Friday, January 29, 2010

What would a grown-up food culture be like?

I recently watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain's show on the Food Network where he visits Sardinia with his wife and her family. I had never watched Bourdain's show before and I didn't love him, but I did fall in love with his in-laws and with Sardinia. Watching this show reminded me what food is supposed to be all about. His wife explained how it makes her a little sick to eat meat in New York, because she doesn't know anything about the animal or how it was raised. All the food featured on this show was fresh, local, and made with extreme care and attention to detail. The cheese was made from the milk of sheep raised by local shepherds. A businessman proudly serves a meal featuring olive oil he made himself from trees on his property. The bread was made by hand in wood-fired ovens. There were a lot of cured meats, but when there was fresh meat the cameraman showed us the freshly-killed animals. This may seem a little disgusting to the squeamish, but if you are a meat eater you have to realize that this is the reality. I just heard recently that my great-grandmother would not buy a chicken unless it was alive. "How do I know what it died from?" My grandmother wasn't quite as picky, but she also bought live birds when she could and killed and dressed them in her basement.

Yes, if I had to do that, I would probably be a vegetarian. But not if I had been raised to think that it was not only okay to do this, but the only way to know that what I was making was truly fresh. There is probably something very hypocritical about being willing to buy meat in those plastic packages and pretend I had nothing to do with that animal's death. Better, probably, to be honest about it all.

Anyway, blood and guts aside, there was something beautiful about the way food was treasured, produced thoughtfully, and enjoyed with friends and family. People took time for food. When Bourdain marvelled at the idea of a businessman taking time to make his own olive oil, his wife chided him. "In America, it's all about work. Here we like to have a life." A few of the people were a little chubby, maybe, but none of them seemed to be fat. It seemed that people were enjoying tastes of a lot of dishes without overeating any of it. It was interesting that Bourdain said that Sardinians saw it as a "personal failing" if you couldn't eat well at your own house and had to rely on restaurants.

During the show there were, of course, commercials for the other kinds of shows on Food Network. There was an ad that showed a child sticking his whole face into a sundae. There was a promo for a "Man Versus Food" episode where the host was going to try to eat a 48-ounce steak. You might think it is sickening to raise and then kill a chicken, but I think it's more sickening to eat 3 pounds of meat as some sort of a stunt. Which do you think is more likely to result in any kind of respectful treatment for the animal? I'm sure quality is not much of an issue when you're trying to just "get through" a huge hunk of meat, so who cares how that animal was raised? There were also, of course, ads for fast food and ads for highly-processed supermarket fare like Pillsbury heat-and-serve rolls. The message of mainstream American food seems to be "Bring on the crap and lots of it!"

There is, of course, an alternate voice, the voice of "No." I was reading an article in O Magazine yesterday about a woman going through a 60-day Bikram makeover in which she took her yoga instructor to Whole Foods with her to tell her how to eat. The instructions were all about creating food outlaws: No white flour, no sugar, no chickpeas, no cereal. Cheese is singled out as particularly evil:
"Cheese has a happiness protein in it," Lori says, explaining that, like refined sugar, cheese comforts with an immediate (and ultimately false) chemical lift.
Which makes sense if you are eating 3 or 4 ounces of cheese at a time (like on most restaurant appetizers), but just about all of Europe seems to be able to eat cheese with no ill effects, probably because they're eating the good stuff in moderation, and savoring it. If we had a little happiness protein, would that be such a bad thing if we could find other ways to make ourselves happy?

I felt sad, deeply sad, after thinking about the childish American food culture of either gorging ourselves on mass-produced sweets and fats or "being good" and sticking to an externally-approved list of "safe" foods, one that seems to change constantly. It's either food porn or food prudishness. Why can't we grow up? (We seem to, by the way, have similar attitudes about sex here, but that would be a whole post of its own if I ever felt like tackling it).

