What’s for Dinner?
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times "On the Table" Blog, June 7, 2006
I’ve spent the last two months mostly on the road, talking to audiences around the country about my book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the questions it raises about how and what we eat. Most of the posts here on TimesSelect represent my thoughts in response to questions put to me by those audiences as well as readers of this site. Complicated as they may seem, many of the questions — Local or organic? Carnivore or vegetarian? — boil down to variations on the most basic question of all: What should we have for dinner?
People often ask how I answer that question for myself. They’re curious to know how my investigations of the food chain have changed the way I and my family eat, whether we still eat meat (yes, but much less often and only from a handful of suppliers I can vouch for); whether I buy organic (usually, though given the opportunity I much prefer to buy local); whether I go out of my way to avoid high-fructose corn syrup (yes, though not so much because it’s an evil molecule as because it’s a reliable marker for the kind of highly processed foods I try to avoid); and whether I ever eat junk food. (Busted. I have a weakness for Cracker Jacks, corn chips and pizza, and therefore I don’t think of those delicacies as junk food.) So after spending the past month trying to answer the dinner question in the largest ethical, environmental and nutritional sense, I thought a good way to wrap up my column here would be to answer it in the narrowest sense: What am I having for dinner night?
The answer to that question is found in a box.
One of the biggest changes I’ve made in my eating was to join a C.S.A. farm. C.S.A. stands for community supported agriculture, an awkward name for an elegant scheme. C.S.A. farms are a little like magazines: you “subscribe” to them, on an annual or monthly basis, and in exchange for a fee ($60 a month in my case), you receive a weekly box of produce, which you can pick up either from the farm or from a drop-off location or, for an additional fee, have delivered to your door.
Dozens of good C.S.A.’s operate in the Bay Area, where I live. I chose to join — and that is the operative word, as I’ll explain — Full Belly Farm’s. (To find a C.S.A. near you, go to localharvest.org or the Department of Agriculture’s C.S.A. Web page; see also the other Web resources listed in my earlier post, “Food From a Farm Near You.”) I was familiar with Full Belly Farm from shopping at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, where they sell produce every Tuesday. The farm in the Capay Valley, a couple-of-hours drive northeast of Berkeley, grows 80 different fruit and vegetable crops, and they’ve offered C.S.A. boxes since 1992. (America’s first C.S.A. was started in the 1980’s in Western Massachusetts; the concept began in Europe a few years before that.) Full Belly has always been highly diversified, economically as well as biologically. In addition to the C.S.A. and farmer’s markets, they sell food wholesale to small and large grocers in the Bay Area, including Whole Foods. I’d always been impressed by the quality and variety of their vegetables. So when we decided to join a C.S.A., Full Belly seemed a logical choice.
I pick up my box from the front porch of a house a couple of blocks away from mine. I have no idea whose house it is, or why they lend their porch to a C.S.A., but every Tuesday the porch is stacked high with boxes. There’s also a table on the porch, set with a vase of fresh flowers, some brochures and a sign-up sheet. I initial my name on the sheet, return last week’s box to the pile of empties, and pick up a new box, wondering what this week’s harvest will bring — and what we will have for dinner that night.
It is less like shopping for food than going out in the garden to see what’s ripe. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays we never plan dinner in advance, preferring to let the farmer — which is to say, a particular patch of soil and the weather — determine the menu for us. I remember reading in one of Alice Waters’s cookbooks that she would never decide on the night’s menu at her restaurant Chez Panisse till she’d visited the farmer’s market, where the vegetables would speak to her and tell her what to cook.
Sometimes the vegetables speak loud and clear, as when asparagus is in season. Last week, these spears, cut just hours before they were boxed, were so fresh it would have been criminal to do anything more elaborate than to steam them and drizzle a little lemon juice and olive oil on them. But there are times when the vegetables in the box speak inscrutably, or not at all. For a few weeks this winter, the box offered rather more rutabagas than you ever want to see, and I had to consult a few cookbooks before determining how best to deploy them. One week I made a puree with carrots, also from the box; another time I sliced and simply roasted them with olive oil. Interesting. I would never buy rutabagas at the market, but I was happy to be forced into exploring this vegetable’s (mildly) underestimated possibilities.
