A delightful experiment in inefficiency

When I made strawberry freezer jam from our first U-pick strawberry adventure 5 years ago, I was amazed at how much fruit (and sugar!) was required to make just a few pints. I’ve never gotten around to making jam again — probably because I wasn’t incredibly pleased with the results (too runny) and have found other things I’d rather do with our freshly-picked strawberries. Until last week, no other fruit had risen to the top of my jam-making ventures.

But a few friends in town have rhubarb growing in their backyards. Besides sharing this garden item, they have another thing in common — thy usually don’t eat it. It’s a lovely plant, with broad green leaves and bright red stalks, ornamental enough to grow just for looks. Rhubarb is an ingredient of contention — people feel quite strongly about it, and negative memories often include forced-feeding by an elderly relative in the formative years. But when I see something selling for $5/pound at the farmer’s market, and then come across that same item growing large and unharvested in a friend’s backyard, well. You know what I have to do.

Emily and I snuck into visited the garden of our friend Katie, while she was in Florida on vacation. Our kids took advantage of their trampoline and ample urban backyard, while I found a trowel and hacked away at about 8 stalks. At home, I let them sit on the counter for about two days, imploring my kids to stop using the fronds to dramatically fan themselves, while I figured out what to do.

See, the funny thing is that I also am not a huge fan of rhubarb. I love the flavor, the tartness, but don’t like the texture when cooked. I’ve made a strawberry rhubarb pie, or cobbler, or something, before, and enjoyed it — but could never wrap a fully-loving heart around that soggy bite.

My mind naturally turned to things where the texture wouldn’t be an issue — things like ice cream. I found a recipe in The Perfect Scoop for a sorbet, but heard that it’s a very tart variety, and those don’t usually go over well in my house. When I did a quick scan of David’s website to see if he’d been holding anything back on the ice cream front, I found his recipe for 6 pints of rhubarb-berry jam. Score.

But he called for 3 pounds, and I had about 1/6 of that quantity. At first it seemed ridiculous to make a single jar of jam — I mean, when you make something to put into a jar, you usually make enough for many jars — but then I wondered, why?  It’s not like I’ll be processing it for long-term storage. Why not cook up a single batch of jam, and then just eat it?

Slow on the uptake, I am.

So that’s what I did. The kids had been out with Daddy, and when they came home they walked into a house smelling of simmering rhubarb, berries, and (still, lots of) sugar. Their noses said yes, but when the word “rhubarb” was uttered their faces wore looks of doubt. I am happy to say I have at least one convert on my hands — with a dozen or so more years to work on the others.

Because for as many summers as I am able, I will steal rhubarb from a friend’s garden, and make a single jar of this jam.

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Recipe: Rhubarb Berry Jam

Summary: adapted closely from this recipe by David Lebovitz
makes about 1 pint

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound rhubarb, chopped into 1/2″ pieces (about 2 rounded cups)
  • 1/2 cup frozen or fresh berries (assorted — I used frozen strawberries and blueberries)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp fruit pectin
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • pinch of salt

Instructions

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, berries, and water. Cook over low heat, covered, until rhubarb is tender — about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the sugar, pectin, lemon juice, and salt. Bring to a boil, and cook uncovered for another 5-10 minutes, until the temperature reaches about 220º on a candy thermometer (if you don’t have a candy thermometer, just cook it until it thickens a bit).
  3. Ladle into a clean pint jar, let cool a bit, then cover and cool completely in the refrigerator.

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Let’s call it my signature summer dish. If only I could monogram a potato.

I am nothing if not predictable. If you invite me to a cookout during summer months and ask me to bring a dish — unless you specify dessert, or bread, or fruit — I will bring potato salad. Actually, I’ll probably bring potato salad even if you do have one of the aforementioned requests, and just pretend I didn’t get the message.

Why potato salad? I would say that it’s cheap, that it’s infinitely variable, that it keeps well, even in heat (no, the mayonnaise-laden varieties won’t make you sick if they sit out at a picnic) — but the truth is, I think I feel sorry for it, as a dish. Always a sucker for the underdog, in sports, movies, and food — I am drawn to dishes that were once ruined by family reunions and grocery store catering. I enjoy trying to give them a second life in an unsuspecting soul’s culinary repertoire, kind of like up-cycling a moo-moo into a hip halter sundress (has anyone done that yet? If not, start an Etsy shop and I’ll take a 20% finder’s fee).

