I was standing in the kitchen processing meat in bulk, and mulling over shopping, the budget, and how we eat. I find something very satisfying in preparing food for my family, whether it is butchering down a big cut of cheap meat into meal-sized portions, which saves us on the food bill, or making a batch of chocolate chip cookies that don’t even last 24 hours. I was raised cooking from scratch, gardening, wildcrafting to supplement, hunting, fishing… those last were never for sport, they were for subsistence. We needed the meat, and we worked hard to bring it in.
I look around me and see a culture that is increasingly guilty over their food. Whether they don’t want to eat ‘unhealthy’ or they don’t want to eat meat, or they are worried over pesticides and contaminants, the relationship between table and brain is a complex one. The result of that is an unhealthy population, but not always for the trite reasons that the media latches onto. Food isn’t an addiction we can quit. We have to eat, it’s unavoidable. As a cook, I think that food should be joyful, abundant, and above all: not a guilty pleasure.
Organic foods are more and more common. I saw a conversation about how to control your food budget, while still eating organic, in a forum I belong to that advises families who are trying to cut back and live on less. I bit my tongue. Now, I’m letting go (because ouch, that hurts if you do it for too long) and stating my piece. Organic is a marketing ploy. That’s it, no more, no less. There is no real, long-term health benefit to eating organic over eating ‘regular’ food. Above and beyond the jokes I enjoy about ‘organic’ salt (salt is a mineral. By definition, it is inorganic. Most foods we eat are carbon based and thus, organic) the whole movement is based on some misleading principles. If you are worried about the possible contamination of your food, wash your veg. Otherwise? Go buy the cheaper stuff and stop feeling guilty.
Locavores try to eat only food that has been grown within 100 miles of their home. This is, while a nice idea and one I exploited happily while managing a small farm and growing according to ‘organic’ principles, a somewhat misguided one. Everywhere you shop, and in many restaurants, you’ll find claims for ‘artisan’ and ‘authentic’ food. The problem is, how do you know what’s authentic? to what era, what place? There’s an excellent article I ran across in Bloomberg, of all places, that digs into the issues. But as they point out about the foods of yesteryear: “Too, we must remember that not everyone was a good cook. Cooking was a job, not an absorbing hobby, and as with any other job, many people did it badly. Every farm wife could produce enough calories to feed her family (at least, if the raw materials were available). Not all of them could produce anything you’d want to eat. Modern food-processing technology has relieved us of that most “authentic” culinary experience: boring ingredients processed by an indifferent cook into something that you’d only voluntarily consume if you were pretty hungry.”
Eating like neanderthals, or peasants, because that is closer to our origins, and therefore somehow healthier? “There wasn’t any aboriginal good taste lurking beneath the blighted peasant diet, either. I think every grad student working on the Old Regime learns this story: A peasant was once asked what he would do if he were king. “I would eat nothing but grease, until I could eat no more,” he answered. In the old days, fairy tales didn’t end with a commoner marrying a prince or a princess, which would have been about as shocking to a commoner as marrying Jesus. No, the typical fairy tale ended with a peasant getting to eat his fill at a well-appointed table. The history of history is the history of starvation.” Even the ‘peasant bread’ we all like to make (me too) isn’t anything like what the reality was, of chewing a substance much-adulterated to the point it wore your teeth down to nubs and you starved when you could no longer chew your own food (unless someone was kind enough to chew it for you). That’s the reality of food before processing and safety standards made it into our current delicious reality.
On top of the authenticity question is the pleasure of having fresh ingredients available in stores year-round. I can always buy a tomato. Sure, it might not taste as good as the one I can grow in my own garden, but a salad in January wouldn’t be the same without it. We nommed on kiwifruit not long ago, in February in Ohio, and it was very tasty and a welcome break from the ubiquitous apples at this time of year. Mandarins on sale are received with joyful noises, and are night and day when compared to the ones in the tins. I love living with access to a global marketplace. I know that, for instance, strawberry leaves are very high in vitamin C, and it used to be common to collect them from under the snow (they are semi-evergreen) and steep them into a tea to stave off scurvy. I’ve tried it, and it’s not bad, but I’m so glad I don’t have to rely on it through long cold months to keep my family from suffering bleeding gums, loosened (or lost) teeth, and other scurvy symptoms.
For that matter, if I grow a bounty in the garden, I can put it up, canned or frozen (or dried, or pickled, or…) and know that I can safely eat the results a few months later, and I’m not in danger of poisoning my entire family with botulism, condemning them to a slow, miserable death. I’m not shaving the green fuzzies off my meat and portioning out as much spice as I can spare to flavor the meat and hide the decay. It doesn’t matter if that’s where some of the world’s largest cultures developed their flavor profile, hiding the lack of preservation, I don’t have to choose to allow my guilt to dictate my family’s exposure to pathogens. Ever wonder why Chipotle, which prides itself as a business in being ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ has so many problems with E. coli and other outbreaks? Because in their rush to appear socially acceptable, they neglected safety standards.
Vegetarianism and veganism are two of the hottest food fads around. While it is possible to maintain the correct balance of nutrition on these diets, it is difficult, particularly with veganism, to do so. Neither should be pushed onto children, or young adults up to twenty-five, whose brains are still developing, and that growth can be stunted by the lack of fats and certain vitamins found mainly in meat. I can’t say for sure that retarded brain growth led to this incident, but it certainly seems that the woman in question fails some sort of IQ test, not only in trying to kill chickens purportedly to protect them, but in leaving her license plate on the scene… before denying she’d done it to the police.
Having waded through fad food diets, recommended daily allowances, and counting calories, it’s easy to see how confusion reigns over shopping decisions. Should we cut back on sugar? Fats? salt? What now! Food doesn’t taste good any more! My principles behind eating have always been pretty simple – all things in moderation. If you’re not binging on foods, then you can probably safely eat those potato chips, or have a milkshake, or that homemade cheesecake. Besides, there are reasons you crave these foods. Analyze those reasons, if you’re craving something to excess, rather than just treating it superficially by trying to eat the low-fat, low-whatever versions.
As I was slicing hunks of beef into steaks and roasts, I was thinking about the self-flagellation many people indulge in when it comes to food. Every bite that goes into their mouth is seasoned with guilt, and they wonder why it turns to ash and sawdust while they chew. Enjoying your food is possible. Doing research, staying aware of studies, that’s a good thing, but be aware of your sources – journalistic sources are often shallow and may not accurately summarize the study they are reporting on. I’d recommend this article for a meta-analysis of many studies, which will speed up your research, but still take time to follow links and look at the studies themselves. Recommendations do change, like the recent study showing that low carb, high fat, is better for diabetics, and just as good for weight loss as a high carb, low fat diet.
But mostly? Enjoy food, don’t lay a guilt trip on it. If you’re eating Thai satay with a salad on the side and the ingredients came from around the world, you might not be a locavore, or ‘authentic’ (whatever that really means) but you are eating healthy, happy, and teaching your kids that food can be fun, exciting, and diverse. If you’re saving 30% or more on your grocery budget by not buying organic, you’re extremely unlikely to be poisoning your family, and you can feed them more, better food with the money you saved. If you’re adding fat back into your recipes, they are going to be more flavorful, more filling, and you’ll find you eat less – and that means you’re more likely to be healthy. Even sweets, on occasion and not too much at a time, are not a bad thing. Happy people are healthier. Stress less about what’s in your food, take the kids for a walk if you’re worried about them getting fat (or you).