Sunday, August 09, 2009

Musings on food

Earlier this week I was listening to an NPR program interviewing Michael Pollan (author of several books on food, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto). During the half-hour broadcast, Pollan discussed the phenomenon of Cooking as a Spectator Sport. As he noted in his recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, cooking shows are wildly popular, yet at the same Americans are spending less and less time cooking.

This reminded me of the discussion in my recent post about home birth including EnjoyBirth's Restaurant Wars analogy. Is it so preposterous that in the future, home cooking will be as quaint and antiquated and rare as home birth? Probably not to the same extent, yet American culture is moving further away from food as it exists in its original state. Meat comes shrink-wrapped in styrofoam trays. Milk comes from plastic bottles or stainless steel dispensing machines. You can buy aerosol cheese products that last indefinitely, macaroni & cheese mixes featuring a mysterious neon orange powder that claims to be 100& natural because it was, in the distant past, derived from a cow. Vegetables are disguised as much as possible in various processed food products, and marketed to both kids and parents for their invisibility. Look! Your kids won't even know there are vegetables in the sauce!

At the same time that many Americans subsist on a diet of foods far removed from the original plants, grains, nuts, or meats they began as, there are countercurrents that challenge this trend: community-supported agriculture, the Slow Food movement, organic agriculture, backyard gardens, raw foodism...Many of these foodways have their own demons to face. Organic agriculture can mean a small, sustainable farm growing vegetables for its CSA members--but it can also mean industrialized monoculture farms that ship their produce thousands of miles away to high-priced natural food stores that most normal people can't afford to shop at. Raw foodists advocate eating foods that have not been altered by heat, with the belief (gross oversimplification here) that heat destroys many of the important properties of food, rendering it less nutritious and therefore "dead." I've read quite a bit about the raw food movement and follow several blogs about it. I find myself fascinated and repelled at the same time. I am sure that eating more raw food would greatly benefit people's health. However, I'm not as convinced that it's the rawness per se that does it, rather than the fact that eating raw forces you to eat fresh, unprocessed, whole foods. And the whole side of raw food that preaches a strict binary of raw=good and cooked=bad really turns me off. Not to mention that going 100% raw is not a very ecologically friendly or sustainable way of eating--for much of the year, you have to consume large quantities of out-of-season produce shipped in from thousands of miles away. I've been musing about this a lot recently, since I've been trying to add more raw/fresh fruits and vegetables into my diet and thus have been browsing around raw food websites for recipes and ideas.

Which leads me to another point in my meandering train of thought: Americans are simultaneously obsessed with and terrified of their food. Fat is bad. Carbs are bad. Too much protein is bad. Cooked food is bad. Raw food is bad. Dairy is bad. Cholesterol is bad. Eating the wrong combination of food is bad. Calories are bad. It's always about the "bad" elements lurking in your food that must be avoided.

Except for this year, I have spent every summer for the past nine years in France, where the food and food culture can only be described as divine. I've had lengthy conversations with bus drivers and chauffeurs about the virtues of home-grown tomatoes. I've eaten everyday food at friends' houses that makes you think you've died and gone to heaven. Farmer's markets are everywhere, from the largest city to the smallest village, year-round. American supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to carbonated beverages and potato chips. French supermarkets have an aisle full of yogurt. Another entire aisle of just cheese, half of it raw, much of it from animals other than cows. Another of smoked/raw/cured meats and sausages. Yes, industrialized farming and fast food and processed foods (and the concurrent rise in obesity, especially among children) are becoming a problem in France. But still, food in France is something to look forward to, not something to be feared. It's a powerful social bond. For many families, the family dinner remains sacred. French people eat all sorts of "bad" foods that Americans would gasp at: heavy cream, chocolate, butter, cheese, raw meats and seafood, organ meats. And they enjoy them. What's the difference? They don't eat twelve eclairs in one sitting or sit on a couch munching mindlessly on foie gras. They eat a wide variety of foods: some cooked, some raw, some animal, some plant, some fatty, some lean. And they derive great pleasure from them.

Back to Michael Pollan: of all the philosophies about food, I find his eater's manifesto the most brilliant of all. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. It is simple and incredibly flexible, wide enough to encompass diverse foodways. It doesn't advocate any one way of eating as the only right/ethical/healthy approach to food.

For dinner tonight, we ate a simple meal. It was hot, 90+ degrees and extremely humid. We'd been outside in the back yard for several hours, and I wasn't in the mood for anything too heavy or elaborate. We prepared a simple salad of beet greens, mache, tomatoes, cucumbers, and hard boiled eggs (mostly from our garden or the farmer's market). I made a quick risotto with sauteed onions, saffron, jasmine rice, and parmesan cheese. Zari wolfed down her egg before we even had time to say the blessing on the food. She asked for "black sauce" (balsamic vinegar) for dipping her vegetables. She ate all of her rice and snitched some of mine. I hope to teach Zari to love her food--real food, not processed imitation junk--not to fear it. So far, I think we're on the right track.