But potatoes. They can be anything you want them to be. Don’t like mustard? Leave it out. Like mayo, but not as a bath for a handful of floating potato chunks? Don’t use much. Want something simple and clean? Toss cooked potatoes with a simple vinaigrette. There are a few tricks that make potato salads better, no matter your flavor:

  • Cook potatoes only until they are just barely fork-tender, so they are not falling apart when it comes time to dress. I like waxy potatoes (red or yukon gold) best.
  • If using a creamy dressing, toss still-warm potatoes with a little wine vinegar (1-2 Tbsp) and salt, and let sit until cool before adding the rest of your ingredients.
  • Make your salad ahead, so it has at least an hour to sit at room temperature before serving.
  • If cooking whole potatoes, cook them in their jackets, and peel after they cool enough to handle. If you want to cook them pre-cut, try steaming them instead of boiling — the starch clings to the surface and gives the potatoes a nice bite.

Since summer is about using up what’s fresh and attracting fruit flies on the kitchen counter, I rarely make the exact same potato salad twice. Which can make things difficult when people ask for the recipe — it often starts as a modification, but a little of this or that gets added until it tastes right. Which brings me to a final tip about potato salad: seasoning is everything. Potatoes are bland, so often just a splash of extra vinegar or salt at the end will make the flavors brighter and more accessible. So make sure to taste before serving, and be prepared to make necessary adjustments.

I took the following version to a party last weekend, and was asked for the recipe no less than 5 times. Since this one was so closely adapted from a Christopher Kimball recipe, it’s been thankfully easy to recall. A classic dijon vinaigrette with my own addition of dill — that summer herb that still confounds me in the garden as much as it pleases my soul. If you make this, do try to steam (rather than boil) the potatoes — it requires just a touch more maintenance but the texture is worth it.

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Potato Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette, Dill, and Chives
adapted closely from a recipe in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, by Christopher Kimball
serves 8-10, or enough to please a cookout crowd

  • 3 pounds waxy potatoes (yukon gold, new red, or fingerling)
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 5 Tbsp white wine vinegar, divided
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 6 Tbsp good olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp each fresh dill and chives, minced
  • ground black pepper, to taste

Scrub potatoes, and cut into 1/4 inch slices (no need to peel, but you might cut very large potatoes in half lengthwise before slicing). Place a steamer basket in a dutch oven large enough to hold the potatoes. Steam, stirring occasionally, until just fork-tender (about 20 minutes). Transfer to a large bowl.

While potatoes cook, whisk together the salt, 4 Tbsp vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, and olive oil until emulsified. When potatoes have cooled a bit but are still warm, pour dressing over potatoes and toss well. Let sit until cooled to room temperature.

Just before serving, add the last tablespoon vinegar, herbs, and ground black pepper to taste. Toss well, and taste for seasoning. Add additional splash of vinegar and/or salt if necessary.

Leftovers can be refrigerated, but taste best when brought to room temperature before serving.

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Me and the buffet

While I love to use my tendency toward compulsion as a self-deprecating attempt to make light of situational anxieties that plague me in not-so-funny ways, I am not a germ-o-phobe. My compulsive traits do not involve excessive hand-washing, cans of Lysol stuffed into trendy hobo bags, or containers of hand sanitizer stashed in every drawer of my house. When it comes to exposure paranoia, I am much more likely to be afraid of chemical toxins than germs — for example, I love to swim but think chlorine is toxic. I therefore only swim laps once every two weeks (for the love of natural germ-killers, could someone in Indianapolis install a salt-water lap pool? Trust me, they are all the rage, so very Portland).

Some of my idiosyncrasies have developed in the past decade — it’s like I grew up, had kids, and realized that a behavior I once complied with naively was finally seen as the death trap it always was. Rides at the State Fair, for instance. I might let my kids ride the carousel, but you will not see me willingly climb aboard a car that is merely a shoddily temporarily-bolted experiment in airborne centrifugal force. As thrilling as that was in 1987.

One of my late-blooming fear-factors is the buffet. It’s not the fact that the food just sits out, exposed to every wandering hand or spray of untamed sneeze — though that’s undoubtedly part of it, from an ick standpoint — it’s more the quality of the food. I just can’t believe that food being sold out of a large bin, made in massive quantity and replaced as-needed, is of good quality. Add to this the fact that they are often priced per-pound, and it all adds up to one big exercise in controlled anxiety.

Call me a snob, an elitist, a paranoid freak. Make me a t-shirt, I’ll wear it.

