The End of Food?

One reason Steven and I want to have a super duper kitchen--besides the fact that we are now fortysomethings and have earned it--is that there is so much good material available here. We've both posted before about what a great thing our local farmer's market is, and how it is full of healthful, locally-grown, carefully-grown, and nutritious stuff. Plus, having JingXia in our lives right now, considering her formidable instincts surrounding food, warrants a very good laboratory for food prep. We've been composting for quite a while now, and though we didn't have a huge garden last summer because of the move here, in summers past we have grown quite a lot of stuff in our Atlanta garden.

Anyhow, i read this really great essay in the Times Sunday Magazine called Unhappy Meals about how our food supply, eating habits, and hence health, have all become terribly debased in the past 50 years or so, mostly with the advent of Agribusiness, bad science, aka "nutritionism," and, of course, fast food. I've been reading this book about the slow food movement called The End of Food, and i'm what you'd call "ripe" for hearing the messages the book delivers. Has anyone read that, or The Omnivore's Dilemma, which the author of the aforelinked essay also wrote?

Here's a compelling quote from the essay. It's worth the read, if you are concerned about what you eat:

"No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?

In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant. Similarly, cow’s milk did not start out as a nutritious food for humans; in fact, it made them sick until humans who lived around cows evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. This development proved much to the advantage of both the milk drinkers and the cows."

1 comment:

Bruce said...

The Times essay is really very important. It does not, however, go far enough, since it concentrates primarily on the physical health factors in eating right.

I was raised in a European household where what you ate determined your degree of civilization. What you ate had a spiritual, even an ethical significance. Diet was, in fact, a major factor in preventing my parents' integration into American society. We had a large circle of American friends, but they always wound up coming to our house for dinner, instead of our going to theirs.

It wasn't just that my mother and both my grandmothers were good cooks. The selection, preparation and presentation of food was an act of love. The not only physically nourished their families; by giving them food, they confirmed their families'position as civilized men. In our house pre processed food or frozen food would have been looked upon as an act of hostility or at least an expression of indifference. Cause for divorce.

My parents weren't at all snobbish about food. Simple peasant dishes had as much a place at our table as elegant and complicated preparations. They were all prepared with care from "real," not preprocessed ingredients.

But this attention to eating right is dying in Europe, too. The author of the article idealizes the gastronomic situation outside of the US; as for the three European cultures I know well, Italy, France, and Austria, the article is still theoretically correct, but all three of these gastronomic cultures have suffered a serious decline in the last 50 years. Young Frenchmen, Italians, and Austrians have fallen prey to fast and processed food, perhaps not to the degree American have, but they're getting there. A friend of mine who has a fruit and vegetable market in Milan, for example, says that the average age of his clientele climbs every year. Young Milanese buy frozen stuff from the supermarket.

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