I don’t go to a lot of high-end restaurants, preferring eateries with online reviews that read, “Good prices, great food, will come back,” but on special occasions my wife and I will throw caution to the wind and visit a venue from our personal No Man’s Land of listings: The Four-Out-of-Five-Dollar-Signs places.
So that’s how we found ourselves seated at a cloth-covered table in a dimly-lit room, being lectured by a kind, but insistent, waiter on the sous-vide technique of preparing New Zealand-raised venison.
Food. I love it but sometimes wonder if we haven’t overcomplicated sustenance a bit. While I’m absolutely positive my ancestors held deeply-rooted opinions on the topic of venison, I suspect that, rather than touting a preparation technique that requires a pricey machine for slow cooking a specially-sealed piece of meat reared in captivity on the other side of the world, their dining philosophy boiled down to a four-step plan: Get, Cook, Eat, Live.
Mind you, I’m totally susceptible to all the peripheral trappings of food culture. I was raised in the long shadow of Southern religion, a Baptist upbringing where, every Sunday morning, I listened to a pastor weigh the “bread of life” against “forbidden fruits” (not to be confused with the “fruits of the spirit”), then, after a closing hymn, filed out the double doors, skipped out to the car, and my family was off to the nearest steakhouse to enjoy a lunch buffet with fellow church-goers. I also remember hours of my early life spent in back rooms of Diet Workshop meetings, reading books like “Old Yeller” while my mother, out in the front room, lectured fellow Southern women on the method of assigning points to the steaming plates of fried potato wedges featured prominently on the Sunday lunch buffets.
When faced with the hallowed rite of teenage rebellion, my path was crystal clear as a pitcher of sun tea steeping on an ivy-covered porch: I would become a vegetarian, eschewing the meatloaves, ham stews and chicken casseroles that decorated the table of every social event I had attended since birth. Implausibly, without even a hint of PETA-level indignation toward the plight of table-bound animals, I sustained a vegetarian diet for well over a decade until, one evening, woozy on a few glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon from the esteemed vintner Charles Shaw (you know, “Two Buck Chuck”), I dozed off during an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and woke up with an insatiable desire for lamb that, days later, I quelled during a visit to Aladdin’s.
So I get it. I get the meat-fueled religiosity of Paleo eaters, the wild-eyed fervency of the gluten-free. I can’t judge vegans, won’t tsk eaters who say things like, “I just don’t like vegetables.” I don’t understand freegans, but I guess eating out of a dumpster is ... fine.
Our species is so flush with choices now, when every department store touts a grocery section and Whole Foods has multiple competitors in the big-box health store marketplace, that weeding through an existence in which buying macaroni-and-cheese requires extensive research and demands parameters that go beyond “good food, good price.”
I don’t like labels so much, but I say that as one who’s frequently called a “foodie” and a “locavore” — classifications I suppose I’ve earned through subscriptions to Eater newsletters and all those sagging shelves of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry books. I have opinions about foie gras. I have a favorite chef and was genuinely excited when I finally got the chance to eat at his restaurant (not the sous-vide place).
But a year ago, when our backyard garden swelled to more than 2,000 square feet, challenging the property lines of our postage-stamp-plot of suburban land and forcing my kids to play between rows of bright squash blossoms and snaky tomato vines, a friend of mine slapped a label on me I didn’t mind so much: “farmer.”
Within the course of the year between then and now, we sold our little piece of suburbia and packed our kids away to 12 acres in the country. We harvested that suburban garden, sure, but since then we’ve also processed a flock of broiler chickens just feet from our new house and filled a freezer with the meat of two well-loved Berkshire pigs. We have two cows with a calf on the way. So yeah, I'm a farmer.
If there’s a point to this column — and you should know this is in no way a requirement my editor has given me — it’s that all of our eating habits, from the likes and dislikes we encounter at the dinner table to the ideals and philosophies that guide our hands as we reach for an item on the grocer’s shelf, are the result of personal experiences, and that each choice you or I or the guy filling his plate at the buffet restaurant make are equally valid.
I’ve seen relationships strained, friendships shuttered over militant dietary practices, and this seems as silly to me as it would be for me and my wife to demand our friends sell their homes and move to a farm. Because, in the end, food really isn’t more complicated than Get, Cook, Eat, Live.
/ Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer who can still be found slumped over a laptop, writing a young adult novel and listening to Taylor Swift.
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