Yuppies

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps it’s my mother’s nosiness, but when I eat at restaurants, I can’t help but observe the diners sitting around me.

On a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, for the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, my husband and I ate dinner at a local vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Merge.

There was nothing pretentious about the place. It was decorated like someone’s living room, with plenty of live house plants, odds and ends with character (nothing so new as to be shiny or squeaky), and festive lights. Even the tables and chairs were charmingly mismatched.

And the food, oh my goddess, the food. I had a beet salad and shrimp risotto. I love beets. But I had no idea beets could be so delicious. They were served on top of a bed of mixed greens, with fennel, candied walnuts, and a vinaigrette. I will definitely try to recreate that at home.

This isn’t a post about good food, though. It’s a post about class. (Not that the two aren’t intimately related, but that’s another post.)

A family—father, mother, grandfather, three kids—sat at the table behind us. I didn’t notice them until I heard the father say, “We’ve got theater tickets for 7:30, so we need to be quick about this.”

It was 6:30. Something about his tone, demanding and so self-assured there wasn’t space for doubt, got my hackles up. I looked over. They were all appropriately dressed for a show, with slacks and dress shirts and sweaters.

Over the course of their meal, I watched this family interact with each other. They chatted about school and the menu, and the father repeatedly exercised his fatherly authority over his children. I hardly heard a peep from the mother. And it was this—the constant insistence of “I’m your father, and I’m in charge”—as much as the impression of easy money that had me gritting my teeth.

But I did get an impression that they had enough money that the didn’t have to worry about their finances beyond whether their retirement investments were simply doing well or outperforming the market by 10 percentage points.

Of course, that’s where my own biases come in. I grew up directly across the street from a steel mill. We never had to worry about enough food, but we had to worry about union strikes and debt, about growing gang violence in our town, about my dad being called up from the reserves to fight in Iraq, about the car breaking down (again).

Things were secure, but they weren’t that secure. I remember sitting in my parents’ bedroom while my dad packed his Navy duffel bag, and the air was so tense with anxiety and excitement I didn’t know how to feel.

Thankfully, my dad didn’t wind up going to Iraq. And I know no family, no childhood, no life, is perfect. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having enough of it can surely make you miserable. Even as a (mostly happy) child, I was acutely aware of this fact.

The kids sitting at that table in Merge? I’d bet they had no idea. In a way, that’s good. Kids should have the freedom to be kids without worrying about their next meal. But in other ways, it’s not so good. It creates a false sense of security, a sense that everything will work out for you no matter what, a sense that you have some power and control over your life, or the expectation that your parents will always fix your problems for you.

A bit of stress and worry is good for you. It creates resilience. Without it, sometimes you start thinking you’re better than the people who have to worry about the next meal, or, in this case, that you’re better than the people serving you the next meal.

I don’t really know anything about that family. Dad could have been having a bad day, or they could have planned to be at the restaurant at 5:30 and gotten held up by something out of their control.

Ultimately, that’s irrelevant. My point is that class is a huge issue, even divorced from the issue of race. The media and politicians reinforce the ideas that the rich have somehow earned the right to be rich and the working class and the poor should just try harder if they want to get ahead.

And clueless upper middle class people help perpetuate the problem by ignoring what’s going on around them and breezing through life and climbing the corporate ladder and sending their kids to excellent, expensive colleges as if all these things were a given.

For most of the population in the United States, none of those things are a given.

If someone gave me a large sum of money and told me they had the power to send me back in time so that I could grow up in a 100% financially secure household where my parents worked because otherwise they’d be bored and not because they needed the money, I’d say, “No thanks.”

I’m grateful for the uncertainty I experienced growing up. Yes, I’m also grateful that the uncertainty didn’t extend so far as to affect my ability to eat, but I am glad that I learned early on that nothing is a given, and getting what you want requires a lot of hard work and dedication—and that achievement for the sake of achievement or for impressing other people isn’t valuable.

Basic kindness is what’s truly valuable in our interactions with each other. I can’t solve class issues in America, but I can be kind to everyone I meet, regardless of what they look like, how much money they make, or what they believe (unless they believe in genocide or denying basic human rights, in which case I might not be kind, but I’m not going to be mean, either, because that doesn’t solve any problems)*.

And yes, that extends even to the family of yuppies who inspired this post.

*This is, obviously, a work in progress.

Winter blessing Spring

The snow melts slowly over the candle flame, first compacting into slush and then pooling at the bottom of the mason jar. Sakura-scented incense smoke rises and curls above the altar as I hum a chant, my prayer to spring.

When the snow transforms completely to water, I begin the work of planting seeds for my garden—my first garden in my first house. A slight breeze finds its way to me through the open window, along with the sounds of children riding scooters up and down the street, calling out to each other, laughing.

I fill each egg carton cell with soil and carefully place each seed. Tomato, eggplant, celery, radish, turnip, beets, fennel, sugar snap peas, parsley, mint, dill, thyme, basil, lavender, sunflowers, coneflower.

Some of these—tomato, eggplant, peas, the herbs—I have grown before, and others are new to me. I have been reading book after book on gardening and growing food, but I learn best through experience, through working the soil loose with my hands and watching leaves and flowers unfurl.

For a final blessing I sprinkle each cell with a few drops of the melted snow–a promise for renewal, for growth. I place each egg carton in recycled plastic containers and set them on my windowsill. With dirty fingers and a happy heart, I snuff out the candle and offer thanks to the earth, to the sun, for the gift of seasons, of change, of new beginnings.

#FridayReads: “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss

saltsugarfatI love food, and I love reading about food. I also believe that purchasing and cooking food is a political statement, whether you want it to be or think it is or not.

Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us explores the three big ingredients that give us cravings, make us fat, and dictate how we think food should taste—even though a lot of processed foods can hardly be called food (in my opinion).

This book has been on my to-read list since Moss came to Pittsburgh a few years ago. I wasn’t able to attend his lecture, but it put his book on my radar.

(Authors take note: The publicity from your book tour has the potential to lead readers to your book even if they don’t come to your reading.)

Salt Sugar Fat is broken into three sections, one for each of the ingredients. I’m still in the first third of the book, but already Moss has covered corporate mergers, competition between brands and corporations, the “bliss point”—which is the optimum sugar level for an individual—how companies “optimize” drinks like Dr. Pepper, and more.

Moss’s reporting is sharp and on point. This is no conspiracy theory type book about how the food industry is trying to make everyone fat. It’s another terrifying addition to the growing body of literature documenting corporate neglect of our planet and our health in the interest of driving profits and the negative effects of eating processed food (see also anything by Michael Pollan and the awesome documentary Food, Inc. Also Forks Over Knives, King Corn, Genetic Chile… there are so many good ones).

This is my favorite kind of food book, because it’s accessible and interesting. Moss interviews many food scientists and former food corporation employees and tells their stories without demonizing them or casting them in an unfair light. He shows us that really, what food scientists have done is pretty amazing from the scientific point of view, if not the nutritional point of view.

I’m listening to the audio book version, which is read by Scott Brick. Sometimes he gets into a pattern of reading every sentence with the same inflection, which goes right up to the edge of being annoying without quite crossing over. But the material he’s reading is fascinating, so I hardly notice.