It’s 6:00 PM on a Saturday and I’m dusting mushrooms.
No, that’s not a euphemism; I am literally dusting mushrooms with an unused shaving brush. You may not have realized it (I didn’t), but there is a hefty amount of dirt on those mushrooms we all buy at the grocery store, sealed in shrink wrap like it came from a surgical center. Brush your mush!
I’m not a chef, I am merely a competent prep cook. My wife, Jenni, is the actual chef and I obediently do as I’m instructed. I don’t even make minimum wage — I earn my keep and receive wages in the form of a glorious meal.
I love to eat.
I’ve never turned down a good meal, and the idea of a thoughtfully well-prepared meal sounds like a party to me.
When I read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle I felt like maybe the French were my people. Spending an entire day preparing for and then sitting at a long table with baskets of bread, pasta, olives, and wine sounds like heaven to me. That they are not shy about consuming large quantities of food and drink makes me appreciate them more.
Because I love to eat.
It’s not just the French who understand the experience of eating abundant, well-prepared meals. Many cultures across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America seem to embrace the idea of the Great Meal Experience — particularly the shared meal. And thankfully, they brought it with them to the U.S. through generations of immigrants, making America more diverse than it could have ever been otherwise.
Yet despite our ancestors, we Americans also have a problem with food. Our relationship is a little broken.
In the U.S. there are two opposing forces working against the idea of what I think of as a great meal: the diet industry and chain restaurants. It seems like the idea is to eat as much as you can — as cheaply as you can — then go “work it off.” The Las Vegas .99 cent all-you-can-eat casino buffets are legendary. Consuming mounds of cheap food is almost an American institution.
I pass a McDonald’s on my regular walk/run route. I’m amazed by the signs declaring that you can get five (five!) burgers for $1.99. It does sound tempting, even for a vegan. Not the food itself, but the deal. That’s a lot of food for two bucks. Del Taco, Taco Bell, Burger King, Denny’s, IHOP — they all have their little enticements. More food than you need for the change you can scrounge from under your car seat. Okay, nobody uses change anymore but you get my point.
Of course the food is mostly garbage. That’s why it’s such a challenge to teach nutrition in poor communities. Access to junky fast food is cheap and easy, but fresh produce is much more expensive and harder to get to. When you can get five burgers for less than a pound of apples or potatoes, it’s a problem.
I grew up in a middle class family, and I have never been immune to the lure of fast food. And from an early age I developed a strong palette for mac n’ cheese, Hamburger Helper, pizza, and grilled cheese. The Midwestern diet in the 1970s was not what you would call exotic. And I loved it. Ever heard of a Runza?
As an adult I went vegetarian and subsequently vegan. I feel like my food choices and meal variety have only expanded. One would assume that eating entirely plant-based would be limiting — and for some vegans it may be. But Jenni and I have always been adventurous and have embraced new foods like Konnyaku and nutritional yeast (a staple in our home). It’s not all nut loaf and rice noodles. Jenni comes up with new recipes using ingredients that sound like they were taken out of an episode of Star Trek. We often have to rely on Korean, Japanese, and Indian grocery stores to get what she needs to make her magic.
But it’s not always the bizarre and colorful, because I still love my childhood classics. I get to eat things like homemade yogurt, cheddar cheese, mayo, mac n’ cheese (to die for), savory mushroom gravy with seitan chunks, deep dish pizza, and many more of the things I’ve always craved.
I may have mentioned that I love to eat. It was difficult to listen to Stanley Tucci’s book Taste: My Life Through Food only because it made me extraordinarily hungry. I highly recommend it, but be prepared for the drool.
Do I overeat sometimes? Hmm. Do penguins dress in formal attire? Of course I do. I’m not proud of myself when I keep eating beyond what my body actually needs to function. But sometimes it’s so damn good. I try to watch that, but as you may remember, I did mention that I like to eat.
Even when we’ve been restricted to an almost non-existent food budget, we somehow managed to craft something that has everyone making yummy sounds. And it’s because we love food. And I think that when you truly love food, you can create a meal from very little and make it extraordinary. And I think that’s the spirit of the kind of meals Mayle talks about in A Year in Provence. It’s not about the type of food, it’s the mere pleasure of preparing something tasty and really savoring it. It’s gratifying to see our kids preparing meals for themselves, concentrating intently on the flavor and texture.
I wish that everyone could love to eat. I hate that some people have to punish themselves for eating, or feel inferior because they don’t look a certain way or enjoy certain foods over others. We need to muzzle (or just ignore) the diet industry and start indulging ourselves with the experience of eating for pleasure.