Last weekend I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with three of my BFFs. One evening, freshly-pedicured (because that’s what you do at Girls’ Weekends, right?), we found ourselves hungry, driving in downtown Chattanooga during a rainstorm and River Fest, an outdoor festival that left hundreds of people wet and searching for cover. We had a 6-month old baby along for the trip, and none of us had raincoats or umbrellas. We needed to find an inexpensive place to eat that was easy to access. Cassia suggested a Mongolian grill — a place where you “get to pick a protein and vegetables and spices and they stir-fry everything for you.” It seemed inexpensive and quick, but a step up from fast food.

But then we walked in, and they handed me a stainless bowl, and guided me to a buffet. And in the buffet were giant vats of raw meat. Chicken, beef, just sitting their, in all of their bacteria-growing glory. And a few steps down, I was to pick out various chopped veggies and top it all of with a spoon of my spice blend of choice, then hand it to the guy with the giant grill and hope all that bacteria got cooked off and that I blindly seasoned it enough (but not too much!) to taste decent.

I stood and looked, and observed my friends, and hemmed and hawed, and found myself on the verge of minor hyperventilation. As much as I talked myself down from the ledge, I just couldn’t do it — couldn’t stick a serving spoon into the Bucket O’ Uncooked Poultry and start filling my bowl. I won’t say I’m proud of the fact, but in essence, continued hunger won out over vats of raw buffet meat. And the longer I stood, the more I wondered how this concept of restaurant ever made it past the VC stage. I envisioned the presentation payoff:

And so, the concept is that people who want to eat out really want to prepare their own meal. We know they really want to make all their own decisions, only not at their house, at a place they must get into their car and drive to. So we give them all the ingredients, and let them exercise their right of choice by choosing things to put into their bowl. And then — this is where the brilliance is blinding — we cook it for them, so they don’t have to put it in a pan in their own house. We cook it, while they sit at a formica table with a number on it. And then we deliver a bowl to them — tell them it’s what they came up with, and THEY WILL LOVE IT. Because they didn’t have to put it into their OWN pan.

And after that, I just obsessed over the state of America. While we sat at our table and watched the rest of the restaurant fill with people. People who wanted to put their own food into a bowl, but not cook it.

My three girlfriends love me, and graciously put up with my horror, albeit laughingly. And when their bowls came, I tasted them all — and truth be told, they weren’t bad. Maybe needed a touch more salt here or there (my fault entirely, as I was the one who seasoned the tofu bowl — but how was I to know, just dumping in spoonfuls of spice?), but edible. And no one died.

But they did choke a bit, when the “server” brought the bill. At this Mongolian grill, it costs about $13 to fill a small bowl with raw ingredients and let someone else cook it.

Only in America. Or, as they would have us believe, Mongolia.

 

 

 

The kale chips my kids won’t eat

In the vision, we grew a garden. Our perfectly-amended soil, combined with the perfect amount of gentle Midwestern rain, gave roots the nutrients they needed to grow by ample sunlight into a (somewhat humble) and generously-fruited garden. My acceptably dirt-covered children helped me weed, and at harvest time, like when picking strawberries, they tentatively asked if they could take a bite. And in that crunch, their hearts were given over to a burgeoning love of fresh vegetables.

Right. Does anyone have some kids I can borrow to make this dream come to fruition? The garden is good, the kids are dirty. But then everything gets muddled and confused as I’m startled to reality by the sound of my 5-year old asking if he can just go inside on a perfect 80º day and play the DS.

I couldn’t wait for the kale to come up, because in a discussion with some friends about their favorite go-to summer recipes, one mom mentioned kale chips — that her kids simply could not get enough of them. So in my mind, her kids are about the same age as my kids, they aren’t vegetarian or vegan, they aren’t superhuman. If her kids like kale chips, then this could be my ticket to getting at least one serving of leafy green veggies into my (still, ironically, dirt-covered) children before they can legally drink a beer.

So one morning I acted out the sort of photographic scene you would find in any food or gardening magazine: I harvested our lovely kale, washed it 3 times, tore it into little pieces, and made a baking sheet full of kale chips. I presented them to my children, who upon just seeing them noted that they still looked like something leafy, something green, something from the garden, something they would most definitely not like.

But they are SALTY! And CRUNCHY! It’s just like eating a potato chip!

They each had to try one, because that’s how we roll. And at the end of it, I had three kids looking like I’d just placed drops of cyanide on each of their tongues. Seriously, it was like I had poisoned them. They begged me for water, with tears pooling in their eyes. It was like I had morphed into a 5’7″ kale chip, standing before them ready to smother with gargantuan leafy appendages.

