by Will Sutton
As I write this, the coronavirus has locked down the country. My older brother and I have been evacuated from college; my younger brother is completing his final week of junior year online, and both my parents are working from home. In quarantine, time, hair maintenance, and my conversational skills have more or less gone out the window. But there has been beauty, too.
Most days, I roll out of bed at 9 or so and stumble downstairs. Like a moth drawn to light, I beeline for the coffee pot. My dad has already been up for an hour or so, working from his desk in the loft room above the garage. But he always makes enough coffee for the two of us.
My dad and I are the only two regular coffee drinkers in the family. He picked it up as a hardworking student in law school; I, in junior year of high school, a testament to my poor time management and inconsistent sleep schedule. Many a family vacation has been marked by our shared concern in finding a place to get morning coffee, and many a stupid morning war of words has been instigated by our lack of caffeine.
There’s a bond that comes from our love of-- and an unfortunate dependence upon-- coffee. Sharing a coffee pot provides a direct link between my dad and I, a connection in the midst of work and Zoom calls. When I sip my morning coffee, it is with the knowledge that my dad brewed it with me in mind, and vice-versa on those rare days when I wake before him. Confined to our oddly insulated virtual workspaces, we may not see each other until dinner. But from our own corners of the house, we share the experience of that day’s pot of coffee-- weak, strong, bitter, earthy, sometimes flat-out bad.
Food and drink can bind us in surprising and enduring ways. I’m sure many readers have encountered vivid memories embedded in specific foods: the summertime nostalgia of fresh watermelon, the carefree days of college recalled in the taste of cheap beer. Trail mix may conjure images of childhood camping trips or mountain peaks. The taste of coffee, for me, will always evoke my dad, brewing a two-cup pot on the surreal mornings of coronavirus quarantine.
Food and drink are sensory anchors to which we can tie our relationships and memories. There is something powerful, I think, in the knowledge that eating and drinking are not just for nourishment or enjoyment, but acts of remembrance, and acts of connection.
by Will Sutton
I recently finished reading Christopher McDougal’s Born to Run, an iconic text in the running world. While much of his running science has been criticized, one piece of advice caught my attention. McDougal explains that, as part of his training for a 50-mile race through Copper Canyon in Mexico, he began eating salads for breakfast. McDougal doesn’t provide a wealth of scientific research to back up this dietary choice; intriguingly, he simply explains that it works for him, and suggests that readers try it for themselves.
So that’s what I did.
For three weeks now, I have been making myself a salad for breakfast. My go-to is a base of spinach with cucumbers, strawberries, pistachios, and feta cheese, but in a pinch I can settle for any combination of leafy greens and some fat and protein. Besides coffee and water, I don’t have anything else until lunchtime.
I did not undertake this experiment as part of a diet program, or to eat more healthily. I had no concrete goals-- no weight to lose or gain, no target for veggie intake. I just wanted to see if breakfast salads could make me feel better in general. And, I’m happy to report, they have.
In comparison to my days before (when I ate eggs, cereal, and a banana for breakfast), I feel much more alert after breakfast. I can usually wolf down a salad and start my day’s work immediately, when usually I need a walk outside to wake up. Maybe it’s just a psychological response to a healthy breakfast, but my mornings are more productive. It’s like the edible equivalent of a cold shower-- nothing quite jolts you awake like an influx of vitamins, natural sugars, and a bit of healthy fat and protein.
What’s more, a salad is… enough. When I began this experiment, I expected to become hungry well before lunchtime rolled around, but that hasn’t really been the case. I can consume a salad at 8:30 and not eat again until noon. And my running-- usually 10-12 miles per day, immediately after breakfast or right before dinner-- has been unaffected by, if not improved from, this experiment. Cravings for the heavier breakfasts I ate before subsided after about four days; by now, my body is content with chowing down greens first thing in the morning.
Would I (as a writer, not a nutritionist) recommend this experiment? Well, yes. You shouldn’t expect tremendous results, but the moderate boost in focus and the obvious nutritional benefits make breakfast salads worth it, in my view. And you can always have your eggs and bacon for lunch.
by Will Sutton
Photo credit: "Mercado Municipal - frutas" by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
In a previous article, I’ve written about how the food we eat is so much more than what’s on the plate. Food binds us to one another. It is a sensory connection to both past memories and current community ties. I’m not the only one who has made this observation; Kevin Pang, for example, beautifully described a similar experience in his 2016 essay “My Father, The Youtube Star”, and anthropologists like David E. Sutton, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mary Douglass have sought to decodify the cultural implications of what, how, and when we eat.
