Overthinking a Meal


Monday night, without my kids, but with two of my nieces, my sister-in-law, and Grandma and WG, we sat down to a meal of: pappardelle with bolognese sauce, salad, garlic bread, ice cream with raspberries and chocolate sauce. It was the last night of a visit, after all. The dinner was fairly uncomplicated, when you think about it. Then again, when I consider what it takes to put food on our table I become overwhelmed by the enormity of the process.

Over educated though I am, I wouldn’t consider myself a deep thinker. I have a lousy memory, especially for history and important facts (but an exacting one for minutia). And, even though I try to “get the big picture” – a phrase I fondly remember from driver’s education when I was seventeen – I become stuck in the narrow tunnel of everyday life. Suddenly, though, I’ll find myself in, say, a restaurant and I’ll begin to imagine all of the people involved in getting my dinner on the plate. I don’t mean just the servers and cooks. I mean EVERYTHING, down to the carpeting, the napkins, each element of the food (who made the big cans that held the tomatoes for the sauce?), the cooks’ uniforms, the wood for the tables, the plate itself (china made in China?). The web of people, industries, transportation, raw materials, machinery, etc., becomes so intricate that it is overwhelming to me. The sheer number of people who touch my life each day, who I don’t know, but are probably within six degrees of separation, is unfathomable. The global economy that supports the system is even more baffling. How can and does it all work?

When S and I were driving home from dropping the girls off to go to camp, we traveled up I-5, from L.A. to San Francisco through what is undoubtably one of the most complex and important regions of the country. Just outside the L.A. area, cars speed along a 10 lane highway through what would appear to be complete desolation. The mountains around L.A. are dramatic, arid and seemingly barren. Then, the descent starts from the peaks down into California’s central valley. I thought we’d see fruit farms immediately, but instead: cattle. Actually, we didn’t see the animals as much as smell the stockyards. Based on the, um, fragrance, these were not the happy cows that California’s dairy industry touts in their advertisements. I have seen those cows up in Marin, grazing. There was no grazing going on in the central valley as we entered it. There was mud, muck, feed houses and this revolting smell for miles.

At last, we saw the fruit trees. What kind of trees? I have no idea. But there were miles upon miles of orchards and groves, grape vines and fertile fields. Not many houses. Not many people – though I’m sure they must have been there. We also saw a lot of signs posted by the freeway that were political in nature: can’t have crops without water. Like L.A., the central valley wouldn’t exist on the scale that it does if water didn’t get allotted to it. There is no natural water source in the summer. More complexity creeps into the already crowded picture of people involved in getting food to my plate. I am indebted not just to farmers, but to irrigation specialists (not to mention lobbyists?).

Maybe I should become a vegetarian or a locavore? If that were the case, where would I eat when I am on the road (yes, yes, I know, I could bring it with me)? And, where does McDonald’s get all those eggs for their Egg McMuffins? Why does it smell so much worse near the Harris Ranch than the other ranch we drove by? The air was literally thick with odor. The girls would have begged for gas masks.

As we wound our way off of I-5 and toward Gilroy, we passed a lake (which was pretty low, even with the rains of this year) and then drove through more crops and trees. Lots of berries and cherries were advertised along the way. Roadside fruit stands abound on the I-5 to Gilroy route. Then, after all that farm land, the Gilroy outlet mecca loomed in the distance. Before long, we headed north directly into the sprawl of Silicon Valley.

When the newspapers focus each day on global or national problems, industries, financial markets, sports and some of the arts (read: TV and movies), it is easy to lose sight of the day-to-day communities and businesses that make up our society. The world is so much bigger. Governments are so much more intricate. I think that, like me, the others have to look at events as recipes with known ingredients that they cook into bite sized pieces. It is simply too difficult to digest everything at once.

As I composed the photograph above, I thought about its ingredients: raspberries, vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce. Beyond those, however, are more ingredients: ice cream from Trader Joe’s, raspberries from Driscoll Farms (purchased at Trader Joe’s – good price!), and home-made fudge sauce (made with Baker’s unsweetened chocolate, butter, sugar, cocoa powder, evaporated milk, vanilla extract and salt), in the glass bowl, on a stoneware plate, atop a cotton dish-towel, taken with my new digital camera. I considered all the people who needed to be involved in that one image. I should also mention those folks at HP who made the computer on which I am writing, and the ones at WordPress who built the web-based program that hosts this blog.

One bowl of ice cream: milk and eggs probably from the USA, vanilla from Mexico or Madagascar or Tahiti, raspberries from California, chocolate from somewhere in South America, sugar from the USA (or a Caribbean country?), glass bowl made in Turkey (I looked up the manufacturer), plate made in England, dish-towel made in India, camera made by a Japanese company. One global bowl of ice cream.

All of which begs the question: what are the people who made the guar gum, from guar beans in India (most probably, since 80% of guar products are from India), that is added to the ice cream in the USA, having for dinner on an average Monday night? Have they ever eaten hot fudge sundaes?

Fascinating. But, overwhelming. I should probably stick to digesting bite sized chunks of my own cooking. It is so much easier not to overthink. Otherwise, I’ll feel like I should invite all these people for dinner, because they have done so much for me. Then it would be close to 7 Billion-4-dinner.

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