How ridiculous. If I morphed into a giant vegetable, I would totally be a root vegetable.

Despite what my children would have you believe, these are a wonderful way to eat kale. I can eat a whole tray of them for dinner — but they are also great crumbled over grain salads, as I discovered when faced with the leftovers of my garden-magazine-worthy vision gone sour.

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Kale Chips (recipe courtesy Emily Vanest, who has better veggie-loving genes to pass on to her children than I)

  • fresh kale leaves, thick stems removed and torn into rough 3″ pieces*
  • olive oil
  • sea salt

Preheat oven to 350º. Toss kale leaves with olive oil and salt to taste. Bake for 10 minutes, until crispy but not too brown. Let cool, and if desired eat straight from the pan, bypassing your children.

* the leaves wilt a good deal when cooked — the photo above (kale in the pan) is before cooking — and I really did eat all of this batch.

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Field trip

My memories of field trips are mixed. Yes, I loved being out of school for a few hours or whole day — but at the same time, if our class was filling up a few buses and heading off school grounds, the chances were good that it was sometime in May, near the end of the school year. Which, in Mississippi, translates into Hot as Dante’s Ninth Level. Usually by 10 minutes into our jaunt at the zoo, I was begging to be back in math class, because who wouldn’t rather learn equations in a 68º classroom than smell monkeys in an inescapable sauna?

Which is one reason I wasn’t super-excited about my 7-year old’s class field trip last week to Trader’s Point Creamery. Outside + June + farm + cowpies = not my idea of a good time. On paper, joining the class with my two littler ones seemed like an Ideal Mom Moment — the reality, that morning, was not looking as pleasant.

But our Indiana summer was kind to us that day. In the middle of a string of hot days, we got a break, with a slightly overcast sky to boot. I didn’t even break a sweat as we walked the facilities and farm, didn’t even mind much as dried manure flattened underfoot.

The land is unabashedly picturesque, hundreds of acres of rolling hills just on the north side of urban Eagle Creek — a blinkable 20-minute drive from our house. All that acreage bequeathed for one purpose: organically growing grass, grass that will feed cows; for the owners are effective proselytizers of a message: non-homogenized milk from grass-fed cows is the healthiest milk we can drink.

We are already believers of their message, but it was good to be reminded of why we go to the trouble — and even better to see the process in action. But even for the kids who might not drink cow’s milk (at least one vegan family was on our tour), or who might not ever care or afford to pay the higher price for organic, grass-fed milk, it was a valuable lesson in the source of dairy, and why sustainable farming is important.

The kids learned that cows are herbivores, and that they become natural soil-builders as they eat and poop, crush grasses into the ground under-hoof, and even get picky — leaving tall, prickly, unpalatable species untouched (which I was quick to point out is like how we don’t eat the leaves off oak trees, definitely not an excuse to leave the broccoli on your dinner plate). We learned that clover is a legume (who knew?) and provides protein to the vegetarian bovine.

Most fascinating to me was seeing the milking room, where 8 cows at a time are coaxed in and hooked up to a breast pump of nightmare proportions. The milk is pumped in stainless steel pipes directly into the creamery, where it becomes yogurt, cheeses, and drinking milk. All flavorings added are organically-grown, making all of Trader’s Point products certified organic and of highest quality.

But with that quality comes a hefty price tag. Our daughter’s school is socio-economically diverse, and I would venture to say that most of the children in attendance cannot afford the milk we were seeing in production. The dairy workers are aware of this — they know they have an expensive product. But they aren’t getting rich — it’s just really expensive to produce dairy products in this way. Gone are the days when many families had their own cow to do the fertilizing and provide the milk for a family — and a small dairy farm isn’t economically sustainable on its own. The tours of the farm, the sales of cheese and yogurt, the on-site restaurant all subsidize the farm’s ability to stay in business.

But that contrast left me with mixed feelings. We don’t buy Trader’s Point products — not because they aren’t delicious, but simply because we can get a similar-quality product in less expensive ways. We have a cow share with a local farmer who delivers our milk to us weekly; I make our yogurt, and occasionally our cheese (my 5-year plan includes a more full-force investigation into this art). But what we lack in material wealth we make up for in the luxury of time — I am able to stay at home, allowing me freedom to spend the necessary time in my kitchen to provide these things cheaply.

My ethical dilemma landed on the side of Trader’s Point. I love that a creamery dedicated to making the highest-quality milk possible exists just minutes from downtown Indianapolis, love that a woman donated all of her land to that purpose rather than selling it for millions of dollars to a developer. I want to support them, even if that only means I pay for a tour, occasionally eat in the restaurant, or splurge on their cheeses and chocolate milk.

