Miss Migraine: How supporting local agriculture helps my migraines

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The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. This post appeared first on my blog of the same name on August 10, 2012.

First, I chop the potatoes and add them to the broth. Then I peel the carrots, slice them, and send them in after the potatoes. Next comes a whole miniature purple cabbage and a medium yellow onion, roughly chopped. Then two fennel bulbs chopped willy-nilly and and a small, fat zucchini that had been hiding out in a corner of the fridge and was nearing the end of its edible life.

Organic vegetable soup

A bowl of Whatever-I-Have-In-The-Fridge-Soup. Photo by Kelly Lynn Thomas.

I love the rhythm of chopping and slicing vegetables, the knife in my hand, moving up and down, the steady collisions with the cutting board. The fennel is the most difficult to attack. Layers fall away as I work at it, preventing an easy pattern. The rest require varying applications of pressure: the knife slides easily through the zucchini without much help from me, but I must push it down to separate each slice of carrot.

All of the vegetables and herbs come from Kretschmann Organic Farm. Each week, we get a box of fresh produce and other goodies delivered to a pick-up spot in our neighborhood. We don’t know what we’re going to get in advance, and we can’t pick anything out (though we can order extra things like blueberries, peaches, chicken, beef, cheese, coffee, etc.). To me, this is a relief. It means fewer trips to the grocery store, becuase we only need to buy dry goods, and we can buy them in bulk. It also means less time spent in the grocery store.This translates to less energy expended and less stress, and less of a chance for the harsh lights, strong smells, and screechy carts to exacerbate my migraine.

Looking at the soup’s color, I decide it needs more orange. Three more sliced carrots go into the broth. I let it simmer for awhile — I don’t bother to time it. Eventually, I take my tomato knife out and dice four juicy, perfectly ripe tomatoes. When I feel especially motivated, I tear piles of fresh herbs from their stems: rosemary, thyme, parsley. This time, though, I let bunches of dried herbs steep in the broth for a long time before I started cooking.

It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit, but I don’t care. My Whatever-Vegetables-I-Have-In-The-Fridge-Soup requires no thought, no planning, is easy to prepare, impossible to mess up, will last for several days, and is delicious and healthy. This is my favorite thing to cook. Sometimes I add beans, but this time I simply forgot.

local, organic vegetables from a CSA

A selection of vegetables, fruit, and herbs from this week’s produce box (beets, swiss chard, red onion, cabbages, peaches, dill, cilantro, tomatoes). Photo by Kelly Lynn Thomas.

For someone with a constant headache, the routine of picking up a box of veggies at the same time and place every single week is comforting. The food we get from Kretschmann is a higher quality and fresher than what we get from the store. Fresher foods have less tyramine, a compound that develops as foods decay and that can trigger migraines for some people.

My husband and I sat down in the living room with our big bowls of fresh soup and a fan blowing our way to keep us cool while we watched the first season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I had finally convinced him to watch with me. We ate slowly while Buffy fought ugly-faced, toothy undead. I can’t speak for him, but I was content.

There are subscription-based programs like this, called Community Supported Agriculture or CSAs, all over the country. To learn more about them or find one in your area, visit www.LocalHarvest.org/csa. I’m not getting paid to talk about CSAs; I simply think they’re a great way to help the environment, the local economy, my body, and my migraines.

What do you do to make cooking and food preparation easier?

Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.

Eating as political act

I spend much of my Sundays in the kitchen, preparing food for the coming week.

This is not a simple domestic ritual to me, though I enjoy it immensely. No, fermenting my own yogurt, baking my own granola, and cooking all my beans instead of getting them from cans is a radical political act.

Here’s why: By making my own foods from scratch—even just some of them and not all—I am rejecting our industrial food production system and all the dollars they pump into political candidates.

picture of a corn field

Most of our food is made from corn and soy. Photo by Tyler Allen. Used under Creative Commons license. Click through for source.

During the 2012 election cycle, agribusiness donated $90 million to political campaigns and advocacy groups, mostly Republican or conservative. In 2014, the food and beverage industry donated more than $16 million, again, mostly to Republican or conservative groups. I am registered Democrat, though the reasons for this have more to do with local politics and my state’s closed primary system than national politics, but that’s another post.

This is not a blue versus red issue to me, though. It’s a life versus death one. The way we produce food is not only killing the planet, it’s killing us, and (some) Republican lawmakers have shown again and again that profit trumps our very lives. So I refuse to take part.

Or, at least, take as little part as I feasibly can.

If that means I have to spend more on what I buy to get it from a co-op instead of a traditional grocery store and spend four or five hours in the kitchen every Sunday pre-cooking rice, chopping vegetables, making granola and cooking beans, then so be it.

My eating and cooking habits are not above reproach. I still enjoy eating at restaurants, many of which likely get their ingredients from agribusiness and giant corporations. I also eat at fast food places like Subway and Panera. Sometimes I rely on products that I know come from developing countries where the workers are paid barely enough to feed their families.

I am not perfect, but perfection is not the goal. Being mindful and engaged with what I eat is the goal. I read ingredients labels. I try to find out which giant food corporation owns the organic brands of frozen vegetables and canned tomatoes I buy (General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen, for example). I buy all my dry goods (rice, flour, oats, beans, etc.) in bulk.

I will not judge you if you react differently to our industrialized food system or choose different ways of eating and preparing food. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay. We should always have options, and a choice.

The problem is that for many, there is no choice. Plenty of people live in “food deserts” (my own neighborhood in a major metropolitan area is one) where the closest store that sells food isn’t a grocery store but a convenience store, where you’re unlikely to find anything but processed, packaged foods. Plenty of people don’t even know how to cook or even select good produce. By default, they have no choice.

My access to farmer’s markets, CSAs, and a co-op, not to mention my access to information on how to best utilize these resources, is a privilege. I recognize that. And that’s why it’s important for me to talk about the food choices I make and why I make them.

When I decline to eat your hamburger helper casserole, it is a statement, yes. But it’s not a statement about you or your skill as a cook. It’s a statement about our food ecosystem and how utterly broken it is. It’s a statement about refusing to fill my body with “food” made in a factory instead of in a kitchen or on a farm.