I’m Megan—food writer and unprocessed eater. I’m the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine serving Tucson and the borderlands, and author of Unprocessed, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2015. Three years ago, I decided to stop eating processed food and spend money better. Stay tuned for tips & tricks and advice & adventures about unprocessed eating and living.
A review of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography by Kayann Short for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments.
I always believed that I was lucky to be raised without weather. I grew up in the mountains above Los Angeles where it was either sunny and warm or sunny and cold and sometimes it rained. We played basketball outside on Thanksgiving and camped on the beach for Christmas; when it did rain, traffic accidents piled up on the freeways because no one remembered to slow down to accommodate the weather. I was, of course, living in the ignorant bliss of the urbanite. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, Kayaan Short sets us firmly in a world where the whims of weather matter. Short co-owns and operates Stonebridge Farm, an organic, community-supported agriculture farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A Bushel’s Worth is the memoir of this place—it is as much Short’s story as it is the story of a community, of a piece of land that’s been farmed continuously for more than a hundred years.
I have a complicated relationship with bread. Or rather, I have a totally simple one. I love bread but bread does not love me back. I love bread but bread leaves me wanting more, leaves me hungry, unfulfilled, needy. A freshly baked loaf of bread smells intoxicating and so I eat it like I’m intoxicated (in great quantities).
So—I don’t often make bread at home. Although I go through bouts of bread baking, usually, my bread comes pre-sliced and in a crinkly plastic package. When buying bread, I always look for products made from sprouted grains. A grain is, of course, a seed, so its sprout is an attempt to form a new plant; this attempt breaks down long starch molecules and growth inhibitors, making the graim—and thus, its vitamins and minerals—easier for your body to digest. Fermenting grains into sourdough has nearly the same effect, so whole grain sourdough breads are a good choice, although harder to find.
This article was published in the Sunday, June 22 Op-ed section of the Arizona Daily Star.
Lorien Tersey is a rare Tucsonan who tends chickens legally. She and her husband live on an acre plot tucked near North Country Club Road and East Glenn Street, so she can easily comply with the current zoning regulations that mandate all chicken coops be set back 50 feet from property lines.
Most people who tend chickens in Tucson don’t have this luxury of space. If your chicken coop is within 20 or 30 feet of your property line, it doesn’t matter how many chickens you have — they’re all illegal under Tucson’s current zoning code.
The city is trying to fix that. A proposed update to the urban agriculture zoning code would codify much of what is already happening in backyards and community gardens across the city.
“The zoning code related to agriculture is of a different era,” says Jim Mazzocco, the planning administrator for Tucson’s Planning and Development Services Department. An era when commercial agriculture reigned, when there would be no reason for residents to produce their own food.
“No one was thinking that there would be this integration of urban areas with agriculture as some part of them,” says Mazzocco.
At Mexico In Season, a Chipotle-style restaurant in South Tucson, when you order a burrito, your tortilla comes reinforced—before carne asada or frijoles negros, your large, stretchy tortilla is reinforced with a smaller, stiffer whole wheat tortilla. (You know, to maintain burrito integrity). At Taqueria Pico de Gallo, the corn tortillas are so thick and filling that two of them filled with nopales or carnitas are enough to send you leaning back after dinner, too full for dessert. At Boca Tacos on Speedway, your carne asada arrives cupped in tiny tortillas—small as a palm and cheap enough to order a handful without breaking $10.
In Tucson, the tortilla reigns supreme. And every tortilla is different—thick and moist; thin and dry; large and stretchy; stiff and flakey. It is one benefit of living 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border—the diversity of tortillas you encounter when eating out. While many local tortilla makers have managed to get their products stocked in local markets, it’s a whole different endeavor to find an unprocessed tortilla sold in the store. Tortillas are intended to be eaten fresh, moments after their making, which is why so many store-bought tortillas contain ingredients added to “maintain freshness.” As tortillas age, they also harden, which is partly why you’ll see so many vegetable gums added to tortillas stacked in a baggy–to keep them pliable and bendy by the time they make it home to you.
It is officially gazpacho season. It’s not yet gazpacho season when you get your first summer tomato, but it is when you get another six after that — tomatoes so ripe, so juicy, so sweetnow, that you have to capture their flavors immediately. For me, the capture of summer’s bounty comes in the form of gazpacho.
In Tucson, the season of gazpacho begins when it hits 100; when it hits 100, I stop checking the weather — it is just hot — and start making gazpacho. It wasn’t until my second summer in Tucson that I tried making this cold tomato soup sourced from the plains of southern Spain, where the summer heat rivals even Tucson’s.