  1. thank you for this post. I totally agree and couldn't have said it nearly as eloquently as you have.

    along with the "eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables" manifesto, I'd like to add "everything in moderation". to me, this sums up all that's wrong with American eating habits.

    that and the whole getting no exercise thing.

    again, thank you.

  2. Brilliant and very well-said. I completely agree and am trying to move my family in the same direction. Americans have some very sick relationships with their food! :)

  3. How did you make a quick risotto? My understanding is that risotto is, by definition, a slow-cooked dish. Was it more of a wet pilaf? (Not trying to nitpick - just hoping to learn. If there is a quick way to make risotto I'm all for it!

  4. Farmer's markets are popping up all over the place in my area. So now I refuse to eat tomato from the grocery store. Just not as good. Bought green beans at a road side stand yesterday. Today is green beans with meat loaf...

    Yes, fresh is better.

  5. yeah, it was more of a pilaf I suppose...

  6. yes, yes, yes and yes! Rixa you are always so timely with your posts. Michael Pollan's manifesto is brilliant and user friendly!
    Just the other day I was lectured at by a raw foodie that I was getting heart burn from cucumbers not because of my growing baby inside, but because of all of the heavy (ie cooked) fiber I was eating. I wanted to strangle him for making me feel bad about nutrition and at the same time asserting his "this food is bad, this food is deadly" paranoia on me. I am all for moderation of food - and believe in eating fresh and local, but the extreme eating (both healthy and unhealthy) makes me uncomfortable.

  7. The meal you had for dinner does not sound heavy, but it does sound elaborate! Honestly, it makes me feel like throwing up my hands and driving to the nearest Taco Bell when I hear of a meal like that described as nothing much.

  8. Well, the salad was already made from lunchtime, so all I had to do was chop and sautee an onion, then add the rice, water, and saffron and let it cook. Not too much work, really.

  9. Jessica, how awful for that person to make you feel bad. I heard a story on NPR recently about the nutrients in vegetables and one nutritionists conclusion was for people not to get too hung up on how the veggies they eat are prepared. The important thing is just to eat them, and if they are prepared in a way you like them, then you will eat more.

  10. YES!!!
    a lot of my time is spent thinking about food and nutrition because it is one of the things i love in life! i love fresh food!
    we are locavores for the most part. we belong to 3 farms- dairy (milk and butter), produce, and meat. i would say the majority of our food is consumed raw, but there is a large amount that is just eaten as close to nature as intended. but cooked none the less. my daughter is 5 and the first couple of years of her life were spent as a vegetarian and coupled with very strict eating rules. and she became fearful. of chemicals. preservatives, etc. now we try to eat free-er, and SHE notices that food from the farms is superior to other types.

    people ask me all the time..."what DO you eat?" and i answer "FOOD!".

    are you familiar with the weston a. price foundation? i think you'd like what you'd see there.

  11. I agree, but I think this is a really hard topic to come to grips with for a lot of people, myself included. I agree, completely, with Pollan, and if you've read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I agree with a lot of what she says there, too. But there's a big difference between transforming your food life in every meal, every day, and deciding to homebirth. I mean, for me, it was psychologically easy to come around to homebirth, and then make that one call when the time came. But with food, for me it has been very hard to change the eating habits I've inherited from my family (not all bad, but not all good). It takes a lot of thought and practice and attention to buy the right things, use them appropriately and healthily, come up with lots of ideas for food, prepare meals every evening -- especially when you're not in the habit of doing so. The meal you made was simple to prepare, but you had to think ahead to have those ingredients, and know how to "throw them together" in a way that would result in something tasty. I don't know if I'd ever think of eating hard-boiled egg for dinner, and I would need a recipe for pilaf. For me, that meal would take a lot of careful consideration in advance. After doing it several times, I might be able to throw it together... but that's just one new meal, for one very specific season.

    I think it takes tremendous daily commitment to change your food life. It's something I struggle with constantly, even as I feel more and more conviction that we need to change the way we eat so our children can benefit from truly good food.

  12. What magnificient timing for this post! I'm ready to get back to eating healthier. I've reverted back to my equivalent of convenience foods (much healthier than the usual S.A.D. diet, but not very good for me), and I can feel the difference. I think I'll incorporate his mantra as my own. By the way, your dinner last night sounds absolutely heavenly.

  13. @ Jessica,

    It is an old wives' tale which has been proven to have some validity that the more heartburn a woman has during pregnancy, the more hair her baby will have when born. Of course, it's not a perfect correlation, but it did have some merit. The scientists expected to prove the tale false, and instead are left scratching their heads as to how and why it happens.


