I am a feminist, and my politics (in my best, most self-aware moments) are far left of liberal; however, even if I'm not in the 1% I'm definitely more privileged than most, as are you, most likely, dear reader. I have enough comfort and security that I can sit around writing about food and cooking, and I have enough political awareness that I'm conflicted about it, especially on a day like today. Food, of course, is an overdetermined value in our society -- it is gendered, raced, and (perhaps above all) classed. And if what and how we eat is a matter of privilege and position and background, how we *think* about food, how we *talk* about it, is even more so. To think about food as symbolic -- to think about it in relation to family histories, to friendship, to love, to loss, to desire, to anything beyond pure survival -- is a matter of privilege. To think about it in any way other than as a basic need, and a scarce one at that, makes us better off than about 3 billion people living on this planet (2.925 billion, to be exact).
I live in a part of the world in which food is an "issue": part environmental consciousness, part anti-corporate gesture, part self-care, the impulse to buy locally and organically, by taking part in Community-Supported Agriculture and shopping at farmer's markets, is seen as a way of rejecting a food system in the US that is chemically-dependent, wasteful, unclean, and most of all unhealthy. And of course, big agriculture is all of those things, no doubt. But the fetishization of those things presented as the alternative -- worshipping at the altar of the freshly-picked, peak-of-season, heritage variety tomato grown by the organic agricultural commune that's a 15 minute bicycle ride from your house -- is not a revolution. Neither is butchering your own hand-coddled pig and eating every part of it in a reverential dinner at which you raise a toast to its life and honor its vitality with every course. Keeping your own chickens and eating their eggs is not a revolution. Gathering your own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds and exchanging them with others to start a backyard garden in defiance of Monsanto is not a revolution. While local, sustainable, ethical, and non-corporate approaches to food might be a way of declaring our desire for something better, none of these are short- or medium-term solutions for the huge numbers of people in the world who are starving. Instead, it turns food into another sort of symbol -- we harvest our tomatoes and honor our livestock and cook with reverence as a sign of our politics, rather than an enactment of them.
I spend a lot of time thinking about art. Art, of course, is a lot like food -- it's hard to find the balance between one's love for the aesthetic and one's political imperatives. Hard, but not impossible. Every once in a while an artistic practice emerges in which the two are either held in such a taut balance that neither overshadows the other (nothing worse than politically-blind art or artless politics), or even better, in which one cannot separate one from the other. Perhaps it will be so with food -- a place where pleasure and taste can co-exist (become part of) not only sustainability but true abundance and equity. Every bite I take is a bite someone else doesn't, in this unfair world of ours.
Pasta with Tomato and Tuna Sauce
Serves 4 @ $1.75/serving
As for tuna: thanks to lax regulations on industry, mercury levels in seafood have become a huge problem, and as usual governments have been less willing to actually protect food sources by passing and enforcing stricter pollution measures than to ask consumers to self-regulate their consumption so as not to get brain damage. Light tuna (as opposed to white or albacore tuna) has less mercury content, and so is safer to eat on a regular basis than other types. Buy tuna packed in oil; the water-packed light tuna is sort of sad.
12 oz pasta, preferably whole wheat (penne, fusilli, or spaghetti work well)
2 TB olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 crumbled dried red chili or ½ tsp chili flakes (optional)
3 TB flat-leaf parsley, minced, plus more for garnish
salt and freshly ground pepper
1-28 oz can diced tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh
4 oz oil-packed light tuna, drained and broken up into chunks with a fork
1 TB capers (optional)
a few black oil-cured olives, pitted and sliced (optional)
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add 2 tsp salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente, then drain. (If you make the sauce ahead of time, wait to make the pasta until just before eating.)
2. In a small sauté pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. When the garlic sizzles and becomes fragrant, add parsley and chili (if using). Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and cook at a lively simmer for 15 minutes or so until the tomatoes are broken down and have separated from the oil. Add the tuna along with capers and olives, if using, to the sauce.
Serves 4 @ $1.50/serving
Dal and rice, when eaten together, form a complete protein, and have the advantage of being supremely healthful and cheap and easy. Not surprisingly, this is a dish eaten by everyone, from extremely impoverished to rolling in rupees, in India.
1 c masoor dal (red lentils), picked over
2 TB canola oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 dried red chilies, left whole
6-8 curry leaves OR 2 TB chopped cilantro
1 tsp coriander powder
½ c tomatoes, diced (canned or fresh)
juice of ½ lime
2. When dal is cooked, heat canola oil in a small frying pan along with cumin seeds. When seeds are fragrant and have turned one shade darker, add garlic cloves and chilies. If you are using them, throw in the curry leaves. When the garlic has browned a little, add coriander powder and a healthy pinch of salt, and after about 30 seconds add the tomatoes. When these have broken down/reduced a little, scrape the contents of the pan into the cooked dal. Squeeze in the lime juice, taste for salt, and if you’re using cilantro, throw it in now. Serve hot with rice.
Serves 3 @ $1.75/serving
One other tip: one of my aunts taught me to add a tea bag to the pot when boiling the chana for chana masala to add a lovely layer of fragrance and deeper color to the dish.
1 TB canola oil
½ tsp cumin seed
1 onion, finely chopped
3 minced garlic cloves
2 tsp grated ginger
1 chopped green chili
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp garam masala
½ c diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
2.5-3 c cooked chick peas, drained and rinsed (start with 1 c dried)
1 tsp tamarind concentrate (or, if unavailable, extra lime juice)
handful of chopped cilantro
juice of half a lime
1. In a small-ish saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add cumin seeds. When sizzling and fragrant, add onion and sauté until starting to brown. Add garlic, ginger, green chili, and salt, and sauté for an additional minute or two. Add the spice powders. Let the mixture fry for a minute or so, then add tomatoes and a good pinch of salt and let cook down till you have a thick sauce.
2. Add 1 c water and the chickpeas. Add tamarind concentrate, and let the mixture stew over medium heat for about 15 minutes. When cooked, taste for salt and stir in a handful of chopped cilantro. Add lime juice -- a squeeze if you've used tamarind, and up to half a lime's worth if you haven't; it should be tart. Serve hot with flatbreads or warmed pitas.