"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 24, 2014

America’s Obsession With Food - Way Over The Top

In India a number of years ago an advertising company developed a social marketing campaign to improve better eating habits, especially the inclusion of more green leafy vegetables in carbohydrate-heavy diets.  The campaign was a failure for many reasons, but the most telling was the confluence of economics and psychology. For poor Indians living on the margins, even a few paise spent on foods that provide no calories or protein – absolutely necessary for work - was an unacceptable risk. 

As importantly the farmer who had little to mitigate the punishing agricultural labor which produces little, who lived from hand to mouth with more children than he could afford, and was subject to disease and early death, had only one pleasure – a full stomach.  A meal of rice and a watery lentil gravy may not have provided the balanced diet required for healthy living, but it was satisfying, if only temporarily, and was perhaps the only pleasure he has.

Poor villagers ate rice three meals a day, varied only by the occasional scrap of onion, a piece of cabbage scavenged from the local market, or an egg.  If ever there was a life which was nasty, brutish, and short, it is that of the subsistence farmer.

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The Indian villager was not alone; and the pattern repeated itself throughout much of the developing world.  Rice and beans was the staple in much of poor Latin America; and before the economic reforms of Asia, many Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians ate little better than Indians in Madhya Pradesh.

In Romania shortly after the overthrow of Ceausescu the liberalizing economy afforded some financial flexibility to those who, living in the Soviet bloc gulag, had little to eat, and few pleasures. At the same time Romanians’ health began to deteriorate. Alcoholism was a serious problem, smoking was at epidemic proportions, and consumption of the fattiest foods endemic.  A representative of the World Bank, recognizing the increase of Western lifestyle diseases in the East, offered soft loans to address them.

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The Minister thanked the Bank for its solicitude and offer to help, but now was not the time. “People suffered under Ceausescu”, he said. “They ate beets, cabbage, and pickled peppers sent from family farms.  They worked long, hard hours with little recompense.  Their housing was cold, dark, and dismal.  Their clothes were rough and unrefined.  Let us enjoy our simple pleasures for a while, and then when things begin to look up, come back to me.”

Food in all these countries was not only sustenance, but the satisfaction of simple, basic pleasures.  This is no different from Europe in the 19th century.  Dickens wrote eloquently of the poor, their penury, and life on the fringes of London society.  In A Christmas Carol, the Third Spirit takes Scrooge into the slums of the city.

They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognized its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offenses of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.
Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinize were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchers of bones.
Scrooge has his epiphany and becomes a generous man; but Dickens continued to be appalled by the abject poverty of many Londoners. This chilling passage from A Tale of Two Cities describes the misery and horror of hunger:
The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.
 All of which brings the tale to America today, not only a land of abundance and plenty, but one which has become obsessed with food.  West Coast foodies have turned sustenance into a baroque art form, and meals from the Bay Area to Portland feature forage, architecture, and eclecticism - a drizzle of raspberry coulis, foraged periwinkles and sea grass, organic goat cheese puree from locally-raised, free-range animals.  A recent menu from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is a good example:
Indian-style nettle and sweet pepper fritters with late summer tomato chutney and watercress
Homemade bucatini pasta with spicy Tomales Bay clams, garlic, and green coriander
Grilled Liberty duck breast with pomegranate sauce, winter squash and cardamom gratin, roasted cipoline onions, and garden salad
Bosc pear île flottante with cinnamon and pistachio pralin

The locavore trend has become universal.  A restaurant in the Shenandoahs of Virginia was so proud of their local ingredients, that diners were invited to visit the humanely-raised chicken, goats, and ducks that were to be grilled, fricasseed, and stewed; the organic lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots, and the pesticide-free apples, pears, and peaches.

Well-to-do young families in Colorado are so committed to local ingredients and supporting community farmers, that they will buy the stringiest, driest elk meat raised on nearby rangeland instead of the succulent, marbled ribeye from Texas beef.  Elk are more eco-friendly than cattle, and even though they are slaughtered for market, their short lives on the abundant plain are much happier than those in their usual grounds, the now drought-stricken lower slopes of the Rockies.

Vegetarianism has never been so popular; and millions of Americans are giving up the comfort foods of their childhoods for soy, tofu, brown rice, mung beans, garbanzos, and figs. It is not so much that vegetarian cooking cannot be tasty – Gujarati cuisine is among India’s best; and some of the most traditional Southern Italian dishes are meatless.  Meatless Friday in Catholic households was not a penance as it was meant to be, but looked forward to.  Mothers in the Fifties prepared spaghetti with peas, porcini mushrooms, and sherry; an all-day tomato pasta with fresh herbs and spices; spaghetti al olio, aglio, e peperoncini; gnocchi a la crème; and a simple penne with fresh basil and parmesan cheese.