I’d been hesitant about gapzacho. Cold tomato soup? No thanks, I’d rather have a salad. But good gazpacho is so much better than a salad. For one, it’s like a salad in a blender — no chopping required! (Or, at least, very little, and with minimal consequence, as the blender corrects any errors.) And, unlike a salad, gazpacho elevates its ingredients through combination. A juicy tomato combines with a crisp bell pepper; an onion integrates with olive oil. Keep in mind you don’t want to create a tomato smoothie — you want to pulse your blender until the ingredients are integrated but still chunky.
I stumbled across this lovely little tale in an article about french toast in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing that you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
If there is a way to express how I see the world, it would be this one. I believe in breakfast.
I still can’t believe how much Swiss chard burst forth from the seeds I planted all those months ago. It is magic; it is amazing. But, after two months of continuous bounty, it is also very much a lot of Swiss chard.
I’d been experimenting all week with tostadas—which, in my mind, is anything baked on top of a tortilla. On Monday, I made tostadas de nopales from the prickly pear pads that had come in my CSA share—a delightful reminder of the desert’s natural bounty. Two corn tortillas (Ezikel Sprouted Corn); a swash of enchilada sauce (homemade); a scoop of black beans (organic, from a can); diced nopal pads, plus garlic, salt and pepper, and a hearty sprinkle of mozzarella. Thirty minutes in a hot oven and the tortilla became crispy, the perfect plate for the melty beans and gooey veggies.
Last week, I accepted an offer from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, to publish my book, Unprocessed.
Here’s the announcement from Publishers Marketplace:
Founding editor of Edible Baja Arizona Megan Kimble’s UNPROCESSED: My Busy, Broke, City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food, the story of her year-long journey of eating only whole, unprocessed foods, intertwined with a journalistic exploration of what “unprocessed” really means, why it matters, and how to afford it, to Trish Daly at William Morrow by Mackenzie Brady at Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency (World).
Yup. That happened.
This article was published in the Sunday, April 13 Op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times.
The chickens are out of feed. Before they can make a dash through the coop’s open door, I hoist the round metal feeder from its hook and squat-walk backward until I can stand straight again. I turn my back on the flock, fill the feeder and crouch back into the coop.
I am one-twelfth of the Chicken Tenders, a Tucson chicken-tending attempt at collective urban homesteading. Months before, we’d each contributed $90 to cover the costs of building three backyard coops at three host homes, bought chicks from a local farmer, weeded out the males as their maleness became apparent and set a rotating tending schedule: Once a week, each of us would visit one of the houses, refill feed and water, tidy the coop and go home with a carton of fresh eggs.
I joined the Chicken Tenders because I like eggs and knowing where they come from. I’d failed to consider the possibility that I might not like chickens. That, in fact, chickens kind of freak me out, with their feathers fluffing and souls a-strut. When I reveal this to my sister, she asks, “Then why did you join a chicken cooperative?”
Are you feeling a little shaken after learning what’s really in salad dressing? Did seeing what’s really in marinara sauce stir your pot? Yeah—me too. But never fear—dressings are sauces are easily replicated at home. In fact, they’re one of the best places to start eating unprocessed, simply because they’re so easy to make and such a huge improvement over what you can buy in the store, both in terms of taste and chemical-free quality.
I have a friend who says, “Food is just a way for the sauce.” Chips are just the way to the salsa, lettuce, a receptacle for dressing, and pasta, a means for marinara. While it might be true that good sauce often masks crummy food, it’s also true that great sauce can transform and unite good ingredients. My love for sauce—for dressings and condiments—is why I spend the extra $2 to buy artisan mustard at the Co-op; why I buy balsamic vinegar so well aged it becomes viscous and sticky.
Sauces and dressings are also swimming with surprise processes. High fructose corn syrup in mustard? You bet. Sugar in savory marinara sauce? Almost every time. Modified food starch in salad dressing? What do you think makes it so clingy?
Sugar is the number one processed culprit in sauces and dressings; you’ll often find it in sauces you wouldn’t think to be sweet (or want to be sweet), but it’s there nonetheless, hiding in wait to trick your tastebuds into delicious submission. Thickening agents, like guar or xanthan gum, follow quickly behind. In fact, almost all of the two dozen dressings and sauces I looked at—which ranged from ranch dressing to marinara sauce to mayo and mustard—contained some sort of gum.
This article appeared in the March/April issue of Edible Baja Arizona.
