Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An ecological footprint

I'm halfway though Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the latest dispatch from the world of ecologically sustainable eating. The book is excellent, highly readable even if you flunked biology and can't tell a rosebush from a rototiller.

The book includes some scary sidebars by Kingsolver's husband, biologist Steven Hopp, and some charming essays by Barbara's nineteen-year-old daughter, Camille.

If, like me, you're a longtime Kingsolver fan, there's definitely a moment where you freak out--Camille is nineteen! Whoa! Once over that, you realize she is a gifted writer who, unlike many people her age, is passionately involved in, and knowledgable about, the natural world.

Having spent thirty-six of my near-forty years in urban settings, I know nothing about gardening. For all my kitchen expertise, I am so bad with plants that I've pretty much given up trying to grow anything. My current abode offers nothing more than an enclosed patio. I've nowhere to transplant or deal with dirt without making a huge mess. So it is that my gardening fantasies are just that. Fantasies.

The Kingsolver-Hopp clan, by contrast, has a huge farm where they grow most of their food. The family also raises chickens and turkeys, bakes their own bread, and makes their own cheese.

And people think I'm weird for making confit.

All this reading about oil guzzling, empty calories, and the horrors of modern chemical farming sent me into my supposedly pc kitchen. Guiltily I began opening cupboards, pulling down cans and bottles, reading labels. I dove into the fridge, rooted through the freezer, skidding ice across the floor in an effort to read the back of a tortilla bag. I stared at the plastic grocery bags I hoard for cleaning Kitty's box, the paper towels, the napkins. What was I doing right? What could I do better?

Well, there are those paper napkins. The paper towels. The plastic bags, which Oakland may soon outlaw, saving me the trouble of my conscience.

Back to the food. I should be buying local, organic, grass fed, etc., etc., you know the drill. Mostly I do. But there are definitely some cans around.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most of my pantry staples come from California. The Juanita's canned hominy, something I expected to be a major offender, contains hominy, water, and salt, and hails from Santa Rosa, fifty miles north. Though on further examination, I'm not sure where the hominy itself comes from.

Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk says California on the can, but coconuts don't grow here. The Barilla Rigatoni is from Illinois. The actual flour that went into the pasta? God knows. My pure cane white sugar is Hawaiian and probably really from beets. The Muir Glen canned tomatoes are from Washington.

The real offenders:

La Tortilla Factory Tortillas, which are from Santa Rosa but have an ingredient list longer than Remembrance of Things Past. These must go. Either I need to find a locally-made (and healthier) brand or make them myself. Tortillas are one of the easiest breads to prepare: water, oil, salt, flour. Mix. Allow to sit for thirty minutes. Roll out thinly. Heat your comal or cast iron pan. Toss a tortilla on the hot surface. Allow to cook until browned and puffy on both sides. Then, if you can stop yourself from eating them all immediately, freeze them. You don't even need yeast, and believe me, you will be amazed by how good they are.

Cascadian Farm Organics tater tots. I am embarassed to admit how much we like these. Cascadian Farm is huge, with a rather capacious definition of organic. These frozen morsels are wondeful popped into a hot oven and served with hamburgers, one of my default hurry meals. Where the actual potatoes come from, and what happens to them on their journey from potato to tot is, well, worrisome. The chicken McNugget sequence in "Supersize Me" comes to mind.

Even worse than the tortillas is the bag of hamburger buns. Close inspection reveals them to be Sara Lee. (Gulp. The pc police are on the way.) Like the tortillas, they possess a daunting ingredient list and come from St. Louis, Missouri.

Again, I can make hamburger buns. Or I can buy a reasonable local approximation from any of the four supermarkets within a five mile radius of my home, where the shelves are literally stuffed with a variety of wonderful, locally made breads, rolls, and English muffins.

I realize many people don't have these kinds of options. But I do. Meaning I should exercise them.


What about meat? I am able to get local, ecologically raised red meat at Berkeley Bowl. I can get Niman Ranch pork. But poultry is a whole other deal. Berkeley Bowl carries Happy Dan, Rosie Organic, Rocky Natural, Coastal Range Organics, and Empire Kosher. I grew up eating Empire and adore it, but I doubt the chickens have a happy life. I've heard Coastal Range and the Rocky/Rosie people fall into the "expansive" use of organic labeling, but don't know enough to make an informed judgement. I've been buying Happy Dan, which tastes fine. A quick internet search reveals Happy Dan is a subsidary of Martinelli farms. I don't know much else.

As for some of my other favorite foods, the duck legs and chicken livers I purchase from Berkeley Bowl sit behind the butcher counter in unmarked bins. Where are they from? What's in them? Couldn't tell you. The quail we're so fond of comes from Montréal. The packaging says nothing about happy quail roaming little bits of quail real estate, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs.

[Of course not. Montréal didn't even make the playoffs this year. - HM]

So I'm stuck. Had I endless time, I could forage for Hoffman poultry at various butchers. I could haunt farmer's markets. Only I don't have the time. What's a well-meaning person to do? Give up poultry? Do as much as I can, and let the rest slide?

One thing is certain: CAFO (That's concentrated animal feeding operations) meats are out. Read Kingsolver's book and feel ill. Eat the meat coming out of these places, and get even sicker (other fun reads along these lines include Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats and Michel Faber's Under the Skin.) At this moment, I am not sure how--or even if--we will be able to continue our love affair with chicken livers. Which sucks. So many things must be relinquished these days: world peace, voting rights, free speech, a woman's right to choose, recreational drugs.

And now chicken livers.


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