What Is Real Food?
Produce manager Heather Smith explores the nature of real food in conversation with local farmers
What is real food?
I walked around Purple Porch Co-op during a Wednesday market night recently and posed this question to customers, producers, and employees. The averaged response was something like this: “(Real Food is) food that is not processed”. This interpretation was not far off from what I had been thinking about that week, but I was hesitant to cling to such a limiting classification for such a complex concept. All food goes through a process — from a seed being sown, to a nourishing zucchini quiche from Café Max — and some food needs processing in order for it to be edible — for example the wild edible Poke Sallet, which requires a detoxification process of multiple stages of boiling and rinsing before consumption.
In early December 2017, Ben Hartman, farmer and owner of Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, IN and author of The Lean Farm, gave me sturdy advice: “Count your touches”. I was just beginning to learn how to run the Purple Porch’s produce department, finding my way on the other side of food-production, a retail setting, from where I had been before, a farm setting. His words have stuck with me and have altered my perspective on things like receiving orders to stocking produce and even how I have begun to think about and define “Real Food” for myself.
Real Food is food that is natural and cultivated in nature 🌽
I think that the definition of Real Food has something to do with a difficult, and perhaps even a moral, balance of human touches. And food touches begin right from the start: When I asked Chris Hebron, owner and farmer at Hebron Farms in Vandalia, MI, what real food meant to him, he said, “something that comes from the soil and you know how that soil is taken care of.” Touching our food increases from there: harvesting, possibly washing, thrushing grains, plucking poultry, packaging, delivering, receiving, stocking, purchasing, storing, prepping, cooking, and eating. Real Food is food that is natural and cultivated in nature. However, the entire system of food consumption is a big process of touch and manipulation.
I spoke to Joe Gady, of Farming for Life, about this challenge of defining Real Food. Joe ferments foods such as sauerkraut, beans, kimchi, pickles and other vegetables, and makes delicious bubbly batches of kombuchas and kvasses — all of which endure a process of sorts.
Yet his man-made manipulation of raw ingredients still does not involve anything more than natural reactions. There are many foods that I consider Real; Items like whole flours, cheeses, crunchy granolas, pasta, fermented foods cuts of meat, and so on. Joe suggested that “Real Food is that in which you can see and recognize the original and raw ingredients.” Even so, there exists Real Food in which the original ingredients cannot be immediately recognized; for example a smoky tempeh bacon from our cooler or an artfully presented gastronomic dish.
It is a truly arduous task to impose a definite classification for Real Food, but from my examination and conversations with local producers, I have landed on several respectable concepts that I would like to share:
- Real Food is food that has been grown in soil that is healthy and alive, that can supply its growing crops and livestock with the essential nutrients for strength and survival — which in turn gives consumers efficient and balanced fuel. It is minimal touches in the stage of cultivation and harvest.
- Real food is harnessing the processes inherent in nature.
- Real Food is the complex balance of human touch and transformation that sketches out a vast spectrum of foods for consumption; some foods being more Real or less Real than others.
- Real Food can be found at the Purple Porch Co-op and Café Max 🌱