Sunday, September 1, 2013

There’s no food in the kitchen…but we’re not out of food

Monday, August 26, 2013
By Michael
            Yulia saw me looking for food around the kitchen the other day.
            “We’re getting low on food,” I told her. “We should probably go to the city soon and stock up.” Most of the food we buy comes from the city. We get fresh stuff like nectarines and plums that last us a few days and dried goods like buckwheat and raisins which lasts much longer than that. At this point, I noticed, we were down to maybe two weeks’ worth of lentils, buckwheat, barley, and millet. We were down to our last box of dates. And we luckily have a few lemons left. They’re a life saver. They will last a couple of weeks. It’s nice to have fresh food along with the dry stuff.
            “There’s no need to go to the city,” Yulia responded, knowing what I was going to say already. “We have plenty still. Take a look in the garden. Go eat some pears. We have more than enough right now.”
            As she usually is, Yulia was absolutely right. The kitchen is not an indicator of how much food we have. It is just my habit to walk into the kitchen and expect food. Our 25 tomato plants are spitting out tomatoes everyday now. Our two summer squashes are getting huge at this point in the season.

The summer squash (they’re about twice as big now)
 They’ve been consistently feeding us since we moved in at the beginning of July. No one can ever go hungry if they have a squash plant around. Our lettuce is slowly maturing, and we have apples pretty much all over the property—many different varieties. But the best part is that the pears on our big pear tree are beginning to ripen. They are very sweet and tasty. And unlike the apples, they have virtually no bug damage. It seems like every apple I find has already been feasted upon by a bug or worm. It doesn’t mean the whole apple is bad—just a tiny section. When slicing apples for drying it’s pretty easy to get around the bug damage.
Of course, if we had no food in the house and no food in the garden, we could always go to the local store down the street. It’s just not a very big one. And it’s more of a general merchandise store. Right now watermelons and tomatoes are the only fresh things they sell there. The price for watermelons isn’t bad. The same as in the city. We even saw a store in L’viv that was selling them for more than at our village. The rest of the food consists of candy mostly, though they do have things like oatmeal and raisins that we might buy from them in the future. We also get vinegar there, but we use that for cleaning, not eating.
It’s probably a good time right now to talk a little more about how Yulia and I do eat. Food is very important to us. Plus, we eat a non-conventional diet. That usually gets a reaction out of people in one way or another, so I will try to explain how we eat and why we have chosen to eat the way we do.
We are very fond of the term T Colin Campbell uses to describe a diet he follows. He calls it a whole foods, plant based diet. And that is the kind of diet that most accurately describes how Yulia and I eat. Most of everything we eat comes from plants and is not processed. We also never eat meat. I could get into the reasons why, but that doesn’t matter right now. Plus it tends to offend people, and I don’t want to do that. We don’t want to come off as telling others what to eat just as much as we don’t want other people telling us what to eat. Yulia and I used to eat meat, and we understand the culture around eating that way. We were pretty adventurous meat eaters ourselves. We ate things many meat eaters might consider too carnal to eat. I had a penchant for liverwurst while Yulia used to be fond of chicken stomachs. But we have also been vegetarians for years now. We understand both worlds and how each diet affects us. We’ve found that eating the way we do works for us, and we think that is what everybody needs to do. That is, we think everybody should have the right to discover and decide for themselves how they want to eat.
Right now I’d like to focus on processed foods because they are a kind of food we try to avoid for health reasons, and we find that they are easier to avoid in Ukraine. This topic also fits nicely with some of the themes of our blog (i.e. living at our new home, cross cultural comparison). When Yulia and I arrived in Ukraine two years ago we were vegetarians. But we were used to being American vegetarians. That conditioned us to going to the store for food. Even if we went to the health food store, we were still heavily reliant on processed foods—a kind of food we do not think is all that healthy. We liked eating all sorts of vegan ice creams and snack crackers with their “natural flavors” and preservatives. Why should any food we eat have a flavor enhancer anyway? If the main ingredients don’t taste all that good (which is what a flavor enhancer suggests), I would rather find something else to eat.
When we came to Ukraine, we had to go without all the health food stores and their processed food treats. We ate Ukrainian processed foods like halva (blended sunflower seeds with sugar—kind of like peanut butter), but found that most brands put flavor enhancers in their product anyway. Also, white sugar is a processed food, and all halva has sugar in it. We instead turned to places like the bazaar and the grandparents’ garden for food, which forced us to eat whole foods. We retaught ourselves how to cook and prepare foods from scratch with some pretty good results. We’ve become aware of certain things, like how acidity helps balance salt. Plus, eating whole foods is much cheaper (at least in Ukraine).
It’s much easier to go to the bazaar and get tomatoes one day, cucumbers another, and grapes on the third than to stock up on all of them once a week at the farmers market. We love to eat fresh foods. They make up the majority of our diet. It is hard to go a day without eating a raw fruit or vegetable (canned peaches and beets don’t cut it for us). If we eat too many cooked foods we begin to feel bloated and overheated. I’m proud to say that we jones for raw fruits and vegetables. It’s not the worst addiction in the world!
Since moving to Ukraine we have become used to eating this way. Even while traveling here it is so much easier to find fresh and local foods. It seems like every train station has a market right next to it. When we were traveling through California’s Central Valley this winter, we had a hard time finding any fresh food. When we did see a farm stand it was too late. We missed the exit and we were half a mile down I-5 already. I kept telling Yulia not to worry. That this is the Central Valley—the fresh food producer for all of America. We were bound to come across another place selling fresh, local food to travelers like us. I was wrong. The Central Valley doesn’t feed the Central Valley. The Central Valley feeds America. The system is made to feed people sitting at restaurants and shopping at grocery stores in Manhattan and Miami, not people passing through the farmland itself. If we wanted fresh food we had to follow the rules and get off the highway, drive down a four lane feeder road to the nearest strip mall, park in a gigantic parking lot, and purchase our oranges at the Target store.
Regardless of what the agricultural system is made to do in America, we eat the way we do and that is that. We’ve bought this land so that way can continue eating that way. This morning we had a delicious breakfast of fresh pears from our tree.

