Category Archives: Food for Thought

ONE YEAR AFTER BREAST CANCER: SOME MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT ORGANIC FOOD

A year has gone by since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A whole year! Time is funny. In some ways the year passed quickly, but in other ways, especially this past winter as I dealt with the fatigue that comes with radiation treatment, time moved very slowly. Even now, my stamina is not what it was before breast cancer and radiation. When I have people over for a meal, I am really tired when they leave, and I just don’t have the energy for long-distance bike riding, the way I did last year. I can only go ten or eleven miles, but the good news is that I do this daily. And I’m glad to be on the road, biking through town and by the shimmering lake.

At the beginning of August, I had my first after-cancer mammogram, and I will admit that I was nervous out of my mind. What a relief to find out that the mammogram was “normal.” Right around that time, I spoke with a woman in town who has had breast cancer.

“Does it get any easier?” I asked, referring to the mammogram jitters I had.

“No,” she answered. “It really doesn’t.”

How could it?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I vowed to buy as much organic food as possible, and to be truthful, it has taken a great deal of effort to do so on our modest budget. Organic food is always more expensive than food grown with harsh pesticides, and sometimes it is much more expensive. It helps that we are mostly vegetarian because organic meat is especially pricey. But, still! I have always been a frugal shopper, and during the 1990s, I was able to feed five people on less than $100 a week, usually $80 or so. Now, it is a rare trip to the grocery store when I don’t spend at least $50—I usually go more than once a week—and we don’t eat extravagantly—I cook from scratch and buy very little meat.

Nevertheless, my commitment to organic food remains strong. When I was a young teenager, hardly anyone I knew had breast cancer. It was very uncommon and not a cause for concern. (What teenager could say this now?) Then, in the mid-1970s, things began to change, and my own family experienced this firsthand when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was on the vanguard, the first wave of women that would really be hit by this disease, a wave that would only get bigger and bigger over time.

What changed? Certainly mammograms play a role in detecting cancer earlier, but I will again make the case that when I was young, few women I knew, regardless of whether they were 50, 60, or 70, had breast cancer. And I lived in a multigenerational home. I would have heard about it if my grandmother’s friends had had breast cancer. (Only one did.)

While there might be a variety of causes for the increase in breast cancer, one big change—starting in the 1950s—is how we grow our food. According to Sandra Steingraber in her book Living Downstream, after World War II, all “the technologies developed for wartime purposes…changed chemistry and physics forever….The multitude of new synthetic products made available after the war altered how food was grown and packaged…” Welcome to the world of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Steingraber calls herself “a member of the most poisoned generation to come of adult age…” and I am also of that generation.

Now, I know that food is only one piece of what might be called the “poison puzzle.” Our water and air are also contaminated, and pollutants don’t stay in one place, traveling even to the arctic circle, which is far away from factories and crops grown with pesticides. In short, I realize I can’t control everything that comes into my life. But when it comes to food, I can, and so I am.

I am developing strategies to keep the cost of organic food as low as possible. I’ve already described how I cook from scratch and don’t buy much meat. That’s a good start. I’ve also begun compiling a price book listing the cost of the food I buy at various stores. Just as it is with nonorganic food, the prices range from store to store. Once a month, my husband and I go to Trader Joe’s to stock up on food we can’t buy locally. (We also visit with our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, thereby efficiently combining shopping and visiting with family on our trip.) But even at Trader Joe’s a price book is essential. While there are real bargains for organic food at Trader Joe’s, occasionally I can get a better deal at our local Hannaford.

On the home front, joining a CSA has  been a relatively thrifty way to get organic vegetables. Plus, I like supporting Farmer Kev. I also make a great effort to waste as little food as possible. Food thrown away is like money thrown away.

So eating mostly organic can be done on a modest budget, but it takes a fair amount of work. However, to me it is time well spent, a gift not only to myself but also to the planet and to future generations.

 

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

On Saturday, we had two sets of very good friends—Beth and John Clark and Dawna and Jim Leavitt—over for a barbecue on the patio in our backyard. The weather was hot and humid, but by the time they came, around 5:30, the backyard was in shade, which made it pleasant to sit on the patio.

As usual, as hostess, I was too busy to take pictures, but here is what we ate: For appetizers, grilled bread dipped in olive oil, cherries, rice crackers, and an artichoke spread (thank you, Kate, for the link to this Smitten Kitchen recipe). For the main meal, hamburgers made with ground beef from Wholesome Holmstead, chickpea patties, a big green salad with homemade dressings (thank you, Dawna, for bringing these things); and a carrot, blueberry, and sunflower seed salad. For dessert, Beth’s delectable blueberry cake, of which I never can get enough. Whenever Beth asks me what she might bring to a dinner, my prompt reply is, “Blueberry cake.” It’s a Margery Standish recipe, and Beth has a special touch with this cake.

Sitting on the patio on an August evening was a fine thing. Hummingbirds whirred among the bee balm. In the woods, a thrush sang, its ethereal song adding such beauty to our meal, and the crickets’ high-pitched arias blended with the song of the thrush. The woods at the edge of our lawn became darker and darker, and although they stayed well out of sight, I could imagine the night animals coming out from the places where they sleep—the bats, the owls, foxes, and coyotes. All on the hunt.

