It's About Time. Or Is It?
I've been catching up on my reading lately, and I've noticed that the question of time continues to come up in discussions of local food, so I'm going to try to combine my review of recent books with further thought on this whole idea. (It's long... you've been warned.)
One of the first items that brought the question of time to the fore was a link at The Ethicurean to an article about "The Feminist in My Kitchen." The author, Jennifer Jeffrey, pointed out that as a working woman, she was often hard pressed to find the time to make healthy meals from scratch using local foods (and she was doing this during the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, so she was under budgetary constraints, too). Though she works at home, she recognized the problems that women who work outside the home face when trying to balance career and home life (including cooking) and mused, "I wonder if the slow-organic-local food movement is truly sustainable for and friendly to the larger community of women." With all the other pressures that women still face today, even once feminism "freed" us from household drudgery, are we still setting our goals and ideals too high?
Reading her blog post really made me stop short. It's a fair question, and it's one that should make us question what's really important, what's right and wrong about how we've designed our lives and our larger societies, and what we can do about it.
I recognize that in many ways, I'm in a very privileged position. As a single woman who works outside the home, I have my stresses... work 40 hours a week and head home to work some more since there's no one to share the chores. On the other hand, my schedule, my chores, my choices are entirely up to me: there are no kids clamoring to be fed, no one else's preferences dictating when and what I cook, and no one else's schedules biting into the time I want to have in the kitchen. I can see this in my friends' households, and I know what a toll that can take on their time and their ability to prepare healthy, well-balanced meals.
I admit, I can indulge my culinary fantasies. I can make paneer or pita or pasta from scratch if I feel like it. I can experiment with different foods. I can tinker with a dessert recipe and spend the whole evening in the kitchen to do it. I can whip through two batches of canning in a weekend. And if I want, I can just say "to heck with all that!" and have a bowl of popcorn for dinner.
I'm lucky, I know. And believe me, I try really hard not to forget it.
Ultimately, Jennifer offers some answers and even some hope. Yes, moving toward a more local-foods-oriented way of eating does involve more time on our part. But be realistic: start small, with one meal a week, and enjoy it instead of feeling like you have to compete with someone else to make something fabulous. Recognize that while outside forces, such as the demands of the workplace and the offerings at the supermarket, may be against you, you can still make the choice (step by baby step, if need be) to take care of yourself and your family by offering good food. As she puts it so well, "That there aren’t enough hours to nourish ourselves properly, or that we have to make a choice between eating well and building our careers is just… craziness."
That's the view that I found echoed in two recent reads. The most recent, Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, doesn't focus entirely on local foods, though he offers a chapter on his own year of eating locally as an illustration and a metaphor for how we can recast our views toward economy and community as a whole. I'll let him speak for himself:
Eating this way has come at a cost. Not in health or in money... but in time. I've had to think about every meal, instead of wandering through the world on autopilot, ingesting random calories. I've had to pay attention. But the payoff for that cost has been immense, a web of connections I'd never known about. I've gotten to eat with my brain as well as my tongue: every meal comes with a story. ...
...The time I spent getting the food and preparing it was not, in the end, a cost at all. In the end it was a benefit, the benefit. In my role as eater, I was part of something large than myself that made sense to me -- a community. I felt grounded, connected. (p.94)
In McKibben's view of a future economy based on local communities, this is the important point. Eating -- living, in fact -- more locally may require more of our time, but wouldn't we rather slow down our living in order to appreciate the people in our lives, the places in which we live, and the communities we build together? It may not be easy to step back from the harried pace we now set for ourselves in order to achieve "success" or the next "best" consumer thing, but perhaps eating locally can be the first step on the path to revived local economies and communities, as well as to a greater satisfaction with our lives and with one another.
I've certainly found that to be true in my own life, and while (as I said) I know I'm very fortunate in my life, I don't think my situation is... or has to be... unique.
Nor do I think that the situation Barbara Kingsolver placed herself in before writing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is all that unique, even if I myself find it to be a dream a bit beyond my reach at the moment. If you're not familiar by now with the premise of the book, Kingsolver and her family moved "back to the land" -- an Appalachian farm they owned and mostly only ever visited during summers -- and decided to grow or raise as much of their own food as possible, finding local resources for the rest, for a full year. And while I found myself utterly enthralled and often jealous by her tale of their year, I can also understand why some reviewers have been critical of her "lecturing" on the issue. Kingsolver and her family are thoroughly dedicated to local foods, and their awareness and knowledge of the subject is well ahead of the mainstream curve, so that while I can sense the frustration in her words when she explains why it's so important to eat locally, I can see why others might find her "shrill." For example:
The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint -- virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. (p.31)
Weeeellll, yes, but... that certainly leaves out the understanding that Jennifer Jeffrey raised, that not everyone has the time in their schedule to exercise such patience and restraint. (Note: Jennifer has posted her own review of the book and offers the realistic perspective of someone who spent her adolescence deeply involved in food production and preservation. It's a great thing to be able to do, but it ain't easy. Hear ya, Jennifer!)
On the other hand, Kingsolver does address the issue of time later in the book and stresses that time spent doing something nourishing for oneself or one's family can be a source of infinite satisfaction:
Planning complex, beautiful meals and investing one's heart and time in their preparation is the opposite of self-indulgence. (p.288)
When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. (p.291)
When people see the size of our garden or the stocks in our pantry and shake their heads, saying, "What a lot of work," I know what they're really saying. This is the polite construction in our language for "What a dope." They can think so. But they're wrong. (p.308)
They are wrong, Barbara. Yes, it's a lot of work to buy your food from local growers and producers, to make meals from scratch, to spend your weekends or evenings preserving the harvest for later days. And all that work takes a lot of time, time that many of us don't think we have or genuinely don't have, depending on the constraints on our lives. It's exhausting. I know. (I ended one year's tomato canning frenzy with two bulging lumbar disks and excruciating back pain.)
But when it comes right down to it, it's work that is worthwhile. It's work that goes beyond mere "work" (you know that tone of voice that so many of us use on Sunday evenings when we say, "well, it's back to work tomorrow") and becomes satisfaction, pride, and even joy. It's work that brings us together -- families, friends, communities. Yes, it's work and it's time -- and why should we let those be used as common four-letter vulgarities when they really mean the best part of who we are and what we can offer each other... when they really mean love?
Hey, I have to slog through a full work week to make ends meet, too, and some days when I get home from work, I'd rather have my food handed to me or made really simple to prepare. But when I look back over my life and think of all the time I've spent in the kitchen, making preserves or preparing a feast (simple or elaborate) for family and friends, I consider that some of the best time I've ever spent in all my days. Those are the hours that linger and lengthen in my mind, that beg to be repeated, that make me smile.
So eating locally? Yes, it's about time. And we can choose how we want to spend that time, because it's about how we choose to live our lives.