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Food For Thought: Get To Know Your Meals

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Every week I go to my favorite East Village restaurant to indulge in their fresh vegetables and to-die-for macaroni and cheese (with extra bacon, of course). Friday night was no different when I sat down with a cold beer, great company, and stared up at the chalkboard menu citing the day's veggie options. I ordered my fave foursome (bok choy, beets, roasted tomatoes, and asparagus) and was diving into my mac n' cheese appetizer when my friend asked if I knew where the restaurant gets their luscious ingredients. The rest of the night centered on this simple question and the many thought seeds it consequently planted.

Food. We lucky ones eat it everyday, probably think about it every hour, and can access it in seconds (I have a love/hate relationship with Papa John's online ordering capabilities. Ooh, I could go for a pie. Control T). But how much do we know about the food we eat? Look at that bag of chips on your desk, or that package of baby carrots, or that fun-size Milky Way you were saving for after lunch. Where were those potatoes grown? How are carrots harvested? And what the hell is nougat anyway?

I'm 100% guilty of food-ignorance and I would assume that most Americans are, too. It's amazing, truly, how uninformed most of us are about something so prolific, so ubiquitous, so fundamental as food. Sure, we know how to prepare it, we know what tastes great, we know what confit and blanched mean (we're fancy foodies! Yay us!), and we know what's good or bad nutritionally. But ask yourself the "where" and "how" of your favorite foods and you might be surprised how dumbstruck you are. I know I was.

Looking for someone to blame for my miseducation, I thought back to high school of course. There we're taught how to write an essay, find the hypotenuse, and what the Federalist Papers did for the Constitution. All important, if not for their direct applicability, but for their lessons on how to think and intuit relevant situations later in life. So why is food and agriculture left out when we make decisions on food everyday?

As America's waist-line gets bigger and the gap between farmer and eater expands, maybe Agriculture 101 would be a valuable addition to high school curriculum. Throw it in the period between Health and Lunch. It'd be a nice segue.

So back to my dinner plate of fresh veggies: I could minimally answer the "where" and "how" of tomatoes and bok choy, but beets and asparagus? No clue. No idea where they're grown, what the plant part looks like, or how and when they're harvested.

My friend whipped out her Blackberry (see! Even our electronics hark back on food) and Google was able to satisfy our curiosity. Turns out asparagus is a pretty neat vegetable. And you thought nothing was cooler than Quinoa. Considered an aphrodisiac by ancient Greeks and Romans (their imaginations didn't have to run wild with this one: the stalks shoot up through the ground and stand erect until picked or developed further into branch-like expansions), asparagus has been around for millennia. The stalks I enjoyed were most likely grown in the Southeast US, far from the plant's origin in the Middle East, and shipped to a distribution center near NYC. I also discovered that their season is just about up. Nothing sexy about that.

As a Whole Foods shopper, it seems as if everything is always in season; fruits and vegetables perched in bright and ripe pyramids are there year-round. Call me crazy, but I felt a little pang of regret in my stomach when I read that asparagus was going out of season, and fast. I knew it as a summer delight, much like tomatoes, but I didn't know the timeline was so short; I'd missed its prime, April-May. My favorite food and I'd blown it because I'm uninformed.

Since food is no doubt a source of deep pleasure, why do most of us deny ourselves the information that might make our meals even better, fresher, riper, and richer? Learning about the food we eat and where it comes from seems like it would be natural, hedonist, and almost necessary education.

And perhaps the more we know about our food, the more appreciation and reverence we'd have for it, inspiring us to celebrate it rather than force it down watching "Seinfeld" reruns (not that there's anything wrong with that). There has long been a link between food and spirituality: the meditative quality of cooking a meal that you know will nourish and bring together family and friends, the tradition of eating certain meals during holidays, the quiet joy a bite of your favorite homemade dish can spread through your mind, body, and spirit. If food feeds our bodies, then it must feed our souls, and heightened awareness of the "where" and "how" could make us more grateful for these fare blessings.

When the waitress came to take away our plates and offer up dessert, I couldn't resist the strawberry cheesecake and ordered a slice. Hmm, strawberries. Where? How? And cheese, where? How? Just food for thought. Oh my, Google?