Sunday, July 8, 2007

I am what I ate--and I don't know where it came from

My sister, like my mother, is a self-described tree-hugging liberal. Over the past several years she has preached the gospel of "think globally, act locally". She applies this principle to everything, including grocery purchases. As for me, I didn't care where my produce came from as long as it had the label "USDA Organic".

That was my feeling until I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Yes, it's great to live in a society where we can get bananas year-round, but, as Ms. Kingsolver asks, have we ever thought about what it took to get them into our markets? The hours of poorly-paid labor that it took to harvest these golden-yellow bunches? The big companies that make millions for its executives yet fork over little for those who do the actual work? The barrels of petroleum that it took to bring the lovely fruit to the local Stop and Shop? They had me at petroleum!

I was already aware of the pesticide residues that are on conventionally grown produce, but was not as much aware of the cost of transportation that is used to get our lovely bananas to the stores. This, as I stated in my last post, was what frightened me about the products in my home, in this case, food.

However, as I continued to read, I found a fascinating portrait of one year in the life of harvesting fresh produce, and it left me feeling empowered. I could feel the gratification that Ms. Kingsolver and her family felt when they harvested bushels of potatoes, the joy when the asparagus was ready to be picked, the wonderful description of a truly home-grown Thanksgiving--especially the tale of the pumpkin soup baked in a pumpkin tureen. Imagine the worst possible thing that could happen once it's placed on the table, and there you have it.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle also portrays the Hopp-Kingsolver family's ventures in poultry raising and, eventually, slaughter. I feared that this would offend vegetarian readers, but Ms. Kingsolver chronicles the slaughter efforts with sensitivity and honesty. Yes, she did slaughter roosters and turkey, but her poultry was fed an organic diet and was allowed to roam free, unlike the mass-breeders of poultry today.

What I admired most about Ms. Kingsolver's narrative was that she advocated buying locally, organically, and humanely without being preachy about it. Had she written with such a tone I would not have enjoyed this book. Normally, if I like a certain book, I will sit with it for hours, fully reading the whole thing. This book, however, was like a rich dessert; I wanted to savor it slowly, and not want it to end.

There is a list of websites and articles at the end of the book that provide further information. I have since found several local produce farms near me, as well as a beef-raising farm, that I intend to investigate soon.

One more thing--there is a very charming chapter that is about cheesemaking, along with a recipe for mozzarella that comes from the New England Cheesemaking and Supply Company. I visited their website yesterday and found a cheesemaking kit for purchase.

Now I know what to get my tree-hugging mother and sister for Christmas.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

My Chemical Romance

I'm in the middle of two books right now that have me scared shitless about the products in my home. I'll start with Organic Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck.

It's no secret that I am a lousy housekeeper. My friends and family come over and will spend part of their visit either giving me tips for keeping a clean abode, or they will help me clean my abode. My goal for the future is to keep my guests from doing this, so they can just relax and drink good wine.

Anyhoo, one of the reasons I picked up Organic Housekeeping is that, as a lifelong asthmatic and allergy sufferer, I thought it would be a good idea to eliminate as many toxic chemicals from my cleaning supplies and replace them with natural, affective alternatives.

So I'm in the middle of the chapter on the chemicals most dangerous to our environment and I come across this list:
  • Acetone, which is found in many nail polish removers. Can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and reproductive system.
  • Glycol ethers, found in many skin care and hair care products, are also used as antifreeze and in brake and hydraulic fluid. Can cause kidney and liver damage as well as intestinal distress. These chemicals are also used in toothpastes.
  • Tricolsan, the main ingredient in many antibacterial products, degrades into a form of dioxin.

As I washed up this evening, I inspected the labels of my favorite shampoo, conditioner, and facial cleanser. Both of them contain glycol ethers. I was too scared to examine my toothpaste ingredients. I may as well be cleansing with Prestone.

I found two bottles of nail polish remover in my bathroom cabinet and immediately disposed of those--in the trash, not down the drain, out of fear of polluting my local water supply. I was not distraught over this, as I am a nail-biter and rarely use nail polish.

Now before you think I'm getting out of hand or am being irrational about these fears, let me add that Ms. Sandbeck provides an extensive bibliography at the end of her book, full of websites, books, and magazine articles.

However, I'm not scared enough to stop using my favorite shampoo or facial cleanser. My skin and hair are in the best condition they've ever been.

In my next post I shall write about the other book I'm reading that's got me scared about the food I consume. I may as well drop everything and move back to the prairie a la Laura Ingalls after all.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Long Winter's Nap

As I write this, the sun has set, the cool summer breeze blows through the trees, and there are enough clouds in the sky to produce a storm. A thunderstorm, that is. Nothing like the blizzards that the Ingalls family had to endure in The Long Winter.

The sixth novel in the Little House series tells of a winter so bad, no trains could get through to deliver groceries or supplies. Much of the townsfolk starved, and there was no wheat. One chapter tells of how Almanzo Wilder rode south with another townsman in search of a gentleman who had bushels and bushels of wheat stored in his house. Almanzo managed to buy all of this wheat for a dollar and a quarter a bushel. They took it back to Loftus's store in town, where Loftus decided to sell it for three dollars a bushel. A riot ensues outside the store, and Pa Ingalls manages to convince Loftus to ration the wheat to the families for what Almanzo and his friend paid for it.

These days, people wait outside stores for other things. Pa Ingalls, who bemoaned progress in The Long Winter, would be somersaulting in his grave right now if he learned that just two days ago, people waited in long lines outside of stores for a cell phone. But not just any cell phone, no sir--the long-awaited iPhone. I cannot justify spending $500 on a phone, then paying $100 a month for service. The phone clearly does not pay for itself. While it seems like a nifty little gadget, it does not seem worth waiting 6 hours in line.

That having been said, I must find my tent, so I can pitch it in the parking lot while I wait for the release of the last Harry Potter.