This scholarship is fascinating and extensive, but it points to a rather simple conclusion: food is a form of community knowledge. The what, how, and when of our meals is tied intrinsically to the communities we belong to; our food and consumption habits are both influenced by, and influencers upon, the values, norms, and biases of our surrounding community. By eating, we subtly and tacitly confirm our own membership in a community.
At least, that’s how it used to be. Today, a tremendous amount of food the world over is distributed by multinational corporations. This prepackaged, pre-made food has become a convenient source of quick nutrition for many in developing countries-- but at a huge cost. A 2017 New York Times report on Brazil, for example, found that Nestlé’s huge marketing push in that country has displaced smaller food providers, destroyed local food systems, and adversely affected the health of many of Brazil’s poor-- all while working with the government to secure preferential treatment. That same report disclosed that more people globally are now obese than underweight, as the crisis of starvation is slowly replaced with the crisis of malnutrition.
Big Food is displacing food systems the world over. Large companies benefiting from economies of scale can price out local food providers, especially when their processed and sugar-rich snacks create a dependency in consumers that local vegetables and starches do not. Producers, facing decreased demand in their local communities, may work with-- or be absorbed into-- these multinational companies. In Brazil, ranchers supplying meatpacking giant JBS have been destructively deforesting the Amazon rainforest, likely at the behest of the company itself.
The physical and environmental health costs of Big Food are tremendous. But to focus only on rising obesity and deforestation would be to overlook the profound impact of multinationals like Nestlé on community health.
As I explained at the beginning of the article, food can be classified as a form of community knowledge. It connects us to one another, and to a broader sense of community. Techniques and traditions surrounding food are often ancient and important parts of community life. But Big Food actively dismantles food systems and changes what and how people are eating. In years past, a dinner in Brazil would have entailed a trip to the market to buy local food, facilitating social connection, binding consumers to their local economy, and sustaining local foodways. Now, a dinner in Brazil can be a prepackaged snack from one of the door-to-door Nestlé salespeople. Physical connection with the community is not necessary, and the generic food consumed doesn’t do much beyond temporarily filling a belly. The profits from the sale go to shareholders instead of back into the community.
The rise of multinational food providers has made getting food easier and cheaper, and that is a laudable development. But displacing local food systems deconstructs local communities. Connection-- both physical and emotional-- is disrupted as companies distribute cheap and generic packaged items. Whereas food once bound together communities, Big Food is uprooting local systems, and with them community knowledge and intimacy.
The struggle against Big Food is becoming an increasingly prominent social justice issue, with groups like Uprooted and Rising and Slow Food USA (to which Foodlyn belongs) leading the charge for change at home and abroad. These groups seek to build affordable, environmentally sustainable and healthy foodways, providing the access to sustenance that Big Food claims to provide while preserving the benefits of local systems. The fight against Big Food is about the physical health of communities and the sustainability of our environments, but it is also a fight to reconstruct community.
by Will Sutton
I had decided to sleep in. My classes were done, and I didn’t start my summer job for a few days. Setting my alarm for 10AM the night before, I looked forward to a solid nine hours of sleep.
Not so. I awoke that morning at 8:30 to the sound of my mother’s voice in the kitchen, speaking loudly into her laptop. I tried to ignore it and return to bed, but had no luck. Miserably awake, I marched downstairs with a bone to pick.
Before I could gripe to my mother, however, I saw my 8-year-old cousin on the laptop screen, a mixing bowl on the counter in front of him. My mother, too, stood in front of a mixing bowl, the ingredients for brownies laid out beside her. I looked from her to my cousin blinking unassumingly on the Zoom call and decided not to whine. I grunted a good morning, grabbed some coffee, and went back upstairs.
I didn’t want to loudly complain in front of my little cousin, but that’s not the only reason for my retreat. Seeing the pair baking together-- both that morning, and nearly every Tuesday since-- was genuinely touching. These days, I relish eating my breakfast while listening to my mom teaching him how to crack eggs with one hand, or trying to explain the science of bread rising. Plus, I get to enjoy whatever treats they bake.
In a section of Remembrance of Repasts, David E. Sutton’s 2001 anthropological study of the island of Kalymnos, Greece, the author makes an intriguing observation: Kalymnians who have been physically separated from their homeland seek out their native cuisine in order to achieve a sense of wholeness. Drawing upon the work of Benedict Anderson, Sutton asserts that dislocated Kalymnians consume familiar food to place themselves within an imagined community that confirms their cultural identity.
