Thursday, June 28, 2007

How We Eat

Lately no one can mention peanut butter around with me without starting a discussion about why peanut butter is so popular in America (and also, how exactly it got to be so awesome.) but is seen as disgusting in many other countries. I start similar debates about pumpkin pie and BBQ and have long kept a mental list of American foods that are rarely recognized as such. As always, Wikipedia does a better job than I(leave it to the masses to make me look bad). And yet my experience has been that when most people think of American food they immediately turn to hamburgers, pizza and French fries. Somehow American food has become synonymous with fast food. I’ve been wondering about how our lack of a well define food culture is likely to effect the everyday American for some time but reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma has turned this occasional pondering into obsession.

It not only seems unfair to exclusively associate American food with Fast Food but also dangerous. Fast Food not only fails to provide nutrition but the way it is typically consumed enforces unhealthy eating habits like eating alone and eating on the run. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan discusses how food traditions affect healthy eating and hypothesizes that cultures who highly value food and the eating experience often have healthier eating habits regardless of the caloric content of their traditional foods. He addresses the common cliché that the French eat high calorie foods and never get fat by pointing out that the French meal encourages eating small bites over long periods of time and consuming higher calorie foods in tiny quantities and on special occasions – the French do not sit alone in their apartments at 3am gorging on pate, baguettes and red wine (though, obviously that sounds pretty awesome and I think we all know where to find me come Saturday morning…). Having pride in the food you cook, serve and eat leads to better food for all.

In addition to the obvious health implications the very nature of fast food (quick, heavily processed, not prepared at home, designed to be as cheap to produce as possible, designed to be eaten on the go, etc) makes it impossible for a healthy food culture to develop around the only food commonly seen as “American.” Pollan argues that the well established food cultures seen in other countries serve their citizen’s especially well because they have been tested over the course of human history and have benefited from a cultural survival of the fittest. By this standard one would think that Fast Food should quickly be approaching extinction. For good or ill in America our immigrant population has made it difficult to establish a cohesive food culture and our general wealth has made food so widely available that rationing and sacrifice are rarely necessary. The dark side of abundance is that nothing seems special or worth waiting for. With so many ready options it is not surprising that as a society we are often at a loss over just what to eat. I suspect that other cultures rarely suffer from the all to common American confusion around exactly which food is likely to kill us next (“Tonight on Dateline, Is water good for you or is this unassuming beverage really part of a terrorist plot to bring down America?”). Pollan points out that Americans have a very short established history with food and thus rely on science alone to dictate what is good and bad without regard for factors like portion size or meal balance. Combine this with our reactionary media and you have a society so confused that many of us have dropped out of the food discussion entirely choosing instead to eat whatever is cheap, readily available and requires the least amount of work. We eat the lowest common denominator and shouldn’t be surprised that the dollar menu has led to an obesity epidemic.

Many have pointed out that Fast Food isn’t even that tasty – sure, the occasional frosty, fries or chicken nuggets are shockingly decadent and often the best way to cap off a night of drinking but few would rave over the taste sensations available at McDonalds. When I was dieting I used to force myself to consciously think about if the caloric cost of any given food item was suitably offset by the enjoyment I was likely to experience eating it. Too often when faced with the bland, boring, processed foods that seems to have taken over the American table the cost:pleasure ratio came out wanting. I wonder if it would be possible to throw out our broken food model and improve health in the US by consciously developing a true food culture. I’d argue that our lack of established food customs gives Americans a unique opportunity to shape meals that work for our bodies, our taste buds our planet and our pocketbooks. This need not be a culture that outright rejects fatty and sweet foods but instead one that treats these foods as so special that they should only be consumed on an occasional basis. Indeed, the point of establishing this culture would be to elevate the American meal to something worth paying for with time, money and calories. Such a system would discourage overeating by associating high monetary and effort cost with foods of higher caloric value. How often would we eat cookies or pizza if we always had to prepare these foods from scratch? How much more enjoyable would these foods be knowing that someone spent the time and money to make them? Who wouldn’t choose homemade chocolate chip cookies over Chips Ahoy?


kajal said...

i'm hungry for some cake

themikestand said...

Excellent post, Brianna. It seems that people have a misguided sense of budgeting, where they would rather get cheap food and iPods than healthy food and fewer nonfood items (or a smaller ipod?). Add to that the silly notion that food should be one of the least expensive items in our lives (a sort market failure, as termed in economic theory), and we do get the type of misguided, mixed up value systems you've pointed out.

Nice food for thought. We could really all use some more thought about our food.