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.