I know this is going to sound extreme, but I felt like someone had stolen my birthright. After all, my grandparents had grown up with real food. My dad was a picky eater, though, and my mom didn't want to cook two meals, so we usually ate the kind of food he liked: Meat, potatoes, lots of bread. And lots and lots of Pepsi. When I went to my grandparents' house, most of the food looked weird to me so I only picked at it. I don't think it was my parents' fault. They grew up when advertising really hit its stride. Restaurant food and packaged food was "cleaner" and "more normal." It kept longer. It showed that you were successful to buy brand names. It took me years to learn to like real food, ironically, when I started trying to watch my weight. But I also got caught up in the "no" food culture and had all these bizarre rules about food. I feel like I'm just finally learning how to be more balanced about it all.

Last night I decided to make a meal like the ones we had seen on the show. I bought some aged sheep's milk cheese. I bought a small loaf of good bread and a bottle of Chianti. I bought two lamb chops (sorry, I didn't have the time or knowledge about how to go out and get lamb any other way) that were less than 4 ounces each. I got vegetables from the produce market. It was good food and we enjoyed it, with one glass of wine each. When food feeds the soul as well as the body, enough is enough.


  1. Bravo. I'm really trying to get back to basics with my family. Sure, I won't be slaughtering my own animals but I do think that there is a revival as far as at least attempting to respect and appreciate the foods we are putting into our bodies.

    There will always be some convenience foods I just can't live without (and wouldn't want to because that's what moderation is about) but there's something to be said about whole, fresh ingredients lovingly prepared in your own home.

    This was such a great read. I actually teared up a little bit unexpectedly because it was so nice to see in print what I've been spending a lot of time thinking about lately. Thank you!

  2. This post *rocks*.

    So much truth I can barely stand it!!

    I need to get down to brass tacks myself and start eating cleaner, and hopefully get my family on board with it as well...which promises to be a painful process, but it's just so important!

    I also toy quite often with the idea of going vegetarian - or at least just getting completely off the red meat, chicken and pork and sticking with fish, eggs and lean dairy. Problem is, I LOVE red meat, pork and chicken. But I also have a huge, huge problem with factory farms and animal cruelty, and yes, if I had to meet my steak or my drumstick face to face, I don't think there's any way I could ever eat it. Oddly enough, the thought of meeting my filet of sole doesn't bother me....which certainly makes me a hypocrite, I guess. Ugh.

    Anyway, great post.

  3. Thank you for your beautifully written post. I agree!

    When I was in sixth grade my class re-enacted what it was like to be a Californian pioneer, including plucking and gutting a recently killed chicken. Having had chickens grow up in my backyard, it was an amazing experience to come full circle, thanking and feeling the food I was going to eat in a few hours.

    Since beginning this journey, I've had the opportunity to really begin exploring fresh produce. Raised in a food-aware family, I grew up eating fresh and local meat and produce, but it wasn't until I started cooking my own food that I realized how expensive and hard it is to get good food. It's so much easier to grab a luna bar than to make my own granola, but my body feels different afterward. I feel more connected with my granola, I feel centered, and I feel proud to be part of my local food environment.

  4. This is such a great post, and I've been thinking about the same thing recently. I was standing in the bookstore the other day, and realized that so many of the "healthy" cookbooks have titles that basically boil down to "Gorge Yourself without Being Disgusting!" For some reason it just really hit home all of a sudden, and I've been ruminating on the whole fetishism of food ever since.


  5. Great post..very insightful. My half sis is a nutritionist and she says that if a food is something your great grandmother would not recognize..don't eat it.

    I read something recently...forget where...that grain production is far worse on the environment as animal production (for meat). I'd have to go find that again to give you a source..but it was interesting information about grain production around the world and what impact it has had.

    I'm all for a diet of meat, eggs, fruit, veggies, nuts....and just a wee bit of the other stuff. It has worked well for me.

    Your post makes me want to finally call the farm near me that does organic grass fed beef..and order a half of a side. Then..I know where it is coming from!

  6. Great post! I hope our society moves this way, someday. People would feel so much better!


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07