Clif and I have known the Clarks and the Leavitts for many, many years. We have watched their children grow and get married, just as they have watched ours do the same. There is a comfort that comes from knowing friends for such a long time, and conversation settled as easily among us as night settled over the backyard.

As we are all good liberals, the talk inevitably turned to politics and world events, such as the famine in Somalia. I mentioned how on the Diane Rehm show, I had heard that drought, brought on by climate change, was partially to blame for the famine, but that bad governing was also responsible. All of Somalia is suffering from the drought, but only in southern Somalia are people dying from starvation. Apparently, Somalia is governed by regions, and southern Somalia, unfortunately, is in the grip of Al Shabib, a militant Islamist group that has mounted a formidable insurgency against Somalia’s transitional government. (For more about Al Shabib, read this article in the New York Times.) Basically, southern Somalia is run by thugs who want to ban music, TV, and bras, and they keep people in line by chopping off their hands. Not only has Al Shabib stopped starving people from leaving the country, but they have also forced out many Western aid organizations. In short,  Al Shabib has made a bad situation much, much worse. Truly, a cautionary tale for the planet as the population continues to grow and water becomes ever scarcer.

From there, the conversation turned to peak oil and the rising price of food and gas in this country. Then came the question, how much is enough? How much do people need to have a good life? There was a general agreement that even though we three families are not rich by American standards, we all have too much stuff.

“But people do need some kind of surplus,” I said. “If they don’t, then an emergency can sink them.”

John replied, “In Hartland [where he lives] too many people, especially young adults, don’t have a surplus at all.”

So how much is enough? Naturally, we didn’t resolve this question, but Beth spoke about how freeing it was to go on vacation, rent a little cabin, and live very simply.

“Within a half hour,” she said, “everything was tidy and clean, and the rest of the day was ours to do with as we pleased.”

But could she live that way indefinitely? Would “stuff” start creeping in?

Beth shrugged. Who knows?

As the evening came to a close, and the Clarks and the Leavitts were getting ready to leave, Dawna said, “I’m so full! Next time, let’s just have the grilled bread, a salad, and maybe a couple of other appetizers. That would be enough.”

A very appropriate remark, especially in light of the conversations we had been having.

Would such a meal be enough? It probably would. I hope that before the season ends, we will host a meal with grilled bread and appetizers and find out.

 

THE MAINE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: PART ONE—FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Popcorn machineFor the past ten days, my husband, Clif, our daughter Dee, and I have been going to the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) in Waterville, Maine. This is an annual festival that features movies, movies, and more movies. It encompasses two weekends, where the movies start at noon and can end at midnight. On those days, it is possible to see four movies, if the right choices are made. On the weekdays in between, the pace is a little more decorous, with the first movies starting at 3:00 or 3:30.

By my count 102 movies were shown at this year’s film festival. Naturally, it is not possible to see 102 movies in ten days, so filmgoers must study the program and try to choose movies that suit their tastes. Because all the blurbs in the festival program are written to entice moviegoers to each particular film, deciding which movie to see is not an easy process, and rash decisions are often made. As in, “Oh, what the heck! We have an open slot. Let’s just go see this one.” This path can lead to stinkers and clunkers, yet even these movies are not without value.

I’m not sure if The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye falls into the stinker or clunker category*. It was certainly amateurishly made, a documentary that spent far too much time allowing its subjects to mug it up in front of the camera. With its focus on bondage, sex, “pandrogyne,” and gender issues, the film came very close to being too explicit for my taste. (The program’s description of Ballad delicately skirts this focus.) The subjects of the film—Genesis P-Orridge and his wife and “artistic partner,” Lady Jaye, decided to show their devotion to each other by having their faces surgically altered so that they would more closely resemble each other. Genesis P-Orridge, who likes cross-dressing, took it one step further and had breasts implants as well. Not your average married couple and certainly not your average film.

However, despite this movie’s many flaws, I am not sorry I saw it. Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s concern with androgyny seemed, well, sincere. For whatever reason—my guess it’s biological—some people do not feel comfortable with their gender and do not fit into the traditional notions of what it is to be male or female. Unfortunately, most societies have little tolerance for such people, who are often tormented and bullied unmercifully. The message I got from the film is that this unconventional couple wanted to show the world that gender can be fluid and that to embrace this fluidity is a form of enlightenment. I don’t know if I agree or disagree, but it certainly has given me something to think about.

Only at a film festival would I see a film like this, and it is one of the reasons I love MIFF.**  We tend to bump along in our own little worlds with our own little circle of friends who, by and large, live as we do. Seeing The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye reminded me that there are other ways of thinking and being.

You might even call it food for thought.

*A clunker is a movie that merely falls flat. A stinker is a movie that’s just plain rotten. And, yes, I coined the terms.

**We also saw many good movies, including Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie; In Good Time, The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland; Ito: A Diary of an Urban Priest; An Uncommon Curiosity: At Home and in Nature with Bernd Heinrich; and The Grove.