By Chef Samantha
In college, I went on a food and wine seminar in Southern California for four weeks. There were eighteen boys, five girls and two professors as our “chaperones”. Needless to say, kinda crazy – and way, way too many boys. We toured several farms, factories, wineries, restaurants and businesses. I ate so much amazing food, I was in Heaven!
After this four-week “required course” (which seemed more like a plush vacation), we had to pick a topic from a list the CIA gave us and write a thesis. Even though we were in an organic environment, I was not compelled to drone on and on about corn versus grass-fed animals, organic farming, or any other topic they had come up with, though I do find all of that very interesting – so interesting, in fact, you will be hearing my views of said topics in future posts. Rather, I was dead set on writing about the impact technology and entertainment has on our lifestyle – more specifically, our eating habits.
In preparation for my paper, I called someone who could tell me what eating was like in decades before my time. I called my Mom. My hero, my Mom, is just a good ol’ oil field girl who grew up on beans and corn bread. Her Mother (Nana, to me), was the best cook in our entire family. She made decadent cakes from scratch without glancing at a recipe. In the years before my mom was born, Nana was in the kitchen long before sun-up to fry a chicken apiece with all the fixins for my Pa and the two oldest boys to take with them as they went to work out in the scorching heat of the West Texas oil fields, then had dinner on the table when they walked through the door at the end of the day. My Mom has five other brothers and sisters. She is the youngest. Not that Mom is old by any means but, back in those days, being that Pa and Nana raised, fed, clothed and educated six children, built a house with their own hands and the help of the older three and bought their cars on Pa’s income from working in the oil fields (none of this on credit, mind you) while Nana kept the home and cared for the children (including sewing all their clothes), there was no choice but to be as frugal as possible. When Pa and Nana built their house, they planted apricot, pear, peach, apple and plum trees, as well as a grape arbor bearing luscious white and concord grapes. They had gardens in which they grew all sorts of vegetables. My Uncle Jimmy raised rabbits and, of course, Pa and the three boys would hunt all kinds of game. So, clearly, there was never a shortage of food. I remember a time when I was a child, standing at the kitchen counter learning how to break down a chicken, my mother telling me the stories passed down of the days long before she was born about how my Nana was fearless when she went to fetch the chickens for dinner. She would grab them by the neck and pop their flailing bodies like a hot shirt straight from the dryer, breaking their neck in one clean swoop. Then she would slit the throat, bleed them, pluck the feathers and then – VOILA! – fried chicken! I believe, later, she went to chopping their necks with the axe.
Not every day would they have meat for supper. Having meat was a luxury. It was NOT a necessity – much like it is today for most Americans. My family ate healthy not just because it was the healthy thing to do (turning a blind eye to the fried chicken) but because it was what they had – greens, beans, fruits, vegetables, soups. Nana would can everything they didn’t eat from the harvest in order to store up for the winter months.
I could go on and on about how they made do with what they had, but do you know what sticks out in my mind? They knew where their food came from! We don’t!
When you go to the grocery store, the square footage of different sections is a testament to how we Americans eat. All the center isles are “processed food” – canned food, breads, snacks, crackers, cereals, sodas, boxed cake mixes, icing in a can, two-minute microwaveable dinners, and on, and on, and on. Most items lining the perimeter of the store are “unprocessed food” – fruits, vegetables, fresh cheeses, meats, milk and eggs. How much of the store’s square footage is spent on packaged and processed food versus unprocessed, whole food? The comparison is a huge wake-up call… or at least it should be. More importantly, what does this new information tell us about our lifestyle? If American consumers are buying so much processed food, it clearly means they have no time to prepare their own meals, like Nana did for her family of eight. As time has gone on, our country has grown into the most powerful country in the world. The only way we have been able to do this, in my mind, is our incredible work ethic. Unlike many of our European friends, we will work ourselves into the ground for just the slightest gain, compromising our friends, family, health and, many times, our happiness. I am not saying, by any means, that it is wrong to have a strong work ethic. I actually think it is necessary and vital in becoming successful. I am saying, however, that maybe we ought to look at the balance in our life. Disease and cancer rates are higher here in America than in many other countries where there seems to be more balance in life – balance being taking time for ourselves to be happy and healthy, rather than working ourselves into the ground. Generations ago, dinner was about coming together at the table, breaking bread with loved ones and discussing what went on in the day, not driving through McDonald’s for a happy meal and then rushing off to soccer practice and ballet. Back then, eating was about family and enjoying the hard-earned bounty spread upon the table.
I could go on and on but, to save time out of our busy lives, I won’t. I just want to leave you with one thought to meditate on throughout your week until we meet again – do you have balance? Do you take time to appreciate your food, your family, your life which is so precious and fleeting? I want to encourage you to try, even though I know how hard it is (because I fight it, too) to have more balance and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You deserve it.
Thanks for giving me some of your time today. Always remember: Food is fun, food is family, food is friends, food is life, and food is always, always, love.
Samantha Rensel is the owner of Savory Celebration with her husband and holds an associates degree in culinary arts and a bachelors in culinary business management from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She interned at the famous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, where she worked with world class chefs and developed a diverse portfolio of restaurant experience. More recently, she moved back to Houston, Texas where she was the front of the house manager for Central Market. She specialized in working with customers who requested specialized and customized products and services.