I cannot help but apply this idea, on a micro scale, to morning baking tutorials in my kitchen. From homes in Massachusetts and New Jersey, my mom and my little cousin bake brownies, cookies, and bread in lockstep. As they move together through their kitchens, there’s a palpable sense of family, generated in the steps, textures, and smells that they share from homes 200 miles apart. Every Tuesday, they imagine, and share, a community through the act of simultaneous baking. So I won’t complain when they interrupt my sleep.
by Will Sutton
I grew up eating GORP, more commonly known as trail mix, on family camping trips and hikes in the White Mountains. Generally, we ate the “good ol’ raisins and peanuts” that give the snack its acronymized name, but my brothers and I occasionally got inventive by mixing in goldfish crackers, peanut butter cups, or, in our most questionable innovation, gummy worms.
But that’s the beauty of GORP: the freedom of it. Gummy worms are just as acceptable-- though certainly less palatable-- as additions like banana chips or M&M’s. At its best, making GORP is an art form, forcing the architect of the snack (the GORP-itecht?) to balance nutrition, taste, texture, packability, and, for the truly cultured, aesthetics. It’s a delicious puzzle, a creative challenge that you get to eat at the end. What’s not to love?
In this article, I offer some hard-learned wisdom that I hope can help up your GORP game. I intentionally did not disclose any specific recipes, as that would, in my view, ruin all the artistic genius involved in snack creation. I encourage readers to try these out, and to continually strive for the perfect mix. We can all be GORP-itechts.
GORP Tip #1: Meltdown Control
An oft-cited issue with GORP is the way chocolate can melt on a hot trail day. Some love the resultant gobs of melted chocolate, nuts, and raisins; others, like myself, find them messy and difficult to eat. M&M’s are often pitched as a melt-proof chocolate, but I am dubious of such claims. Besides their tendency to explode into chocolatey messes, melted M&M’s can stain your GORP with their artificially colored shells.
If you still want that chocolatey flavor without the chocolatey mess, try mixing in Teddy Grahams, mini oreos, or mini chocolate chip cookies. These are virtually melt-proof solutions, and they can add a new texture and aesthetic to your GORP.
GORP Tip #2: Chip Hubris
Enthusiastic GORP-itechts, eager to innovate both texture and flavor, may be tempted to introduce chips to the mix. This is, unfortunately, a rookie mistake. Chips are quick to crumble in the rough-and-tumble world of a hiking pack, leaving oily residue and plenty of salt, but not much flavor or texture.
To mitigate this, you can seek out sturdier varieties of potato chips (Cape Cod Potato Chips, in my experience, are the strongest), but there’s no protecting them from crumbling. In place of corn chips, toasted corn is a crumble-proof substitute that achieves a similar taste. But these are imperfect substitutes; adopt them at your own risk.
GORP Tip #3: The Tragedy of Yogurt Pretzels
Yogurt pretzels are elite additions to GORP. They knock it out of the park in the flavor department, and they are interesting in texture and aesthetic-- an all-around win. The tragedy of yogurt pretzels is their fragility. They are prone to melting, and in my experience do not hold up well to moisture. To include yogurt pretzels is a high-risk, high-reward choice for the GORP-itecht. As with all items on this list, I encourage you to experiment, learn, and grow as a snack creator.
This article may have read as overdramatic, but my passion for GORP is genuine. I hope readers are inspired to experiment, if just a little bit, with trail mixes. Adding creativity makes snacking more fun, but it also makes snacks feel more personal, and allows you to take ownership of what you’re eating. So take a trip to a whole-food store to stock up on ingredients, or use our selection of nuts, seeds, and granola as a starting point-- and happy GORP-ing!
by Will Sutton
When I arrived at school last year, I figured that the new setting-- and the control it gave me over my dietary choices-- was a great opportunity to commit to vegetarianism. It proved to be harder than I expected. I still eat meat much, much more than I’d like to, so keep in mind that this advice is as much for myself as it is for you.
But I think my relatively poor job of going vegetarian has stopped me from adopting a superiority complex when discussing the diet. I know firsthand it isn’t easy, and I know how annoying it is to have successful vegetarians preach at you about why you should adopt the diet. So hopefully I can avoid that today.
This article is intended to help struggling vegetarians, but also to give the skeptics some ideas to chew on. So whether or not you are trying right now, and even if you think it’s ridiculous hippie mumbo-jumbo, I ask that you read on. My advice itself is simple:
Be a vegetarian for yourself.
The conventional case for vegetarianism would emphasize the environmental, nutritional, financial and, perhaps least convincing for dubious audiences, humanitarian reasons for adopting the diet. These are the benefits of the diet. They are what I hope to gain by being vegetarian, and I hope that by successfully dropping meat, you, too, will enjoy these benefits.