If I had an opportunity to tour the production facility of an artisan textile designer, I would do it, even if I could never afford a yard of the fabric. At the end of that day, a bunch of kindergarten and first-graders were given a lesson in sustainable farming, bovine lactating habits, the food chain, predators, grass species, cheese-making, and real estate. With a cup of fresh organic ice cream to top it off. Score one for education, being outdoors, smelling cowpies, and supporting a local business.

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Trader’s Point Creamery products are shipped to select markets across the country. If you see them at your local Whole Foods or Marsh, pick one up — they are worth the higher price tag.

Raspberry sherbet popsicles

I’m a little behind last year on my first summer popsicle post. Maybe it’s due to the unseasonably chilly and wet spring we had here in Indiana — it seems everything is a little behind. I was informed today that cherries won’t be ready for another week — and it was a year ago this week that I was ignoring my houseful of boxes in order to pick them before the worms had their way.

But summer has caught up to us all. It was 95º in Indianapolis today — hotter than on any single day of our first summer here. As our ironic river birch trees provided a welcome canopy from blistering rays, I sat somewhat comfortably (not profusely sweating, but not without my lounging limits) outside after lunch as the kids played and ate our first summer popsicles. It’s amazing what a good shade tree (and an ever-so-slightly tepid breeze) will do for my mood; I didn’t even mind as melting popsicle juice dribbled down chins, fingers, arms, and clothes. By the last licks, I had three kids on my hands so sticky that a quick bath was in order (and bathing, in our house, is reserved for emergencies).

Popsicles can be totally hit or miss. Sometimes what tastes lovely in a blender becomes somewhat bland in a frozen state; texture also plays a part — it’s not as satisfying to crunch on a rock-hard block of ice as it is for your teeth to sink into something more pillowy. But the beauty of homemade popsicles is their versatility and frugality — anything goes, with (usually) little investment — so you might as well give the blender a whirl and see what happens in the freezer.

These were deemed a keeper by everyone. I was at Kroger one day last week, and saw fresh raspberries on sale for $1/tub. I’m not a huge fan of raspberries — and maybe this is a case of my never having had a truly fresh/ripe one — but they have thus far not presented as a very satisfying berry to my palate. But at such a low price, I knew something must be done with them. We bought two packages, their future yet to be determined.

Fatefully, that very afternoon my kids began their customarily incessant requests for popsicles. I thumbed through The Perfect Scoop, found a raspberry sherbet recipe, and adjusted it for popsicle use (requiring less sugar than their sorbet/gelato/sherbet counterparts). We mixed, blended, poured, and froze, and next day enjoyed the bright fuschia fruits of our labor. The milk lends a creaminess to these flavorful, slightly tart, not-too-sweet treats.

One step that might seem excessive but I try to include is straining the puree before freezing. This rids the pops of those pesky raspberry seeds, which would change the texture and possibly require tooth-brushing (I’m already committed to a mid-day bath — tooth-brushing is out of the question). My favorite tool for this is a conical fine-mesh strainer, a tool that is irritatingly pricey and hard to find. If you get one, you will find it becomes your favorite strainer — all the more heartbreaking when your kids’ repetitive use of it as a hat causes the mesh to tear away from the frame (oh, the cost of coddled imaginations).

We’ll be whirling these up again, assuming I once again find raspberries on sale. As far as mid-day baths, well, let’s just say I’ve gotten that out of my system. While succumbing to summertime heat, I also let go my fears of sweaty, sticky children climbing into their beds at night. Such freedoms are what summer-times are made of (read: at least they’re not sleeping in my bed).

 

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Raspberry Sherbet Popsicles (adapted from a recipe in The Perfect Scoop)
makes about 8 popsicles

  • 3 cups fresh raspberries (about 2 6-oz containers)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Place berries, milk, and sugar in a blender or food processor, and puree until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, then stir in lemon juice. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze until solid.

When ready to un-mold, run lukewarm water over molds until pops loosen.

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Worst Food Moment

Can a moment be 25 years?

I’ve been trying to nail down a singular food moment that deserves the modifier “worst,” and am coming up empty. I’ll conveniently blame the hyperbolic state of food entertainment — having caught one too many episodes of Last Cake Standing (my husband despises that show, and really, so do I — how much drama can you possibly cook up in a cake-baking competition? [obviously enough to keep me watching to see if the cake! Really! Falls!] It’s like a soap opera of monstrous confectionery proportions). So when attempting to visualize a Worst Food Moment, I keep picturing this giant cake falling to the floor. The main problem being, of course, that my giant cake has never fallen, because I’ve never made one.

