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Think About It


Three weeks ago in “Teach Your Children Well” I wrote: “It seems that more and more folks either don’t cook at all or cook as a matter of self-image and for the sake of conveying a lifestyle. But we should cook, mostly, to have something good to eat and because cooking itself is nourishing to our souls.”
Click to view larger versionLast week I added another thought to this in my commentary on the current glut of chefs. I said that professional cooking is, “…a job that should be about feeding people — not about fame or fortune, just as making dresses is ultimately about clothing people. When we lose sight of this essential fact we are, in a sense, trivializing food, not celebrating it.” And I noted that author Michael Ruhlman had similar thoughts. If you haven’t read his post, do so, then skip down toward the end of the comments to get Anthony Bourdain’s reply (keep in mind that Bourdain and Ruhlman are good friends and the apparent animosity displayed in their comments to each other is male bonding).
Briefly, Bourdain makes the point that celebrity chefs such as Emeril and Mario Batali have made Americans more willing to try new foods and to try cooking them. He thinks this is a good thing and to the degree that assertion is true it’s hard to disagree with. Nevertheless, a recent article in the New York Times does offer a counter view.

“But for some hosts in the age of the armchair Boulud, even a laid-back dinner with friends can be a challenge to their sense of self-worth. They may not care whether they wear Gap or couture. Their place in the Hamptons might be a share. But they would no sooner serve their guests grocery-case Drunken Goat cheese than a Vogue minion would wear an Ann Taylor dress to a party given by Anna Wintour.”

Food has always said something about the person preparing and eating it — “Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.” — but what is the typical American diet saying about who we are? Time Magazine has published a photo essay on the Web entitled “What the World Eats” from the book Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel. Although on the face of it generalizing about an entire country’s eating habits from one or two examples is bound to be inaccurate, I’m not sure it is in this case. Go look at the essay, I’ll wait…
Three things struck me as I flipped through the photos. First, the quantity of food that people in the US (and other first world countries) eat in a week compared to the second and third worlds. Second, the amount of packaged food as opposed to raw food (even if you discount shrink-wrapped meat and vegetables). And third, how few raw vegetables the industrialized world eats. The only real exceptions are the Sicilian and Polish families. Those photos lay out in stark terms why Americans as a society are obese and becoming more so.
Note I freely (if not proudly) admit that I’m a fat American. And I’m fat despite eating a diet much more like the Sicilian table than either of the two American spreads. I eat more food than I need and I hate exercise. Nevertheless, I eat very little processed food of any kind, I seldom eat out or at fast-food joints, and I eat a balanced diet (albeit on the high protein side — what can I say? I love meat.)
So clearly just eating a good diet isn’t enough, at least in my case. It is necessary but not sufficient. We all have our excuses: I don’t have time, or I was bored, or my husband left me, or I’m under stress at work. My personal favorite is, “I cook for a living.” They all boil down to, “The devil made me do it.” But the only devils that can make you do anything are in your own head.
We Americans have a dysfunctional relationship with food. As a rule, we love pleasure and condemn it in the same breath. It’s our Puritan heritage still wagging its disapproving finger at us. Some of us deny ourselves by eating carrots and celery for lunch every day and when we slip in our self-denial we call it “cheating” as though we were having an extramarital affair. Others eat Big Macs or Chicken McNuggets every day, daring God to punish us for our filthy behavior.
I’d like nothing better, if only for my own sake, than to offer a simple, easy solution, but there isn’t one. Or rather, I think there is a simple solution, it just isn’t easy. We need to think about our food. We need to ponder every purchase, we need to read labels, we need to consider whether or not paying a few extra dollars for a locally raised chicken is a worthwhile investment — and it is an investment in sustainable agriculture, your local economy, and your health.
But mostly, we need to think about our food when we eat. Don’t scarf that Big Mac, think about how it tastes, think about how it was made, think about the cow it came from, think what it’s doing to your body. When you have dinner at home, turn off the TV and think about how that homemade burger tastes, think about the cow it came from, think about the family or friends you’re eating with. If that burger you made and grilled yourself, topped with freshly sliced onions and the best cheddar you can find still makes you fat, sobeit, enjoy your girth as well as your family and your food. Don’t be afraid of food and don’t substitute it for love or success. Eat to live and enjoy the eating. Think about it.
You can leave comments, thoughts, and observations here.

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