I often recall a scene from a western I watched when I was a very young. I don’t remember the name of the film. I don’t even remember the storyline, but I have a vivid memory of this one fragment. A bright-eyed, handsome young man returns home on horseback to his family’s cabin somewhere in the arid, dusty southwest. He’s barrels into the small house, embraces his mother, father, and sister and then proceeds to unpack the contents of his leather saddlebags on the wood farm table in the center of the room. He presents the family with offerings from his travels to a far off place called California. One by one, he reveals amber honey in a glass jar, flour, sugar, and oats in cotton sacks tied with string. He places a cheese wheel wrapped in a white cloth in his mother’s hands and her eyes well up with tears. A family that has gone so long without these basic foods is overwhelmed and overjoyed. I clearly remember the feeling I had while watching this scene unfold. Though each and every gift given was well-stocked in my own family’s modern kitchen pantry amongst shelves full of many other foods, in that moment the essential goods on the screen—carried in simple cotton cloth and glass, seemed to me the most precious and delicious foods in the whole world.
I think of that moment regularly when I purchase foods in bulk without packaging. I’ve written a lot about how bulk food shopping both inspired and continues to enable my No Trash Project. In my first blog post I explained that for most of my life I passed by the bulk food dispensers of my local grocery stores on my way to pick boxed and bagged grains, legumes, nuts, and baking goods off the middle aisle shelves. Shopping in bulk has become an unexpected source of… well, joy. Equipped with my No Trash food shopping gear, I stock up. The steady drizzle of honey and olive oil from stainless steel fusti spigots into glass jars and bottles is mesmerizing. I love scanning the bins and choosing foods based on their actual appearance rather than an enlarged, color enhanced printed photograph. I love scooping the foods into my cotton bags, writing down PLU (price lookup) codes and relaying the information to the store cashiers. I’ve become an expert on judging how much I need to fill the large cylindrical Weck jars that sit on my kitchen countertop without spillover. I love the sound the foods make as they swirls through my large mouth stainless steel funnel and ping against the sides of the glass containers. Jars filled to the brim with edible goods are something to lay great store by. They are beautiful to behold for the potential they possess. Ingredients waiting to become meals. I take great pleasure in the process of preparing legumes and grains to be cooked. Rationing them out in my glass measuring cup. Rinsing rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, buckwheat, and amaranth until the water runs clear from the pot before placing them on the stovetop. I like the feel of the kernels sifting through my fingers as I swish them in the bath. It’s meditative. And I’m always amazed to see how much water dried beans, and chickpeas absorb during there eight hour soak. They seem to draw in life.
Somehow, every step required to bring bulk foods from the bin to my plate makes each meal taste better. With every bite, I feel a kind of appreciation that I never experienced when I bought foods in packaging. I think about the life-giving properties of these ingredients that were themselves once alive. I think about how my digestive system turns these foods into me. And I geek out a little. And giggle to myself as I polish off every last lentil, grain of rice, or kernel of quinoa on my plate. Precious things.
I will be speaking at Fertile Underground‘s “Packaging Be Gone” workshop tomorrow (Monday, January 14th) from 5-7pm. FUG’s in-store foodie Jillian will discuss the ins and outs of bulk grocery shopping and I will be there to share advise based on my own experiences. If you live in the area, come meet and greet me! I wil do my best to rein in my enthusiasm… but really, I can’t wait!