Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why Writing About Food is Harder than I Expected

It's 2am, and the only thing illuminating my face is the glow of my basement computer's monitor. To the left of my keyboard is a stack of books so high it teeters dangerous over the glass of water and empty coffee mug to the right of my keyboard. The tabs on my mozilla browser are now completely out of control: we passed "being thorough" and entered "obsessive" about seven or eight tabs ago. And what am I doing? Why is this mess of information spilled all around me?

The answer is food, my friends.

Does anyone really realize how much we love to talk, think, and (dare I say it) blog about food? I know I didn't until I began my most recent effort for AlphaHouse's upcoming book series, "The Big Picture." In short, what we've been asked to do is a series about where things come from; my task being to answer that question specifically for food.

I'm fortunate to be given that focus, for if I or anyone else were to embark upon a book synthesizing all the thought (past and present) surrounding food, it would be a gargantuan project, to say the least. But because my focus is specifically on where food comes from, I've actually been able to cut through the noise and rattling and find a few voices that I've come to deeply appreciate in the past few weeks.

To appreciate such voices, first consider the noisemakers. Food is money. It is no longer a way of life but largely an industry. Of course, food has been a commodity for many thousands of years-- this is nothing unique to the 21rst century. But in the past 100 years we've seen the food industry's engine kick into overdrive. Especially in an increasingly globalized world, where farmers no longer compete against their neighbors, or even their countrymen, but factory farms across the globe. With so much money to be made (everyone has to eat, after all) the result has been much like what you would expect: we behave more like economic consumers towards food than living organisms who require sustenance.

And, contrary to what many might think or say, this can be a very stressful predicament. Proof of this is my latest venture into food writing. I've sorted through countless health fad advertisements, websites devoted to worshiping one food or to damning another. I've even found (to my great dismay) that my local library was stuffed full of health books and weight-loss literature. If anything, it seems like the more science knows about food, the less certain we are of what we should eat. Most of us know only too well what it's like to come into work, open a granola bar and take a satisfied bite, only for a concerned co-worker to remark, "Oh. Oh I wouldn't do that. I read this morning that preservatives found in that granola bar may increase the risk of cancer."

May increase the risk of cancer. When all you wanted was granola. The phrase itself is evidence of our micro-aware world. All of our food can be broken down into its chemical constituents and then divided into its pro's and con's. On and on. Until every food is really an abstraction-- If I eat at burger king for lunch, I lose 10 points towards living a long life/not getting cancer/taking my grandkids to DisneyLand, BUT, if I have a salad for dinner I regain those 10 points and just barely end the day at a happy, healthful neutral. Except I'm not happy. I'm still hungry because that salad was puny, and I'm dealing with residual shame from the BK I ate for lunch.

This is the world of food we live in. At least, most of us. Enter Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. (Cue Bon Jovi, "Wanted, Dead or Alive") These two food warriors have saved my hopes for ever eating well again. And they've done so largely without ever discussing carbohydrates, protein, daily fat intake, or high blood pressure.

Pollan's 2005 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is a brilliant work and has rightly garnered awards and praise from various literary communities. Pollan's books examines America's food crisis from the bottom up, starting in an Iowa corn field, moving to a small farm in Virginia, and even following a cow around for a few months. His interest throughout the book is where our food comes from, and what the costs actually are to our communities and our environment.

Wendell Berry has spent the past 40 years farming his family's land in Henry County, Kentucky. The land that feeds him today is the same land that has fed his family for five generations. So, to the say the least, the man knows something about farming. Outside of his excellent poetry and fiction, he's written many essays on agrarian life, conservation, and food politics. What's interesting to me is that as he grows older (he's 74 today, and still farming) he seems to grow only more vocal towards issues of agriculture and food. I think he's aware, more than ever, the crisis we face today in America (and elsewhere) if we don't reevaluate our approach to eating.

All this to say, I'm beginning to realize that the book I'm writing cannot be about how to "eat right". And yet, ultimately, it should achieve exactly that, but with far different parameters for what that means. Perhaps instead of counting calories, we should be counting farmers, or counting the miles it takes for that New Zealand apple to reach you in New York, in February.

Please comment-- I'd love to hear what you think.

1 comment:

Emily said...

When I was in Boston, we went to this raw foods restaurant. One of the people I was with is on a raw foods diet, and he explained that raw foods are the epitome of a healthy diet and they perfect what vegetarianism and veganism attempt to accomplish by ensuring that you are only consuming the foods in their natural form and eliminating all processing, which can be harmful both to the environment and your body.

It sounds like a good idea. After all, Michael Pollen does talk about the corn industry and how by the time we actually consume it, it's not recognizable from the crop that we see growing on the sides of the roads all over (especially if you live in Ohio like I do!). There is certainly something to be said for knowing where your food comes from and eliminating all extraneous processing and ingredients.

However, I wonder if the raw foods diet is taking what you're talking about a little too far. Yes, it is good to know where your food comes from, and yes, being aware of that can often lead to a healthier diet in general. But, while eating a 25$ "tomato ravioli" dish that consisted of "cheese" made of nuts placed between 2 slices of tomato, I found myself wondering how balanced and healthy a totally raw diet actually is. My opinion was strengthened a little bit when the person I was with admitted that he mostly lives on salads and green smoothies because he can't really eat much else. Yes, fruits and vegetables are important, and yes, knowing where your food comes from is important, but I feel that, like any other "diet," you need to have some sense of moderation and balance. Be aware of where your food comes from, but don't refuse to eat anything that might be foreign or "bad" despite the fact that your body needs a varied diet to survive.

So, I guess the whole point of this wordy comment is to suggest that while hopefully your book, along with the others you mentioned and all books that try to show the origin of certain foods, might lead people to be more aware of the food they eat and more likely to follow a certain "diet," there will likely be people as well who will take the idea too far, making your ideas as radical or unbalanced as the diets that cut out one or more aspect of the food pyramid totally.