The food pantry at the Community Food Bank is surprisingly quiet. It’s quiet like a warehouse is quiet—not soundless, just diffuse. The line is full—40 or 50 people wait, muted, for their turn at the front. A blond teenage boy, headphones thrumming. A middle-aged Hispanic woman, a curly-haired toddler rocking on her hip. A white-haired man, leaning over a walker. It might take 20 minutes to get to the front of the line; it might take two hours. Either way, at the end of this wait, there is a box of food.
It’s not a lot of food—a jar of peanut butter, three cans of vegetables, a bag of rice, maybe a box of cereal. Depending on the day, the box might contain a watermelon, a bag of salad greens, or a handful of tomatoes. But for the 1.2 million Arizonans that struggle to get enough food to feed themselves and their families, it is a lifeline.
“It’s huge and incomprehensible to put a face and voice to hunger,” says Michael McDonald, the CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. “Hunger is broad, diverse, and, unfortunately, it’s deep.”
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. When I go to bed at night, I know what I’m having for breakfast the next day (and I might be looking forward to it already). These days, my favorite breakfasts rotate between thick, Greek Yogurt-filled smoothies, almond butter on toast, and chia seed pudding. Five years ago, my favorite morning meals rotated between chocolate croissants, Kashi GoLean Crunch, and almond butter on toast (I like almond butter).
For me, breakfast is a good time to quell my sweet tooth with natural sugars, which is one reason I almost always start my day with fruit. Evidently, I am not the only one with a sweet tooth that roars in the morning. Breakfast foods are chocker block full of added sugars, from brown rice syrup to Sucralose, maltodextrin to high fructose corn syrup. This annoys me to no end, mostly because these sugary foods are wrapped in healthy seeming packaging. If I wanted to eat nothing but flour and sugar for breakfast, I’d just have a pancake, thanks.
When shopping for breakfast foods, the first thing to watch out for are added sugars. Buy unsweetened foods and add the sweetness in yourself—I slather my Greek yogurt in honey, but I know I’m consuming less sugar (and chemicals) than if I were eating honey-flavored Greek yogurt. Fiber and protein will help keep you full until lunch, both of which are found in fresh fruits and whole grains, but not in fruit-flavored foods and ultra-processed corn or wheat.
Yesterday, I was at the YMCA, struggling through my crunches on a floor mat, when I overhead the following conversation between a woman, still in her work clothes, and a man, who had just stepped off the treadmill. Having arrived to my floor mat midway through their conversation, I never learned how they were acquainted, although they’d clearly made it to the neurosis-sharing stage of any relationship.
“I didn’t even want the red vines,” she said. “I don’t like red vines.”
“Well,” he said, “Why’d you eat them?”
In the 90 years between 1917, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released their list of Food Rules and 2009, when Michael Pollan published his own set of Food Rules, food went wonky. Food now comes from somewhere else—somewhere far away—yet, mysteriously, it is always around. Food is not scarce, not to be cared for and conserved. It is, rather, to be consumed, quickly—thoughtlessly, and tossed when it is no longer perfect. Today, foods are cobbled together, ingredients assembled in a plant rather than foods grown from one.
One of the hardest parts of unprocessed eating is unprocessed living—that is, eating unprocessed even when life throws you a processed curveball. Life is messy, unexpected, and complicated. When you leave the comforts of home—as most of us do all day, every day—you leave behind the processes you’ve undone in your kitchen and enter into a world that is most decidedly processed.
The food you find in life’s in-between places is often not the kind of food that make you go, “Oooo!” At gas stations or in vending machines; at work, in hotels and airports—the foods you find are not only not fresh, they’re usually packaged with enough preservatives to endure a long (or very long) wait on some shelf until you, hungry wayfarer, come to rescue them.
I remember when learned that wheat flour comes from a wheat berry—when I learned the source of floating flour was a hard kernel, hidden below a spiky petal of fiber. It was a moment of striking clarity—it almost had a sound, a satisfying zing, finally understanding how this becomes that. (Sometimes the simplest revelations can be the most enduring.) I first made flour because I wanted to feel, for myself, that transformative zing. I wanted to know if it was possible, on my own, to process descrete kernels into the soft dust that floated through my kitchen and settled on my eyebrows.
A stalk of wheat looked like a matted feather duster, like a skinny girl hanging upside down on a jungle gym. Nestled at scalp of this wild splay of hair are wheat berries, the seed of the stalk, the source of our food. Flour is simply that kernel, all ground up.
