By Jamie Rudd, Phase I Fellow
For as long as I’ve been responsible for feeding myself, my diet has felt a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – a puzzle composed of values and needs that, most of the time, seem impossible to fit together. While I imagine that for others, food can be a lovingly cultivated symphony of flavor, culture, and skillful practice, for me, food has long been about finding a precise balance of efficiency, health, thrift, sustainability, and management of my body’s inconvenient idiosyncrasies (namely, hypoglycemia’s ever-present threat of low blood sugar and a frustratingly sensitive stomach).
Fortunately, I love puzzles. And before arriving at the AMI farm, I felt like I’d pretty much cracked the code on this one. Oatmeal with fruit and cinnamon every single morning. As much local and organic produce as possible from the farmers market and my garden. Brown rice, not white, Sweet potatoes, not regular. Granola and apples for snacks. No meat and only occasional dairy. Almost entirely home-cooked meals. Half a can of beans with every lunch and dinner. Flavor with garlic and salsa and only the tiniest bit of salt. Sweets only when seated at someone else’s table. And “No thanks, I’ll stick with water.”
This way of eating checked all my boxes. Sure, my taste buds weren’t exactly dazzled on a regular basis and I probably missed out on some of the camaraderie of going in on takeout nights with my roommates and lunches with my coworkers, but my stomach was settled, my blood sugar stable, my bank account padded, and my conscience clean.
But then I came to AMI, and had to surrender the absolute control of my diet that I’d become so accustomed to, or more truthfully, dependent on. I was asked to break down and pack up my personal jigsaw puzzle and grab a paintbrush alongside ten other people and try to create some kind of cohesive community-based mural that would somehow realize each of our independent artistic visions (or at least meet our individual dietary needs).
This was probably the most intimidating aspect of the Fellowship for me going in -- not moving to a secluded farm in the middle of nowhere or working outside all day every day in the elements. What worried me most was the prospect of no longer having complete jurisdiction over what I put in my body. But I was up for the challenge. And for the most part, shifting to a communal diet has provided far more opportunities than challenges.
Perhaps most significantly, it’s opened me up to so many new ways of preparing food that I’d previously lacked the motivation or gumption to pursue. Cooking with others, for others, has made me braver. Having entire days dedicated exclusively to preparing food has tapped into curiosity and ambition that I didn’t know I had, and deepened my appreciation for complex and time-intensive techniques I thought were beyond me. “I’ve never made that before” and “that looks complicated” are no longer valid excuses when you’re given ten hours to cook two meals, particularly when there’s another person by your side, just as dedicated to exploring new culinary terrain.
The list of new things I’ve made in the last three months goes on and on. Breads of all different thicknesses -- tortillas, pita, naan, baguettes, and herb loaves. Kimchi packed with ginger, garlic, and red pepper powder. Pickled cucumbers, zucchini, beets, and peppers, canned with care. Sorbet crafted from last year’s frozen fruit. Roasted chickpeas and lentil meatballs, transforming my old staples with just a few extra steps. Black bean soup, black-eyed peas, and split pea soup. Kohlrabi and sunchokes, new foods for me that roast just as deliciously as carrots, beets, and brussels sprouts. Vegetarian paella with saffron swapped for turmeric. Cabbage rolls and kolache. Previously avoided fried foods -- latkes, fried green tomatoes, squash fritters. Ravioli that I rolled, sliced, stuffed, and sealed by hand. Garam masala, brava sauce, and tahini dressing. Decadent crepes and zesty slaw. Kombucha with an inherited SCOBY and switchel with an inherited legacy. And granola made over and over in pursuit of the perfect crisp and clump.
