I think about food — pretty much all the time. As a food writer, I have the absurd fortune of getting paid to craft stories that inspire others to think about food. And at home, I fall into the cliché of people who begin plotting dinner before the morning coffee gets cold. So perhaps it’s fitting that, as the New Year begins, my mind is on food, eating and my relationship to both.
Five years ago on Rosh Hashanah, I took stock of my “kitchen teshuvah” (repentance) — examining the places where I thought I could improve as a cook and a consumer. Food is deeply connected to everything else — family, politics, religion, health — so I found it a particularly fitting frame for self-reflection. As the Forward’s food columnist, I typically use my allotted monthly space to share tales of the farmers and food producers, chefs and shop owners who define the world of Jewish food. This month, I’d like to get a little personal and share a revised set of my kitchen resolutions, for 2012.
In some ways, I feel pretty content. I already shop at the farmers market, eat plenty of greens and cook dinner more nights than not — so those items, while important, did not make the list. Neither did “drink less coffee” or “grow my own food.” After accidentally massacring a nursery’s worth of houseplants, I have come to embrace my lack of a green thumb. And as for coffee, I am simply not ready to kick the habit. Instead, here is a somewhat random, highly idiosyncratic list of food-based aspirations for the year ahead. Maybe you will read something that speaks to you, or be inspired to write a list of your own. Either way, may 2012 bring you good health, good deeds and great food.
•Stop criticizing my cooking.
My mom, who is a wonderful cook, criticizes her food all the time. Whether at a Passover Seder or a weeknight dinner, she comes to the table apologizing for her soup’s blandness or how she overcooked the chicken. Growing up, I could never taste what she was talking about. Now, I get it. Cooking for others is intensely personal. Each dish exposes the cook’s heart as much as her (or his) knife skills, and there is ample room for rejection in the shape of an upturned nose or unfinished plate. It feels safer to preempt others’ potential disapproval with a comment, rather than face it directly. I inherited my mother’s habit, agonizing over my meal’s flaws (real and imagined) both at the table and hours after the guests have gone home. Of course, we are all our own worst critics, and no caveat can change the food or people’s reactions to it. So this year, my aim is to pipe down and eat up.
I first tasted steaming-from-the-oven bread in college. It was an extraordinary, arguably life-changing moment. And yet, due to matters of time and the ease of buying decent artisanal breads nearby, I have never gotten into a regular rhythm of baking my own. But I would like to. With two new baking books on my cookbook shelf — “Inside the Jewish Bakery,” by Stanley Ginsberg and Norm Berg, and “Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves From Your Own Oven,“ by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik — I am hopeful that this will be my year of dough.
•Donate to food-related charities.
I believe in paying a premium for good food, and supporting farmers and food producers who work with integrity. Meanwhile, many Americans do not have the luxury to be discerning about their food. In 2012, I hope to make more regular donations to the organizations — such as City Harvest, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, People’s Grocery, Ample Harvest, Center for Food Safety, Feeding America and others — that work to create a just and safe food system. The goal: Donate to one organization each month, gifting the amount I would spend on a dinner out.
•Stop hiding behind food.
In a room full of cocktail-swilling partygoers, you will likely find me next door in the kitchen, restocking the platter of deviled eggs. I may appear to be the super-hostess or a very helpful guest, but in truth I am hiding. I am more comfortable busying myself with a task than facing the potential awkwardness of small talk or networking. But the real gift of any gathering is not the food — it’s the people that food brings together. This year, my aim is to step away from the kitchen and into the party.
•Learn about the Farm Bill.
The U.S. Farm Bill is a complex piece of legislation that allocates billions of dollars toward agricultural subsidies, hunger relief, emergency food aid and food stamps, among other food policies. The Farm Bill is up for congressional review in 2012. Considering the bill’s wide-reaching impact on farmers and food, I should really know more about it — but I am stuck in the realm of buzzwords. The online environmental magazine Grist has written a lot about the 2012 bill, and the Jewish environmental organization Hazon is working to galvanize Jewish communities around this critical piece of food legislation. I will start there.
•Exercise enough to justify my sweet tooth.
I have never had much willpower when it comes to eating. For the most part, I have been fortunate about satisfying my cravings (within reason) while maintaining stable health. And yet, my exercise-to-cheese-and-chocolate ratio is far from ideal. Last year saw some gains on this front. I did more yoga and began a semi-regular pushup and jogging regimen. With a long winter ahead, I hope to sustain and build on this foundation so I never have to say goodbye to macaroni and cheese or the occasional late night diner milkshake.
•Cook more adventurously.
Like many home cooks, I, too, often fall into a dinner rut. This year, spurred on by a wildly delicious recipe I recently made from Peter Berley’s book, “Fresh Food Fast” (the dish: balsamic-roasted seitan with cipollini onions), I am inspired to make better use of my cookbook collection. I would also like to get acquainted with unfamiliar ingredients, such as chile paste and lemon basil, and figure out how to maximize that jar of pomegranate molasses in my cupboard. Because — while I will always be warmed by a pan of lasagna — life is too short to eat within one’s comfort zone.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at email@example.com.