On Monday, it was chicken from North Carolina. Tuesday, we had mushrooms from Pennsylvania and lettuce from a computer-monitored, 3,000-square-foot greenhouse somewhere (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Yale Farm). For brunch on Saturday, Stiles served frozen mangoes from Chile.
I actually don’t know any of this for certain, because Yale Dining doesn’t provide information about the geographic origin of the food they serve. That’s all right. If I really need to know where my potatoes are grown, I can go to Five Guys and read it off their chalkboard.
But here we are, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, and I have no relationship to my food beyond what it tastes like and how many grams of sodium it has (thanks, Yale, for giving us those little nutritional cards).
The New York Times ran an article on Wednesday titled “Deliciously Out of Season.” The author is concerned that Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables. She attributes this to the alleged stigma surrounding any produce that isn’t labeled with the two words that she dislikes most of all: “seasonal” and “local.” Haunted by the idea that all other produce is inferior, she winds up feeling “insecure” and buying cereal instead. Let’s stop glorifying these terms, she says, lest people end up forgoing vegetables altogether out of shame.
If by “Americans” she means the elite who have the luxury of feeling guilty about what they do or don’t eat … well, she may have a point. But I’m personally uninterested in what the upper class in Berkeley, California, is eating.
And I think she’s wrong. Completely and totally. I’d like to propose an alternative view and say that there are two reasons we aren’t eating our vegetables. (1) They don’t taste good, and (2) we don’t care.
The modern crisis of “It tastes good, but it’s bad for me” is just that: modern, and a crisis. We don’t need to accept it as the status quo. I refuse to. I have eaten tomatoes that dripped with flavor. I have munched on carrots that tasted orange. I’ve walked past tents at a farmers market that were on fire with the scent of grilled vegetables.
Produce can taste good, if we don’t try to make our vegetables be something they’re not.
And that’s where we get to the second part of the problem. Because if we cared, if we had a real relationship with our food, we would never ask it to change for us. To travel thousands of miles every week to see us. To sit for days in the fridge without spoiling. To taste the same, look the same and feel the same every single month of the year. If we cared, we wouldn’t throw away 30 to 40 percent of our produce before it even got to the store.
But we can’t care. We don’t know enough to care. We probably don’t even know the name of the dining hall worker who cooked the meal we ate last night.
We’ve become so alienated from our food that we’ve reduced it to essentially two things: how it tastes and what its nutritional value is. Which is sort of like reducing a person to attractiveness and social function. You can’t ask that person to be your Valentine.
So let’s rebuild our relationship with food in time for this weekend. Let’s go on a date to the Saturday farmers market. Because when we take the unique, the meaningful out of one of the most basic elements of our existence — the food that sustains us — the very action of eating can start to feel just as meaningless.
So let’s take an example from the Yale tradition of inquiring about a person’s residential college. “Where did you come from, sweet potato?”