And for every new dish I’ve made, I’ve eaten at least five times as many new dishes prepared by other Fellows. Raspberry donuts and cinnamon rolls from scratch. Spicy peach salsa and creamy squash soup. Crusty sourdough and fresh-picked-blueberry ice cream. Homemade paneer and ricotta. Beet hummus, applesauce muffins, and cardamom cake. Kimchi pancakes, buckwheat pancakes, and eggy popovers. Ginger soda, falafel, ground cherry chutney, and garlic scape pesto. Every rendition of zucchini bread imaginable. Egg-noodle stir fry, cheesy gnocchi, scrumptious rice pudding, and savory manakish. Risotto made with foraged chanterelle mushrooms. Salad pizza, pizza with a cornmeal crust, calzones, pizza with spaghetti squash crust, and pizza bagels. Frittata and quiche and stuffed pattypan squash. And on and on and on.
After years of slowly restricting what I felt it was okay for me to eat, my diet has suddenly undergone an explosive expansion. And in this new wonderfully wide world of food, many of my puzzle pieces have miraculously been incorporated (maybe our cohort has been creating a multimedia sculpture rather than a two-dimensional mural all along?). The way we eat here on the mountain is largely healthy, affordable, environmentally sustainable, and even seems to do a pretty good job of keeping my stomach from complaining and my blood sugar from plummeting. The main difference then, is having the time and tools (and courage) to try new things -- privileges that this Fellowship has given each of us, making it possible for Fellows like me to connect with food on a deeper level, not only in the garden, but in the pan and on the plate.
This even goes for the vestiges of my old diet that remain. I still eat oatmeal every day for breakfast, crunch on granola for snacks, avoid meat, and add garlic and salsa to flavor most of my independent weekend meals. But even with these apparent constants, the context has changed. I now take turns making morning oatmeal with another oatmeal-lover. I make granola myself rather than buy it at Wegmans. I helped raise the animals that I choose not to eat and feel minimal moral reservations about their consumption by my fellow Fellows. The garlic I use is garlic I helped to grow and harvest and the salsa I enjoy was made and preserved by last year’s Fellows, just as I’ll soon be making and preserving more for next year’s cohort.
Everywhere in my diet I now find connection. To other Fellows, past, present, and future, who share in the growing, preparing, and devouring. To friends and family whose favorite dishes I’ve tried my hand at. To the land, animals, and tiny organisms that help to produce our ingredients. To the people all over the world and throughout history who cultivated the crops we grow and developed the cooking techniques we utilize. Even to the shared culture of our cohort that loves chocolate chips passed around in a mug as much as we love farm-fresh eggs on painstakingly crafted sourdough toast, and enthusiastically upholds the beloved “Pizza Friday” tradition of cohorts passed.
And what’s more, in many ways I feel like I actually have more control over what I’m eating than ever. Not so much in the actual selection of what I eat in any given meal, but in terms of really knowing what I’m consuming. The vast majority of what we eat, we grow. I know where to find each crop in the garden. I planted it or know who did and more often than not have physically cared for and harvested it. I don’t have to wonder how old it is, how far it traveled, or what was sprayed on it. I have all the answers, and my goodness does that feel empowering.
So now, with the end of Phase I fast approaching, I’m faced with the question of how I’ll adjust my diet when it’s all back on me. After experiencing life with so much culinary diversity, I have trouble imagining that I’ll be able to go back to eating brown rice, black beans, and roasted veggies for almost every meal (as much as I still love a good grain bowl). But I’ll also soon be faced with the reality of not having hours upon hours to cook or fancy kitchen appliances to cook with.
One obvious strategy for maintaining this connection is to continue growing my own food and sustaining the close relationship I currently have with what I eat. Thankfully, every day not spent in the AMI kitchen, I’ve spent figuring out how to do just that. Another solution though, is ensuring that my culinary pursuits don’t actually fall “all back on me.” Finding ways to continue communal cooking and eating feels vital to me now. Perhaps in the year to come, we Fellows can pool our resources of cooking implements and ingredient access and convene to prepare meals, not every night, but maybe once a week. Perhaps we can come together on a regular basis to make something special, trading in a bit of extra time and care for the rewards of taste, novelty, and community. And perhaps it will be a tradition I can carry with me into the future, connecting me to the Fellowship long after it’s come to an end.