I’m feeling pretty heady on the heels my first garden harvest. Today, I weeded, turned soil, planted one tomato start, and then, with a deep breath, started snipping. When I arrived home with two whole bundles of rainbow chard, buoyed by my improbably bounty, I thought: This deserves documentation. In a reckless burst of chard-confidence, I thought about writing a blog, befitting my how-to series, titled: How to grow a garden.
Indeed, I typed those words. I hit return. And then, as I sat and stared a blank screen, I realized: I don’t know how to grow a garden. In fact, I realized, I’d be better off writing about how to not grow a garden.
This article appeared in the January issue of Edible Baja Arizona.
No words are exchanged. A man nods, the gate lifts, and your car noses into another country. Easy, immediate, like it could be an accident—follow the road, follow the route, follow the sign to Frontera and suddenly: Mexico. Tiendas, taquerias, and mercados—El Super Que Queries!—suddenly, the world speaks to you in Spanish. It’s another dozen miles before you’ll get your passports stamped; stay in the car, shift into this new traffic tempo, and continue straight through the crowded border city, one half of Ambos Nogales, and onto the open road—already you are wished a Feliz Viaje. (If you drive past the passport control exit, intoxicated by the green landscape and the smooth freeway, a very nice man in a blue uniform will let you make an embarrassed U-turn.)
After your passport has been stamped, the road relaxes and unwinds, and so can you. You’re here because you can be—because Magdalena, Sonora, is only 10 miles farther from Tucson than Phoenix is. But when you head south instead of north, those extra 10 miles buy you access not only to a new landscape and culture, but also a new cuisine, one that’s thrillingly accessible, literally on the side of the road you’ll drive in on.
The first time I tried to make yogurt at home, I assumed, as a matter of course, that it wouldn’t work. Milk is just so darn liquid—it’s hard to imagine that with a bit of heat and time, you might make a creamy, thick solid, something to hold up your fruit or embrace your granola.
There are as many ways to make yogurt as there are to eat it (that is, a lot). Some require thermometers and a fair amount of attention; you can buy yogurt-making devices or use a crockpot. My yogurt-making philosophy tends toward the laissez-faire. After all, it’s really bacteria doing all the work; my job is simply to warm them up and get out of the way.
This article appeared in the January issue of Edible Baja Arizona.
Around the hostess stand, behind the open-face prep line—a glimpse of cured olives, bright red bell peppers, and cilantro pesto—past the glowing orange heat of a broad wood-fired oven, Kevin Fink is butchering a pig. This pig arrived frozen—Fink usually gets them fresh from a farmer in Aguila, outside of Phoenix—so he’ll get it down to its primal cuts and wait to smoke and cure the meat tomorrow. “Look at that,” he says, patting a cross section of pork shoulder with a glove-adorned hand. “That’s going to be delicious.”
The director of operations at Zona 78 will have to wait three months to find out just how delicious it’s going to be, as cured meats like this coppa are cooked by time and fermentation rather than the quickness of heat. In late October, Zona 78 became the first restaurant in Pima County—and maybe Arizona—to legally be able to serve cured and dry-aged meats made in house—in kitchen, that is.
This article appeared in the January issue of Edible Baja Arizona.
In September, when Leo Dunaetz of Big D Farm turned 88, many farmers’ market customers congratulated him. He’d have none of it. “I said, well it’s not near as great as 99. Question is, will I be here at 99?”
Dunaetz plans to be—and if he is, he’ll be farming. “My basic thing in life is to provide, as long as I can, really good tasting stuff to the people of this Tucson area,” he says. “They need it. There are a lot people who can’t afford to pay five dollars a pop for a regular tomato, no matter how good it tastes. And ours do taste excellent, by the way.”
I was lucky. When I moved to Tucson, I typed “Tucson CSA” into a Google search bar and found the amazing (and conveniently named) Tucson CSA. With a click and a credit card, I was joined. Three years later, I’m still joined.
Community Supported Agriculture programs are as varied as the produce they offer, but the basic model involves a consumer making an investment upfront in exchange for produce later—a sort of subscription to a farm’s harvest. Some CSA models ask members to pay upfront for the entire season. At the Tucson CSA, which runs year round, I pay $120 every six weeks for my membership—which comes out to a mere $20 per week, a sum that buys me more than enough produce for a week’s worth of meals (which are, more often than not, vegetarian).
