Advice for the Busy Urban Locavore, or What I Ate While Writing My Dissertation

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Yesterday I handed in the super-revised, almost finished, if my committee-approves-we-can-schedule-a-defense draft of my dissertation. Since the first of the year I have been living and breathing that document (and was almost as consumed by it for months before that as well), aside from the time I needed to teach my classes and do the other work necessary to keep food on our table. Ahh yes, food on our table. I have had little space in my brain to be creative in that department and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning, without a large document with daunting revisions to tackle (those are coming, I’m sure) that I allowed myself to think creatively again. My creative writing has suffered (note lack of writing here – and this despite that my dissertation is about creative writing) but that was almost understandable. When I sat down at my computer, I had a specific task to attend to. I could not afford to focus on anything other than the task at hand, as deadlines loomed if I wanted to earn my degree by May.

But eating… I had to eat. I had, in fact, been eating and, yes, cooking since the first of the year. My man and I have sat down to a number of breakfasts and lunches and dinners – more of the former made by him than in recent years (ok, or ever) – but still most dinners made by me, from scratch with fresh and mostly locally sourced ingredients. This morning, with a little mental space cleared in my brain, I reflected for the first time about what we had been eating. Like so many busy people – parents, folks with multiple or all-consuming jobs, grad students – I had little time to concoct elaborate meals or try new techniques like I had done in the past (thank goodness charcutepalooza was in 2011!). I was eating to survive (hopefully deliciously) – and on a budget, and with as little prep time and as sustainably as possible. And I realized that I had been doing just (ok, mostly) that, despite my deficit in time, money and mental energy. And I also noted that I did these things while making my way – half the time at least – in a new city. How? I figured out that there were a few key things that helped make this all possible.

  1. I had a go-to store. When we moved our Brooklyn neighborhood from Borough Park to Crown Heights I lamented the fact that I would have to begin a new search for the closest farmer’s market and butcher, fish monger and market with products I could trust. But then I saw an opening for an orientation at the Park Slope Coop (more on this beloved and notorious food cult to come someday soon). By Mid-January we had joined, and knowing that most of their products were organic, as much of their produce, meat and dairy as possible was local, and everything they sold was vetted as being responsibly produced took the guess work – and multiple stops – out of shopping. I love supporting my local farmer’s market, and in fact hope to join a CSA again this year, but during the winter and with limited time, having a store I could trust saved me a precious hour or two a week. (FYI – My go-to store in Somerville is Sherman’s Market. Smaller, certainly, but I can get most of what I need for a few days in one quick stop from people I trust.)
  2.  The slow cooker is my friend. Especially in the winter, and especially when making a large pot of something that will sustain us for a few days and especially when I have a plethora of root vegetables and especially when my eating and work schedule is off-kilter from that of my husband (or the rest of the normal world). I could just throw a bunch of ingredients in and let them do their thing while I was working.
  3. I did plan ahead – although I was never, nor do I assume I will ever become – a super menu planner like super-moms and semi-celebrity tv chefs claim one should. No. But I would buy some salad fixings (but please, dear God, not the tomatoes in winter) and veggies that looked good for roasting and local apples and a whole chicken or cheaper cut of beef and eggs, yogurt and bread, and the not-local but very necessary all-natural peanut butter and good dark chocolate (I have my Brooklyn- and Somerville-produced favorites). I roasted a chicken with some veggies one day, and topped a salad with the leftovers the next. Or I would dice wine-marinated beef and root veggies into the slow cooker and serve a few hours later over quinoa, rice or polenta. Leftover starch makes a good salad topping, or toss it in with the rest of the faux-bourguignon, add some stock and make a soup. I might make a veggie and egg fritatta for breakfast (or lunch or brunch) and serve the leftovers with some greens at the next meal. Peanut butter with apples made a great snack or breakfast. Apples starting to get soft? I simmered them down into apple sauce or apple butter. Great on its own or slathered on toasted bread, with or without peanut butter. A few staples went a long way.
  4. What if I had NO time to cook or I was traveling or I was hungry NOW? I generally don’t do take-out. Almost never. And, although I love meat, I just can’t stomach most inexpensive animal proteins (I’ve read too much about CAFOs). I turn to inexpensive vegetarian ethnic food for my quick fix. In my new Brooklyn neighborhood, the Trini street food “doubles” – basically a flatbread or pancake with spicy chickpea filling – can be had for $1.25. For visitors, that’s their inauguration to the heavily West Indies-influenced Crown Heights. If we’re traveling through downtown Manhattan, 12 ounces of house-made spicy tofu, a sizeable order of vegetable dumplings or a thick slice of sesame pancake can be had for under $3. If we’re heading straight home, we might pick up enough for leftovers. And no, I don’t ask about the provenance of the ingredients. But for me, that’s a small price to pay to support a local business and learn a bit about the food cultures next door to where I live.

A few weeks ago someone studying urban locavores interviewed me. We had a mid-afternoon appointment at my local coffee shop, and I changed from my pajamas less than an hour before we were to meet. I had been writing and researching all day. I welcomed the chance to think about this subject that had consumed me for much of the past year when I had finished my memoir on the subject, but had become second nature since the rest of my life needed more attention. She had asked how I made do in a city, where local and sustainable food was often harder to come by and cheap produce and take-out was so much more accessible. I thought for a moment and responded, “I guess I just figured out a system that worked for me and my lifestyle and tried to follow my own advice.” I realized that in the first few weeks of the new year, I had done just that and allowed myself to switch to auto-pilot so I could put my mental energy elsewhere.

I write this not to preach or pat myself on the back, but to let people know that it is possible to eat sustainably, locally and healthfully despite a busy life. I know I feel better when I do – and have more energy to put into whatever project or daily activities need my full focus. But please excuse me. Because now that that all-consuming document is off my desk – for the next few days at least, while I wait for committee comments – I have only one thing I my mind: what’s for dinner.

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One thought on “Advice for the Busy Urban Locavore, or What I Ate While Writing My Dissertation

  1. Pingback: Pragmatic Environmentalism

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