The latest installment of the Thinking Inside the Box column from Jennifer Publicover, member of Avon River CSA. Avon River is now signing up members for the fall.
I like to throw my consumer dollar behind local sustainable agriculture, organic practices, the lowering of transport greenhouse gas emissions, and the preservation of valuable farmland. Food is intrinsic to life itself; there are so many good reasons to pay attention to food – and yet, with all that foreknowledge, the most meaningful reason for me crept up on me by surprise as I signed up for a half share of a winter root-crop CSA.
We in our household putz happily around in our own little urban vegetable patch, visiting every day in warmer seasons to see what might be available for supper. However, we have neither the ambition nor the time to look towards winter storage at this point, which is why I am glad to have a friend in the CSA business. I met Amy Lounder of the Avon River CSA through traditional music circles – she is a talented fiddler and I am a flute player. I admired her chutzpah as I watched her set up her new farming enterprise. When the bags of produce and preserves started to role in, it was great fun to rummage and see what surprises she had in store for us each week. Sometimes they contained wacky and wonderful items to which I’d never really been exposed before, but after figuring out how to use them, I quite liked them. It felt great to fill up on such healthy and delicious food and serve it to my children. My kids also got into the spirit, helping out in the kitchen, coming along on the pick-up trips and meeting “our farmer” Amy. The fact that our farmer was a woman was an added bonus as far as I was concerned; in generations not long past, a farmer was often assumed to be a man and the woman of the household was known as the “farmer’s wife” rather than a farmer herself.
These are all great and fairly typical outcomes when one signs up for a CSA share. What is not so typical is that I have celiac. I cannot digest wheat, nor anything containing wheat gluten, which strikes out a huge share of commercially prepared food. Not only are conventional baked goods and pastas off limits, but such mundane flavouring items as ketchup, soy sauce and mayonnaise are often made with either white vinegar or gluten derived from wheat. As the celiac crept slowly upon me in my thirties, I first had to figure out what the problem was and then learn new ways of eating – which I am still learning. There are ways of baking with other non-wheat grains, but it takes skill and experience to produce something edible that does not have the consistency of styrofoam. This is why wheat and wheat gluten are so pervasive as ingredients and additives, as it is the gluten which makes for the pleasing texture. I am also one of those celiacs with an accompanying secondary lactose intolerance, although I can take enzyme tablets to aid in the digestion of milk products – but no such pills exist yet for the digestion of gluten.
In the early stages of my gluten-free journey, I was relieved just to have figured out what to avoid in order to stay healthy, as it is no fun to double over in pain after eating a plate of pasta. I learned to read labels and ask questions. However, it was also a bit daunting. It was downright depressing to remember the taste of all the different foods that I could never again enjoy. I have a slender build to begin with, and it has always been a challenge to keep my weight up. I could no longer eat impulsively; I always had to think it out first. My busy lifestyle and the demands of feeding my children came before looking after myself much of the time, when I should have been learning to make my own foodstuffs from scratch. Eating was no longer pleasure; it became a chore to consume just enough to keep me going, regardless of what it tasted like… until the vegetable surprise packages started rolling in.
It became a fun game to figure out how to use up all these legumes and tubers so that they would not go to waste from week to week, a challenge that kick-started me into taking pleasure in preparing my own food again. I decided to not mourn the things I could not have but to celebrate the things I could have instead – a metaphor that can extend into other areas of life too, including some of the choices we make in favour of sustainability. I do still enjoy some gluten-free baked goods, but my diet has shifted away from them and more onto vegetables, fruits, proteins, and the grains and starches that I can have. I have great respect for vegetarian philosophies but feel that I cannot afford to limit my nutrient intake any further, and so I try to source my fish, meat and eggs intelligently too. I would love to see more wheat-alternatives grown locally; for example, quinoa is a South American staple that is becoming a new North American crop too. It is an extra challenge for some one like me, with dietary limitations, to eat as locally as possible; but participation in a CSA has been an important part of that process and also a very positive step towards better health – for my children, for the local economy, for the environment, and last of all, for me.