Often, when I tell people that I eat unprocessed, the first question they ask is: What makes a food processed? To which I say: right. Luckily, if you live in southern Arizona, you can come hear me wrestle with this very question this Saturday, January 18! Come to the Food Conspiracy Co-op at 10 a.m. to learn what makes food processed, why it matters, and how you, too, can go unprocessed. Space is limited; RSVP by emailing email@example.com.
Don’t forget to tweet #unprocessed @megankimble or post on Facebook.com/meganekimble with your favorite unprocessed tip, product, or brand and be entered to win a $20 gift card to the Food Conspiracy Co-op!
This article was featured in the Jan/Feb issue of the Food Conspiracy Co-op’s newsletter, Community News.
A little over two years ago, I set myself a challenge. I would go an entire year without eating a processed food. The first question you might ask—besides “But why?” (and I’ll get to that)—is “What makes a food processed?”
Cooking is a process, as is dicing, heating, fermenting, and preserving; indeed, all foods are processed and often they are the better for it. But increasingly, they are not; today, what we refer to when we speak of processed foods are foods that have been manipulated and molded beyond recognition. For the purposes of my year, a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my own kitchen. I ground wheat berries into flour but couldn’t sift out the endosperm—no refined flours. I helped a beekeeper gather honey and used my food processor to grind nuts into butter, but I didn’t refine sugar, stock up on chemicals, or mix emulsifiers.
Rule of thumb: Whole milk, but less of it.
When I started eating unprocessed, when I was up to my eyeballs trying to understand refined sugar, chemically-tainted wheat, and pesticide-laden produce, I looked at cow-adorned cardboard cartons and thought: Milk is unprocessed. I couldn’t tackle everything at once, so I deferred to the labels that now define dairy: Organic, hormone-free, grassfed. If my milk was modified by the correct words then, I decided, milk was unprocessed.
When my sister and I were young, my mom instituted a rule called One Sweet A Day. One serving of one sweet per one day—no more. A Coke at lunch? That’s it. Gummy worms at the movies? One sweet. The rule seemed inviolable, as inevitable as gravity, entrenched as the strongest social codes. When I’ve since asked my mom about this rule—where had she discovered this ingenious invention?—she laughed and said, “I have no idea. I think I made it up. You two were such sugar monsters.”
Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, instead of meeting friends for coffee, we’d meet for fro yo. Self-serve frozen yogurt stores were had popping up like Starbucks—especially in the sunny, summerland of California. (Although it was in Little Rock, Arkansas that TCBY opened their first store, in 1981.) Frozen yogurt promises dessert without the consequence. Sweetness for only 25 calories an ounce! Peanut butter flavor without the peanut butter fat! If you’ve never been to a self-served frozen yogurt establishment, then you might not understand the cornucopia of sweetness available at the push of a lever. Pumpkin spice in October, gingerbread in November, peppermint in December. A dieter’s delight.
Rule of thumb: Read the ingredient label.
My first foray into unprocessed food occurred in the aisles of Trader Joe’s. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I had an hour before I needed to be somewhere—plenty of time, I’d thought. I grabbed a cart, walked in the door, and made it ten steps before I was stopped and stumped by a bag of tortillas.
On a cold Tuesday in November—the first cold snap we’d had in Tucson this winter, with hard freezes promised throughout southern Arizona—I left work in early evening darkness and biked to a conference room in a nondescript building just off Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue. I wasn’t going to go—it’d been a long day. But I’d already said that I would, that I’d join farmers and food activists to contribute comments to the FDA’s proposed amendments to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
A stalk of wheat looks like a matted feather duster, like a skinny girl hanging upside down on a jungle gym. Nestled at scalp of this wild splay of hair are wheat berries, the seed of the stalk, the source of our food. Grind these wheat berries into flour—between a rock and a hard place or in the grinding gears of a grain mill—and you have whole grain flour.
Hello, blog! A little over two years ago, I set myself a challenge: I’d go an entire year without eating a processed food. Over the course of that year, as I explored our food system and how we processed food from land, I milled wheat, extracted salt from the sea, tempered chocolate, ate produce fresh off a semi truck at the U.S.-Mexico border, milked a goat, and slaughtered a sheep—all while earning an income that falls well below the federal poverty line.
This blog is a place for that exploration to continue. It is a place for humor and adventure, for travel and domesticity, but above all, it is a place for beginners. On the cusp of my food year, I’d never baked a loaf of bread. Never brewed alcohol, made cheese, or tended a garden. I loved food, of course, and so I liked to cook. But if the philosophy of my kitchen is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” then the ethos of my unprocessed project might be, “Let’s see what happens.”