How to Eat Like a Farmer

    My life revolves around food. Growing it, preparing it, eating it. I even make a living from it. It is the crossroads where sustenance, enjoyment, health, artistry, culture, love, the land, and the plant, animal, and fungi kingdoms all come together, like the ingredients in a divine dish. Food is as close to the sacred as anything in my otherwise secular life. It is how I commune with the world around me.

    But it’s been obvious to me for awhile that my approach to food is different from most people’s in the culture I’m embedded in. Usually, this reality recedes into the background, as my own habits don’t seem unusual to me. But when I stay with other people, as I did this past summer, I get a front row glimpse into a food reality that, while foreign to me, seems to be the norm for the vast majority.

    My food universe is a reflection of my livelihood as a farmer. If I were to put a chronology to my food philosophy evolution, it would be this:

    • having a father who enjoyed culinary adventurism (in the 80’s when I grew up, going to a Greek restaurant was exotic) and home cooking, fostering taste buds appreciative of diverse flavours;
    • in high school, reading about the evils of the industrial meat system, and becoming a vegetarian;
    • while in university in Vancouver, sharing a backyard with free school radical and author Matt Hern, who introduced me to the world of vegetable gardening;
    • deciding that one of the main problems with our society was the twin sides of the coin overwork/overconsumption, and committing to spending as little time as possible earning money, which left me plenty of time to grow and cook food, and needing to save money by doing things myself, like homebrewing or baking;
    • coming across the concept of permaculture, and taking a two week design course, which blew the seemingly simple practice of growing your own food into a whole systems multiverse of revolutionary cultural transformation;
    • working on several farms, usually as a volunteer, from British Columbia to Newfoundland;
    • working in the kitchen of the old Chez Eric’s in Wakefield, under the chef’s reign of the great Susan Jessup, who introduced to me the novel idea that meat, when well-sourced, could be ethical, and when well-prepared, could quite possibly be the most divinely delectable thing on the planet, and ditching my previous vegetarianism in favour of an ethical omnivorism.

    By the time I was in my early 30’s, my food philosophy was more or less fully formed. It consisted of, as much as possible, growing my own fruits and vegetables, and when not possible, buying local; choosing organic when available; often cooking from scratch; and buying meat and eggs from humane farms. When, in my late 30’s, I got the chance to buy a farm and begin my career as a farmer, it was just the culmination of these evolutionary steps.

    I’ve called this piece “How to Eat Like a Farmer” because it has a nice ring to it, but the truth is, I only eat like other small-scale organic farmers I know. I don’t think most farmers actually eat like we do. The sad reality is that a lot of farmers don’t even eat what they grow themselves; they’re producing “commodities” for the world market, and often those commodities need to go through some pretty intense processing before they even become somewhat edible (like high-fructose corn syrup), or completely inedible (like ethanol). I might more accurately have called this “How to Eat Like a Farmer (Like Me)” or “How to Eat Like Someone Who Cares About Food”, but they lack the same punch.

    Another problem with this piece is how to write it without coming off as a pretentious food snob, judging the poor gastronomic choices of my fellow women and men. I’ll try to diffuse at least some of this critique with the following caveat: I understand and sympathize with the pressures people in our culture are under to make different choices than the ones I’ve made. The convenience, abundance, and cheapness offered by our modern food system is a temptation few can resist in a culture strapped to the wheel of consumerism and overwork. We in North America also don’t have a deep food culture, with culinary traditions stretching back for countless generations, like people do in other parts of the planet not dominated by relatively recent settlers. We are adrift in a world saturated with the latest gadgets, but bereft of connections to a tradition around eating. We are food orphans.

    I also realize that not everyone needs to be as obsessed with food as I am. I love everything to do with it, but there are other things worth being obsessed about too (I am told). But we all need to eat every day, and I believe that our culture has a pretty unhealthy relationship with food; it’s improved a lot from the days when Cheez Whiz reigned supreme, but we still have a way to go. I think that if people placed at least a bit higher priority on making time for the procuring, preparing, and consuming of food, it would be healthier for them and the planet.

    Despite the above disclaimer, I’ll probably still come off as too precious about my food. Guilty as charged. My apologies if this rubs you the wrong way. I can’t help it.

    One final caveat: I’m not a food nutritionist (as you’ll see, I don’t place much stock in their advice), and I’m certainly not a doctor. What follows is simply my approach to food. It’s up to you to determine your own approach, and to what degree it follows expert advice. I certainly believe there is an important role for expert opinion.

    Because I tend to write essays whose length tests the patience of most online readers (another failing of mine), and this piece is no exception, I’ve broken this up into four parts, which I will release gradually in the coming days. To read parts 2-4, where I will finally delve into the meat and bones of my food philosophy, go to my new newsletter, Farmer’s Table, at Subscribe to get it delivered right to your inbox, and never miss an installment! There are both free and paid subscription options.

    A SPECIAL NOTE TO MY SEANBUTLER.CA PAID SUBSCRIBERS: As a thanks for your support early on in my new writing endeavour, I have gifted you a one-year paid subscription to Farmer’s Table, which, unlike, will focus exclusively on food and farming. Expect shorter and more frequent postings, drawn largely from my personal experience growing and preparing food, but still drawing connections to the larger issues around food politics. I will continue posting about other subjects that interest me on, but, out of necessity, less frequently. Expect to receive Part 1 of How to Eat Like a Farmer from Farmer’s Table shortly, and then the other installments in the days to come.

    2 thoughts on “How to Eat Like a Farmer”

    1. Just yesterday I was wondering when you would give us another thought-provoking essay, Sean. I look forward to reading this one, and will e-transfer this year’s ‘membership’ to you.
      Happy New Year! Joan

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