The first meal.

To get the full context for this post, please read both Grant’s post and Ellen’s post over at the blog One Hundred Meals. The meal described in those posts and below was prompted by this project Ellen and Grant have launched. To get the fullest context, you really should read the full blog archives which, as of today’s post, are only six posts deep―and that’s including the two I linked to above. Maybe you won’t do all that now, but I hope by the end of my post, you’ll be convinced to do so.

This isn’t a widely read blog. I’m terrible at paying attention to analytics, so if I had to guess, I would guess I have no more than ten regular readers. Most, maybe all, who read this blog regularly know me personally. So, I expect my readers know I love food, I tend toward eating locally sourced food, and I care about how the meat I eat, in particular, is raised.

My readers know that I have confessed to a “semi-shameful” love of Hostess Cupcakes and that I’m a bit confused that I don’t enjoy them as much as I used to1. My readers and friends also know I never hesitate to accept a dinner invitation, and I can be counted on to eat what is served (or available at the restaurant selected). This is true regardless of your attention to or even awareness of issues of food sourcing and politics. I like food, but I like my friends more―and once told a friend on Twitter (and thus publicly) that she needed “better friends” because she felt those on her Thanksgiving invitee list prioritized the food over her. Also, given my aforementioned love of Hostess Cupcakes (and the implied love of some other processed foods that goes with it), it feels hypocritical to turn my nose up at an invite based on the sourcing of the food provided.

My readers and friends also know it’s important to Bill and I, when we issue the invitation, to source our food consistent with our beliefs, even if our invitees won’t care2. It’s also vital to us to take into account our guests’ food restrictions to the best of our ability. (Usually, this means allergies. Occasionally, it means rejecting a food for being distasteful in some way.)

Finally, since most of them know me personally, my readers know I care pretty damn deeply about science and critical thinking. I didn’t spend the vast majority of my adult life in scientific academia to stop caring when I left my Ph.D. program. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Caring about these things is as ingrained as in my personality as being female―I can’t imagine being any other way. Bill, though he spent less time in academia, is exactly the same way.

I know I just spent a lot of time stating what it is you likely already know about me. But it all relates and will all tie together. I promise. And, if you’re linking over here from Ellen and Grant’s project, consider it an introduction!

Ellen and Grant are two of my newest Chicago friends. I met Grant through Ellen, and I met Ellen through the magic of twitter. I don’t know either of them deeply, but I like them both a great deal, and I enjoy that we have some shared obsessions with food. They, like Bill and I, care deeply about food sourcing, about animal welfare and all that jazz. They are honest, open and friendly.

If you didn’t read the links about their project above, let me give you a brief summary. Back in late March, a group of food bloggers, including Ellen and Grant, were invited to a breakfast hosted by a trade group of “conventional” farmers and ranchers. Ellen, in her own words, “was, in a textbook sense, very [badly]” behaved at that breakfast. It involved some cussing and unsavory comparisons. It might have involved tears at breakfast (I’m not clear on that). It definitely involved tears afterward. It involved a blog post, for sure. And then―amazingly―it generated a great deal of sane, rational conversation3. The folks Ellen had not-conversed at the breakfast with were still up for a conversation. Maybe many conversations. And, wonderfully, Ellen and Grant were willing to engage as well. They realized they wanted to learn everything they could about all the parts of America’s food system. So they launched the One Hundred Meals project.

And pretty much instantly got depressed. Not because, so far as I can tell, anyone was hostile, but because Ellen and Grant realized, almost immediately, that they have bitten off a lot. Grant wrote a post detailing the depression and asking rhetorical questions about what one person or institution could change his readers’ minds about antibiotics in food. He put up a list of the first 25 ideas they’d had for potential meals, and one included a “land-grant university professor (or dean!).”

Feeling like I might have something to contribute to these topics, I sent them an email. I invited them to dinner to discuss some basic ideas of science, scientific funding, why even the rhetorical questions Grant had posed might be a problematic way to look at things, and generally anything else they might want to discuss. I figured they’d want some background before they embarked on their project.