Breakfast pears
But we don’t eat only plain whole foods either. We mix them up all the time to make standard (and non-standard) culinary creations. I’ve become fond of making up my own barbeque sauce. I got the idea to make it when we were in the city a few weeks ago, and I saw a McDonald’s advertisement saying, “Сезон Американський BBQ [Season of the American Barbeque].” The advertisement stood out to me because it showed a picture of the desert, and barbeque sauce is not from the desert. It is from Kansas City. There is a Texas style of barbeque, but it uses a rub. The vinegar and ketchup based marinades come from the American southeast. But that is beside the point. The advertisement got me thinking of barbeque sauce, which made me hungry, so I made my own. To make my barbeque sauce, I mix together honey, oil, salt, pepper, molasses, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon juice. I recently ran out of molasses, so I have been substituting carob powder. It’s actually an OK substitute. Since we have way too many summer squash, I needed a way to give the bland vegetables some flavor, so that I could eat them faster. Adding this barbeque sauce to cubed steamed squash helps. I was skeptical that squash alone would mix well with barbeque sauce, but it has grown on me. I can eat it pretty much every day.
One good part about abstaining from processed foods is that processed foods become sort of a treat at restaurants. The vegan mayonnaise I had on my burger in Warsaw is definitely a processed food. Probably not much healthier than regular mayo. Maybe worse. It’s more of a curiosity, I guess. I was very excited, for example, to go to the Chicago Diner when we had just arrived back in the States from Ukraine last fall. They have a few interesting fake meat dishes there. I had the vegan buffalo ranch chicken salad and a vegan Reuben sandwich.

Me and my sandwich
They were very tasty, but I’m glad I don’t have the opportunity to eat them every day. And I’m grateful for the many raw restaurants that seem to be becoming more and more popular. If a raw foods chef knows what she is doing she can make a dish that outdoes any junk vegan food restaurant. The Green Boheme in Sacramento is one of these restaurants. Café Gratitude in Berkeley is another.

Me at Café Gratitude
But the best thing is to have a home garden. It’s nearly free and hyperlocal. And it’s more convenient than any store or restaurant. When I saw that we were low on food in our kitchen yesterday, at Yulia’s suggestion I went outside and gathered some dandelion and nettles. I put them in a pot with some water, millet, and flax seeds and made some soup. We don’t need food in our kitchen to feed ourselves!

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