Saturday, May 13, 2006

We Are What We Eat (and how)

I've never cared much for food. Eating has always seemed to me to be a necessary evil. That might have something to do with the way I was raised. My mother protected her domain -- the kitchen -- like a mother hen and forbid entrance to the men in the house. So I never learned to cook. And the deciding moment for her in the 1950s was the introduction of TV dinners. Consequently, we rarely ate together at the dining room table, unless it was a holiday or there were guests, and my culinary memories are of eating tasteless food on TV trays in front of the small black-and-white screen, watching Ed Sullivan. Now, my gourmet experiences involve heating frozen packages from Trader Joes in the microwave.

These thoughts about food and eating practices were prompted by a wonderful interview with Michael Pollan in The Sun this month, "Lost in the Supermarket," which you can read here. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which, he explains, is "the existential predicament we're in regarding food...deciding what to eat out of all the potential foods available is a complicated process." Pollan says that how we answer the question of what we eat defines our relationship with the natural world.

While I resent taking time to think about what I should eat, I am concerned about the natural world, the politics of industrial agriculture (California's dubious claim to fame) and the relationship of oil to cheap, globalized food. Pollan shows how all these factors are connected, and the resulting picture is not pretty

In "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx wrote that capitalism was distinguished by "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation." The result was an overturning of all that had been sacred in previous ages. "All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." Michael Pollan argues that this capitalist revolution includes the destruction of ancient cultural practices of eating which helped us choose between healthy food and poison, a knowledge obtained through long trial and error.

"The family dinner, and more generally a cultural consensus on the subject of eating, appears to be the latest such casualty of capitalism. These rules and rituals stood in the way of the food industry's need to sell a well-fed population more food, through ingenious new ways of processing, packaging, and marketing it...So we find ourselves as a species almost back where we started: anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it's wise to eat. Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success."

But this means that we are relying on corporations and institutions who are intent more on extracting a profit from us eaters and feeders rather than nourishing our health. "McDonald's pushes our evolutionary buttons," Pollan says, "by making things very sweet, salty, and fatty." In his book he follows the food chain of a bushel of corn, 56 pounds of kernels which sell for $1.50. "The challenge is to turn that cheap corn into something expensive," he writes, and he discovered that at McDonalds 15 percent of the bun comes from corn and 100 percent of the soda. Corn can be made into sweeteners, gasoline (ethanol) and feed for animals. In addition, you need vast quantities of fossil fuel (the food industry uses 20 percent of imported oil). That bushel of corn, or a half-pound of beef, each requires a half gallon of oil to grow, and more to transport them to market. "So to eat that McDonald's meal," Pollan says, "we need to keep the oil flowing. that's one reason we're in Iraq."

The industrialized, processed food that we eat is bad and it's cheap. Americans spend less of their income on food -- around 11 or 12 percent -- than any other people in history, according to Pollan. Europeans spend 20 percent, and for most of history people spent 50 percent of their income on feeding themselves. And one consequence of cheap, nutritionally empty food is the current obesity epidemic in America.

Eating, then, is a political act. My dilemma is that I never developed the skills to feed myself easily, and food in general (as opposed to celebratory meals with friends) is about as interesting to me as stamp collecting. I love the smells and colors of the weekly Farmer's Market but often feel like an alien among the roots and berries. Pollan's survey and analysis of the changing ways we eat, however, is a healthy kick in the ass. Buy organic. Buy local.

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