We Are What We Eat

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on September 21, 2005

Growing up American these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that
meat arrives from nature in Styrofoam packaging, that lettuce is harvested in
tidy plastic bags and that the words "processed cheese food" mean
anything good.

The legions of us who do our shopping in grocery stores are long
divorced from the origins of our food, and the food producers like to keep it
that way. The less we know about where our food comes from, the more freedom
they have to spray toxins on our tomatoes, genetically engineer our corn, give
antibiotics to our shrimp, pump hormones into our cows and believe me, you
don’t even want to know what they do to our chickens. If all that stuff is
going into our food, inevitably, it’s going into us.

And so, on a recent sunny Saturday morning, a group of sleepy students
from Indiana University’s Hutton Honors College met at the farmers’ market to explore some basic questions: If we are what we
eat, who are we? Where does our food come from and why should we care?

The idea was that they would have a Slow Food market tour, led by me and
Dave Tallent, co-directors of Slow Food Bloomington. Slow Food, of course, is
an international movement all about paying attention to where our food comes
from – eating locally, seasonally and convivially. We would talk to some
farmers and buy the ingredients for our lunch, which we would take back to
Dave’s restaurant to cook. It was a recipe for a perfect day.

A perfect day indeed. After an introduction from Marcia Veldman,
coordinator of the market, we took off to wander the colorful, crowded aisles.

The students, seniors all, were already interested in food, but had
never been to the market. They listened, snacking on venison jerky, as Tim
Tague (Double T Ranch) explained why he raises his deer without drugs. (Maybe
so many Americans are obese, he suggested, because our meat and poultry are
full of growth hormones.)

They picked out peppers and eggplants as Teresa Birtles (Heartland
Family Farm) told them why she chooses to farm, and talked about the vegetables
she loves to grow.

They heard Fritz Kunz (Traders Point Creamery) explain why they take
care to raise their cattle on grass, not grain (cows aren’t natural grain
eaters, grain-fed beef is stressed and unhealthy beef) and how they turn the
milk from their cows into yogurt, cheese and ice cream. Tasting creamy,
nonhomogenized milk, sipped yogurt and sampled ice cream, their faces glowed.

They stood, rapt, while Alan Yegerlehner (The Swiss Connection)
explained more about the health benefits of grass-fed meat, and how his cheese
making has evolved over time.

Then, arms laden with the foods we had chosen, we walked to Restaurant
Tallent and rolled up our sleeves. We worked in shifts, half of us slicing,
dicing and sautéing in the kitchen while the others in the dining room talked
about the food traditions we grew up with and the meaning of food in our lives
and got hungrier and hungrier.

The beauty of Slow Food is that it not only emphasizes where food comes
from, but how we eat it. We settled in for a leisurely lunch – huge platters of
venison sausages and cheeses, pasta sauced with meat and with vegetables, a
gorgeous crisp green salad, and icy watermelon. Everything except the pasta and
the seasonings came from our market – we had talked to the people who had
cultivated it and harvested it and for the space of an afternoon, we knew
exactly where our food had come from. If we are what we eat, that day we were
rooted in the community, healthy and Slow.

Market Pasta with Meat Sauce

1 pound of ground veal

1 pound of ground pork

1 pound of ground beef

1-3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

3 sweet peppers, chopped

5 pounds of tomatoes peeled and seeded. (The best way to peel tomatoes
is to plunge them into boiling water briefly, and then remove immediately; the
skins will slip off. To seed them, cut in half and pull the seeds out with your
fingers, retaining as much juice as you can. Break the tomatoes up and add to
the pot.)

Fresh basil, lots of it, chopped

1/2 bottle red wine

Salt and pepper and dried chili flakes to taste

1 pound tubular pasta like rigatoni

In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the ground meats, breaking up
any clumps. Add the chopped onion, as much garlic as you like, the peppers, and
the tomatoes. Simmer until the vegetables begin to soften and the tomatoes give
up their juice. Add a half a bottle of red wine and continue to simmer.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain.

When the alcohol taste of the wine has cooked out and the flavors have
started to blend, season with salt and pepper and chili flakes to taste. Add
the basil; toss the sauce with the pasta. Serve in a large, warmed bowl.

Serves six.

Market Pasta with Vegetable Sauce

6 largish eggplants (the long thin kind if you can find them), chopped
into bite-sized chunks (1 inch pieces)

1/2 cup olive oil

1 onion chopped

3 sweet peppers, chopped

13 cloves of garlic, chopped

5 pounds of tomatoes peeled and seeded. (The best way to peel tomatoes
is to plunge them into boiling water briefly, and then remove immediately; the
skins will slip off. To seed them, cut in half and pull the seeds out with your
fingers, retaining as much juice as you can. Break the tomatoes up and add to
the pot.)

Fresh basil, lots of it, chopped

1/2 bottle red wine

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound tubular pasta like rigatoni

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the eggplant
until it begins to soften and brown (you can let it get crispy if you want –
this is a matter of taste). Add the onions, garlic to taste, peppers and
tomatoes and allow to cook down. Add 1/2 bottle of red wine, and simmer until
the alcohol taste is gone and the flavors have started to blend.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Add the basil and toss with the
pasta. Serve in a large, warmed bowl.

Serves six.

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