Interview with Katherine Deumling
Katherine has an incredible perspective on prosperity, at both the society level and the individual level. Her work in the Slow Food movement focuses on ensuring that food is Good, Clean and Fair—that is, food that is delicious (Good), healthy for us and the environment (Clean) and equitable (Fair) both in terms of wages for producers and prices people can afford. Her work in her own business focuses on helping individuals discover that simple food, prepared well, can be delicious and satisfying to both body and soul. Cooking has never been my strong suit, so I was a bit skeptical when I prepared one of Katherine’s carrot salad recipes for dinner. My family devoured it—before they even touched the spaghetti. With such a delicious beginning, I was eager to discover more. This is Katherine's story...
I was raised in Germany (German father, American mother) and we lived pretty rurally. My mom had a giant garden. We raised sheep and made sheep cheese and grew up living on the land and doing things ourselves, even though we weren’t farmers, per se.
I started cooking early because my mother suffered from very bad migraines. She would disappear for four days at a time, so I cooked because we had to eat. Everyone really liked the fact that I cooked. So that affirmation and joy that comes from feeding people was how I began my journey in the kitchen.
Food and cooking is something I’ve always loved and enjoyed. After college, I spent a year in Italy and Mexico on a fellowship where I was studying gender roles and food. What were women doing and men, vis-à-vis food and cooking and gardening and all that went with it? What was being passed down to the younger generations? What was the Western influence? How much was tradition being held onto? How much was McDonaldization creeping in?
Slow Food Movement
Then I came back here to the States and discovered Slow Food. I went to an event here in Portland and had this moment of “Oh my God! This is my whole life! Packaged into a little organization in Portland!” So I started going to every event and very quickly got involved in the volunteer leadership here. Eventually I became the chair of the national board until last year. Slow Food USA has an office in New York and a professional staff and all that, but it was all volunteer, always.
Slow Food has shaped who I am and how I think about the world. The most compelling thing about Slow Food, to me, is its interdisciplinary nature. Slow Food isn’t just a gastronomic organization, it’s not an environmental organization, it’s not a health organization. It’s all of those things.
Slow Food started in Italy when Carlo Petrini and his compatriots initiated campaigns to increase the length of the lunch hour for farm workers (so they could actually eat) and to increase their salaries. It came from a place of “food is central” and access to good food is a right, not a privilege. Prosperity is having the time to live well. And living well does not mean having lots of money. Living well means being able to make the cheese your grandparents made, and that might still be relevant to that climate and culture. Living well means talking to people at length over a meal. These shouldn’t be considered pretentious, luxurious things. This is just living well.
Prosperity of Food
How does prosperity relate to food? It’s fundamental. There is no prosperity without food. We can’t live, we can’t thrive without food. It’s a right, not a privilege. It links us to everything around us: to the air and water and soil and animals and cultures and ways of preserving and making creative do with what we have. It’s the absolute foundation of life.
The name of my business is Cook With What You Have. That means scraping it together out of what is being offered: from my scrappy backyard, from my neighbor’s bay tree… from all the beauty of it. That’s part of the joy of my job and the privilege of working with food every day—it’s beautiful! It’s absolutely beautiful.
Prosperity in this thriving, rich sense is that it’s nourishing to the eye, to the body, to the soul. Cooking for oneself is fine—and I actually love cooking for myself—but cooking for and with others is a prosperous feeling. Then, to think that this is not accessible to many, many people, makes it all the more urgent.
We need to find ways to talk about good food that aren’t exclusive, that aren’t about fancy restaurant food. There’s so much joy in the simple things. Beans and greens are my favorite things in the world. They are inexpensive and available. But that’s not how we think about food. There are so many cultural norms and expectations and complicated notions we have developed that make people think they have to have a giant piece of meat on their plate to think of themselves as prospering. Or healthy or successful. We need to start talking about the simplicity of what can be nourishing.
I teach mostly in employee wellness programs. These are large groups of people, from all walks of life, who come for a variety of reasons. But the real common thread is that people feel like they don’t have time to cook, they don’t know how, or they feel stuck. The creativity they may apply to other parts of their lives does not in any way translate into “How do we feed our family?” So my contribution is very much working on all these levels. On the one hand, it’s providing good shortcuts and good ways to set yourself up for success. But I also want to start us talking about how can we make food and cooking a bigger part of our lives—not because it’s drudgery and we wish we didn’t have do it—but maybe it’s the best part of our lives.
Simplicity is key. I eat low on the food chain. I’m actually an omnivore, but I always have budgets driven by these companies. So there’s never meat in the classes I teach on a large scale, because it’s too expensive. That means finding creative ways to use meat as flavoring and cook with beans and greens and herbs and lots of whole, wonderful foods so they are delicious and satisfying and edible to all family members.
I also write recipes for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. From this, I have created a big website, a seasonal recipe collection online that anybody can subscribe to. All of that really is about supporting our farmers year round, eating locally year round. That means learning how to cook with rutabaga and turnips and bok choy and mustard greens and fava tops and all the things that grow in the winter. The land needs a variety of crops grown on it and the farmers need a variety of produce to sell. So it’s not all going to be the peas and carrots and broccoli that we’re used to. If we really want to think about what it means to eat what’s grown locally—how do we make that fun and delicious and accessible?
It’s such a privilege. Seeing people eat really simple foods that maybe they thought they didn’t like or didn’t even know grew in their backyard or could be grown for next to nothing. Or watching the big dudes at the large companies who drive their trucks to work, come and have a meal of three different substantial salads and go away thinking, “These are delicious! I’m going to go home and make these for my wife.” That’s pretty cool!
We don’t need a lot of money to eat well, but we do need time and a different outlook. And that’s really hard for many, many people. I don’t want to ever minimize how out of reach that is for many people. I don’t want to make it sound like anyone can do this and it’s easy and we should all be cooking differently. There’s so many challenges for people. Real, real challenges. It’s going to take a different kind of thinking about food.
Most Valuable Lesson
There is an odd equalizer, of sorts, in our culture. I actually teach the same thing to people who make $200,000 a year and those who make virtually nothing. So their resources are very different. But the needs across our society are very much the same, no matter the income level:
We don’t have enough time.
We assume that good food has to be fancy and complicated.
We assume we have to follow a recipe.
We lack the confidence or creativity to make it work for us.
Everybody wants to cook better for their family. Whether it’s the executives at high tech companies or the Head Start families I work with. Not everyone realizes how delicious vegetables can be, with the simplest preparations.
What is Your Biggest Hope for the World?
What I’ve learned from Slow Food is… Everybody loves food. Food is the ultimate bridge-builder. If you have some agency and control over your food, you’re going to be okay. A lot of people don’t. The dignity that comes with being able to feed yourself—wherever you fit in on that spectrum of production or consumption—is really important. And that can look different wherever you are.
My hope is that we—especially those who provide for us in terms of growing and producing and processing and getting food to the table—have dignity and agency and sovereignty and some control over how that is done. And how it relates to their culture and land and families and communities and people. Do I have land? Can I charge a fair price for what I’m growing? Can I get paid fairly? It’s all about human dignity. My hope is that this becomes instilled in the conversations we have and the decisions we make: Does this further the community’s dignity and sovereignty and health? This is what I want for the world.