Sunday, August 9, 2009

How complicated is simplifying?

I love to cook, and for a long time now I have been thinking about "making everything from scratch." Essentially only shopping in the produce aisle and bulk bins. The goal would be to eat minimally processed, healthy food that generates zero waste from packaging.

But the more I think about this, the more complicated it gets. And then I start whittling it down..."Well, I'd have to make exceptions for olive oil, and milk...what about yogurt and crackers?'s not like we really buy that much processed stuff anyway...I guess we're doing ok the way things are."

And, we are doing ok. We eat pretty healthfully and I make most of our food. But I still find myself going to the recycling place every couple weeks with bags and bags of waste, and taking the kitchen trash out every couple of days.

Recycling is good, but it's better to just not use stuff in the first place. Something like a plastic cup--I always recycle them, but each one has a lifespan of about half an hour. It is useful for about half an hour while you're drinking your iced coffee, and then you "discard" it--even if you recycle it, you pass it off to someone else and are no longer responsible. And what about the materials and energy used to make it? all for about half an hour of usefulness. Something like a napkin or coffee stirrer--useful for about five seconds! This is just not reasonable.

And what about the "trash" that I call "my possessions?" Looking around my house, how much of this stuff will be in a landfill someday? Unfortunately, a lot. I'd like to think that all my possessions are valuable antiques that will be passed down for generations, but...ha.

Imagine if we had to be personally responsible for every object we brought into our lives. Not just responsible for getting it to the dump or recycling center, but for the impact its production and decomposition would have on the planet forever.

Yes, it's an extreme point of view (and thankfully, not original, as lots of people care about this stuff). I also understand the value of a division of labor in our society--there are many industries devoted to properly disposing of our stuff, recycling our bottles, sanitizing our toilet water, etc etc. But we are really lucky to not have to think about it all too much, and maybe one of the last generations to be in this position.

Division of labor brings me to another point about "processed foods." Some of the processed or packaged foods we eat are made by experts and artisans. For instance, it's not going to do the Earth any favors if I run my oven at 400 degrees every couple of days to make bread, bread which is going to end up being way inferior to what I could buy from an actual baker who has the proper equipment and expertise to make great bread. What about cheese makers like Grafton cheddar, candy makers like Kakawa chocolate beans, my beloved Ana's salsa (which I will continue to buy even when it's like 10 dollars a pint), Brown Cow yogurt, Sriracha* hot sauce. These are products I love and respect.

But...what would life be like if I really did try to do without any and all packaged foods? For, oh, let's say two weeks. What if I learned to make my own yogurt? My own crackers, and granola bars and breakfast cereal (Frosted Mini Wheats I will miss you!). What if I were that annoying person who asked the people at Central Market how to calculate the "tare weight" on my Tupperwares because I didn't want to use their provided containers?

And what about the exceptions? I can't make olive oil, soy sauce, milk, or eggs. But rather than going without these things, I can try to find them in package-free versions. My friend tells me I can get local eggs from Milagro farms at the farmers market on Wednesdays. And I think Central Market might have olive oil in bulk, for example--I know they have peanut butter, honey, and a million other things. But that brings me to another point--should I be buying peppermint bark and mini peanut butter cups and jellybeans and honey roasted pecans from the bulk bin just because they technically come with no packaging?

The simple idea of "making everything from scratch" can get really complicated, I'm finding out. What is "scratch?" I know its not mini peanut butter cups, but there are some people who consider flour to be a processed food, and basically only eat whole sprouted grains and produce and beans. I know this kind of thing can get very restrictive and extreme. That is not really my goal. My goal is to eat healthy, delicious food that does not generate any waste. I'll do this for two weeks, I'll find solutions to the snags and snafus and challenges, and I'll decide about exceptions.

Hopefully it will be fun!

*Actually, I don't know anything about Srirarcha, it could be made by Vietnamese child slaves out of nuclear waste. But I really hope not because I eat a LOT of it.


  1. Fret not, Sriracha (the green cap original) is made in LA

  2. Wow Jes! You rock. I wish I was motivated to cook stuff that just came out of a box!! Have you read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver? It seems like it would be right up your alley.

  3. Sriracha is indeed domestic--check out this incredible article I just stumbled across this week from the NY Times!

    "A chili sauce to crow about"