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Animal, vegetable, miracle at my table

The book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" changed the way Ilina eats. Now she can't wait for the fresh veggies from her local farm.

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Ilina Ewen
Ilina Ewen

I learned how to cook from my mother when I was about 18. I watched and listened and experimented. We were living in Germany in a tiny village that was frankly, boring as hell. We didn't know many people, and our Deutsch was remedial.

We spent our afternoons wandering around town popping in and out of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. We learned a lot of vocabulary at the farmer's market and treated the grocery store like a learning lab. She and I had afternoon tea and took our chances ordering menu items we didn't know just so we could learn more about the regional fare.

I learned to eat in that year too. I learned what fresh eggs from the farmer next door tasted like. I learned how artistic the village butcher was in the creation of his handmade charcuterie. I learned how heavenly hot, fresh bread wrapped in brown paper was to the senses. I learned that the taste of the earth was indeed marvelous when chomping on veggies and apples. It was that year of living abroad and traveling that I developed a keen interest in fresh, local, in-season food. Nothing fancy, simply delicious.

And then I came back to the States. I suffered through the lack of culinary culture among my peers and pined for the fresh food of my time in Bonn. I wanted to know more about where my food came from but didn't have the resources to do so (well before the Internet, my friends). Soon I succumbed to eating mealy tomatoes in November and processed drumsticks dipped in barbecue sauce laden with high fructose corn syrup. I slowly developed culinary amnesia.

Fast forward 20+ years.

I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver for my book club. The book changed my life. And my family's. No hyperbole here. Our newly adopted philosophy is not just "You are what you eat," it is "You are where you eat."

Barbara (I've read all her books so I think she'd be cool with the first name basis here.) and her family lived for one year on what they grew or raised on their own farm. Homemade cheese included! They supplemented their fare with what they could purchase from fellow farmers and vowed to only consume what could be purchased from a 50-mile radius. That means giving up peanut M&Ms, Haribo gummi bears, and Malbec. Well, that's what such a commitment would mean for me. And let's just say that I'm not willing to go quite that far.

What Barbara did was not unconventional or radical; she simply lived as our ancestors did not all that long ago. Tomatoes do not grow in most places in November. So why do we settle for mushy, waxy ones during winter months? How many times have you chewed that iceberg, tomato, and stale crouton salad drenched in ranch dressing with absolutely no orgasmic sounds brewing from your taste buds? Exactly how fresh is that kiwi that flew for two days to get to your local market?

Now compare those mealy flavorless tomatoes to the ruby red ones handpicked from your own summer plot of soil. No. Comparison. Ditto for the cukes, squash, okra (what, you don't grow okra, much less eat it?! You are missing out on a Southern and Indian delicacy!), chard (Don't tell me you don't eat chard either.), spinach, and even basil and dill.

The beauty of Barbara's book was not just how it enlightened me to try to eat locally. I gained a fresh new perspective of farming and farmers. Some neighbors invited the neighborhood young'uns to come pick carrots and potatoes from their vast garden. What a joy to see the kids hand pluck carrots, brush off the pesticide free dirt, and chomp away! What a teaching moment to bring to life where our vegetables really come from. Something we all take for granted. We have become inured to the bland flavor and have come to expect uniform perfection. God forbid the apples have blemishes. We treat our produce the way we treat women in our society; they must look perfect to be desirable.

The Dirt & Noise family joined a CSA a couple years back. Farmer Tom of Double T Farm in Garner has surpassed our taste bud expectations week after week. His little tomatoes were candy. His basil divine. Snap peas went like candy corn, with both Bird and Deal clamoring for handful after handful, and that's even before we made it home from the pick up spot. Mac Daddy didn't even get a taste.

And the lettuce and turnip salad we enjoyed was spectacular. Our salad was simply hand torn curly leaf lettuce, sliced raw turnips (not even peeled because the real deal have no freaking wax !), freshly ground black pepper (never the pre-ground powdery stuff in my kitchen), and a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar. I'm telling you, Bird was eating the turnips as quickly as I could cut them. It's a wonder we had enough for the salad.

Who knew that lettuce had its own flavor that need not be masked with bottled dressing (a condiment we do not own...why buy when I can easily and scrumptiously make my own concoction without high fructose corn syrup?). The turnip is an oft overlooked root vegetable. They are delicious raw or roasted.

The most divine food is also the simplest and the freshest.

Ilina, the mom of two, writes about food here every Wednesday. Find her all the time on her own blog Dirt & Noise.

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