I didn’t expect to become part of the project, but I was and am flattered that they felt it a meal on par with every other part of the system they were investigating.

So, they came to dinner. And I realized how fabulous it is to have multiple slow-cookers available when you invite friends over explicitly for difficult and deep conversation. The slow cookers really freed Bill and I up to just TALK with Grant and Ellen.

Our conversation was huge. We discussed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and eggs and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH/rBST) and how expensive science is and different funding agencies and different research entities. I’m sure we covered even more, and I don’t remember it all. We also ate the hell out of some Carne Adovada huevoes rancheroes.

Though my original intention had been to make tamales for our meal together (I am obsessed with tamales and masa right now), the very unexpected lack of readily available non-GMO labeled masa had me rethinking our menu. We ended up serving huevoes rancheroes, which was a much better choice than I’d realized, as Ellen brought a gift of eggs from her chickens, so we were able to make dinner with contributions from all of us.

What a neat thing.

Ellen started writing the very next day. Grant took a little longer. To my sincere gratitude, they sent me the first drafts of their posts before they published them.

And that’s when we all discovered: A single meal? It’s a great start, but it can’t be the end of the conversation. It can’t be the end of the communication.

Both of them went through a couple of rewrites as we emailed back and forth about our understandings. I imagine this post will undergo the same4.

In the end, after the meal and after the emails, they both walked away with more understanding about the scientific process (generally speaking) and how to get more information about the science of food (specifically). They realized that reading from multiple sources is a pretty important thing to really get a handle on something you care so deeply about. And they both realized that it is both difficult and (but?) vital to do your damnedest to set aside your preconceptions if you’re going to learn more.

Bill and I, as Grant mentions in his post, walked away with more thoughts on food labeling. There’s probably a post coming on that. I, personally, walked away feeling I need to do some rereading and some more reading myself. Even as I was communicating to them that reading from multiple sources is a pretty important thing, I may not be doing enough myself. I had better get on that.

Ellen is way ahead of me right now. Her post has a lot of information on GMO salmon―information I haven’t before sought out, and haven’t yet had a chance to read. You can be assured, I’ll be doing so as I can.

Ellen and Grant both hit publish as I’m in a mad month of traveling, so I’m not entirely caught up on the PDFs they linked to or even the current comments.

For now, I want to commend Ellen and Grant for their undertaking. I especially want to commend them for working hard to start reading a lot and for working to set aside―or at least acknowledge―their biases and preconceived notions as they go. I appreciate that it isn’t easy―none of us can do it completely.

I also want to commend the folks who were at that first breakfast and kept on reaching out. That cannot have been easy, and I can’t see how this project would have existed without them.

For my part, I want to commit to thinking more, reading more, and sharing more about what I’m reading and learning. I have been toying with the idea of posting responses to and reviews of the complicated journal articles, science reporting and science blogs I’ve been reading, but this is unlikely to start until I’m done traveling and back home. I do think this will be valuable to me, and I hope to you all as well.

Finally, I want to invite my readers to follow Ellen and Grant on their journey and to join in the conversation on their blog. I may end up having a few more things come out from the meal (probably, I will have a post on labeling and who knows if there will be more), and I’d love your comments here, too.


fn1. Honestly? Probably most of my readers have witnessed me eating a Hostess Cupcake at some point.

fn2. Ask me sometime about the nightmare that was finding wedding catering. A number of people, seeing my stress and wanting to help reduce it, said one or both of “most of your guests won’t care” and “when it’s this big and this expensive, it’s okay to relax your standards.” I will never cease singing the praises of Slate Street Cafe’s catering for helping us stay true to our ideals, take care of the copious food allergies among our guest list, being reasonably priced and making the best damn wedding food I or a number of my guests had ever had.

fn3. For once, read the 152 comments on that post.

fn4. Both Ellen and Grant looked at this post before I posted it. Except for footnotes three and four, the post is unchanged.