Vegetarianism has become a secular religion – an absolutist, inflexible routine. American vegetarians are not like Hindus who have never eaten meat or fish, and for whom the respect for the spiritual nature of all living things underlies their diet.  Americans have gone meatless for a variety of imperfectly understood reasons. “It’s healthier….I want to respect the environment…I refuse to kill to eat…We have evolved from the days of hunter-gatherers…”  Inconsistency is not the issue – antibiotics kill trillions of live animals; we swat flies; and the water-dependent, subsidized produce farms of the Sacramento Valley are doing the environment no favors. 

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The issue is not so much with the pseudo-vegetarianism practiced in America, but the sanctimony of the movement.  Since it is secular in origin, and practically purposeful rather than spiritually meaningful, then the odd non-vegetarian meal – say a Moroccan lamb tagine, grilled grouper, or braised veal kidneys in porto – should be possible.

Not that many years ago a dinner invitation was replied to with a polite “Thank you very much.  We’d be delighted to come”. Now the various dietary restrictions of invited guests are included. “We are vegetarians.  We are gluten-free. We don’t eat nuts, asparagus, or sardines.  We are kosher, on a purge diet, or pounding protein.” 

However, even the Church was generous in its exceptions to the Fish-on-Friday rule.  Travelling on an airplane, for instance, or incarceration, or even a meal at a non-Catholic home.  It was a principle which was to be adhered to in most circumstances, but not all. Islam allows the sick, travelers, and pregnant women to eat during Ramadan.

If religions which have based their abstinence on spiritual faith and doctrine can be understanding, then certainly American secular vegetarians can have some give in their obligations.

A simple, “Thank you, we’d be delighted”, a polite demurral when the roast beef is being carved, and a “These potatoes au gratin are delicious” would be more than sufficient.

Whether food is celebrated as a spiritual experience and admired for its inspired presentation and palette; or refused for a variety of faddish, temporal reasons, it has gotten way out of hand. Many people in the Bay Area have finally become annoyed with the baroque turn that cuisine has taken and are going back to basics. Restaurants which provide excellent, familiar, and well-prepared ingredients without architecture or design are becoming more popular.  Throughout the US diners and scientists alike are investigating the surreal and unexplained rise in allergies and becoming more circumspect about the stray peanut. More rational critics are taking a more holistic view of food-related environmental issues.  In short, perhaps we are getting back to basics.

An Ecuadorian friend a few years ago made his first visit to the United States.  He had received a grant to study endocrinology at George Washington University Medical School, and said he wanted to buy some provisions for his apartment.  I offered to take him to the Giant food store in nearby Maryland.  I went about my shopping and advised my friend to simply look at the signs above the aisles for directions.

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Fifteen minutes later I found him standing in the canned food aisle.  There was nothing in his shopping cart.  “Can’t find what you want?”, I asked him.

“No”, he replied. ‘I have found the corn, but which corn to buy?”.  I had gotten used to the hangar-sized mega-market, plotted and sorted my way among the thirty-five aisles, limited my range, honed in on familiar brands and bins, and got in and out within a half-hour.

Jose, on the other hand, had been paralyzed by the bewildering choices.  Not only was there canned corn, but twenty different types – Del Monte and Campbell’s , sodium free, succotash, or creamed, large kernel or small; early corn or late. The possibilities were endless.

Food obsession, therefore, is not a matter only for foodies and West Coast prima donnas.  Middle America is as particular about its frozen pizza, gourmet warm-ups, hot dogs, bacon, ice cream, yogurt, and chicken parts as the most particular San Franciscan.  We all are deluged with food ads on television, radio, print, and outdoor media. Commercial strips outside every town over 5000 pop. are filled with hundreds of fast food chains, take-outs, and DIY food emporia.

Although no one today would want to return to meat-and-potatoes, macaroni-and-cheese, TV dinners, and frozen pot pies, there is something to return to basics - a no-frills approach to good cooking.  No architecture, no drizzled coulis, no reductions, no stone-ground wheat and corn, and no foraged grasses.  We might eventually long for some spicy calamari and rich Mexican mole, but the pause would be worth it.  Unplugging from a food obsession would be as liberating as leaving the I-Phone at home or unplugging the computer.

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