Thursday, January 13, 2011

The "F" Word

I'm not sure exactly when the enjoyment of food became a competitive sport, but I'm way past wanting to be a contender. Working at Foodie Deluxe in Ann Arbor was oddly reminiscent of my 1998 trip to Ireland - just as that humbling experience taught me that I'm not really Irish (I'm American), this more recent experience taught me that I cannot call myself a "foodie" (I'm just a person who likes eating - there are literally billions of us). Of course, I also refrain from describing myself with the "f" word because it's terrible and I don't like the flavor of my own vomit. But even if I were to choose a slightly less obnoxious word like "connoisseur", I would still feel like a fraud because I know too many people who have far more sophisticated knowledge, taste and skill when it comes to making and eating food.

Nevertheless, I do love cooking and feasting. When I left my job in Ann Arbor and moved to Chattanooga, I was looking forward to embracing my new kitchen (with its restaurant-style stainless steel counters) in a more modest and less food-obsessed town. I've been having fun, especially now that I have some cool new toys, like my crock pot and immersion blender. But I didn't anticipate that my relationship with food would be so different from what it was when I lived and worked in Michigan.

The biggest food-related change came with my new fitness regimen. Now that I workout more than I ever have in my life (I actually run miles!.. without stopping!.. of my own volition!), I worry less about restricting this or that type of food. The only dietary advice that my trainer T gave me was this - get three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables every day. This albeit simple rule is actually the goddamned revolution. For one thing, it's brilliant to give food advice in the form of a "do" instead of a "don't" - "don't" just isn't that motivating in the long term. I follow this "do" slavishly and I inevitably eat more healthfully. The only way I can make the 3/3 diet work is by snacking on bananas and raw carrots, which means I'm not often snacking on potato chips and cheesy things. I definitely have more energy, I'm less reliant on caffeine and I don't crave greasy food as much.

That being said, I have learned that my addiction to dairy fat cannot be denied. If I go a couple days without cheese or sour cream or half and half in my coffee, I get really crabby and start wondering why this miserable world has to be populated with so many IDIOTIC JERKS. I'm not my best self without lactose.

This new food routine is fine, but figuring out how to get three fruits, three vegetables and a little dairy fat in my body every day takes a lot of concentration. That means I have less energy for planning elaborate entrees or trying new recipes, which brings me to the second biggest change in my relationship with food. I'm no longer as interested in cooking. This is why I love my crock pot. With minimal prep, I make a big ass heap of food that I can turn into several meals. Overnight grits become breakfast, then grits casserole, then grits muffins, etc. It isn't a very sexy approach to culinary arts, but it is efficient.

I think the other major difference in the way I approach food concerns my favorite pastime, going out to eat. Chattanooga is not prime for this activity, though not for lack of fancy restaurants. This town has plenty of places where you can buy an expensive steak, but there isn't much variety when you examine the spectrum of choices. I couldn't have anticipated how much I would miss metro Detroit's sundry culinary options (a reflection of its mixed population), including Mexican, Middle Eastern, Greek, Indian, Polish, Chinese, Thai; I'm confident that you can find excellent versions of each one of these cuisines in the D. Chattanooga, unsurprisingly, is more culturally homogeneous. I thought this town would boast some great barbecue, but I've had trouble finding places that really smoke the hell out of some meat. I haven't yet found that "native" cuisine that's special to this place, and I'm beginning to wonder if it exists. I keep going to the same few dependable restaurants but longing for more adventure.

Yet, within footsteps of my home, I can purchase fresh-roasted coffee, handmade sausage and artisan bread. This winter, Dan and I purchased an 18-week lettuce CSA and now we get to eat fresh greens every day. These small local farms and businesses are where you find the best flavors in Chattanooga. I'm glad that so many of these vendors are represented in our city's restaurants, but for the sake of thrift and control, I prefer to eliminate the middle man and just deal with these businesses directly. Living here, I just don't have as much motivation to go out to eat.

Despite my waning interest in living a food-focused life, it turns out that I'm really good at selling the stuff. My only goal at work is to get people to put whatever item I'm pushing in their basket and I'm a little shocked at how often they do. We aim for a 400% increase in sales of that item. Two weeks ago, I was demoing an obscure salami that I was sure no one would buy; we saw a 1500% lift in its sales. I'd call it a fluke, but my coworkers are always shocked when I run out of whatever I'm sampling. I must admit that I find this success very satisfying. I'm excited about this new facet in my ever-changing relationship with food. Food and I may not be best friends anymore, but we make great business partners.

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