Posts Tagged ‘food’

Freaks of nature

So I found some apples today, when due to some long and stupid circumstances I ended up going through the fridge of another tenant in my building who’d skipped out on his lease about a month ago. Needless to say, said fridge had gotten pretty nasty, but there was a bag of apples in which about half of them were still good enough to make pie with. So I started cutting up the apples, and this was the weird part. No seeds! I’ve never seen apples without seeds in them before. I looked at the package. Mixed apples from Washington. No mention of them being seedless (and you’d think that’s the kind of thing they’d advertise as a selling point, right?). Really odd. Three different varieties of apples in the bag and only one apple that had any seeds in it.

Intellectually I know that seedless apples aren’t really any odder than seedless bananas, which have a long and honourable (?) history. So there’s no reason to assume these are weird genetically-modified part-llama deliberately-sterilized freak apples. But there’s nothing in Canadian food labelling requirements that requires anyone to tell me if they are. Which is unsettling.

And, yeah, I know I said a few weeks ago that I was going to pay more attention to where my food comes from; but I’m not being inconsistent here, cause I feel like avoiding the throwing away of perfectly good food trumps most other considerations. I have no idea what the provenance of these apples is (other than “Paul’s fridge”, obviously) but the pie smells good so far, so, hey. If I get some sort of alien bursting out of my chest tomorrow, y’all will know what to blame.

(Oh, and today’s Dinosaur Comics is, as usual, topical and awesome.)

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Circles of concern, circles of influence

I just read an article in the current issue of The Canadian Friend that resonated very strongly with me. In “Making Peace With Our Place on the Planet”, Tony McQuail of Kitchener Monthly Meeting writes:

Something that has been helpful to me is distinguishing between my circle of concern and my circle of influence. If I spend a vast amount of time and energy worrying about the things out in my circle of concern, I can get pretty wound up, frustrated, and lose my inner peace. When I concentrate on my circle of influence I feel far more positive, and bring a hopeful and constructive energy to bear on situations where I actually have some impact. It helps me work on what I can do, rather than worry about what I can’t.

This is a very helpful way of thinking, to me. I spend a lot of time in this job listening to bad news, much of it coming from distant places where I can’t have much if any direct impact, or occurring on a scale too vast to be affected by individual will. This is generally the point where despair sets in.

It’s sometimes hard, too, to figure out what exactly my “circle of influence” is. I know that I could be doing more than I am. I could put in more volunteer hours than I do. I could donate more money to causes I care about. I could, when my current job ends, go and join the Peace Corps and spend the next few years building schools in Africa or whatever. The point is, there’s this large nebulous zone just outside the things I can currently have a positive impact on, full of things I could have a positive impact on if I had more strength, more willpower, more energy, less time commitments, less emotional entanglements, less ties to the place where I live – if I were, in short, a different person altogether. For me, that leads to more guilt than it probably ought to, and that feeds the despair too.

Maybe it’s helpful to remind myself what exactly my circle of influence is.

My garden is the first thing that comes to mind. A large part of Tony McQuail’s article is about his farm, and the ways in which food production is linked to oil and thence to war and violence. I don’t have the skill to grow some things (celery, so far, has been a dismal failure) or the environment to grow other things (chickens, say, or pineapples – damn you, delicious pineapples, and your inability to thrive in the St. Lawrence Lowlands!), but my boyfriend and I can generally get our quota of vegetables entirely from the garden during the peak tomato-producing months.

Another group within my circle of influence is my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, with whom I walk a fine line between wanting to mention when they’re doing something environmentally terrible (“You know you shouldn’t be seting Styrofoam on fire, right?”) and wanting to actually keep said friends. Generally I find perky enthusiasm a lot more helpful than nagging. (“Guess what I saw today! Recycled paper coffee filters! Those used to be impossible to find! Isn’t it great how many more recycled products you can get these days? I feel so much less guilty going shopping when I can get recycled stuff, don’t you?”)

Then there’s the other people in my environment, who I don’t necessarily know but who can see me bicycling, or using a refillable mug, or darning my socks on the bus, or whatever, and might think it’s a good idea. I don’t know how much that actually happens, but it’s certainly happened to me a few times. Besides, it’s a critical mass thing – how many people do you see now using reusable grocery bags? Practically everyone. There’s social pressure about it now. Several times in the past month I’ve seen people apologize (to the cashier, or to the other customers at large) for taking plastic bags. This is a positive step. (The next step is for the supermarkets to just stop offering plastic bags altogether. They’re already doing it in Halifax. Come on, Montreal, do you always want to be trailing behind Halifax??)

There’s my government, of course. Sometimes, like everyone else, I feel I have next to no impact on the decisions of the government that theoretically represents me. But I write letters to them anyway. And hey, we finally got Peter McQueen elected; that has to do some good.

There are my consumer decisions – what to buy, what to wear, where to shop. I’ve finally got my clothes-buying algorithm mostly figured out. (The Salvation Army figures prominently.)