But the problem with these benefits is that, financial improvements excluded, you rarely receive meaningful confirmation of them. If foregoing meat is helping you avoid heart disease, you don’t receive a trophy that says “I Avoided Heart Disease,” you just… don’t get heart disease. Cutting personal intake of meat is a tiny decrease in carbon emissions-- the ocean is going to rise whether you individually eat chicken wings or not. And when you opt for a salad over a burger, the restaurant doesn’t wheel out an adorable cow to moo a “thank-you” for saving his or her life.
This is why I call these benefits of vegetarianism, distinguishing them from reasons for ditching meat. If you adopt the diet for those largely intangible reasons, you will probably have a rough go. It will be all work, no (obvious) reward. You may say you sleep better at night, but we both know you’ll be dreaming of hamburgers.
If you want to be a vegetarian, you have to internalize your “why.” You must transform the benefits into personal reasons. I do this by connecting my reasons for vegetarianism to specific values, memories, and feelings. When I forego meat, I think not about the distant, abstract pay-off of doing so but rather the immediate reasons why vegetarianism is more compatible with what I hold dear.
This probably sounds like hippie mumbo-jumbo, so let’s look at some examples. I personally am vegetarian for environmental and nutritional purposes, so this is how I relate those benefits to my reasons.
Environmental: When I think about being vegetarian, I think about the forest outside my door where I love to run. I think about the mountains my family used to hike through, and the beach where we spend summer days. Vegetarianism now evokes the memories of those places, and the peace of nature, rather than triggering a rather abstract fear of climate change that is all too easy to overlook when you smell filet mignon.
Nutritional: When I think about being vegetarian, I remind myself of how it feels to stretch the morning after a long run; the strain, the lightness afterwards. To me, it’s the most perceptible bodily feeling of health. And by connecting vegetarianism to that feeling instead of to heart disease (which I am fortunate enough to have never experienced), I create a positive reason to persevere.
These examples reveal that by internalizing the often abstract benefits of vegetarianism, we transform the diet from a negative one (don’t eat meat because of impending climate change and the threat of heart disease) to a positive one (do be a vegetarian because of the diet’s benefits to nature and satisfaction of bodily health). And working towards the goal of a vegetarian diet, rather than working against the temptation of meat, makes vegetarianism a whole lot easier. You’re not being a vegetarian for far-off benefits. You’re being a vegetarian for yourself.
If you’re a striving vegetarian, I hope this article was helpful-- keep at it, my friend. And if you are a skeptic, and you see a veggie burger on the menu-- I hope you think about what reasons you personally have to order one.
On Campfire Food Posted on 4 Aug 13:57 , 0 comments
by Will Sutton
Photo Credit: "Campfire" by RVWithTito is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Blackened hot dogs; roasted peppers; flame-toasted bagels and burgers cooked unevenly. When I look back on the camping trips of my youth, it’s the food that I remember most vividly. There’s something about cooking on an open flame that is undeniably attractive. Even when the meal comes out less-than-perfect, it’s always a pleasure to eat.
There are a couple of reasons why camp meals cooked over open flames are so romantic. Perhaps the most obvious is the collaboration inherent to campfire cooking: everyone gathering around the flames, admiring one another’s culinary efforts. I have fond memories of toasting bagels on grey mornings in the New Hampshire wilderness, sitting around the freshly made fire with my brothers. My older brother, ever-patient, would slowly rotate his until it was perfect; hoping for a shortcut, my younger brother and I usually plunged ours into the fire, scorching them. We didn’t care; the fun of it was in being together, and the act of toasting.
Which brings me to a second reason why I love camp food: the act of cooking itself. There’s an immediacy to food prep over an open flame, a joy in the directness of it. In a time when most of our food system is industrialized and globalized, and when pre-packaged, microwavable foods are widespread, the act of cooking over a fire is enticingly simple. Preparing food in this pleasingly uncomplicated way is a nice break. The watchfulness required to not overcook your meal over the variable heat source is an opportunity to practice patience and be present. It’s just you, your meal, and whomever you’re sharing the fire with.
As my brothers and I have grown, my family has seen our camping trips taper off. Pulled in various directions every summer by internships, sleepaway camps, relationships and schoolwork, we haven’t been able to find time that all of us can get away, much less one that works for the various family friends we’d like to have join us. Consequently, there’s been an unfortunate dearth of campfire meals in my diet in the past few years. But if there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s been keeping our family under one roof. With a fire pit in the backyard, we’ve been able to gather around a fire for the first time in years. And even though we’ve mostly just cooked marshmallows, I’ve been reminded of the joy of gathering together to cook over an open flame. Maybe one of these days my brothers and I can try toasting bagels again. For old time’s sake.