcelain painting? I, thankfully, do not aspire to all those accomplishments – some of my aunts did, though, and to remedy stress in mid-life, my father took up knitting.
For now, just this one from the book for me and for you, dear reader: "Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food." Period.
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