by Kelly Jones
I love food. Be it sweet or savory, a plate of veggies, a pile of barbeque, or some confection made up of dense cream and loads of sugar mixed with synthetic (but edible) dye. A veteran of the service industry, I have served, prepared, boxed up, and tossed out more food than I could consume in a lifetime. I have worked at all sorts of establishments: 24-hour diners, neighborhood bars, specialty bake shops. From fine-dining to farm-to-table to mom & pop restaurants, cinema grills, and even an experimental supper club. I’ve cut innumerable birthday cakes. Sung happy birthday to so many strangers. Popped champagne for wedding parties. Sipped said champagne when the chance presented. I’ve seen relationships start. I’ve poured cups of coffee all night long for artists. For the homeless. For long-haul truckers. I’ve seen relationships fall apart. I’ve sobered up prom-goers. I’ve helped get tourists inebriated. I’ve allowed a punk band to pour from the bottle of Grey Goose they stumbled off the streetcar with, as long as they did so under the table and tipped like they were ordering off menu. I’ve followed customers out when they didn’t leave enough to cover their bill and demanded payment. I’ve broken up fights and mopped up blood. I’ve been groped by grown men. By grown women. I’ve come back from a smoke break to a dining room emptied, except for the cops with their guns drawn. I’ve been stiffed on tips and handed twenties just for smiling. I’ve been yelled at by irate customers and hugged by the happy ones. I’ve stood before a man on a horse and explained that unless he left the animal outside he would have to order to-go. What all these experiences combined have taught me is that people are beautiful and strange and complex creatures.
Our relationships with food are also complex and strange, and occasionally beautiful. Much like diners prefer not to think much about the individuals who serve them, people seem to prefer not to consider the story behind the food before them. Most of us don’t produce food, or live near production centers. As our appetites increase and our palates become more refined and adventurous, we crave different foods but aren’t very concerned with the means of their production. Remember the stories on almond milk that surfaced a couple years ago? Or the brief popularity of kale on menus, and the rebranding of cheap leafy greens in general that turned them from an affordable staple for some into a tasty new treat for others? Farming is perhaps trendier now than it has ever been. More people may be visiting small farms, shopping at local markets, and frequenting restaurants that partner with local producers, but the number of farmers making a living off of farming is still in decline.
This is a problem, and one without a simple solution. What we eat, where and when we eat it, and how much we are willing to pay for it is a convoluted web of desire, power, preference, privilege, and availability. If I am anything like other Americans, I eat more than I need to in order to survive. I consume more than I should. And I toss out a disgusting amount of food. Though I try not to.
Some studies have found that on average, America wastes forty percent of its available food. Which means that somewhere out there, other people are getting by on less. I am aware that the food decisions I make every day mean something, and that these decisions are the result of an unhealthy relationship with food. I am not sure how to be more mindful of this as I go about my life, or how to make changes that will have a positive long-term impact on how I interact with food.
I grew up hungry. Though never entirely without, an almost empty fridge and sparsely stocked cabinets were not unusual. In middle school I would make boxed mac and cheese and eat it night after night, because it was all there was in the apartment. I babysat and did yard work for neighbors in order to have money to buy lunch with at school. If I didn’t have the money, I’d sip on a can of soda and eat my friend’s rejected pizza crusts, pretending like they were my favorite thing and I just couldn’t let them go to waste. I began working in restaurants when I was fifteen, partially because I needed money and restaurants are one of the most efficient ways to make a decent amount of it, but also because it meant that food was accessible. I kept working in restaurants throughout my twenties, paying for college with the tips customers left me.
My food choices these days are based more on immediate needs than on anything else. I don’t plan enough time in the morning for breakfast, so I get a cup of coffee and a bagel a few hours after I get to the office. Or I stay out too late and wind up making grilled cheese after midnight. I stockpile food like I’m afraid of starving, and yet items will remain untouched in cabinets for months on end. Even though I struggle financially, I still find myself making weekly trips to the grocery store and buying things I could do without. Because not doing so sparks a bit of panic in me. I have tried over the years to let that hang-up go, but it remains.
When I worked in restaurants, I rarely went to the grocery store because one of the perks of restaurant work is that food is always available. Either the restaurant does a family pre-shift meal, or part of whatever staff order gets comped, or something gets messed up and workers get to scarf the mistake down. During that time of my life I also rarely went to restaurants as a customer, partially because I’ve always been uncomfortably being waited on and partially because I’m know about the ridiculous mark-up that restaurants get away with and the exploitative nature of the service industry. A few years out of my long run in the service industry, I still only go to restaurants occasionally, as it strikes me as strange to pay people to feed me - which is something I am fully capable of doing on my own. I prefer to have people over, or to go to potlucks. My favorite meals are made up of small bites of tons of side dishes and desserts, which is hard to order off a menu.
Every few weeks I visit my friends’ farm, which is conveniently just ten or so miles outside of the city I currently call home. I bring a cheap bottle of wine and a homemade pie. We carry our wineglasses with us as we visit the piglets and walk through rows of organic produce. My friends don’t leave the farm often, it consumes their lives, but it is a beautiful sort of consumption. Quite and hand-built, with a history that can’t be bought off a shelf. When I return to the city I return with bags of fresh greens and imperfect radishes and rutabagas. I enjoy figuring out ways to use these things before they spoil, and feel guilty when I fail to do so.