Lessons from Doc: #3 “Learn to like plain food, plain service, plain cooking.”

Doc loved gardens. He loved weeding and feeding people with the food he grew. I once ate fresh tomatoes from his garden in his kitchen. The Teton Valley Boys Ranch served plain oatmeal for breakfast. At first it made me gag, seeing as how I was 12, but I developed a love for the way it stuck to my stomach. At least that was my theory. I knew it was cheap, easy to make, and good for me, and I did indeed learn to like it.

Once again, Doc seems ahead of his time. We know so much more now about the dangers of the modern food industry posed to our health, to animals, to land, and to the climate. The average meal in America today travels 1300 miles to get to the plate. A pound of beef requires the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas to produce. If you haven’t seen “Food, Inc.” or “Super Size Me” or read any Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, maybe it is time. The higher up we eat on the food chain—that is, the larger and the more complex the organism—the greater energy we use in getting it to our table and the more likelihood that it has already absorbed unhealthy elements along the way. When you eat beef, you are also consuming land and its biodiversity that have been cleared to grow the grain to feed the cattle, the water to feed the grain and the cattle and you are helping to emit methane gas from the cattle, a minor but very potent greenhouse gas, and you are expending the fossil fuel it takes to slaughter, package, and ship the beef. When we eat fast food, we are not only consuming the food but the excessive packaging that goes with it, all of it measurable in its impact on the environment and on the world’s poor. If we were to reduce our meat eating by only 20%, according to one study, it would be the equivalent of buying a hybrid vehicle in terms of the energy we would save. Is it any wonder why the LDS practice of the “Word of Wisdom” advises to eat meat sparingly and to eat fruit in season? To eat food in season, one would need to conform one’s diet more to the changing seasons, to eat locally, and to cultivate the art of canning and preserves. It used to be a sign of aristocratic power in the 18thand 19th centuries in England to grow and serve tropical fruits in greenhouses, as a way of showing your neighbors that your diet was free of climatic constraints. It now seems a sign instead of needless indulgence. We sought to have whatever we want, whenever we wanted it, and now we are discovering this is, in fact, not what we should have desired.
So now we are seeing the growth of farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and a new “eat local” ethos. Doc seems to be advising us to go even further and let go of our addictions to fine, elaborate, and exotic foods prepared by others. He wants to bring food production and preparation back into a more simple and home-based economy. In this sense, “plain” does not have to imply plain tasting. Everyone knows how much better a garden tomato tastes to one bought in the store, especially one bought out of season. We yearn for the taste of fresh food and for the chance to recover the art of cooking from scratch. We need to reinforce our autonomy and creativity and embrace direct responsibility. I don’t suppose Doc ever cared much for eating out, so perhaps he wanted us to stop altogether, but at the very least we must work harder to recover our own food independence. In our drive to store food for emergencies, we would do well to remember that food safety is more sustainably and meaningfully secured with greater levels of household production and support for gardening and local agriculture.
For those of us who love fine cuisine and savoring the foods of the world this might be a tough sell. I know it is for me. The good news is that many restaurants have caught the vision of the value of local, fresh, and organic produce, however, so perhaps they ought to be especially supported. In all cases, we must also consider what we give up when we pay others to feed us. This includes the time to build relationships at home, to develop discipline, independence, and creativity, and the opportunity to bring ourselves in closer contact with and to be better stewards over the local ecosystems that support us.
I don’t know if by “plain service” Doc meant service of food alone, as we might conclude by including service in this list, but since he was a devout practitioner of humanitarian service which included but was not limited to the sharing of good food, perhaps we can imagine it simply means that we should focus on the pleasures of giving simply, akin to what a friend of mine considers the sacramental act of simply and literally breaking bread with others, rather than worrying ourselves so much about dramatic outcomes or effects of our service. To like “plain service” might mean to learn to give our attention to the most obvious and immediate needs of others as they present themselves to us. We shouldn’t, in other words, overthink service. Too often we forsake the chance to make our humble offerings to others because we imagine our acts of giving are not particularly creative, elegant, or impressive. And in thinking more about ourselves or about the effects of what we give, we not only bypass the chance to meet simple needs, we also underestimate the power of simple gestures to create relationships. Service, in other words, is not merely meant to affect change but also to change relationships. What we should give, in all cases, is ourselves—our presence, our time, our attention—not some substitute. That is not to say that many people don’t need specific things—food, clothing, shelter, for starters—it is merely to say that receiving material gifts means more when we are also receiving a relationship, a bond, an opportunity to escape the solitude of all forms of destitution: material, spiritual, and emotional. 

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