Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Collective Wisdom

I have been reading, no- savoring The Omnivore's Dilemma for a few weeks now, and I brought it along to Portland. It is all about food, an integral part of human life, especially modern American food, something I have a love/apathy relationship with. Having been prepped by watching Food, Inc., I knew that as a nation most of us were walking corn#2people ("you are what you eat!"), that obesity levels are at an unprecedented high, and that conditions in most feedlots are unspeakably unsanitary, cruel, and artfully hidden. The way I have dealt with this thus far is to avoid all processed foods with HFCS, join a boot camp, get produce on occasion at farmers markets, and purchase meat from a local co-op that only stocks what is "natural," "antibiotic-free," "free-range," and whatever other catchphrases they use these days. But we still eat out at restaurants who don't serve food at this standard, because we like eating out. B, especially, delights in trying new foods and enjoying old favorites as if it were a hobby of his. If we limited ourselves to restaurants that sourced only local and organic plants and humanely treated animals, our choices would be limited to a handful of places, mostly on the $$$$ side. We throw our hands up in the air about that.
But should we be cooking and eating in more? Or looking to move to a place with more of those options (like Portland)? I've had more than enough time this year to cook dinner for us each weeknight. I go to the grocery store every other day to get the freshest greens. I don't recall the last time I threw out expired veggies or fruits. (That was a weekly occurrence during my college days, where 4 girls shared a cave of a refrigerator and went to the HEB once a week). It feels good to be able to provide a healthy, hot meal for us. I have even started using the oven again to bake no-knead bread and desserts. The bread-making was spurred by the realization that the $3 rustic loaves we get from Central Market probably aren't that hard to make. And they cost like 12 cents in ingredients. It took exactly 3 tries of dense loaves for me to figure out that I need to let the dough rise twice as long as the recipe stated, so that it would acquire that chewy, airy texture. I also started making these for my local bike mechanic, who has been a valuable resource in fixing up my recently acquired vintage Bridgestone RB-3 road bike. It takes me 8-12 hours of rise time to make a loaf (actual labor time: 15 minutes?), and while I go to my job and do other things during the rise time, it is still an amount of work. It is not very convenient, and part of me would rather continue to buy these from local bakeries, but as my last yoga class taught me to do, I withhold judgment and reflect on the inconvenience. I certainly do not want to succumb to the unhealthy and expensive fast food lifestyle, where everything I consume is processed or pre-made. I see one of my employers going down this path, even though he has started exercising, he doesn't have time to eat, much less make food, because he is an endlessly working small business owner. I look at the Amish/old-timey/survivalist Lehman's catalog and see human-powered food-making machines that aren't really for timesaving. Not that I scorn technology and wish to live life the way they did 100 years ago: short lives with days full of meticulous, backbreaking labor. And yet, it could be more meaningful than the life some people live now. I'm not sure what exactly I'm trying to say; perhaps that I am being made aware of how I need to be here now and seek meaning in seemingly menial and labor-intensive tasks like cooking, baking, cleaning, gardening, and mending.
The subject of this post is inspired by a recent section in the book. That as Americans, we do not have a national cuisine to draw from, and that is why we have a "national eating disorder," says Michael Pollan. We are yanked this way and that way each few years by the newest diet or superfood. I am prey to the hype each time and indignation at this has been building up in me. We do not have the collective wisdom of other cultures, many of whom have been eating the same way for generations. What tastes good is usually also healthy. Think tofu in China, kimchee in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, cured fish in Scandinavia. This is why I feel a more pressing need to learn more traditional dishes from my mom, and explore foods that I have grown up eating and no longer excite my taste buds. This is why I cannot love food magazines like Everyday Food, because the recipes, pretty as they are, have vague influences from other cultures and have been modified to be healthy by the editors. I'm fine with healthy. I just feel unsettled that we have no strong food traditions from which to draw. It may sound like I am against reinvented and modern foods. I am not, but there needs to be a foundation. I don't want my kids growing up eating fish sticks, frozen pizzas, McDonald's, soft drinks, and Cheetos like I did. Besides zero nutrition, there isn't really a story behind those foods. Not one to be proud of and cherish anyway.


Rachel B said...

We started taking a CSA this fall, and I think that this practice helps address some of the issues that you're talking about. Traditional cuisine in other places developed from the foods that they had available, but in America we didn't have centuries and centuries of history to develop a "national cuisine" before the advent of modern transportation systems, farming techniques and food engineering allowed us to completely manipulate what foods and "foods" are available to us.

I find that the CSA helps us to eat a variety of foods, rather than choosing our very favorite veggies week after week at the grocery store. At the same time the CSA seems a little bit limiting (more okra???? How am I going to find ANOTHER way to use okra???), but I think the limitations are what makes a "cuisine." With the CSA, the foundation of your diet is: "What is available to eat for me today in Austin, Texas? Well I guess I'll find a way to make that work."

As you know, it doesn't bother me much to make recipes that are vaguely influenced by other countries' cuisines. I feel like so much of what American culture IS is a mishmash of different cultures. Of course, when you mix a bunch of cultural influences all together like that and try to make them widely appealing, they become so muddled and watered-down that they cease to be distinctive and hardly resemble the source from which they originated...and this is how Tex Mex came to be. It's not all bad, right?

Fern said...

I really like the idea of a CSA. I think I am too picky about vegetables to make it a reality though. It is something to aspire to. Agreed about how limitations make a cuisine. The US needs a couple hundred more years and it needs to get away from industry-driven diets.
Haha, I don't like Tex Mex.