Friday, October 8, 2010

Hands On - backbone and bad food

This week's Hands On post is different.  Usually I try to be pretty upbeat and practical.  Usually I show you a basic cooking procedure or talk about equipment choices.  We work together on the question:  How exactly can we feed ourselves and our loved ones good food day in and day out?  We demystify and get to work.  We peel and chop vegetables, wash our own greens and don't whine.

But since I know you care about good food,  I want to tell you about the meal I ate Wednesday night at the closing banquet of the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College.  Remember, the theme of this conference was "What makes food good?"  Inherent in this question is the idea that food can be bad.  Hold that thought while I summarize the message of the banquet speaker - Francis Moore Lappe, famous global change agent and author of Diet for a Small Planet and many other books. 

The title of Ms. Lappe's talk was "Getting a grip - gaining clarity, creativity and courage for the world we really want".  She talked about how to put ideas into action.  She asked why we live in a world that no one of us would choose to build if we had the chance.  (e.g. starvation, suffering, war, despoilation of resources, exploitation of people)

Her answer was that individuals feel powerless to change these big problems.  She then talked about the power of ideas and democratic and group action.  She encouraged us to have backbone and courage to act on our ideas and to work for what is "good".  She acknowledged the fear that people have of being ostracized from their friends/community/group/"pack" if they challenge or question the status quo.  She admitted to still feeling scared at times - warned by her pounding heart.  She shared her way of dealing with that internal fear -- she said she just thinks of that pounding as "internal applause". (So whenever you feel afraid, you can whistle a happy tune or think of clapping for yourself.)

Now that I have set the stage a bit, I would like to tell you about the dinner we were served at the banquet.  Remember now - - the speaker was Francis Moore Lappe.  The woman who has been talking for forty years about food and social justice and sustainability of resources and planetary limits and good health.  And we all had just spent two days learning about:  nutrition, food insecurity, causes of obesity, global poverty and hunger, the importance of small scale farming in the developing world, the impact climate change will have on agriculture, equitable access to diverse foods and seeds, the organic and local food movement, taste in our food and food ethics and philosophy.  Whew.

Our dinner menu was:
Salad greens (quite conventional)  with industrial croutons, a few carrot shreds and vinaigrette
White dinner rolls and sliced (7 grain?) bread and butter
Steak - I would estimate half a pound per person- with mushroom sauce
Wild rice pilaf with a few small pieces of vegetable, including zucchini
Thinly sliced potatoes with a very few slices of winter squash and onions and a generous amount of cream
Cheesecake with caramel sauce and sliced apples

So this is what I need to say.  This was a reasonably tasty meal.  It was nicely presented.  I ate everything except half the meat.  (Frank ate that.)  There were beautiful flowers on the table and good conversation.  But I would not call it a "good" meal.  By many of the measures discussed at the conference, it was a pretty bad meal.   There was a shocking disconnect between the talk at the conference and the "walk" on the table.  Given the quality of ideas, curiosity and imagination of the conference speakers and participants, I expected much more. 

Before I explain why I am being so presumptuous as to pan this meal,  please know that I have great respect for Gustavus Adolphus College and its efforts to stimulate thoughtful discourse about global food issues and other topics.   I am sure that I do not fully understand all the logistical challenges presented by the need to feed hundreds or even thousands of people for two days.  (Although I do know - because I learned this at the U of M healthy food summit last week - that logistics are not an excuse.  There exist among us successful food service businesses serving thousands of meals every day in Minnesota, using seasonal foods from our region.  This is possible.  And can be profitable.)

I am a Minnesota Lutheran and it is definitely scary for me to come right out and say that this meal was pretty bad.  (It could have been worse.)   My heart is pounding a little right this minute.  But I listened carefully to our banquet speaker and decided to follow her advice.  I am exercising some backbone.  I can't believe I was the only person in the room wondering why we weren't eating more seasonal vegetables and less sugar and fat.  I am sure there were others questioning whether it was a good idea to serve each person a half pound of meat when we know that we should be eating less meat.  (I love meat.  I live in Fillmore County.  I have good friends who raise livestock.  But I still think the world would be a better place if each of us ate less meat.) 

I think that one way to "make food good" is for more people to speak up when food is bad.  If we don't, how will our children know the difference?

I don't like it when people just complain about problems and don't have solutions.  So here is my idea for a meal that would have been "good" - or at least better:
(NOTE - see link below for more information on how the food service at Gustavus has adopted changes because of the Conference.)

Salad with fresh Minnesota spinach and other seasonal greens - garnished with diced pickled beets and thinly sliced red onion and dressed with a vinaigrette using Minnesota sunflower oil.  And maybe a little sprinkle of sunflower seeds for crunch.

Braised beef (about 2 oz. per person) in a red wine sauce with mushrooms, onions, zucchini and red peppers, served over wild rice pilaf. 

Locally grown carrots, cut and glazed with a little maple syrup and seasoned with fresh thyme.  Or braised chard with garlic and olive oil.  Or mashed winter squash.

Whole wheat rolls

Apple crisp using local apples or pumpkin or squash pie (not if you serve mashed squash) -- with a dollop of fresh real whipped cream

Blessings upon you who make the effort to prepare good food.  Please don't give up.  And will you think about - once in a while - having the courage to call out bad food when you see it?  There is a lot of bad food out there so this is a big job.  I can't do it all by myself.   Be prepared to make your case.  And be nice.



  1. Great suggestions for upping the nutrition ante. I, too, had serious misgivings about that meal featured at the Nobel Conference banquet. It was everything our "good food" instincts ward us away from – even when we're not at an event where the topic of improving diet is center stage. Same comment applies to the Nobel Conference lunches: white-flour croissant, processed lunch meat, pasta salad, food service cookie, soda pop - a disturbing metaphor for the disconnect between what we know is good for us and what we actually, habitually put in our mouths.

  2. Kitty - see my addendum to this post -- with link. Looks there is some positive news from the college food service.