In an increasingly food-obsessed culture, it’s easy to take sides — say, the embittered Mark Bittman/Michael Pollan side versus the I’ve-eaten-this-way-all-my-life-and-I’m-fine side — leading to rifts or, at the very least, bad feelings among friends, family members, and most certainly restaurant owners and manufacturers who stand astutely on one side of the line or the other. I have to admit, the inspiration for this post came from my shock at seeing a photo of Bittman in the latest issue of Everyday Food: he has his hands up in the air and is smiling, widely, which is not the usual image I conjure up of him in my head as I read his passionate articles and interviews. At least in terms of how he expresses his dissatisfaction with our nation’s current industrialized food system and garbage eating habits, he doesn’t exactly come across as a happy-go-lucky type…more like the lovechild of Anthony Bourdain and Marion Nestle — an all-black-wearing New Yorker who’s taken daddy’s bad attitude and softened it up with a bit of mommy’s extensive research, adding a dash of honest irony and patent disgust to the whole state of affairs.
So, to a certain degree, I can completely understand the spectators in the audience who feel a-okay with their lunch runs to McDonald’s, their Capri Sun and Chips Ahoy after-school snacks and dinner — takeout — from the local Thai place one night, followed by pizza the next, and burgers with fries on Friday. It’s comforting, this routine so many of us have developed. Fitting the mold, pacifying our children, breaking our “diets” at the first office party or holiday get-together. This has become what’s normal for Americans, so what’s all the fuss about this farm bill deal? Pink slime? Just let my kids eat their nuggets in peace. Bring me a cocktail and some peanuts; it’s been a long day; do we really have to talk about this now?
The thing is, we do.
If you have even half an ear to the news in the morning or read anything even resembling a newspaper article or editorial on Sunday, you’re bound to come across at least one (major or minor) story about the latest discovery regarding X type of cancer, the rise in diabetes, how much added sugar the average adult is now consuming or what new product on store shelves is being protested by a watchdog group for containing crushed-up beetles (red dye, anyone?) or genetically modified cornflour. You can’t ignore it; or, rather, you shouldn’t — because it will come back to bite you in the end in the form of a heart attack, high cholesterol necessitating daily statin medications, overweight kids, and any other number of food-related illnesses and maladies.
I know, I know. I can see the look on your face now, a half-smirk, perhaps a roll of the eyes, at projecting 10 years out and “not worrying” about that now. But what will look on your face be when something does happen? Will there be cursing when the hospital bill arrives? An embarrassed downward glance and shuffling of the feet when you hear about your slightly overweight young child being teased at school?
Perhaps you can think about it this way — what is more important to you than that burger? Maybe it’s (selfishly) still having a decent-looking wife at 40, so let’s cook instead of ordering Chinese tonight. Or perhaps it really is your child, and you decide to put in the extra five minutes of effort to heat up last night’s leftovers for lunch on a Saturday instead of plugging him into crackers and fruit snacks. It could be, and arguably should be, your own health and well of natural physical and mental energy that needs filling first: I will skip the Hershey’s kisses on the front desk after lunch today because I can’t afford the daily afternoon slump during my 4 o’clock meeting.
Don’t worry about being the bad guy, even if you’re just as surprised as I was to see a tough food activist smiling jovially. In fact, I would encourage you to be the bad guy. In an upcoming post, I’m working on you’ll hear more about this, but act like the French (who we often categorize as being snooty) and don’t accept anything less than fresh, pure, and delectable at each meal. Play the Bad Cop role and suddenly, inexplicably, throw out all the cookies and cakes in that one cupboard above the dishwasher. Take massive and drastic action, or take it one step at a time:
- Switch to organic milk and eggs (and cheese whenever possible)
- Buy only local or organic poultry and meat — cut back your consumption if the cost throws you for a loop
- Start tackling the other bad guys one by one (white flour, sugars, refined oils, conventional fruits, and vegetables with high pesticide counts)
- Don’t offer (or indulge in behind closed doors) dessert after every meal
- Do the apple test before you eat: If you’re not hungry enough to eat the world’s most shiny, crisp, blemish-free, and delicious apple, you’re also not hungry for that donut or bagel
That may or may not be the best order in which to tackle things at your house, but look around. Read some of my past posts or other sites to help you decide where to start. Know thyself and whether taking this one baby step at a time is the way to go or if you’re going to attempt quitting industrial food cold turkey. And know that you will fail. You will forget that your favorite crackers are made with refined sunflower oil. You will have a bite of that appetizer on Derby Day before realizing it was probably made with white flour. Your “treats” will even start to feel like mini failures because it’s so hard not to celebrate everything from the first day of summer to the last day at work.
But pushing back against that failure is what will make you stronger and more determined to continue taking action against unhealthy customs and shabby eating establishments. You don’t have to be outspoken about it like Bittman or Pollan; go at your own pace and speak out about it only if you wish. Just do something to keep propelling this movement forward. You, as a human being, mother, brother, sister, father, child, wife, or worker, will be carried even farther with every smart choice you make.