I’ve also never had food poisoning. Nor have I (to my knowledge) sickened anyone else with my cooking (though there was that one slightly-undercooked Thanksgiving turkey, which suspiciously affected only one family member). Those would be moments worthy of a one-upping storytelling contest at a party.

But I’ve got nothing. Except I keep coming back to the first 25 years of my life.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. There was the occasional pot roast or buttered farmer’s market squash cooked by my Mom; there were pivotal restaurant meals, like the time my Dad took me to a quaint Italian dive for my 12th birthday, and I first discovered eggplant parmesan; there were the late 70’s super-8 memory clips of shelling beans and picking blueberries at my grandmother’s bungalow in south Mississippi.

But those moments were exceptions. The rules were Velveeta Shells & Cheese, Chef Boy-R-Dee pizza, and swimming pools of milk. I seriously drank nothing else.

It’s interesting, I think, that the vacuum of real food for most of my life is what defines a worst moment. Because — when you think about it — eating boxes of pasta and powdered cheese is a pretty safe way to live. Not healthy, but safe. You’re not likely to be food poisoned, and you know exactly what you’re getting every time you open the box. But like the woman afraid to leave her house for fear of dying in a car accident or being struck by lightening, all of that perceived safety comes with a price.

I don’t like to get too political in this space. Primarily because I’m not a very political person — I have my opinions, but don’t tend to share them publicly or try to win others to a cause (laziness and apathy help). But I can look back at my life, growing up in a suburban 1970s-80s America, and see it as a microcosm of our society (the food part, not the big hair and Units knockoffs, though one could make a case). Our generation has tended to grow up expecting food to be safe. Not only literally — we sterilize most foods we consume — but also sensuously. We like to know what we’re getting, and when we find something we like, we are repeat customers.

I can one-hundred-percent completely identify with finding comfort in routine. I am a woman who will not go to sleep without a glass of water by my bed, and this is just one of several nighttime compulsions habits. But there is something miraculous about food that allows my proclivity toward predictability to fall wayside. And it makes me sad, to think about all of those years that I didn’t like so many foods — simply because I didn’t try them or had never had them cooked fresh and not served from a can. I lived in a food desert of my own making, but didn’t realize it, because for a variety of reason — some self-inflicted, some circumstantial — I never ventured close enough to the horizon to realize there was a world beyond.

In the food movement as it currently stands, people of all ages are attempting a pilgrimage toward a closer, more adventurous relationship to our food. Part of this voyage involves turning away from previous habits of eating the same foods day after day, week after week, with no regard to season or consideration of what foods might be locally available rather than trucked in from across the country. A mistake I often fear is made by local food activists is setting the bar so high that people in transition — people like me who grew up in an environment antithetical to locavore eating — throw up their hands in frustration, unable to keep up with all the new (to them) rules. The way I see it, any small step toward better understanding the source of our food is a step in the right direction, and should be duly encouraged.

But, somewhat ironically, those steps often result in failure. We buy fresh beans, and steam them for a potluck, only to realize as no one can chew them that we bought shelling beans rather than an edible pod variety (me, in North Carolina, circa 2002). Or we join a CSA, and get a box-full of unidentifiable greens, and overwhelmed, let them go bad in our refrigerator (also me, in Georgia, circa 2006). We try to make yogurt and it’s lumpy, bake bread and it’s a brick, sprout grains and they mold, plant a garden and late frost kills every plant. All of those times, at the moment, seeming quite worthy of the modifier “worst.” We might curse, wring our hands in frustration, and wonder what’s the point.

Except there’s that tiny little part about learning something. Because those little mini-disasters turn into knowledge that we can’t gain from reading a cookbook — and with that disappointment under our belt we are all the more ecstatic when the next time (or the next) we succeed. The thrill of dirty-nail success, of being able to hand someone a thing of my own making and watch them enjoy it, of tasting something entirely new and wondering how I’ve existed without it my whole life — those are the joys I was missing for a quarter century. That’s the part that is most deserving of the superlative negative adjective. My Worst Food Moment, circa 1972-1997.

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I wrote this post at the challenge of The Peche, as part of a fun little Pity Party on Twitter — never one to shy away from competition, especially when there are loads of other things to do. #Procrastination #WantingTheCookbooks