When it comes to people who don’t feel conflicted about their food-buying choices, there are two extremes.
At one end are those who happily subsist on microwave burritos and Cheetos and traipse through life unconcerned about the environmental or nutritional impacts of what they eat. At the other end are those who live primarily on lentils and kefir, certain that they are making the healthiest and most socially conscious decisions about their food.
But what those of us in the middle? I want to eat foods that are delicious and good for me, and whose cultivation isn’t destroying the planet, but I’m also a cheapskate. That puts me in a difficult position.
I agonize at every store I visit, whether that’s the supermarket or the co-op, trying to figure out if I’m supporting the local economy, where this mango came from and if mangoes are even in season, whether it’s reasonable to spend 15 percent of my grocery budget on one meal’s worth of sustainably harvested rice, and what, since we’re on the subject, kefir even is.
There was a time when I didn’t think about my food choices. During college, in fact, I ate mostly ramen noodles. It wasn’t a nutritious or environmentally aware diet, but on the bright side the grocery bill for my entire sophomore year amounted to less than one trip to the farmers’ market today.
Since then, my standards have changed. I prefer to cook with whole foods and — when it’s convenient and not too expensive — items that have been grown in or near Vermont. I’m a fair-weather localvore.
Those of you who for whom ramen noodles are still a diet staple might say I’ve become a food snob. Maybe so, but you have no idea what I go through. While you enjoy the deep slumber of the carbo-loaded and overly salted, I lie awake feeling guilty about nearly every item I do (or don’t) buy.
The anxiety I feel about making right or wrong food choices can paralyze me to the point of absurdity. Take, for instance, the annual Great Tomato Embargo, going on right now.
I love tomatoes. But I refuse to touch a supermarket tomato in the winter months. It’s not only because, from what I read, the large-scale tomato farming industry is only slightly less destructive to humans and the Earth than atomic warfare, but also because winter tomatoes are pale, tasteless and mealy. I deserve better.
But I’m weak. So by the time spring rolls around, I start to soften; I haven’t had a tomato in six months. The supermarket tomatoes aren’t local, but they look decent. I figure they must be in season somewhere, right?
As it turns out, even in May supermarket tomatoes are not good. But when you are tomato-starved, you make allowances. And I do, for a month or so.
When July hits, however, I just can’t do it anymore. My own garden starts to show signs of many sun-ripened tomatoes in the future. I can no longer bring myself to buy crappy factory-farmed versions of what will be the real deal in a few weeks.
Around this time, local tomatoes are starting to become available around town. But they’re pricey. I’d gladly pay for them — if only I didn’t have several hundred currently ripening in my own garden.
Thus in July, because I am committed to eating only the best fresh, local tomatoes but won’t buy something I will soon have for free, I end up eating almost none. This backwards logic also extends to the green beans and eggplants and corn and a few other vegetables I’m eagerly monitoring.
It makes no sense. I get that. (Then again, I have a friend who hates 4’s and 7’s because they’re “too pointy.” We all have our peccadilloes.)
So, for another few weeks, I will look longingly at nature’s bounty, whether imported from afar and affordable but inferior, or locally grown and beautiful but costly. I just won’t buy any.
Come September, I’ll be blessed with plenty of homegrown produce. In the meantime, in the never-ending struggle to honor both my miserly tendencies and my lofty food ideals, I’ll stock up on ramen noodles and kefir (once I find out what it is).
Let’s hope for an early harvest.