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Get to Know Your Food

supermarket veggies

You might think this week that I am espousing the idea of introducing yourself to the vegetables in the supermarket (“How do you do, Mr. Potato Head, my name is Kristin”). Well, I’m not far off that tactic. I am writing in support of the “food revolution” concept that has been brought to light by celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver… just in time for the students to be back in school and learning, not to mention eating packaged lunches.

Alice Waters is a chef in Berkeley, California. She started The Edible Schoolyard project twenty years ago, and it is now thriving in communities across the U.S. Students not only eat the food from the garden they plant but they learn science lessons and social studies concepts through the garden as well.

Jamie Oliver has worked with schools in the UK and U.S. to try and improve the quality of school lunches and educate families on eating healthy and realistically on their budgets. He has founded The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation to encourage people to educate and inspire people about cooking and eating well.school lunch from scratch

Stephanie Alexander is a chef and cookbook author in Australia. In 2009 she wrote The Kitchen Garden Companion for families to learn how to grow and use edible crops in their everyday eating. Her food education program through The Kitchen Garden Foundation now works in over 800 schools across the country.

All these projects and others like them prove time and time again that kids can enjoy good wholesome food, and it’s not harder or more time-consuming to prepare. Families can maintain good food habits with food education and children learn better when they are well nourished. So why don’t we do more of it? It seems the focus is often not quite on the mark… Alice Waters had this to say when asked about some of the mainstream improvements being made in school system lunch programs:

“Although many school districts are trying to improve the food they offer, the results have been unsatisfying”, she said. “It’s useless to coat frozen chicken nuggets with whole-wheat bread crumbs and fill vending machines with diet soda.”

school lunch processed

Education about food is something we all take for granted, and unfortunately this is a topic we are all starting to fail, not just in terms of children but for adults, too. I think Alice Waters’ frustration is very valid and deserves attention even here in Canada, as we have much the same situation. I know not everyone can enjoy their own garden, or maybe not even get to the farmer’s market, but does that mean they shouldn’t see local food? And when I say local food, I don’t mean KFC from the local outlet (tongue firmly planted in cheek here – no offense to KFC).

Our world has changed from when my parents were kids, and certainly from the day of my grandfather’s stories – most food is bought in large chain stores now, and most things are available year-round. Many foods that people buy now have a list of ingredients as they are already in some degree prepared. I think to some degree we have lost sight of the importance in knowing our food, or at least what is in it. Did you know that some form of refined sugar is in most processed foods, even savoury ones like spaghetti sauce and soups? I am not saying sugar is the source of all evil, but since we are eating more if we are eating what is in those cans, we need to remember that when we eat the rest of our food. Personally, I like my sugar in dessert and I like herbs in my spaghetti sauce. (I know that a spoonful of sugar with tomatoes is a good cook’s secret, but that is one spoonful per recipe, not per serving.)

The technology we have today does offer us advantages. We can preserve things in tetra boxes or packaging with preservatives. Machines in factories make prepared meals cheaper so busy families can eat on the fly. Maybe in the not-too-distant future they will think of ways to make spaghetti sauce grown on the vine, and they will feed tuna mayonnaise so lunches could be even easier to make – maybe they could even slice it and freeze it with bread on either side so that your tunafish sandwich was ready to go!

Do I sound ridiculous? Well, I am sure if I asked my grandfather how he felt about the packaged products we eat continuously, he would think the current state of affairs was ridiculous too. A large portion of our population is overweight and unhealthy because of the food they eat – or perhaps I should say because of the food they don’t eat. We can fix the situation, but it does take all of us to do it. Kids should know that putting fresh fruit on their yogurt is healthier than eating flavoured yogurt. They should understand that a 12 ounce can of soda usually has the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar in it (the recommended daily limit). They should know that food comes from farms and gardens, not supermarkets and factories. We should all get to know our food, and that does mean re-introducing ourselves to the ingredients (the ones we can actually pronounce in the packages).

So, take your kids grocery shopping and engage them in the process. If you don’t have kids, do the work yourself. Step out of your usual routine and try a new meal, or try to cook from scratch one day a week – make it a group project! Encourage children to eat raw fruit and veggies for snacks instead of prepared fruit leather or granola bars. Let them taste ingredients as you cook; get them excited about food. And if you have a garden at your school, ask about it. If it’s not being used, how could you start using it? Maybe next year it could have some new shoots!

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Kudos to the girls – in the kitchen and out

intl womens day - silhouettes

Today is International Women’s Day, and since women are such a big part of food and the kitchen it seemed only fitting I pay tribute. There are many women in my life who have helped and inspire me along my journey in life, not the least of which was my Mom. She started in the kitchen (perhaps because that’s where I always hung out!) and then her wisdom led me out to the garden, and then to the sky. Her encouragement has inspired me to discover many of my passions. Her love of being a Mom, at home for her family, is something I will always admire.

Mom - my hero

The women I have come to admire later in life are also people who are secure in who they are, proud of what they have to contribute. When I was growing up, I loved reading Ayn  Rand’s books (thanks, Mom 🙂 ) She was a strong woman who wrote about strong people with convictions and passion. I loved classic movies, and my favourite actresses were Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. They never let movie men push them around but they were elegant and sexy nonetheless.

Katherine Hepburn not inferior sex

"Your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that."

“Your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that.”

When I discovered my true passion in the kitchen, I was thrilled to read the story of Ina Garten, who jumped in and bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons because she wanted a change from a job at the White House, and fell in love with the place when she visited. She called her business The Barefoot Contessa, starting out with no formal training and learning every job. She developed recipes and started to cater.

click the picture link if you are interested to view Ina's cookbooks on Amazon

click the picture link if you are interested to view Ina’s cookbooks on Amazon

Years later, she wrote a cookbook. When I wrote my first cookbook, I sent her an email saying what an inspiration she had been. She replied, to my surprise and delight, saying she loved my book and wished me every success.

I love to share, and so people who do the same attract me. Alice Waters is a woman who wants to share food with the world, and make sure they appreciate not just the taste but the work of the farmer who produced it as well. It was through reading about her work at Chez Panisse in California that I learned of Slow Food for the first time. I heard her speak in Italy at Terra Madre last fall, and she is every bit the humble but formidable force of nature I expected. Her Edible Schoolyard Project is saving many kids from a life of ignorance about food and community.

Perhaps the perfect inspiration for me though, is Julia Child. Her passion for food was topped only for her passion for her husband, Paul – something I can totally understand. (Thank goodness I married a chef, so he doesn’t mind my foodie mentality.) Julia Child cookbook philosophyShe wanted to make great food something that was accessible for everyone; I love her distaste for the pretentious side of the North American restaurant industry. I love her common sense approach to life.

One of the things Julia espoused was that time around the table was precious and should be encouraged. I say three cheers for that philosophy! So, in honour of Julia and all the women who inspire others to do more, dream bigger, live larger, I offer you a simple recipe to share at the table sometime soon. Roast Chicken is something anyone can accomplish in the kitchen.

1970 photo of Julia Child during taping of her TV show. Photo by Paul Child.

Toast the women in your life that have inspired you. If you are a woman, perhaps you can think about who you might be able to inspire…

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