By Ramona Bajema
People are talking a lot about food these days. What to eat. What not to eat. Where it comes from. How to cook it. It has become as common a topic as the weather. Makes sense since we are starting to identify ourselves by what and how we eat. Even on Facebook, food seems to be the primary topic. I have a couple of friends who summarize their political views as “vegan.”
And I have started to eavesdrop.
While I was doing some last-minute grocery shopping on Christmas Eve, I noticed a high school–aged young man walking with his grandmother in the market. The grandmother was stooped over her cart and clearly in charge of what was going into it. They stopped in front of the dairy cases, where there were also refrigerated prepared foods.
“Oh, darn. They ran out,” the grandmother said, looking very dispirited. A sad grandmother on Christmas Eve—butter must have sold out, I thought.
The young man, who was probably a football player, seemed to know the cause of her duress:
“Why don’t we just make the sugar cookies from scratch, Grandma? We can get the flour and sugar and whatever else …”
“No, no, no. You don’t know how much work and mess is involved. The kind I get, you just cut up and put in the oven.” She started to wheel the cart away even more stooped than before. Her grandson stood firm.
“But, Grandma, I’ll clean up the mess. I don’t mind.”
I don’t know how this scene was resolved, because I had to move along with my own Christmas preparations, but it made me thoughtful. I would have expected the grandmother to want to make the cookies from scratch. Maybe she thought she would wind up doing all the work, while he played video games despite this show of support. After years of making cookies without appreciation for all the work, maybe she just wanted to cut some up and stick them in the oven.
Still, I was impressed that the grandson was willing to make the effort. Was he just trying to be affable on Christmas and make sure there were some cookies for Santa (i.e., Grandma)? Or maybe he relished the idea of making the cookies himself … throwing flour on a smooth surface, finding a rolling pin and measuring spoons, cracking the eggs into a big bowl and stirring the dough. Perhaps, for this young man, he hoped that the process would take longer—not the quick and easy way.
About a month later, I was taking a train from Ventura down to Los Angeles and overheard another grandmother story. (Why do we always bring up grandmothers when we talk about food?) A mother and her elementary school–aged daughter were sharing a large table with an older gentleman who was traveling alone. The daughter wore a Cesar Chavez Charter School T-shirt that read “¡Si, Se Puede!” and had a Dia de los Muertos skull on it. The mother was giving her daughter grapes and seaweed rice crackers to snack on. I heard the little girl offer one to the man.
“Oh, no, thank you, dear.”
The mother chuckled and explained to her daughter that their new friend probably did not like seaweed. He looked in his snack pack that he had purchased on the train and offered them some of the cheese from it.
“It says here that it’s ‘real’ cheese. What do you think that means? Well, it’s sharp cheddar anyways.” He apologized on behalf of the snacks available in the dining car.
“I bet you have to take your own snacks with you everywhere!” he said with a chuckle.
“Oh, yes,” the mother replied. “We like to be conscious about our food.”
The man started reminiscing about his grandmother’s food—a common turn in food conversations.
“She made everything from scratch. You know what I mean? Everything. I think that’s just how people used to do things.” He told them how he loved his Nanna’s chocolate cake. She taught him how to bake, he said, and that he still baked to this day.
“I never use baking powder. Self-rising flour is what you need. No baking powder, ever. I try and make Nanna’s cake, but even when it’s real good, it’s not the same.”
The mother smiled at him and said that she bet his cake was just as delicious. The little girl tried again to offer him a seaweed cracker.
“Ah, heck. Sure. There’s a first for everything. Thank you.”
Food brings us together, because it is something that we all share. Many memories are also built around food. It seems that when the experience is shared—prepared and eaten communally—it is often the tastiest and the most memorable.
I have also overheard some food policing that is happening out there. A couple of weeks ago at the Ojai Farmers’ Market, two women stopped in front of a table of big, red strawberries. One of the women reached for a berry sample and popped it into her mouth.
“Oh, it’s delicious! They’re so beautiful! You know spring is around the corner when we start seeing the strawberries! Here— try one.” Her face was absolutely delighted. She reached to get a strawberry for her friend who took a step back as though the berry was a venomous snake.
“I would never eat one of those strawberries. Don’t you know what they spray on those?”
Her friend’s face fell.
“Oh, I don’t know. Do you think they spray these strawberries? They were grown locally…”
“Of course they do! Why do you think they look so perfect? My strawberries that I grow in my garden don’t look that perfect— believe me!”
Now, my mother grows strawberries. They are generally small. They might have a little hole from a bug. I get the woman’s point: Fruits and vegetables grown in our own gardens are best, but do not look so perfect. Observing this scene made me sad, though. Her friend was experiencing pure delight in her strawberry, in the late winter sun on a Sunday in Ojai. She was excited about the change in seasons and wanted to share with her friend. I believe that her friend’s refusal caused more harm than whatever pesticide might have been on that strawberry to make it “perfect.”
It made me think about the food dilemma that I face daily: I still struggle with eating meat. I love carnitas and do not know how to ask in Spanish at my favorite taqueria where they get their meat. I occasionally shop at chain grocery stores. I confess I had a white flour tortilla the other day rather than a whole-wheat or corn one. My coffee beans are not fair trade. But I try to be conscious and do my best. I remind myself that stress causes as much sickness as sick food. It can be overwhelming sometimes to eat consciously, but it is of dire importance. And I look to my friends for information as much as the latest media headlines.
We need to keep talking about food. In order to combat television commercials and gimmicks that try to convince us that mass-produced fast food is convenient, fun and tasty, we need to start talking amongst ourselves about the truth. Talking to friends and family about memories of homemade meals, or how good that corn tasted bought from a roadside stand, or that there is a new study celebrating how great citrus is for the skin, is the best way we can wage the battle to reclaim good food again.
Even though one of my Facebook friends announced that she no longer wants to hear about what her friends are having for breakfast all the time (“Don’t we have other things to talk about!!”), I do want to hear recipes, share memories and celebrate great meals with my friends. Let’s keep talking about food!
Ramona Bajema likes to eat food, but right now she really enjoys her morning cup of coffee. To the extent that she prepares it the night before in eager anticipation of the next day.