Marianne is one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and I’m excited to have her do a guest post! She graduated from my alma mater some years before I came through, and is still a legend in the English department, especially because of her play interpretation of Till We Have Faces (which I saw performed–it’s incredible). I first met her at a church function. She was this snappily smart woman, knitting something intricate at lightning speed, and making everyone laugh. I was in awe. 

According to herself: Marianne teaches theatre in Pittsburgh and cooks a lot of stew in Grove City. She has a lot of ideas about food, but only shares them when asked. Her latest obsessions in food and fashion can be found at her blog, The Eternal Student.

***

When did I become crazy? Once, I was an ordinary, sale-shopping, pasta-loving, fast-food eating girl in her early twenties. Now, my family thinks I’m a crazy hippy, pioneer-days-recreator, food nazi.

Brief background: I was born with a condition called Holt Oram that affects the arms and hands and heart. Thankfully, my heart is quite healthy. But my left arm has always been severely shorter than the right, I was born without a left thumb or radius, and my wrist was severely clubbed. Orthopedic surgeries as a child corrected some of the problems. At the age of eighteen, I first heard of an amazing new procedure to lengthen bones that had been just imported from Russia. I had prayed fervently my whole life that God would make my arm grow, and finally, at twenty-five, I had my left arm lengthened—a painful process of incremental bone stretching. I gained over two inches in three months. I drank gallons and gallons of milk, despite my lactose intolerance (the agony!), and took calcium supplements at alarming doses. Despite that, after two years, my bone remained stubbornly broken. The doctor shrugged. I was a “slow bone grower.”

I lived in France with that broken arm. I even got married with it broken! Four months into my newlywed life, I had one last surgery to fix my arm—the bone was sanded down, forcibly rejoined, and held together with a plate and screws. From that day onward, I researched everything I could on bone health. Somehow, I stumbled onto the hope of raw milk. For the first time I heard of a dentist named Weston A. Price and read his book for free online.  During these years, I heard about Wendell Berry, and I devoured all of his collections of essays in a week. I became a devotee of the French Women Don’t Get Fat philosophy of food and pleasure. Michael Pollan’s recommendations in In Defense of Food, and the food detective word in The Omnivore’s Dilemma were captivating.

I heard about and read all of the books by an outspoken farmer in Virginia named Joel Salatin.  I took cod liver oil, drank a quart of raw milk a day, and ate plenty of butter.  And in six weeks my bone was healed. I also gained fifteen pounds in about six months, but I felt so strong and healthy for the first time in years.

What I discovered in the course of my years of reading and my experience with my own health has changed the way I view food. I no longer look on food as I did in my teens as a necessary evil—a source of needed fuel but something to be controlled obsessively to avoid weight gain. In my twenties, I learned to cook, mastering various national cuisines—food as hobby. I can cook Thai, Italian, Mexican,  French, and Indian—take your pick! In France, I liked nothing better than to buy a crusty half-baguette, and 100 grams of liver pâté at the market and eat the two together as I wiled away the day reading novels. Now, I make my own chicken liver pâté, my own sourdough baguettes, and a whole slew of bizarre fermented beverages to replace my beloved diet Pepsi. I’m no longer a serial dieter, nor am I a hobbyist. I’m a busy professional woman who has spent three years slowly building the skill set to practically live out what I’ve learned about food, nutrition, and agricultural economics without falling into debt to do it.

Changing patterns of food acquisition and consumption takes a lot of time, research, study, and money. But I encourage you to start looking into our American food culture and economy and to question the unexamined assumptions with which we have all grown up. Though apple pie is American, rejecting Little Debbie will not make you unpatriotic. As I sketched out, my awareness that food is embedded in social, historical, and economic structures grew as a result of both my reading and my time living in France. France is a nation that takes the connection between what we eat and the land on which it is grown (the terroir) very seriously. They protect local, artisanal food production. They have banned genetically modified organisms. They promote the manners of the table, the traditions of food preparation, and the life rhythms necessary to eat leisurely and healthfully (two-hour lunches, can you imagine?).  We used to have those traditions here, in the United States. We could have that again.

If you are interested in these issues, do check out the authors and websites that I have linked. If you want to get started reforming your pantry and your plate, here are my tips:

1. Start small. Pick one thing to change. I began with milk. I found a local farmer through the Campaign for Real Milk website and I started there. You might want to give up soda pop. Or replace your frozen pizza habit by making a pot of stew once in a while and freezing that in convenient portions for when you don’t have time to cook.

2. Work within your budget to make priorities. There is a reason why Whole Foods is called Whole Paycheck—it’s expensive! Our family prioritizes in the following way:

  • We buy local, humanely raised meats first. We believe that our animal-product consumption should not depend on the mistreatment of animals. Joel Salatin raves about how his farming practices allow pigs to be pigs, not meat-production machines so overwhelmed by stress that they bite off each other’s tails. We’ve seen our pig running happily in “hog Heaven” on a Beaver Farm, and I petted the nose of the cow that has given us over thirty pounds of delicious roasts and steaks. Doing this, we average about $4/pound. We recently splurged on grass-fed lamb for $7/pound.  Our milk is $5.50 a gallon, which includes the cost of delivery.  Local eggs are between $3 and $4 a dozen, but even at that price, eggs are still one of the cheapest sources of protein and necessary vitamins like vitamin A.
  • Next, we purchase our produce locally whenever possible by frequenting the farmer’s market, growing a garden, and joining a winter co-op. Local, small farms use fewer pesticides overall. The produce is also much fresher. We can also buy honey, jams, pickles, breads, soaps, and meat through this co-op.
  • If we can afford it month-to-month, we buy needed items from the “dirty dozen” list at Whole Foods or Trader Joes.
  • We round out the pantry thanks to Aldi’s amazingly low prices: beans and rice, canned tomatoes, rice cakes, peanut butter, frozen shrimp and wild-caught salmon, chocolate, nuts, and other treats.
  • I cook almost everything from scratch but we do buy convenience foods for the few nights a month when we just can’t bring ourselves to cook: bottled spaghetti sauce and pasta, frozen Aldi French fries to go with pan-fried hamburgers, boxed vegetable soups and quesadillas or grilled cheese. We try to eat one or two meatless, bean-based dinners a week. Our philosophy toward food is best personified by the cookbook and manifesto, Nourishing Traditions.

***

What do you think? How would you like start to eat locally/ethically? I’m not sure where I will start, beyond shopping at the farmer’s market and being more aware of my choices. But I’d like to do more along these lines soon.