“Eating’s my main hobby.” Maeve paused to lick the length of her cigarette. “Well, and smoking.”
I’ve known Maeve for years now. She realised we’d be friends either when I did a duck impression, or when I went from stern to silly “just like the rest of us” at the prospect of my then boyfriend turning up. I realised how deeply and truly we were friends when she nursed me through my catastrophic, heart rending breakup with that boyfriend. She fed me red wine and cannoli (not at the same time) and said “I know pet, I know” a lot and wisely.
She gave a quasi-Gallic shrug, and lit up.
“And reading. Well that’s three hobbies, but food’s the main one, y’know?”
It’s something I’ve absorbed, like Maeve absorbed the habit from another friend of running the tip of her tongue along a cigarette before she lights it. I don’t mean the everyday hedonism of enjoying food, I already had that. I just took, and repeated, the perfect distillation and articulation of our relationship with food. Food is my hobby. Food and drink are my hobbies.
Something else Maeve gave me was her copy of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, but only after I promised to take it seriously.
“Effie, I don’t want to give this to you, because if I do I’ll want you to read it, take it seriously and become a vegetarian.”
I promised to take it seriously, but not that I would become a vegetarian. Not that.
I was not prepared for what that book told me, from how far removed the production of meat is from farming. I grew up in the country. I know farms to be made up of hillsides dotted with cows and sheep, of flatter land populated by pigs, of lambing sheds, milking parlours, and barns for the coldest weather. I know poultry as strutting cockerels; geese which chase you, and if they get close hiss and snap at you; chickens which raise each gnarly taloned foot carefully up, like they’re slightly disgusted, before gently placing it back on the ground.
But the farms in that book are factories. They are indoor, stifling, cruel spaces and bear no relation to the farms of my memory, or now it would seem, imagination.
I took it seriously and it scared the self-assuredness out of me. It scared me so that I became glad of the strict European Union regulations on raising and slaughtering animals. It scared me so I realised that even those were not enough for me, that the absence of cruelty was not going to be enough for me, that I wanted the animals I ate to have lived well. Meat that used to be free roaming, content animals is easy enough to find in the UK, and at only a slight increase in price. I’d often been accidentally vegetarian before (due to my obsession with chickpeas, especially chickpea-on-chickpea action – falafel and hummus!), so eating meat slightly less often and paying slightly more was not much of a lifestyle change.
But America is another kettle of fish. Or string of sausages. Or cut of beef. Or something.
And then there are the genetically modified fruit, vegetables, grains and apparently every other thing; the beautiful, shiny, brightly coloured, unperishable, flavourless ranks of regimented perfection which we encountered on our first visit to Vons, which according to the receipt we got has been “proudly serving California since 1906”.
We did a small grocery shop and bought a perfectly spherical, organic onion. It cost $1.79, which we agreed was a lot, too much really, for an onion, but there is very little middle ground between genetically modified and organic. We also bought some blue cheese. We were well versed on how awful and synthetic American cheese was meant to be, alarmingly orange and slimy, and we could see colossal, rectangular towers of the stuff on the deli counter, but this blue cheese was in small pieces, individually packaged and looked cheese-textured, not rubbery. We shopped carefully, wide eyed at the cost of what we thought of as basic ingredients, and went home to assemble a meal.
Like I said, food is my hobby, and like only an enthusiast and lifelong fan can be, I felt sorely let down by this latest edition.
The cheese, oh dear God, the cheese. The blue cheese, which is by definition one of the most delightfully offensive cheeses, was disconcertingly bland, with the wet texture of feta. The tomatoes were so offensively salty that Adi (who has been known to lick salt from the palm of his hand – I know, I’m a lucky gal) grimaced slightly and asked how much salt I’d added, which was none. The only saving grace was that the onion was so large that it was big enough to use in two further meals later in the week. Overall I was left grateful that Adi’s salary would eventually allow us to buy organic food, but so deeply sad that I would have to become fully vegetarian as well as giving up food which actually tasted of anything. Despondency engulfed me, this wasn’t how people talked about California, about LA, where peopled revelled in buying ethically sourced products and mainlined organic smoothies.
And then, on our first Wednesday morning, we walked down Arizona towards the Palisades, and at 4th street walked right into Santa Monica Farmers Market. It was, it is, a cornucopia of organic, farm-fresh, ethically raised and locally grown fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, flowers and herbs. Piles of broccoli, beets, brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes; mounds of fennel, carrots, and onions; all in abundance, riotously colourful, joyfully dirty and asymmetrical. There’s a farmer who sells grass fed, outdoor reared beef; another who sells free range chickens, but only in the spring and summer; a pig farmer who raises Berkshires which he feeds on barley and seaweed and keeps outdoors. These people are proud of the food they produce, and their prices are similar to and often cheaper than those at the supermarket. We walked home, our odd collection of purchases clasped tightly, wishing we’d known about the market and had come prepared with shopping bags, eager to try the food, reassuring ourselves that the market would be back again on Saturday, and all subsequent Wednesdays and Saturdays.
There are no sufficient words to describe the deep joy of eating such good food. It’s a feeling of redemption, an explosion of deep and complex flavours. It’s the satisfaction of being full. Full of food produced on recognisable farms by people who care not only about making a profit, but making it well. We ate sausages spiced with fennel seeds and chilli peppers. I baked them in the oven with tiny new potatoes and garlic cloves. I made a salad to cut through the velvety rich pork fat using crunchy sweet fennel, orange segments bursting with juice, salty olives, and a tiny bit of fiery chilli pepper.
After dinner we ordered a push-along shopping trolley online, not dissimilar from the one my mother had proudly dubbed the Mean Green Shopping Machine, and which we’d all roundly ridiculed her for buying. No more precarious juggling of armfuls of food for me. And no more disappointing groceries either.