Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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I eat too fast and that’s probably one of the reasons weight has been a problem for most of my adult life. All the experts say it takes your brain about 20 minutes to register the fact you’re actually eating. Personally I always thought this simple fact allowed one to eat twice as many doughnuts before the brain yelled stop. This was always a significant fact before age and hormones dictated that I stop stuffing my face with whatever food was at hand. I think I was about 10 years old when that happened. At least I was that young when a doctor told my mother to put me on a diet.

Food was always a tense subject in my family — how much and what. In my child’s memory, I can see my grandfather criticizing my mother (at the dinner table, I might add and within my hearing) over the amount of butter I was slathering on something or other. I could not have been more than four or five years old, but my mother’s angry response still resonates . As best as I can recreate the scene, she sharply told her father-in-law that Catherine could have as much as she wanted. And then she took a large dollop of butter and put it on my plate.

Of such experiences is the adult formed. At the time, I was the only child in the family, outnumbered by two parents, two grandparents and one unmarried uncle all living in the same house. So who had control over me was always a matter of power politics.

But that was 60 years ago and, as my sister would say, let it go, get over it.

My memories of childhood are not all fraught with such tension.

Childhood was mostly fun while it lasted. Well, almost always. There was the unfortunate incident at my friend Cheryl’s 12th birthday party when I managed to throw up the four or five hot dogs, a couple of bottles of Orange Crush and a giant slab of iced birthday cake that I had eaten – all over Cheryl’s mother and her oh-so-elegantly decorated guest bathroom. At least two effects were subsequently recorded: I was never invited back into Cheryl’s house, and my sense of mortification and humiliation was so profound that I can remember nothing else of that disastrous day. There was also a third effect: I didn’t throw up again until 50 years later.

If you think that’s an advantage, consider the not-so-dubious benefits of being able to vomit. At the very least, consider the hangovers one gets throughout one’s young adult life, when drinking too much seems to be a matter of pride. Such hangovers are – people told me – made much easier to endure if one can banish the previous night’s liquor consumption and then eat something greasy to settle the stomach. Alas, that was never an option. A psychologist would likely say that my childhood trauma was at fault. Even nausea-inducing moments — wild rides at the Calgary Stampede (one of which, when I was four years old, caused me to throw up all over my father, who had no one else eager and willing to come on the midway rides with him) and a wild night on an ocean cruise on a brand-new ship whose stabilizers somehow conked out — did not have any effect other than a couple of quick swallows.

But I digress, if only to explain the dubious advantages of eating too much too fast and much too much.

If age has taught me anything, it’s that fast food – whether from one of those ubiquitous McDonald’s or A & Ws or Wendy’s or home-cooked food prepared with care and then eaten too fast to appreciate it — is one route to destroying whatever mechanism exists inside everyone that tells the body when it has had enough fuel for the moment. Without that trigger, it’s easy to overeat — especially in the too many restaurants that equate happiness with quantity rather than quality.

So part of my year-long campaign is to retrain my body and my life to accept a slower pace, especially where food is concerned.

Enter my friend, dee Hobsbawn-Smith. And yes, she spells her first name without the capital letter. (This is a good way to discover who among us is so hidebound about rules that they refuse to honour her choice.) Curiously enough, I’ve never asked her why, assuming the quirky trait that caused the poet e.e. cummings to eschew capitalization, too.

She is a chef, a writer, a poet, a sensuous woman (as all good chefs must be) and is the president of Slow Food Calgary. To celebrate the coming of the new year, and just because it was mid-winter and a time to battle the blues, dee was the host for a Slow Food dinner at Calgary’s Cookbook Company. Her sous chef was her elder son, Darl.

Ted and I joined the crowd for a diner that featured a menu of locally sourced dishes paired with Canadian wines. Given the season, one might expect a menu consisting of root vegetables and beef, this being the middle of winter and fresh produce but a distant promise of spring. But slow doesn’t mean doing without, it means being conscious of what you are eating and where it came from, who grew it or raised it and how it was prepared. It means supporting local producers.

“Slow food” also means sustainability. It means the protection of genetic diversity, in an age when “food” is chosen for its ability to ripen on schedule, withstand mechanical harvesting and have a long shelf life in a store. Varieties that don’t meet such criteria don’t get planted by farmers that are under contract to large distributors. I remember being on a farm in southwestern Ontario, the “valley of the jolly green giant” where cucumbers were being harvested. Just outside the packing shed was a large bin, full of bright green cucumbers. I asked the farm manager why these cucumbers were sitting out to rot in the sun and the answer was simple: They were too big or too small. Each box had to contain a set number of cucumbers, no more and no less.

The rejects were free for the taking, and every time I’m forced to buy an expensive imported cucumber in a supermarket, I think of this experience.

People such as dee and her colleagues in the Slow Food movement are carrying the responsibility for the rest of us in helping to preserve locally produced goods. And their individual efforts to support local growers and farmers ensures that we will still have local farms in the future. Their logo is, appropriately enough, a snail. And there’s a “snail trail” to find local producers one can visit to discover the joy inherent in living locally.

The Slow Food movement started in 1986 and over the years it has gained thousands of members in hundreds of countries. It promotes, according to its literature: “the need for taste education as the best defense against poor quality and food adulteration. It is the main way to combat the incursion of fast food into our diets. It helps to safeguard local cuisines, traditional products, vegetable and animal species at risk of extinction. It supports a new model of agriculture, is less intensive and healthier, founded on the knowledge and knowhow of local communities. This is the only type of agriculture able to offer prospects for development in the poorest regions on our planet.”

But all propaganda aside, we were all there that night for a good meal, good company and wine to assist in both.

Because despite the rhetoric, the Slow Food movement is also all about the pleasures of eating and the sensuousness of taking food and what it represents seriously.

Three hours went by in a flash, accompanied by good conversation with our tablemates, and the meal’s provenances explained by dee, who also treated us to recitations of her poetry.

She talked about living slowly and laughing a lot, about “spending time with people you love,” doing what matters. It’s all about community, she said. And, dee added “ask who raised your meals . . . practice ethical eating.”

Really, think about it: Do you know who grew the beans you buy at Co-Op? Or who slaughtered the steak sealed on a Styrofoam plate in Safeway? Where did your food come from? And if you don’t know, why are you eating it?

The highlight of the meal was a dish I’ve never tried before – cassoulet. It seems silly to admit never having tried this famous French bean dish, but I wasn’t raised by a chef or even an adventurous cook. It was wonderful, an introduction to something new.

A cold night a warm crowd, fine wine and a slow and savoury dinner. It doesn’t get much better than this.

NEXT: Sun, sand, and drinks with umbrellas in them.


Written by Catherine Ford

January 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thinking of you in Maui on Sugar Beach. Lent is coming – how can we weave that into our living well plans? (apart from giving up chocolate and studying the “Good and Beautiful Life”)

    Jennifer Diakiw

    January 29, 2010 at 2:05 pm

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