Actually the folks at Full Belly — who include a helpful and nicely written newsletter, The Full Belly Beet, with each box — sounded a little apologetic about some of those late winter, rutabaga-heavy boxes. But as the newsletter explained, the winter rains were brutal and unremitting this year clear through April, delaying spring planting and devastating some of the crops, including the peaches and strawberries. So we got more root crops than usual and, to make up for it one week, a gorgeous bunch of flowers.
But that’s the point: as “shareholders” in a C.S.A., we share equally in the farm’s bounty and shortfalls, its triumphs and disasters. The word shareholder is not empty in this case; certainly it more closely describes the relationship we’ve entered into than the words “consumer” and “producer” would. As John Peterson, the C.S.A. farmer from Illinois who is profiled in the new documentary “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” describes it, the “C.S.A. is a new socioeconomic form in which the farm and consumer enter into a sort of partnership, an alliance to take care of each other’s needs.” For the farmer, the C.S.A. relationship means a reliable cash flow through the growing season (with money up front to help pay for planting) and shareholders who share in the risks and rewards of an enterprise that will always be at the mercy of the weather. For the shareholder, it means the freshest possible food received at the end of the shortest possible food chain.
More important, the C.S.A. reconnects you as an eater with the source of your food, offering a vivid reminder that, whatever we eat, we eat by the grace of farms and farmers, of the land, the weather and the season — not supermarkets. The C.S.A. means I also eat in the knowledge that I’m doing my small bit to defend a gorgeous patch of bottomland along Cache Creek outside the tiny town of Guinda from the oncoming wave of sprawl that threatens to engulf California’s entire Central Valley into one big, wall-to-wall housing development.
Eating from the C.S.A. box constitutes the very opposite of industrial eating, that sort of unconscious consumption based on our desire to eat whatever we want whenever we want it — tomatoes in January, strawberries in October — food that’s been cleaned, cut up, processed, cooked, everything but chewed and digested for us. That food chain offers convenience, sure, yet in the end it depends on ignorance — of the cost of eating that way, and of all the labor, energy and technology it requires. To eat from the C.S.A. box, with its newsletter chronicling the week’s doings on the farm, is to eat in a fuller knowledge of all that’s involved in getting food to our plates, including the necessity, and pleasure, of cooking. (Most C.S.A. newsletters offer recipes.) There’s a lot more going on than the exchange of money for food.
So what’s in the box this week? It’s a good one, suggesting we’ve arrived on the cusp of summer. There’s asparagus again, a big bunch of pencil-thin spears; a bag of new potatoes and a bunch of carrots; a big bag of salad mix; a little bag of walnuts; a fat head of garlic; and — I could smell it through the box the moment I lifted it from the porch — the season’s first bunch of basil. Even before I consulted the newsletter, which offered the suggestion and a recipe, I recognized the summery possibility: pesto for dinner tonight.
Thanks to everyone who read these offerings and, especially, to all who offered their two cents in response to my posts. I’ve profited enormously from your comments, criticisms and leads. Still, a great many topics never quite made it to the “Table.” In fact, the list keeps growing: the coming debate over the farm bill (which you can keep tabs on by going to the Web site for the American Farmland Trust); the question of whether organic can feed the world (yes, according to a terrific article by Brian Halwell in the May/June issue of “World Watch,” which effectively rebuts Steven Shapin’s offhand dismissal of the possibility in the May 15 issue of The New Yorker); and the need to address the food system’s role in the energy and climate-change crisis (an important truth overlooked by Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth” and Whole Foods president John Mackey’s recent open letter to me in response to both my book and this blog). So I may have to come back here and post again from time to time. Watch this space. And remember: Vote with your fork!