A truly frugal outlook has a long view.

I’m delighted to welcome to the blog today Cathleen Hockman-Wert, the co-author of Simply in Season, one of my favorite cookbooks!

It’s always a pleasure to connect with people who share my interest in good food, food that is good in every way: food that tastes good, food that is good for our health, good for the environment, good for local communities and good for people worldwide.

Rachel asked me to share a little about the story behind Simply in Season, a cookbook that I co-authored with Mary Beth Lind to celebrate good food. It encourages people to choose seasonal, locally-produced and fairly traded foods, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Simply in Season is the third in a series of cookbooks produced by the international relief and development organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The first, More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, was first published in 1976. This was a time when global food shortages loomed, and in response MCC asked its constituents to eat and spend 10 percent less on food. More-with-Less explained how to do that – to eat less meat and more rice and beans, for example – but even more importantly made a persuasive argument: that faith and food are deeply connected. And that, moreover, eating more simply was not about “cutting back.” Rather, it meant “living joyfully, richly, creatively.”

Fast forward 30 years.

I grew up with More-with-Less, and it strongly influenced my values. I believed that “eating justly” meant two primary stewardship issues: health and cost. I wanted food that was good for me, and cheap. The intention was that by spending less on food, I would have more to share with others.
Frugality is part of my Mennonite DNA; my people tend to believe thriftiness could give cleanliness some solid competition for that place next to godliness. But my perspective was also shaped by broader culture. Compared to other nations, we Americans don’t spend much on what we eat, and we like it that way. We feel entitled to cheap food.

My perspective began to change as I learned more about the stories behind my food and realized that as a consumer with purchasing power, I am a part of these stories. One tomato might look like another, but because of the way they are produced, they may have wildly different stories in terms of economic justice, environmental impact, and so on. The stories are in fact so different that I came to see that food choices are not morally neutral.

When I choose which tomato to buy, this action has ramifications beyond my own pocketbook. It takes place in the context of a community, human and nonhuman. I am participating in systems that make life better for others, or worse. Grocery shopping is in fact an exercise in ethics.{a well-worn page from More-with-Less}

In Simply in Season I wanted to continue the conversation that began in More-with-Less about faith and food, and how our everyday actions reflect our values.
I still value frugality! But now my view is a little more holistic. A truly frugal outlook has a long view. Even the most devout penny-pinchers know it doesn’t save money to buy something cheap if it’s so flimsy it will have to be quickly replaced; it’s better to spend more at the outset and use it for a long time. In a wider sense, likewise, a frugal approach to grocery shopping – to any shopping, really – takes into account the hidden costs: the costs of cleaning up our environment, the health care costs for farmworkers sickened by pesticides, the military costs of protecting access to cheap oil. And our Christian calling to care for “the least of these” makes us ask, who is bearing the real costs?

It isn’t always easy to move from “spend less” to “spend for a better world.” When I shop, sometimes I repeat a little mantra: “cheaper is not always better.” I also like to repeat a prayer from Blessed Be Our Table, a collection of graces from the Iona Community: “Let me not seek a bargain that leaves others hungry.”

I’ve found it helpful, too, to view eating/shopping as a spiritual discipline. To me this reflects several things. First, as with the discipline of charitable giving, there’s an economic impact: choosing good foods can cost more. Equally significant is the impact on time. Amidst busy schedules, it can be hard to find the time to buy and prepare fresh food. Framing this practice as a spiritual discipline honors that reality. Spending time in worship or prayer requires making these things a priority. So does cooking a meal.

Finally, seeing food choices as a spiritual discipline speaks to their ordinariness, their daily nature. In contrast to a big decision like buying an electric car or choosing a house within biking distance of work, choices about food are small, and we make them constantly. We might make one choice today and a different choice tomorrow, but there’s always another chance to move toward greater consistency in matching our values with our actions.

A spiritual “practice” speaks to both the noun and verb meanings of “practice”: it’s an enactment of our beliefs as well as something we’re working on – like practicing the piano. We do it over and over again and get better.

I hope that idea is helpful for people when they ask about how they can afford to choose good food. Each of us has a different situation. Choose a place to start: maybe one local meal per week, or switching from regular to fair trade coffee. After a while, change something else.

Practice.

Like our spiritual journeys themselves, this journey with good food choices is gradual, partial, imperfect, and ongoing. And ultimately, I believe, that is good news indeed.

{thank you, Cathleen! It’s a pleasure to have you at Eat With Joy today!}

{It really is a great cookbook! Try it!}

Weekend Eating Reading: The More-with-Less Cookbook

Oh, the More-with-Less Cookbook! How I love this book! “Green” and globally aware before it was trendy, really simple way before Real Simple; a Christian response to global hunger that involved so much more than writing a check to a relief organization.

Commissioned by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 “in response to world food needs,” this cookbook was ahead of its time in its awareness of how personal food consumption is connected deeply to poverty and want in other places:

“we are looking for ways to live more simply and joyfully, ways that grow out of our tradition but take their shape from living faith and the demands of our hungry world. There is not just one way to respond, nor is there a single answer to the world’s food problem. It may not be within our capacity to effect an answer. But it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.”

(from the preface by the author, Doris Janzen Longacre)

Even as a really young girl, I enjoyed reading the More-with-Less cookbook. It’s full of wisdom and suggestions for connecting your family’s eating to broader ethical and spiritual concerns, and in a lot of ways it anticipates the “food movement” that seems so contemporary. It advocates “lawn gardening” (less mow–more hoe), and recognizes that things like home food preservation can provide “meaningful opportunities for family members to work together.”

Much like Diet for a Small Planet, the More-with-Less Cookbook advocates for a whole-grain, plant centered diet. But it doesn’t advocate for complete vegetarianism. Instead, it suggests a “wise” and “sparing” use of meat; recipes that serve 6 or more never call for more than 1 lb. of meat: a style of cooking that uses meat as a flavoring more than a center-of-the-plate item. (Which is, of course, an anticipation of Michael Pollan’s “eat food. not too much. mostly plants.)

The More-with-Less Cookbook has its faults; it’s clearly within a “frugality-first” mindset, now looks dated when it calls for margarine instead of butter, and has some vintage-style weird casseroles (eg. Spinach Loaf.) But many of the recipes hold up just fine over time (and/or are good for building off of or revising). The Middle Eastern Lentil Soup recipe, for example, is still just about the simplest, tastiest lentil soup I’ve ever had; I make it regularly and it’s a favorite even with my pickier child.

Because I grew up on the recipes from More-with-Less, that food is comforting to me, and that cookbook will always be special to me for first awakening in me the idea that my choices might actually matter to more than just me. They might make a difference in the lives of others.They might matter to God.

The More-with-Less cookbook! Check it out. It’s full of gems like these:

“don’t begin gardening and preserving only out of duty to your budget and the world’s hungry, although it helps. Begin it for joy, for healing. Begin it to receive the gift God gave when He placed us in a garden and said, “Behold, I have given you every plant  yielding seed…”

Oh, yes. It’s all about eating with joy.

Peace, friends! Enjoy the weekend!