Finally (and by “finally” I mean “I’m probably forgetting something”), there’s this blog, and its literally tens of readers (“Dozens! Baker’s dozens! They come in thirteens.”). Writing for a living has always been my goal, though admittedly I usually visualise that as involving fiction. But I’ve always thought writing was one of our most powerful tools for shaping the world. The amount of positive response that Right Relationship has received over the past year has been truly staggering, and I want to make sure to keep that firmly in mind as I continue in my own writing career in the months and years ahead. I know I now have the skill to write well enough to get people interested in what I have to say; now let’s see if I can make sure I’m saying something worth reading.

Eat, drink and be merry

I met up with a friend of mine over the Christmas holidays, whose name I’m not going to mention for reasons that will become obvious. When we got together, I was surprised to see that she was carrying a bottle of water in her backpack. She’s usually pretty good about environmental stuff, so I asked her, “What’s with the bottled water?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you know, I thought you were avoiding it because of how resource-intensive it is?” I said.

She shrugged. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “This water’s organic.”

I’m not telling this story to make fun of her, although it was pretty funny. The point is that we all get tripped up sometimes by the myriad of environmental buzzwords now circulating through our collective cultural memespace. Especially with the kind of greenwashing that’s become increasingly common these days.

“Organic” is one of those words that can have a pretty wide range of actual definitions. Apparently there are more than forty organizations in Canada alone that can certify foods as organic, and they use several different standards. That’s not including foods that use labels like “authentic” or “natural”, which don’t have legally specified definitions. Sometimes that means an advertiser is trying to put one over on people; sometimes it means a small producer doesn’t have the money or the ability to go through the organic certification process, even though their food would meet the qualifications if they did. Without knowing about the specific supplier, it’s hard to know which.

And of course, like anything else, this issue doesn’t exist in isolation. There’s a market in my neighbourhood that sells organic apples imported from Japan. Quebec apples, probably sprayed with pesticides, are still available at this time of year at the Provigo. Buy local or buy organic? Or, as is far more likely at the moment, run out of time, buy whatever I can get at the store that’s directly on my way to work, and then feel guilty about it?

There are other options; I’ve been volunteering for the past few months at Zero Food Waste (which, incidentally, would love to have more volunteers, if you’re in Montreal!). It’s kind of like dumpster diving, except officially approved-of by the stores – they put aside food that they’re going to throw out, and we pick it up and sort it out for use by the food bank, community kitchen, and other local organizations.

I try to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, except in a really general way, but I am going to make more of an effort to pay attention to what I eat this year. Hanging out with the above group of cool people should help. We’ll see how it goes.

(As an ironic epilogue, I found out later, via Wikipedia, that there actually was a complaint filed with the USDA in 2004 against a company that was indeed declaring tap water to be “certified organic” in order to claim that their various personal care products contained organic ingredients. Weird.)

Sock and awe

So…socks, right? Just about everybody wears them, especially in Montreal this time of year.

(Note: this is probably not going to be one of those “useful” or “coherent” posts, because I didn’t get hardly any sleep last night. Just FYI.)

Anyway, socks. I seem to be getting low on socks without giant holes in them, and while I do darn my own socks of course, sooner or later they get so patchy as to be unwearable. At which point they can be reused as dustrags or (if they’re made of actual wool rather than cotton and manky elastic) disassembled for their component yarn. But I still need new socks.

So obviously going to Wal-Mart and buying socks made by Cambodian children out of pesticide-ridden cotton grown on former rainforest land is not the best option here.

Can I get Canadian-made socks? Not at any store within five kilometres of my house, certainly, according to my unscientific and time-consuming survey. Let’s do some googling. The first result for “socks made in Quebec” is some children’s book; the second is The Great Canadian Sox Co. Inc. Hey, that sounds promising. Locally made socks, that’s good, right? Let’s look around their site a bit more. And…their yarn is made by Monsanto and Dupont. Huh. Maybe I’ll give that one a pass.

Okay, back to The Google. Sock monkey doll kit…no. Les Bas de Julie…okay, that’s better. Hand-finished wool socks made in Waterloo, Quebec. Definite bonus points for being local and non-sweatshop. Doesn’t say where the wool is gotten from – it says “Shetland wool” but I think that’s the breed of sheep? I don’t know much about sheep. I could phone them and find out, but…the socks are $34.95 a pair. I need at least five new pairs of socks at the moment, so that’s going to be a problem on a part-time paycheck.

The thing is, I don’t actually know what’s a reasonable price for socks. I mean, I know how much you generally pay for them: you can get made-in-China-and-sold-in-a-plastic-wrapper socks about five for $12 at the PharmaPrix. But I don’t know what the materials cost of a pair of socks is, I don’t know how long a pair takes to make (at least, on a machine; by hand it takes frickin’ days), I don’t know how much skilled labour it takes to operate a sock-knitting machine…There’s a lot about the sock industry that is a mystery to me.

