Great charity was given and received this past Christmas, some of it to my family. Growing up in a household in which the bills were always a stretch and frugality was, not fashionable, but the only reality we ever knew, I have seen the boxes dozens of times.
The good ones have a ham and a turkey; a can of olives, the kind you can put on your fingertips; and brand-name canned vegetables and cranberry sauce. They have two of everything: two boxes of stuffing, two packages of cake mix, two cans of green beans for casserole. A hefty bag of white sugar, maybe some luscious spongy dinner rolls, canned pie filling, fruit cocktail. Oranges or, for the truly extravagant givers, a box of clementines.
If you read me elsewhere, you’ll know that my kitchen was unexpectedly awash this past holiday season in cardboard boxes filled with food gifts produced from a great spirit of generosity and the season’s most sincere tidings. My lack of a job with benefits, it seems, shifted us into a new category of necessity in the eyes of some military organizations. Or it could be that my husband, an Army Reservist, is playing the fiddle of financial woes a little louder than is strictly required. Or maybe it’s just that the two of us have very different spectacles through which we view our family’s food budget.
Whatever the answer, I felt that I couldn’t say no. Instead, I said thank you, and gave some honey shortbread cookies to the sergeant major who delivered some of the boxes. And then stood in my kitchen, surveying the generosity of people who don’t know me at all, thrilling with this outpouring of helpfulness and biting my lip.
Our three boys literally tore into a box of Trix cereal, an item of contraband that hasn’t seen the inside of my kitchen in years. Cold cereal is strictly banned from my shopping list, although the boys eat several helpings a day of generic corn flakes whenever we visit my parents’ house. It’s not just that cold cereal isn’t local food. It’s so many other things — the sugar, to begin with, and the many derivatives of corn.
Lately, I’ve felt driven to remove GMOs from my food. A BBC piece on the plight of the honey bee (which began as soon as GMO sunflowers became widely grown in Europe; apparently, something in the genetic tinkering messed with the bees’ navigational system, and nothing has been the same since) only solidified a sense of great discomfort that so much of our culture’s calories come from foodstuffs that have been altered at their very molecular core.
Everything about breakfast cereal is GMO, processed, and grown in a monoculture, and completely bereft of nutritional value. And if that weren’t enough, Sally Fallon, in her book Nourishing Traditions, writes that the high heat and pressure used to make flakes and pops and nuggets and such renders them toxic: “Studies show that these extruded whole-grain preparations can have even more adverse effects on the blood sugar than refined sugar and white flour!” Certainly, the nutrients are destroyed in the processing.
We don’t do cereal. And yet, here I am in my kitchen, surrounded by not just cereal but by any number of sincerely given foods that would not survive a pantry purge. I was rent, pulled in several directions, not wishing to pick up the gift horse’s hooves but still wondering just how lame he was. And now I had to face the considerable problem of what to do with this largesse.
After the boys ripped open a few packages, spending a day dizzily existing on Sara Lee dinner rolls, Trix cereal, and a can of peaches in heavy syrup, I took stock. I allowed the cutting up of one ham, the boiling of a few conventional potatoes, the sharing of two boxes of Stovetop stuffing, although I took a few bites of the stuffing and promptly made my own version with some stale bread, celeriac, and 50-cents-a-pound local organic onions.
I called my sisters, two of whom are teachers and don’t know the meaning of “disposable income,” and offered to let them pick through and take what they wanted. They did so with gratitude, though my heart was sick. If I won’t let my own children eat this way, how could I let my little niece and my baby sister take the preservative- and chemical-packed fall?
I wrote about my inner struggle on urbanMamas, and while I found a few kindred spirits, I was also criticized for being classist. The word “snob” came up, and a few people argued for quantity over quality.
One commenter said about her decision when buying for charity: “Well, I could spend $50 and come away with one bag of groceries for this family, or spend the same and come away with three bags of groceries. Wrong or right, I assumed that an ‘in need’ family would rather have more food options to fill their pantry than certain brands.”
I must find a better answer. In my heart, I know that what I want is a world in which less is more, quality is better than quantity, and it is the poor and the destitute who are considered the primary market for organic potatoes. I want cranberry sauce made with honey and a few loaves of stale bread with which to make the original peasant food. For isn’t that what stuffing really is: a way to make a bird stretch for many days of meals? In the end, you’re serving a meal of dry bread cubes baked with the barest hint of bone broth, onions, celery root, a few nuts, and dried berries, so it will fill the stomach.
Stuffing is not a food to be sold in a box, with dessicated and preserved and chemically flavored stale bread. How can it be that this is what we give to people in our time of warmest, most sincere generosity? How is it that we have given the sparsest, most desperate food of peasants a brand, several layers of packaging, and made it a middle-class side dish, something special to give to the poor in their hour of holiday need?
And I ask, who is it who needs nourishment more than the poor, who likely live without health insurance and who perhaps are working physically harder, going with less heat, and have fewer resources? Don’t the children of people in financial difficulties need to fill their stomachs with something other than sugar, trans-fatty acids, and artificial flavorings?
And how can I ask that question without crucifying those who gave me charity? I do not wish to do that, but my heart is doing flips of justification and guilt and food passion, and cannot find up from down.
I hear the argument for “more is more,” but I yearn for more nuance. Though I truly do not have any money this month, I spent some of the last $30 in my bank account one day on 15 pounds of locally ground, organic, whole-wheat flour, and I make my siblings a batch of shortbread. I commit to myself to working twice as hard next month so that I can buy my baby sister a quart of honey to augment the 10 pounds of sugar I gave her, and my little niece a big bag of organic pears.
I promise myself that the next time I pass the food bin at People's Co-op, I will put a bag of organic, thick-cut, Northwest-grown oats into it, a fat knob of celeriac, a jar of maple syrup. And I know that whoever gets it will be nourished in body as well as in spirit.
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