  14. I think that basic kitchen skills are the reason why some people find it too much effort/depressing to cook at home a lot. I've been trying to improve my cutting and chopping to be faster and more efficient. Also, I've been trying to read about the basic do's and don'ts for preparing different foods. If it takes an eon to prepare ingredients and you cook using too high heat or some other mistake and the food doesn't turn out, you lose your self-esteem in the kitchen.

    When we were just two, I often wished that my husband would help me prepare a meal - we could catch up on the day and have a glass of wine while cooking - more enjoyable than me cooking alone and him watching tv. :( Now we've got a toddler running around anyway, so he needs entertaining while someone cooks.

  15. @ B --

    It's amazing what a good set of knives will do for cutting and chopping better & faster. I found a set of the Rachael Ray knives at a "Tuesday Morning" store for about half the price (which was still $60), and my husband got them for me for Christmas, and they are incredible! At the very least, sharpen, sharpen, sharpen your current knives.


  16. I remember years ago going out for a hamburger with a guy friend. He said he always liked eating out with me because I actually ate food, LOL.
    We eat dinner together every night, usually simple, easy food, but my kids don't like to be adventerous :( My 11 year old niece is visiting right now and while I wasn't surprised she didn't know what a mango was, I was stunned that she had never ate a peach--which are grown here in our province!
    I know there is a growing movement for the 100 mile diet, but that would eliminate chocolate and beer, LOL!
    We've always had farmers' markets here, however, they are NOT always a local source for food--some of the farmers come from as much as two hours away! And, food from THEIR region can be bought in the stores already.
    ANother thing---home economics is lacking in schools now. Kids (in our province) learn some nutrition (but in grade 3, it wasn't enough for life long learning), but not much on food preparation anymore.

  17. nice post rixa. the way we asa society view food has great bearing on how we live as a society. food is integral. Its really sad that so much food knowledge has slipped a generation adn the only place we really get education about it is in the home and without it it is for some an uphill battle to learn as an adult how to 'cook', not just throw stuuf together, but to cook.

  18. Thanks for this excellent post! I'm an American living in Europe (not France), and I'm always shocked when I visit the US and step into a grocery store. These stores are HUGE and yet it's nearly impossible to find actual food. Fortunately my parents now live in Austin, which has the original Whole Foods and the jaw-dropping Central Market.

    There's a book by Nina Planck that came out this year you and your readers might be interested to know about - Real Food for Mother And Baby: The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby's First Foods. She's rather anti-vegetarian and especially anti-vegan, which bothers me, but she's still pro-vegetable. Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater by Matthew Amster-Burton is also a good read.

  19. Rixa,
    I mostly read your blog for birth stuff but today I was really glad to be pointed in the direction of the Pollan article which I had somehow missed.

    Cooking and eating are about as near and dear to my heart as birth issues.

    Nice to read of your summer dinner (mine are much the same) and of your daughter's enjoyment of it. Balsamic vinegar is one of our favorite condiments, and is often requested by my 3 and 5 year old.

  20. Hi! You don't know me, but I believe we have a mutual friend who linked me to a post of yours from quite awhile back (Julia?). Since then, I've read your blog occasionally. I want to tell you that I totally agree with your take on the raw food idea. I have been reading up about it and I feel much the same. Rather than adopt a raw food diet, I've been feeding my family more whole foods - in season!
    The thing about kids is that I believe that they could and should like *most* vegetables as long as they are always exposed to them. All my children (I have five) have been good vegetable eaters and I think it's from the constant exposure to the GOOD vegetables - not canned!

    I enjoy your posts. They are well thought out and interesting to read.

  21. What a fabulous post. Our family returned from our year-long sojourn in Lyon about six weeks ago, and I'm definitely missing the French food mentality of all-things-wonderful-in-moderation (not to mention the mache and the markets). You've given me inspiration to work a little harder at incorporating mor good veggies into mine and my kid's diet during this last month of pregnancy. With my hubby out of town, I've grown a little lazy, but the effort's worth it.

  22. LOOOOOOOVE this post. Love it.

    "Which leads me to another point in my meandering train of thought: Americans are simultaneously obsessed with and terrified of their food. Fat is bad. Carbs are bad. Too much protein is bad. Cooked food is bad. Raw food is bad. Dairy is bad. Cholesterol is bad. Eating the wrong combination of food is bad. Calories are bad. It's always about the "bad" elements lurking in your food that must be avoided."

    As a Registered Dietitian I wish I could just shout this from the rooftops!!!!! It's soo annoying for me when people are focused on good/bad and food judgements, etc. "Is this good for me?" "That food is bad". ETC.


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