It's Personal

Meals that are involved.

| April 15, 2010
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Local food. Organic food. Natural food. Fair-trade food. To me, these loosely competing paradigms are useful guideposts when I'm shopping to fill the holes in a meal I'm preparing, but they don't describe my preferred diet. If I had to describe my food in a single word, I would say "personal."

What distinguishes food as personal is the role I play in the creation or acquisition of its ingredients. It's food with which I have a measure of involvement, beyond just having bought it. A meal won't be disqualified for containing store-bought ingredients, but it's the hard-won ingredients that determine how personal it really is. If a home-cooked meal doesn't have at least one ingredient that I grew, swapped for, preserved, hunted, gathered, bought directly from a farmer, brought home from a faraway land, or otherwise made some special effort to acquire, then it isn't personal.

The biggest sex organ in your body, according to sex therapist Dr. Ruth, is the mind. And for similar reasons I believe the mind is one of the body's biggest taste buds as well. The more a meal's story is known, the more meaning it has, and being able to mentally picture where something came from adds to the experience of eating it. But personal food isn't all head games. I'm positive that even in a blind taste test, personal food will win.

Many a dinner guest has suggested to me, "You should open a restaurant." While I appreciate the compliment, it's rather like a satisfied lover suggesting, "You should be a hooker." My food is good because I obsess about my ingredients. Good broccoli, lightly blanched and quickly frozen at the peak of freshness last summer, will be more alive and flavorful than fresh broccoli shipped in from somewhere and purchased at the store. I treasure such ingredients for their quality and the work I put into them, and I make sure they are prepared to look and taste their best.

This isn't to say that purchased food can't be personal, but it must have a story that you are privy to, that you can play a role in. There's nothing compelling about purchasing grass-fed organic beef at the store. But if you buy the same thing at the farmers market, directly from the producer, that's beginning to get personal. You have a relationship, however fleeting, with the rancher who had a relationship with the animal. If you and the farmer become friendly, things can become much more personal. Maybe you buy a quarter of beef for the freezer.

Having a stash of food put up, like some cut and wrapped chunks of personal beef in the freezer, changes things. Your meal planning begins to shift from "what do we need to pick up at the store" to "what do we need to thaw out." If your steak is cooked with homegrown garlic, that further personalizes the meal. If that package of ground beef is used for burgers you serve with homemade catsup made from homegrown tomatoes and mustard ground from the mustard seeds at the bottom of a jar of pickled peppers you made, the story gets even better. If you want a cheeseburger but don't have your own cheese-making operation, buy some cheese from the lady at the farmers market and don't forget to ask how her goats are doing.

Personal foodies tend to stick together, trading their canned goods, going mushroom hunting, sharing gardening tips and seedlings, and having each other over for dinner. In this way, the pursuit of personal food can bring you closer to a likeminded community.

Because long-distance relationships with ingredients are usually tricky, personal foods tend to be local, but there are exceptions. Returning from a recent trip to France, I brought home some Turkish figs and dates, five pounds of Breton sea salt, some French filet bean seeds (seized at the border, dammit), a few pounds of amazing cheese, a salami (also confiscated), some chocolate, chestnut paste, a few cartons of crème anglaise (kind of like eggnog), and two baguettes, which were crushed in my luggage. If I shave some of my stinky French cheese onto a fried egg from my backyard hens, that's deeply personal, even though the cheese came from far away. My bags of sea salt, meanwhile, will allow me to sprinkle that personal touch onto hundreds of meals.

Eating my brutalized baguettes became a race against the clock as they quickly hardened. I ate them with cheese, with breakfast, with salad, wishing I still had that salami. And then I had an inspiration that will change my personal meal plan forever.

It started with a flashback of the North African grocers in Paris who sold a rainbow of olives, stuffed peppers, feta cheese, pickles, and many other goodies, including marinated sun-dried tomatoes.

Last summer we preserved our tomatoes as catsup, salsa, ratatouille, and pasta sauce — the usual suspects. We also experimented with sun-dried tomatoes, which turned out to be the easiest and most efficient way to process them. But we hadn't really mastered the art of eating sun-dried tomatoes. They made great snacks but hadn't evolved into ingredients.

I put a handful of sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl and poured balsamic and wine vinegar on them. I added a sprinkle of Breton sea salt, let them soak in the vinegar for a few minutes, poured olive oil into the bowl, mixed it up, and voilà: a very nice condiment to eat with my baguette.

Since then I've tried adding slivers of homegrown garlic to this marinade, as well as chunks of local feta and dried homegrown basil.

When the baguette became dangerously hard, I froze the remains. Maybe it will end up in stuffing. Maybe bread pudding. Maybe as seasoned crumbs on a piece of fried fish. Whatever ends up becoming of that half-stale baguette I bought on the way to the airport, it will be personal.

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