Back to Google. BonjourQuebec plugging Les Bas de Julie to tourists. More sock monkeys on eBay. Le Plein Air d’Abord, a shop in Quebec City. Well, they do sell socks, let’s see who their suppliers are. Acorn and Smartwool. Acorn’s website does list “Animal-Friendly” and “Eco-Friendly” collections, but the Eco-Friendly set (“featuring all-natural, renewable materials that are sustainably grown, biodegradeable and organic”) doesn’t include any socks. They don’t say anything on their website about where their socks are made. But they’re made of “fleece”, which is one of those things that everyone knows what it looks like but if you ask them what it’s actually made of, they’ll go “duh…goats maybe?” Actually there are two things called “fleece”, one of which is unprocessed wool (like the Golden Fleece); the other one is made of petroleum. These socks look like the second kind. I think maybe I don’t want extra-flammable socks.

Smartwool looks better; their website has a lot of stuff about sustainability and caring for the planet. They sponsor a lot of programs about conservation, wilderness education for urban kids, bicycling, and so on. I would feel good about giving money to this company. They do, however, import their wool from New Zealand. Admittedly, they talk a lot about animal welfare and take great pains to assure customers that these are very happy sheep, but still…New Zealand to Quebec, that’s a long way even direct, let alone with detours to wherever the socks are actually made, which I couldn’t find.

Googleoogleoogle…ballet slippers on shopbot, Winter Clothing in 19th Century Quebec Thematic Tours, some encyclopedia.com article that I have to sign up for an account to read, so I won’t. That’s page one. I’ve now spent about forty-five minutes on this, and seeing as I’m a child of the internet age, that’s, like, forever.

Maybe it’s time to look at some other options. What about used clothing stores? Okay, I do buy most of my jeans at the Salvation Army, likewise my current winter coat, etc., but I think I’m going to have to draw the line at socks. (And well before underwear. Okay, I don’t know if they actually sell underwear, but they sell swimwear, which is basically the same thing. Ew.) There’s something kind of gross about wearing socks that used to be somebody else’s. Possibly I’m being overly squeamish on this, but you know what, I’m okay with that.

Right, so if that’s no good, what about making my own socks? Ontario and Quebec certainly have quite a number of sheep farms, some of which sell wool, and my local yarn store could probably order me some locally made yarn.

Digression: Rose Haven, back in my parents’ hometown in Ontario, sells locally made yarn with adorable photos of baby sheep on the label, and you can also order lamb meat direct from them. Which made some people squeamish, but seriously, folks, where do you think it comes from? (I’m not vegetarian – tried it a few times, ended up in a bad way medically each time, can’t figure out why and please no comments about how the world will be saved by the miracle of flax seed oil or something, because I have talked to dieticians and so on about it and that isn’t it.) Anyway my point is, if you can’t bear to think about the idea that your lamb roast used to be a cute little furry critter skipping about the meadows, perhaps you should not be eating it, right? Either embrace your ancestral omnivorousness or don’t, but don’t delude yourself. Cause that’s just annoying.

Meh, that aside, it’s a lot easier to find local yarn than local finished socks. So this looks like the best option so far, in terms of locality, non-exploitation of workers, and using natural renewable resources. (Yes, I know animal farming is far less efficient and eco-friendly than plants. But try growing cotton up here.)

The only other downside is the time it takes. I knitted a pair of socks for a friend this past summer, and it took I would say about 10 hours per sock (I’m a slow knitter though). So, 20 hours a pair, and about $15 for the yarn…suddenly that $34.95 up above starts to look pretty reasonable actually.

On the other hand, it’s not like I don’t have the time. I’ve got a half-hour commute every morning and evening, and even if I only get a seat on the metro about half the time, that’s still some good knitting time, there. Plus it happens to be something I actually enjoy and find relaxing, which is helpful.

So, it looks like the project for this month is sock knitting. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

To everything, a season

The gardening season is drawing inexorably to a close. Frost warnings in the Townships mean my tomatoes are probably almost done, and it’s time to start picking crabapples for jelly and cheering on my pumpkins in the likely-vain hope that they’ll be big enough for jack-o-lanterns in a month. So for today’s post, here’s a roundup of some gardening links I thought were particularly in the spirit of the Moral Economy Project.

Why Gardening Will Help End the Recession: Mike Lieberman at Focus Organic talks about how urban gardening is worth more than its dollar value.

Lure of the Urban Veggie Garden: On a more industrial scale, Wally Satzewich rents yard space from urban Saskatechewanians for intensive small-plot farming.

National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Could Harm Local, Family-scale and Organic Growers: On a less positive note, an article at Cornucopia discusses how a proposed marketing agreement in the US could drive up costs for small farmers without actually improving food safety.

Let’s Outgrow the Lawn: An opinion piece by Eva Reimer about the wasteful nature of suburban landscaping.

Ten Things You Can Do To Start a Community Garden: From Rebecca Hart at The Nation, the title says it all.

Finally, Battle Zone’s Lethal Harvest: From Titus Peachey at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a Mennonite activist urges Obama to protect gardeners worldwide by signing cluster bomb treaty.