This weekend I took No Compromise Month to Phoenix, Arizona. The impetus for the trip was my grandmother. I love her dearly, and I decided it was time she met my boyfriend.
It was a short trip, timed to the long weekend. We stayed with my aunt and uncle, who are two of my favorite people on the planet. They’re kind, fun, smart … and couldn’t care less about organic food.
I know you have people in your life like this, who are wonderful people in every way. They believe in global warming, listen to the news, vote, donate to charity or volunteer, but this whole thing about farm-to-table food and non-toxic personal care products is just not their bag and there is nothing you can do to convince them it’s important. My aunt and uncle, for their part, have a hybrid Ford (to save money on gas), recycle so well that they won an award, and have cut their energy bill in half. The latter two eco-friendly accolades are a result of my uncle’s meticulous and gamified approach to eco-friendly incentives from the energy company and municipal recycling program. He’s an engineer, so when someone starts measuring his output, he gets serious about it. But food? “If it’s tasty, I eat it,” is my aunt’s motto. You do you, girlfriend.
Which is all to say: this trip would be challenging.
The first thing I did was offset my carbon emissions from the roundtrip flight for only $11.33. I packed a water bottle for the flight, plus a large handkerchief. But I didn’t plan enough. Since our flight was at 6:30 am, we decided to eat our breakfast in the terminal, without thinking about how wasteful it would inevitably be. I kept dragging my boyfriend up and down the terminal until we found a natural foods vendor in the back corner. I got a yogurt and granola parfait, ate it with my Unitensil, and then stashed the plastic cup for recycling later in my backpack.
Here’s something I’ve learned: if you have a bottle of water, it’s super easy to turn down the beverage cart on the airplane. If you think about it, it’s so annoying anyway: a tiny cup of soda which could tip over onto your lap at any moment. No thanks.
Our layover was at Dallas-Fort Worth. I looked up “healthy food” and got this helpful list from the official DFW website, which lists Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Chili’s, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Fuddrucker’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Popeye’s and Taco Bell. So basically, anything that you can put in your mouth counts as “healthy.” Welcome to Texas. We decided on Au Bon Pain, and because the menu states that their turkey is hormone-free, I went with a turkey wrap. I asked an employee about recycling. “If there is, I haven’t seen it,” she said. I decide that I am not carrying around my leftover food for composting for the next four days, and trash it.
Mexican for Miles
When we arrive, and my aunt and uncle pick us up, the first thing we do is get Tex Mex. While we are in Phoenix, we also get seafood Mexican, and Mexican-inspired fine dining. I have no problem with Mexican, especially since we are so close to the border. Chips and guac for miles! But none of these places source their ingredients with an eye toward sustainable agriculture. I even ask at the fine dining place. “Is your chicken organic, or hormone-free?” I ask the waiter. He says he doesn’t know. “Can you check?” I ask.
He comes back five minutes later. “No.”
I actually have to laugh at his response. It’s so final and unapologetic. The waiter and I kid around with each other for the rest of the meal about the fear I strike into his heart with my questions. My aunt tells him I have an eco-friendly blog, which I feel like diminishes my impact by labeling me and putting me in the “oh, she’s just my eco-friendly niece” box. My solution is to get ceviche and mashed sweet potato.
That’s my solution for the entire trip, which involves conventional food for every meal: just go pescatarian. I manage to make it tentatively clear, at least, that I would really rather not eat at the Texas steak restaurant, and my wishes are respected. But I am horrified to find myself walking out to the car with a styrofoam box of leftovers in my hands.
When the default is always unsustainable, it’s easy to feel like a whiny, attention-seeking, high-maintenance burden.
I can explain. There were leftovers at the seafood Mexican place, and they helpfully provided us with styrofoam boxes. (They may be banned in NYC, but they are alive and well in Arizona.) I don’t want to waste food, and what was I supposed to do when the styrofoam boxes arrive? I guess I could have told my family, “I’m sorry, but I refuse to touch those styrofoam containers.” Yes, I could have done that, but it just didn’t feel right. I was already far outside my comfort zone, trying to explain my philosophy on meat without sounding like an elitist, gently saying that I did not want to eat steak, even having to explain why on earth I would order my cocktails without a straw. I guess I could have asked if they had an alternative to styrofoam packaging, but my guess is that they don’t. Thinking back now, that would have been the best option. My new rule should be to always ask, even if you know the answer is “No.” You’re making it clear that you care.
Being the eco-friendly one gets tiring. Because you have to ask for alternatives for everything. It is a constant struggle to stay true to your morals, while still being likable and pleasant to be around. You’re always asking for people to accommodate your needs, to change their plans and do extra work so that you can be more eco-friendly. Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but when the default is always unsustainable, it’s easy to feel like a whiny, attention-seeking, high-maintenance burden.
There are bright eco-friendly spots, though, to this family weekend. We pluck oranges from the tree in the garden and make fresh-squeezed orange juice, which is amazing. And our activities (besides eating) are sustainably-focused.
We take a tour of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous winter home. Wright was a proponent of being one with nature, of integrating your home into the landscape, taking advantage of the breeze, the view and the sounds of nature, and placing the structure with the sun and the moon in mind. I had forgotten all of this, so it was refreshing to stumble into such a relevant tour. Hey, Wright may have been a jerk with a God complex, but at least he valued the inherent beauty of nature over manmade structures.
Nature is my manifestation of God.
I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work.
― Frank Lloyd Wright
While we waited for our tour to start, we sat at the outdoor café, soaking in the cool, desert sunshine. The iced drinks came in plastic cups, but the hot drinks came in paper cups, so I got a hot cactus blossom tea, and shared a vegan and gluten-free blueberry donut with my boyfriend. I have to ask the girl working at the café about recycling, though–the can is poorly labeled. After the tour, we looked through the gift shop, and I found a beautiful wooden paper tray modeled after one of his stained glass window designs. I asked a sales associate about it, and she proudly replied that it was made in America. Sold. I got a matching trivet, too.
On our final day, we went to the Desert Botanical Garden and spent a couple hours wandering the grounds, learning about native plants, animals, and people. As I tried pounding seed pods into a sweet flour, or examined a traditional structure made from plants, I kept thinking about how utterly f***ed I would be if I didn’t have a whole capitalist system around to provide me with food and shelter in exchange for money. It makes me sad that I don’t know what cactus to eat, or what trees indicate the presence of an aquifer.
I’m just a modern American, living the way I know how.
Unitensil reusable travel spoon/fork/knife.
Carbon Fund – offset your carbon emissions