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. 

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11344760693735971810 Jayson and Casey

    You're a fantastic writer. I loved this post! I'm going to try to be better at this Lesson #3. It's a good one.

    –Casey (Fish) from London Study Abroad 2006 :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Hi Casey! Thanks. Glad you liked it. I hope and trust you are well!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03366800726360134194 Russell Arben Fox

    Beautiful reflections here, George, especially your comments on "food independence."

    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.

    But again, I wonder if you aren't thinking around what seems to me to be the critical point of the counsel: plainness. What is the virtue of keeping one's life, one's presentation to the world, one's preparation and work, "plain? I suspect you've already touched on it–plain things are things which, at the least, we are more likely to be able to do independently, by ourselves, and with our families and neighbors. Plain food is, generally speaking, not food which demands time and preparation and costs which make us, in important ways, dependent upon others, upon corporations and governments, upon decisionmakers beyond our collective control. Plain service, plain living, plain dressing, etc.–it all points, as I read it, to getting away from the ostentation and luxury which can only be achieved through specialization and dependency and debt. The person who eats the plain tomato isn't just enjoying something wonderful as a bounty that they themselves could grow independently, but they are also not obliging themselves to anything expensive or time-consuming or out of reach.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08412574411708265761 Ryan Comins

    Excellent thoughts here.
    I've always believed that a true support of the lds principle of agency would necessarily entail a support for plain cooking and plain eating, as well as local food and small businesses, simply because all of these things reduce our dependency, and thus increase our liberty and agency.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Russell, I am in complete agreement with you, so perhaps I am not understanding what you are suggesting I am not tackling directly. I think the purpose of these "learn to like" statements is a call to avoiding all that you describe–luxury, ostentation, dependence. I just think it is also important to note that, at least as I understand Bennion's writings, this is a happier and more fulfilling way to live. So I want always to make that point. It does, indeed, involve changing predilections, habits, addictions, and avoiding all forms of extravagance and this can be a painful sacrifice. But he invites us to "learn to like," so I am merely trying to point out what, in the end, is quite enjoyable about simpler things. Maybe that makes my point clearer? In any case, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14093572344825878310 Tatiana

    I do question the idea that eating out is somehow wrong. That depends on having a home work force, usually female, to do the very labor-intensive job of preparing and cooking the food. Only if these jobs are fully shared by all the family, something that was less-common in days of yore, or only if the one suggesting the change was the one upon whom most of the additional work would fall, can that advice ring true to my ears.

    My stay-at-home mother prepared most of the meals in our family when I was young. She spent most of 3 hours on weekdays making dinner. Then of course she made lunches for us in the mornings to take to school with us, as well as a hot breakfast. So probably a good 4 or 5 hours were spent daily by her on food production, and she didn't garden or can. Nobody who has a full time job outside the home can really do that. I can't do that.

    The great increase in the number of meals eaten in restaurants is a direct result, I believe, of the fact that the erstwhile home workforce has gone to work outside the home in this generation. Even simple meals are very labor intensive. It's not a surprise that there's not enough labor left over to produce them at home.

    It's so true that simple, home-baked bread is far tastier and more wholesome than a grocery store loaf. I love fresh home-grown tomatoes in a salad or a stew. There's no question that biscuits made from scratch are much tastier and cheaper then the ones that come canned at the store. It's just that I don't know many families who can afford these things, regularly; not the money but the time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Tatiana,

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I agree that these ideas shift in meaning pretty dramatically whenever we start speaking of single parents, unequal marriage partners, or of the very poor, for that matter. It seems the efforts to fight the obesity epidemic among the poor are aimed at getting people off of fast food, which is more expensive and less healthy, even though it is still, at least arguably, a time saver. Wendell Berry made the controversial argument that the reason women got tired of being in the home was because the modern industrial complex had rendered homemaking an essentially meaningless and uncreative form of work. That argument hasn't won over too many women, however, maybe because they have a keener sense of what life was like before and that there aren't too many men around who would commit to being the kind of domestic caretakers Berry has been. Doc would encourage us to simplify in all things precisely in the hope that there would be more time, but perhaps that too presupposes two equal partners. He devoted the bulk of his service to widows and other single parents because he recognized the extra challenges they faced.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08412574411708265761 Ryan Comins

    I do find the thought of being 'plain' as a means of preventing us from becoming overly dependent upon corporations rather attractive. It reminds me of something I wrote very recently. You should all check it out, it's at my new blog http://www.zionssynod.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/small-is-beautiful-latter-day-saint.htm


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