Learning to Eat: What ten days living on an organic farm taught me about food
Anyone who’s met me knows that I love food. Meal planning is a crucial part of my day, and I approach every meal with excitement. So it’s no surprise, then, that one of my favorite parts of exploring a new culture is familiarizing myself with the food. When I made plans for the summer, I was excited to learn about organic farming and to see how my hosts lived, but going to live on a remote farm without transportation was a big step, even for a food lover like myself. It meant a lot more than trying a few new dishes with ingredients I couldn’t translate. It meant relying on strangers to feed me for two weeks and surrendering my eating habits to their whims.
Before coming to France, I had the diet of a typical American twenty-something. Cereal, sandwich, takeout. I frequented my local farmers market but also my neighborhood Chinese takeout joint. I ate meals at 9, noon and 7, with snacks in between and drinks after dark. It was how my parents ate. It was how restaurants operated. It was the meal plan I’d grown up with, and one I carried with me even as I traveled.
Moving to the farm, I was excited for a change. I envisioned fresh-picked garden vegetables, honey right out of the hive, baking from scratch and all organic ingredients. And for the most part, I was right. What I didn’t envision was how sharing meals with my hosts on the farm would challenge me to completely rethink what and when I ate, how different eating habits would make a truly different lifestyle.
My first meal with my hosts was rather idyllic. We picnicked on top of a large rock in a field in the Alps, feasting on roasted eggplant, cheese, bread and butter and fresh tomatoes and peppers. The food was simple yet plentiful and I was amazed by how much everyone seemed to eat. The hearty meal made a lot more sense a few hours later, when I was halfway up the second mountain of our afternoon hike. We spent the afternoon climbing trails to beautiful lakes, and when we returned to the farm long after dark. I was famished. But no one else seemed to be. Dinner was a piece of fruit and a bit of yogurt and we all went to sleep.
In the US, dinner is the primary meal of the day, but on the farm I quickly learned that it was lunch. Farm work took bountiful energy, and a hearty lunch was necessary to refuel once all the energy of sleep and a light breakfast had been expended. So lunches on the farm were large, and they lingered through the hottest hours of the afternoon. We’d pair bread and fresh vegetables with rice and cream sauce, omelettes, lentil stew or beignets. Eating sparingly at first like the calorie-counter I’d been since my teens, it wasn’t long before I was partaking with gusto. Food was fuel, and I’d need it to get through the afternoon and work into the night.
I’d always loved food, but I felt like I was learning to eat all over again. On the farm, food was tied to work, input to output. And while it may sound like a crude and obvious equation, for the first time in a long time I felt my hunger become in sync with my meals, my desires in tune with their nourishment.
Of course, it wasn’t just when we ate but also what we ate that yielded this nourishment. When I got to the farm, my host Phillipe lent me the book The Food Revolution by John Robbins. A commanding critique of the food industry in America and Europe, the book explained how heavily processed most everything I’ve ever eaten has been, how unnatural the food I consume really is. I was deeply impressed, and, upon reflecting, I recognized how quickly life on the farm had removed these preservatives from my diet. We ate no meat, and the animal products we did consume (yogurt, butter, cheese, eggs) came from other small farms in the area. The bulk of our diet was fresh fruits and vegetables, and they were most often consumed raw.
The longer I stayed with Phillipe, the more he opened up about his eating practices and their inspirations. He told me the story of becoming a vegetarian after watching a fish suffocate while it was gutted. He explained to me the time he’d spent studying eastern religious practices and why he chose to follow a loosely Taoist diet. He lent me another book, The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity by David Reid, and I learned about trophology, about food combinations and the digestive enzymes. Full of intricate diagrams of what foods could and could not be consumed together (see above), the book was more and less scientific than I expected and utterly fascinating. I didn’t know people ate that way, and it shed new light on the meals I’d been sharing with Phillipe during my stay. Per Taoist principles, meals were either exclusively sweet or salty, hot or cold. Fruit was a meal of its own, and we never drank milk. Because Phillipe was French we still had bread and cheese at most meals, but there was no meat or alcohol. Everything we consumed was meant to optimize the body’s ability to digest. And it seemed to work. I’m not sure if it was the Taoist methods or the newfound lack of preservatives, but my energy soared and my digestion eased. I learned to eat green peppers and tomatoes like apples and to make a meal of an entire melon. I felt hydrated, and, unexpectedly, happy at the end of each meal as we sipped herbal tea. Even my endorphins, it seemed, appreciated my new diet.
As idyllic as I make it sound, I’ll fully admit that by the end of my stay a fellow volunteer and I had a running joke about being excited to eat bread that wasn’t rock hard again; to cook our vegetables and to recombine salty and sweet. And while I am a newly-minted vegetarian after leaving the farm, I don’t think I’ll be taking up a Taoist diet anytime soon. I mean… my first meal back in the city was a milkshake. (And it was delicious!)
What impressed me most about food on the farm was the deep yet simple respect for life that permeated when and what we ate at each meal. The lives of the animals were respected by never consuming their flesh. And our own lives were respected by recognizing in food the nourishment for activity. Meals were accompanied with reverence for the deep connection between eating and agency. Not only that you are what you, but also that you are because you eat.
On my last night at the farm, Phillipe’s wife Chrystel made a peach custard for my final dinner. She asked if I knew how to make anything sweet from the egg whites because she couldn’t let them go to waste. While my inability to cook is a running joke amongst my friends at home, I realized that I did in fact know a recipe that called for egg whites. Two nights before I left home I made an angel food cake with a close friend, and while I’d clung to my recipe and its plethora of ingredients then, I saw now how simple it was. I beat the egg whites to soft peaks, added sugar and vanilla and stirred in flour until it reached the right consistency. I didn’t need a hand mixer or measuring cups. There was no need for a half-dozen spices. I never once consulted the internet.
After dark we sat down with the cake and custard, only five ingredients between them. The meal was simple and sweet, and we were hungry.