Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What to eat?

Increasingly, I have anxiety.

It's free floating and wide ranging.

But it takes roots in my interest in food: where it is grown, how it is grown, and how it is used.

Is it just something farmers grow that we can happily enjoy on our plates? Or, in this day and age, is food even always food? Or is it a commodity, something to be made into other things like commercial soy and corn?

What about genetically modified soy grown in fields that used to be the rainforest? That should give us all anxiety. Oil based fertilizers, decreasing seed diversity, proprietary seed companies like Monsanto who have made it illegal – yes, illegal – to save seeds (every year you plant Monsanto seeds you have to sign an agreement preventing you from ownership of your corn seeds and requiring you to buy new seeds each year).

We have created artificial “nature" (an oxymoron?) that destroys itself after one season so it can create better profit for the corporations that sell it, depriving farmers of a life that has been practiced for thousands of years based on the saving and trading of seeds and, thus, the saving and trading of diversity fundamental to safe agricultural propagation –anyone remember the Irish potato famine?

Food shouldn't be complicated. How is it we got ourselves so far away from the field, the kitchen, the kitchen table and our families? My manifesto is that we need to stop eating these products. We need to be aware that ALL PROCESSED food is worrisome, even if it is labeled Organic. How is it that a microwaved Boca Burger with soy cheese on it is considered a healthy option?

The conditioning to eat edible substances that are not truly food is deeply embedded in the way the last few generations of Americans have been raised. Think about popcorn at the movies. One goes to the movies – has always gone to the movies – and entering the cinema, the smell is overwhelming, tempting, and delightful. In response to that smell, our conditioning tells us: eat popcorn! Eat buttered popcorn! Eat it in vast quantities and alternate the salty with the sweet: soda!!!

But is it popcorn? Is it butter? Is it even sugar? The popcorn is now a single crop, non-diverse product of industrial agriculture – no variations, no diversity, and precious little flavor.

The typical conversation:

"Hi, can I have a large soda water and a large popcorn please"

"Soda Water?"

"Seltzer, you know, plain"

"Oh. And a large popcorn."

"Please"

"You want butter on that?

"Is it real butter?

"No"

Now first thing that comes to mind is how is it that it is legal to ask "Do you want butter on it?" when it's not butter?

To me this represents everything that is wrong with how we eat and our commercial food culture.

How do we change such a deeply embedded culture of non-food consumption? Would it be such a challenge for someone like say the Landmark Sunshine theaters to start offering local heirloom popcorn with real butter at their theaters? And, if you really need something sweet, how about drinks sweetened with real sugar, rather than high fructose corn syrup (would you like some diabetes inducing poison with your non-buttered popcorn?) Start eating real food like that and the edible non-foods available at AMC and Loew’s theaters will become clearly detestable in a short time. One's tastebuds quickly adjust to re-recognize "the real" from the the poison.

We eat things based on a certain willingness to believe what we are told:

"High in Fiber!" "Heart Healthy" "Low in Sugar!" "Healthy!" "Natural!"

Bullshit.

We've been sold a nasty bill of goods for at least the last 30 years since the discovery of high fructose corn syrup.

Look at grocery store and butcher's windows. Ever notice the sign that proudly says:
"Corn Fed?" Funny how we take this as a sign of something good and healthy. It conjures bucolic images of Americana: “Oh what a beautiful morning – all the cattle are standing like statues – the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye!”

Sadly, corn is poison to cows and makes them so sick, with such terrible gas, that they have to be given antibiotics (yes, that’s why our beef cattle are loaded with antibiotics). And the methane produced by the abnormal digestion of corn is now known to be a clear contributor to greenhouse gases and to climate change.

Does this benefit anyone? Not the cows. Not those of us who want to eat them. But the cattle industry grows ever richer and they and their lobbyists who control policy in Washington have been give free range (more then is given to their cows) to deceive us.

OK so you've heard this rant before? Actually, I'm amazed really, after all these years, that it still gets to me in such a powerful way.

Yet food is such an emotional issue and even people who know better break down and eat shit they shouldn't, myself included. It's hard. We each have a personal history of eating and all the associations and meanings that go with it.

So, with this blog I am trying to offer a start, an approach to eating real food in the city. In the country I would think it would be even easier and hopefully wouldn’t require an on line blog to provide the information. (If you live in a suburb, well, I'm sorry for you as it seems to me there is nothing of value in suburbs, just miles of strip malls, box stores and commercial grocery stores with four miles of corn syrup infused breakfast cereals to get you and your children off to a good start!)

Since I’m really a city boy – always have been and always will be – I'm not interested in living in the country. How can I make city living, well, specifically city eating, as connected to the land as possible? And avoid the ubiquitous commercial food? And still have a life and make a living?

My fantasy would be to live in a city where it was possible to have some small plot of land that you could plant, a roof filled with solar panels that provides a majority of our electricity as well as rain water collection. A city where you could take public transport or a bike every where you needed to go, where you have density and community and are able to provide yourself with most of the basics without having to have it flown in from Chile or New Zealand or California.

I can't see myself moving any time soon. (Though I do have an ongoing affair with Vancouver that I just can't seem to quit.) How can I make my NYC realty as green and responsible as possible without making everyone around me crazy?

So I try. And I start by stressing the need to buy as much that is produced locally as possible.

There are certainly things that I would say are necessary exceptions that I hope I never have to do without. They are, in no particular order: coffee, chocolate, spices, lemon and lime, citrus from Texas and Florida (but only when it's in season there), ginger, Spanish wine and cane sugar.

Otherwise everything else is here. New York City markets have a vast selection of meat vendors from pheasant sausage to soup chickens, wonderful fish from Long Island, cheese from all over, eggs, milk, cream, yogurt, jams and of course lots of fruits and vegetables. As long as you like apples, the winter isn't really so bad.

I encourage you to make your list.
To think before you eat.
To question everything you put into your mouth
To start making a change and committing to eating real food.
To give up your microwave and your frozen dinners and your soda, to give up ordering in from restaurants that don’t provide you with edibles derived from ingredients that meet your standards (and, thus, start cooking your own food, in your own kitchen).
To realize that every little step makes a difference not only for you, and your family's health and happiness, but for the whole planet.

Another way I alleviate my anxiety is by taking part in the bigger discussion - here's a good start: www.wecansolveit.org

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