by Maria Reidelbach
This spring, I am surprised and happy to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Yardavore—60 columns about eating food that grows at home, both cultivated and foraged. I’ve always loved to eat, but over the last few decades choosing the food we consume has become so complicated. Every few months there’s some new study that proclaims the virtues of some ingredient, chemical, restrictive diet or technique, inevitably followed by new studies telling us that the same things will cause a slow, painful death. We all remember when calories from fat were the enemy—now butter is back, baby!
Then there’s all the blowback of what we eat—the environmental and economic effects of our choices. Who would have thought that the popularity of quinoa would make it too expensive for the Bolivians who grow it and for whom it’s a staple food?
I began writing the Yardavore because I had fallen in love with locally grown food, farmers markets, hunting wild mushrooms and other delicious plants. Since then, I’ve learned so much more about gardening and farming, foraging, personal health of both body and soul, and community health, too. Five years ago I was transitioning fro
m 30 years living in New York City. I was yearning to make a change from the fascinating but highly artificial lifestyle of the city. What I’ve learned is that a diet that’s delicious, healthful, and good for the neighborhood and the planet is actually amazingly simple.
We are lucky to share the planet with some great minds that have illuminated the way.
David Korten is a visionary economist—what a contradiction in terms!—whose book Agenda for a New Economy I reviewed in one of my first articles for Country Wisdom News. This mind-blowing tome includes a discussion of what I call the monetization of everything: childcare, advice-giving, food preparation, music-making, entertainment, and so much more. So many of these things we once provided for ourselves and each other we now job out. We have even been convinced by relentless advertising that if we don’t pay for something, it’s actually worth less, and indeed, the more we pay, the more valuable the product is! Movies and books are routinely rated by how much money they make. The result is an attitude that the quality of our life is equal to the amount of money we have and spend. Examining myself and media laid bare how pervasive and unconscious these attitudes are, and how they actually impoverish us.
Meanwhile, the great food writer Michael Pollan has been writing his ass off about the history of what humans eat and what we eat now, culminating in the instructive books In Defense of Food and Food Rules. The Rules are fantastic and easy to remember guides that make eating delicious, healthy food simple. I love this slim, clever paperback! Pollan advocates a common sense diet of eating whole, unprocessed food. His mantra is: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Simple! Easy to remember. He drills down: “Avoid food products that contain ingredients that no ordinary human being would keep in the pantry.” “If it came from a plant, eat it, if it was made in a plant, don’t.” “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.” “Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to make it.” These dictums are so basic that they weather the changing winds of diet fads.
Another game-changer has been the discovery of the complex of microbes that make up more than 50 percent of the cells we think of as our bodies. The health of these communities, collectively called our microbiome, is essential to our health. And guess what—these miniscule guys like whole, unprocessed food, too. The microbiomes of folks who eat mostly processed food have much less diversity and resilience. Jeff D. Leach and others at the American Gut Project are a good portal to all the news.
Jo Robinson has written extensively about how wild foods have much more nutrition than their cultivated cousins. Her book Eating on the Wild Side is a compilation of how to choose and store the best varieties of cultivated fruit and vegetables. I’ve learned from Robinson that green herbs are powerhouses of nutrition—they’re the vitamins of the plant world, and I now use them with abandon on everything I eat.
These readings, and more, have inspired big changes in what I eat. Our appetites are instinctive reactions to food—some foods inspire craving and others trigger disgust. Today, mixtures of chemicals that would repulse anyone are processed and engineered into “foods” that are specifically designed to addict us to their perfect blends of fat, sugar and starch; food scientists call it the “bliss point.” Once you start eating these foods (think cheese doodles), it’s nearly impossible to stop.
Conversely, I’ve noticed that when I taste an edible wild mushroom for the first time, I’m pretty timid—mushrooms are mighty weird looking and humans have a strong innate aversion to eating new foods—it protects us from random poisoning. But once I experience the savoriness, the disgust changes to attraction and my instincts are rewired. Similarly, my appetites have been recalibrated to be attracted to seasonal, locally grown food—I’ve noticed that food grown far away in different climes has ceased to catch my eye.
Heavily processed foods always come with a glitzy advertising campaign to convince us to eat them—brilliant and creative visuals, hooky music, and catch phrases. Whole and wild foods rarely do—and this is where Korten’s concept of monetization comes in. When I’m out walking and find a fruiting of delicious mushrooms, or when picking berries or gathering herbs from my backyard garden, I feel rich. It’s not a value that’s reflected or encouraged in our consumer culture. But the intrinsic rewards of eating this food—yum!—prove that our elemental instincts can still be revived and, if we pay attention, can guide us to a diet that’s simple and very delicious. It is amazing how much gourmet wild food surrounds us, free for the taking.
We are so fortunate to have many in our own community who have dedicated themselves to supporting, sharing, learning, and teaching about local whole foods. Dina Falconi has written one of the very best books about eating wild plants; Foraging and Feasting
is both a guide and a great cookbook. We’ve got wonderful local farmers who are generous members of our culinary community. Don Lewis at Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners has been at the forefront of reintroducing small grain agriculture to our area. Ken Greene and Doug Muller run the Hudson Valley Seed Library, providing a diversity of local seed to this area of the country. Linda Brook Guenther is creating new ways to teach kids about agriculture. Chris Kelder, at the 200-year-old Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson, has created a U-Pick with over 50 varieties of fruit and vegetables. Creek Iverson organically grows beautiful produce and creates wonderful, musical community at the same time. Jill Weissman leads the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, a group that shares their knowledge and love of mushroom hunting with all. Zena Nason, Lisa Jones, and Holly Shelowitz are each chefs with a cause, sourcing food locally and cooking it healthfully. These are just a few of the many people that we are blessed to count as our neighbors and friends. Thank you! And while I’m at it, a big thanks to Marie Doyon, the editor of this paper, who has been a joy to work with. To be continued!
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Feedback and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.