Seasonal Eating, Celebrating Food, and Shifting Perspectives: A Conversation with Jennifer Piette from Out of the Box Collective

I was standing on the bend of the French Broad when I suddenly found myself in a conversation about food. Not an uncommon topic of conversation in my then home, Asheville, NC. This time was a bit different. This tale leaned more to the redemptive side than the puritanical, a change I was grateful for. As his retriever diligently swam to unrulier waters to fetch, while my Aussie-mix — more brains than brawn — stayed anxiously ashore, dancing, and waiting to wrestle him for his prize, I listened to one man's childhood story of Twinkies, lunch meats, and other foods with a shelf life longer than the people meant to consume them. His story went like all too many we've heard before, discovering as an adult, on his own, how to feed himself. The very basics of self-care. What stuck with me all these years was how he ended his story on a note that I still repeat when I don't feel like paying ten dollars for really raw honey: "Pay now or pay later." Sounds a bit like a threat, but I say it in a chipper tone to make myself feel better. That bit of knowledge has carried me quite a ways. My interview with Jennifer Piette was pretty reminiscent of this experience. It's a simple shift in lifestyle, but one that will pay you back later: Stop feeling bad and just pay for good food. 

Few things have been more inspiring — or educational — than talking to Jennifer about her passion project Out of the Box Collective, a curated food delivery service based out of and serving southern California. After meeting up for our Santa Barbara Farmer's Market expedition, I can say from first hand experience, Jennifer is connected to food, interested in the history of it, how it's made, and how the person responsible for it came to fall into such a position. I've read my fair share of books about "fixing" food, many of which leave me spinning with enthusiasm and quickly thereafter riddled with the guilt of wasted efforts and this, in Jennifer's opinion, is the problem. Not the books, definitely not the information, but guilt. Feeling negative emotions around food and a continuous loop of up and down, lacking celebration, ceremony, tradition, and possibly the most important facet around food: relationships.

Just the simple acknowledgment of this guilt was a relief with all the information and media around what I should've eaten today and the way I should just think about food as a part of life. Albeit a joyous and integrative part of life. It wasn't meant to be looked at as a problem; and come to think of it, food goes through a similar process as we do with the media. We're shown what it should look, taste, and be like. Possibly the most digressive aspect is being told what need it should fill. "Drink this shake for breakfast and lunch to boost your metabolism." I'll bet you didn't think there was anything wrong with your metabolism before reading that. This is the reconditioning that Jennifer hopes to facilitate, helping families get into the kitchen with food, having an experience, building traditions, and making food a source of joy and interest over a chore or an over-marketed health commodity.  

She takes a great interest as well as a few precautions, one of which, is becoming a certified B-Corp alongside other organizations leaving a positive mark on the world. Some of the more famous include Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's. When discussing her B-Corp status she mentioned a few points I hadn't previously considered around food and just how stuck it is. Our food is as oppressed as our health. She describes the choice to get this certification.  

"If we were to get investors it would protect my social and environmental vision. One of the greatest problems in America today is that corporations have a legal, fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders, often leading them to externalize costs to society."

This was one of the most hard-hitting points for me. The obligation of many producers, facilitators, and distributors is no longer to the land, or even to their craft, but to the people invested in them financially. I trust you can see how this might escalate quickly. In addition to social dedication, she works with some of the most dedicated artisans in their particular craft. For example, a chocolatier from Twenty-Four Blackbirds builds his own machines to process his chocolate. She is also working with a member of the Lindy and Grundy team --  the famed but now shuttered Los Angeles butcher, to develop a meat program that looks at the whole cycle -- from an animal's life on pasture, to the practices of the facility that processes it, to the art of how it is butchered.

There is an upside to all of this. A very simple, bright, attainable upside: building a food culture. Jennifer lights up when talking about food culture. Having lived abroad for two and half decades, leaving the states as a self described "kid", she came back as a mother of young children, accomplished writer, and activist. She wants Americans to experience food culture with their families to benefit not only their health, but their quality of life. 

"When I lived in France and Portugal, people cooked dinner and sat around the table. People cooked with their friends and spent time in the kitchen socially. There’s a culture of food. There’s a culture of seasonality. For example, in Portugal, when the fava beans come in season there are sausages that are made to go with the fava beans. Everyone knows how to cook this dish, and looks forward to it. To me, food is culture. In America, there is a loss of identity because so much of our food culture has been outsourced to restaurants and grocery stores. Our food culture becomes childhood memories of McDonalds. One of the very few connecting things that we have as a country in terms of food culture is Thanksgiving. It really is about families around the table together, sharing a meal, and being grateful for the bounty of the land."

I, for one, got very excited about the golden arches as a child. I'm not proud but it's true and with all of the information about the way these animals are processed and treated, hell, the way human animals are being treated, it's tough not to feel the guilt. Then there's this whole not knowing where to start.

"A lot of people understand the problem and are motivated to change the way they treat food. But when they sign up and a bunch of kale goes in the trash they feel shame. When something doesn't turn out right they become overwhelmed. We have to find ways of getting over these hurdles. We want to start a project about kitchen fails to celebrate them."

We, ourselves are our own hurdles. Personally, a lot of produce of mine does pass its prime, but I've found out as the owner of two dogs, they love mushy strawberries. Plus, they get the vitamin C, so it's a win-win. There are a few other things you can do as she mentions, "If you didn’t get a chance to cook the kale, don’t beat yourself up. Compost it. Give it to a friend who might enjoy it. It’s part of a process." I think that's the real kicker. We forget that our lives, we as people, are in a process. We are changing, our environment is changing and if we can just take it bit by bit, if we all did a little more each day, 1% more each day, teach someone else to cook, invited them over for dinner, we could invent a whole new food culture here in America. One founded around community and not industry. This is important especially when thinking of children needing to experience and be connected to food, much like they get to in other countries.

"Creating lasting food memories for young people is also a really big and rewarding goal for us. I know that my customers' children will grow up with food literacy. They will know when certain foods are in season because they'll associate cherries with the end of the school year or peaches with hot, summer days, they won't have to learn this. This knowledge has been taken away from us. When everything is year-round in the supermarket, you lose touch with seasonality, and you lose touch with culture."

I think we can all agree that starting at the mouths of babes (pun intended) is going to be the most effective way to heal food culture in America and also give parents the intrinsic reward of knowing even if they veer off path, they still have the skills they need to find their way back. Jennifer is aiming for a different set of kids too. The kind that are on the brink of adulthood and independence. In a Kitchen Takeover program they have launched, young people, high school and college ages, are encouraged to cook dinner once a week. That's it, just cook. 

"There is no value given to basic life skills. The Kitchen Takeover campaign is promoting and motivating youth to take back the kitchen. Start to cook with your friends or cook with your family. Why wouldn’t your chore be to cook dinner for your family once a week?"

This goal is also promoted by the famed Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, who Jennifer claims as one of many inspirations. He said, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism”—its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on—are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.” 

So, there you have it, an appeal for real food, loving people, and using your kitchen to socialize, all while doing your part to make the world a bit more sustainable, a bit more social, and a lot more integrated for future generations. When you get a chance make sure to check out Out of the Box Collective and all the gregarious folks they get to work with. Thank you for reading and I encourage you to advance your understanding with real hands on experience. It you mess it up, oh well. Dogs enjoy burnt beets, trust me.