Many of us are still searching for how to eat well. In his book, The Third Plate, farm-to-table chef Dan Barber suggests that while we have increasing options to purchase sustainably-raised food, we have not revised the way we eat.
“How do we eat?” Barber writes, “Mostly with a heavy hand. For a long time, the prototypical American meal had featured a choice cut—like a seven-ounce steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast or a fillet of salmon—and a small side of vegetables or grains.” He proposes that we redesign our meals to have a different architecture, with structural vegetables and meat as trim.
After college, I moved to Tucson for one year of Mennonite Voluntary Service, not knowing it was Longacre’s hometown, not thinking about hippies or sustainability, just struggling to draft the architecture of my own life. I bicycled ten miles each way to work from the community house where I lived with other volunteers—a German guy and two married Canadians. I didn’t need to bring the More-with-Less; the household already had it.
Beginning the year as complete strangers, we juggled our modest monthly food budget, eating primarily vegetarian, and often from the community garden that we started with the neighborhood. My German housemate baked huge multigrain bread loaves. The Canadian couple created intricate chopped salads. We—sometimes awkwardly—invented our household for a year, relying on shared food rituals that trumped our individual differences.
Dan Barber laments the absence of a robust cultural tradition of food in the United States. He writes, “The curse is that, without a golden age in farming, and with a history that lacks a strong model for good eating, the values of true sustainability don’t penetrate our food culture.” Perhaps, though, some seemingly quirky subcultures, such as Mennonite volunteers, do offer a patchwork history for today’s cooks who seek responsible, delicious food. Perhaps this food culture is creative and generous enough to share, to write into the bodies of all good eaters.
“Poor Man’s Lobster Thermidor,” my mom says on the phone, “I used to make that.”
“I have no memory of that.”
“It was just white fish,” she says, as I make a mental note to try it. She is flipping through the cookbook, transported by remembered tastes and smells back to our large farm kitchen, the swimming-hard feeling of farming and parenting two young girls.
I do remember casseroles based on noodles or tortillas or rice, with vegetables and cheese, and some chicken or meat. I remember Honey-Baked Chicken sizzling in a honey-mustard-curry sauce that we scraped from the pan to drizzle over rice. Skillet Italian Zucchini used satisfying numbers of proliferating garden squash and, in true More-with-Less fashion, tasted better than expected from the sum of its few parts. I can still smell the homemade play-dough—as salty and bright as my childhood—arriving warm under my hands and food-color tinted onto our old oak table with four legs curving downward to carved paws.
While Longacre’s cookbook was selling beyond expectations, my parents were busting their butts on my dad’s family farm, which he farmed with his best childhood friend. In mid-summer, they’d drive the blue Ford pickup into the yard, loaded with one hundred dozen ears of sweet corn. Friends and family—hippie-types in short cutoff shorts and Mennonite aunts and grandmas with their small-print dresses draping between spread knees—all spread out in the huge maple tree’s shade, husking ears and cutting corn from the cobs for freezing.
My memories are the long tracks of cut-off corn, reeled from paring knives and snatched into my mouth—all flavor and fullness. My mom’s memories are one whole year’s work flattened by hail, a thumb nearly lost to a potato harvester named Grace, struggling in context of the 1980’s farm crisis. We lived more with less.