Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Food 101

So my buddy Justin was teasing me yesterday that my current "to-read" list looks like the syllabus for an intro course on local food. Well, yes, I have a lot to learn. In my defense, I am capable of branching out when it comes to my literary choices. For instance, I recently finished "Like Water for Chocolate." Oh, wait, that's about food. Well, I'm finally getting back to "Guns, Germs, and Steel," a book I have been reading slowly, in installments, over the past number of years. (You know those books that are so brilliant and dense that they take more concentration and you feel compelled to take notes? Yeah, it's one of those. Not your light bedtime reading.) Hmmm, that talks a lot about how agricultural development has shaped different societies. Well, heck, you know, really everything comes down to food. Food -- what we grow, how we transport it, prepare it, and consume it -- is central to the rest of our lives. It defines us as individuals and descendants of rich, varied cultures. I don't say this because I peruse cookbooks and Gourmet magazine and for fun. (I mean, I do, but still....) I say it because it's true.

I'm just starting Michael Pollan's latest book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," in which he lays out some of the reasons behind why and how, as a culture, Americans have moved away from "food" and toward "food products." (Ick. The term "food product" sounds like something out of a futuristic dystopic novel. And I love science fiction, mind you, but still: ick!) He also, helpfully, poses solutions to reverse the damage, some of which are very much in line with his open letter to the president-to-be that ran in the New York Times magazine this past October. And his ideas are gaining some traction. Voice of America ran a piece yesterday on Pollan's work that did a pretty good job of distilling his arguments (in my humble opinion). There are so many reasons to take a more active role in learning about our food. For my part, I tend to focus on two: joy and empowerment.

I would say that I am most fully myself when I am cooking (or dancing, but I'm trying to focus here). I love the smells, the tastes, the comfort of the kitchen, the coming together of a meal. I enjoy cooking even just by and for myself, but I can't think of a more meaningful way to nurture those I care about than to cook with them, to feed them. It is an act of love. (There, I've said it.) Our food choices are also about maintaining control over our lives. When we relinquish the decision-making authority over what we eat to "the experts" (Pollan points to advertisers and nutritionists as the main culprits), we resign so much of ourselves: our health, our identity as eaters with unique preferences, our power of choice, our connection to what our bodies are telling us we need. Are these "experts" even trustworthy? What are they selling us? I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist but is anyone else alarmed by the rash of contaminated food recalls? (I cling to the hope that the peanut butter scandal will not be repeated; ground beef, on the other hand, may be off my list for good.) Does anyone else find themselves confused by all of the unreconizeable and unpronounceable ingredients listed on just about everything at the grocery store? Why the heck is "natural flavor" listed as an ingredient?

So, what do we do? Who can we trust? Ourselves. While I am a huge advocate of gardening I'm not saying we should only eat things we grow ourselves. It's just not an option for everyone. But maybe we can do a better job of seeking out things grown by people we know. That means slowing down, talking with each other, becoming active participants in our food communities. (Maybe even exchanging book recommendations. I can suggest a few books....)

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