What My 98 Year Old Aunt Knows About Food
Do you know what an apple tasted like in 1926? Or a steak for that matter? I don’t. But my nearly 100 year old Aunt Connie does. Whenever I go visit her in Staten Island, we mostly talk food. She is sharp as a knife and even though she can’t see well, she still cooks up a storm every day. She’s an incredible, intuitive cook and can tell me the best way to make anything. I’m always starving and inspired to cook ten different things by the time I leave her house.
Aunt Connie is famous in our family for preparing the most beautiful chicken dishes for her husband, now passed, and all the nieces and nephews she continues to regularly cook for, even though she will not put chicken anywhere near her mouth. This is ever since the day that, as a young girl, she went to the chicken market in Little Italy and witnessed the stomach-turning grossness of it. For better or for worse, that’s called knowing where your food comes from. She could never eat chicken again. But it’s never stopped her from cooking it, because cooking for her family has always been one of her life’s great pleasures.
And she eats everything else – a true omnivore who Michael Pollan would love. She has never in her life so much as tasted fast food. Every meal, for almost ten straight decades, is clean and cooked from scratch, unless she was dining at a proper restaurant. Even things that seem benign to me, like store bought broth, elicit a snicker from her. Broth! But she knows what she’s talking about and she regards food with as much suspicion as the smuggest aging hipster at Whole Foods.
So it depresses me how she often talks about how things do not taste like they used to taste. She talks at length about how her eggplants these days look “like a picture” but are tough and tasteless. Her potatoes cook in less than half the time that they used to. Why, she wonders. She hardly eats meat anymore because it always disappoints her, and oh, how she misses all the great butchers that she used to rely on.
“I would never buy ground meat on the shelf,” she told me. She wanted to see them put it through the grinder and “only once, not twice!” I can picture this tiny lady yelling at the bemused butcher who obediently obliges all her demands. Sometimes her niece orders her some top of the line meats and produce from Fresh Direct, and she notices the taste and quality are a little better. A little.
The whole thing bums me out because I wish I could taste how food tasted before the days factory farming and apples from Chile. I am literally always searching for the perfect apple. I go apple picking in the fall for the apples – not the photo ops!
Yet, still I often find a blandness that is disappointing.
The State of Food
Food is such a loaded topic. Recently there was an article in NY Magazine that, while somewhat over the top, was a pretty depressing picture of the state of food. From rampant mislabeling, to adulteration, to inhumane treatment of animals, it doesn’t look promising. Today I was reading a Mother Jones story called “Your Olive Oil is Almost Certainly Fake.”
“Buy local!” the experts say. ” Go to the farmers market!” Except then there are all the stories about farmers markets and the fact that the produce being sold there is sometimes just purchased from a supplier. WTF? Honestly, I always wonder why are there apples at the Union Square farmers market year round.
Between trying to cook meals that are simple enough to stop us from ordering, as well as healthy, calorie conscious, sustainable and ethical, not to mention affordable, sometimes I’m just at a complete loss. I live in Brooklyn – I can’t grow my own food!
Except this little guy!
And I’m a working mother – I don’t have time to do a Bengazi-esque investigation into what labels can be believed and what is safe to buy/ eat.
I don’t have the answers. Sometimes I check brands on Cornucopia. I’m definitely going to check out the book “Real Food Fake Food” by Larry Olmstead. I’m going to keep reading Tom Philpott , Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and all the other voices who are raising these issues day in, day out. And I gladly accept the garden grown veggies from anyone who will share!
I don’t buy red meat more than once a week. Chicken is often on our plate, even though I don’t feel that confident in what I am getting at my grocery store. There’s a lot of pasta being eaten at my house, which isn’t great from a refined carb standpoint. But I just don’t know where else to get quick weeknight meals that my kids will eat, otherwise. Thank God they like soup.
It’s dispiriting that the presidential campaigns don’t feign the slightest interest in our food supply and the issues surrounding it. I don’t know how many of us are going to be living to 100 like my aunt, God willing, if we can’t clean up our plates at least a little. Her insides are like an Alpine stream after a lifetime of clean eating. Mine are probably more like the Ganges.
But talking to Aunt Connie about food does make me realize that it is not something that can be regarded passively. There’s no way around it. If you want to eat good, real food, it is going to require effort. And sadly, some sleuthing.
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