Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Thought for Food

Sam asked me, below, whether he can eat foie gras guilt-free, which reminded me of a series of conversations we had around here awhile ago. An ex-coworker was a vegetarian, and his wife was vegan. I'm neither, though it's true that I don't eat a lot of meat, and another coworker is thoughtful (in a deep sense) about what he eats, but some of what he eats includes meat that he has killed (venison, turkey). The vegetarian, L, was used to making relatively unchallenged comments about food--the basic arguments for vegetarianism were among them--but the other coworker, B, and I, have thought about food and its production a fair amount, so the basic arguments didn't go very far with us. Which is more destructive, I asked L, vegetables that have been grown with a lot of pesticides or animals that have been grown in something other than factory-farming conditions? How much does what people can afford factor into the equation? B points out that nearly any use of land by humans alters its state, alters the species that grow and do not grow there, alters the animals who live off or around that land.

None of this is to attack vegetarianism, I should add, or meat-eaters, either. I do think that Americans eat more animal-based foods than is good for them, and I also think that many people don't think too much about their food supply. (Another ex-coworker likes meat, but only if it doesn't bear any bits, like bone or gristle or fat, that remind her that she's eating an animal.) I'm distressed by the prevalence of pesticides, even as I recognize how they make food available in ways it might not otherwise be. I'm also distressed by the disappearance of family farms, in favor of large agri-businesses, not least because the latter seem to bring out some of the worst aspects of globalization. I suspect that too many people eat too many foods that have been processed entirely too much, and there are an increasing number of studies that seem to back me up on that one. Overall, though, I've come to think that it's the thoughtfulness that's at the heart of it, because all of those things are interrelated.

Hestia asked me about my food philosophy, and, not surprisingly, I have one. (You've probably figured out that I have a philosophy about damned near everything, and if I don't have one, I can make one up.) I try to:
1. Buy local.
2. Buy organic or "natural" food.
3. Not eat a lot of animals,
4. When I do eat animals, not eat animals that have been treated badly.
5. Cook from scratch and utilize ingredients that have been minimally processed.
6. Eat seasonally.

Obviously, compromise among these principles is necessary, and all bets are off (or most, anyway) when I go out to dinner, largely because I can't control most of these factors. Nevertheless, let me explain them a little bit.

Buy local. A lot of the food we eat travels a huge distance to get to us. This uses up a lot of resources, including a lot of non-renewable energy resources. It has the potential to ruin local economies, both in our own locales as well as in distant countries--it's the Wal-Martization of food. That is, in order to produce vegetables or fruit, farmers have to meet a lot of standards. Some of them have to do with safety--don't grow vegetables on a toxic dump, for example. But other standards are directly related to the convenience and profit margins of the distributors--grow tomatos that ship well rather than tomatos that taste good. What also can happen is that small producers have to make large investments in order to meet such standards--they're now in even more debt. The distributor can now screw them on price: do as I say, and accept the price that I offer, or I will not buy any of your produce. When the distributor controls the market, which is often the case in a given area, the producer can either comply or go out of business. Increasingly, producers go out of business no matter what. Local production and distribution enables farmers to make a living without having to follow the Wal-Mart rules, or so I believe. I patronize farmers' markets, and I buy locally whenever I can. An unintended benefit of this, however, is that I often get to meet the actual producers, which can be a complete trip. Many love what they do--the potato guy, for example, knows more about more kinds of potatos than anyone I've ever met. The bee guy is another one, and it's the best honey ever. The meat guy. The herb guy, from whom I've bought many bunches of basil over the years, and to whom I introduced pesto made with his basil. The fruit ladies, and their grandsons. I like knowing the people who have grown or produced what I'm going to eat. It's a basic human interaction.

Often, too, local is better-tasting. It's closer to ripe when it's picked. The producer can grow varieties that don't ship well over long distances but that taste spectacular or varieties that select for taste rather than looks. I remember reading an article about apples: in part at the behest of distributors and large grocery chains, apple producers slowly switched to trees that produced fruit that was big, red, and shipped well. Unfortunately, the apples tasted awful; they had no taste, or they were mealy. Even more unfortunately, apple trees take awhile to mature, so it wasn't a problem that could be reversed quickly or easily, and it was the producers who bore the brunt of the cost; the distributors always get their cut. Same with tomatos--I won't buy anything but canned tomatos in the winter, and local tomatos in the summer. Fresh tomatos were not meant to be shipped, okay?

Buy organic or natural food. There are several bits to this. I object to large bio-pharmaceutical companies developing Frankenfoods, especially when those seeds and the resultant produce have unknown long-term effects. (I don't know and neither do you--they haven't been around long enough.) This is particularly problematic when the seed produces a plant that is resistant to a particular herbicide that is used to kill the weeds, and the herbicide is also manufactured by the seed company. I remember learning about crop rotation when I was in grade school, which is a completely different method for making sure that the soil doesn't just wear out or blow away. With regard to meat, I prefer that the animals I eat not be tortured before I eat them (which pretty much eliminates veal, and probably eliminates most foie gras, for me). Free-range chickens, cattle that have been raised on a smaller (rather than a factory) farm, hogs that have been raised the same way--these all seem like better ideas to me. I especially do not want the animals to be fed a lot of antibiotics and growth hormones--that can't be good for them, and it can't be good for the people who consume the meat, milk, and eggs. The large food industries will deny it all, of course, but think about it and decide for yourself. I'm not particularly a fan of pesticides, either, and I think that one of the good things that has come out of the huge expansion of the organic food industry is evidence that large-scale organic farming is possible. (The downside, of course, is that any huge industry may cause the aforementioned Wal-Mart problems.)

The other difficulty with organic/natural food is that it is often significantly more expensive than non-organic food. I don't know that it's more expensive to produce, mind you, but the distributors have figured out that the market will bear much higher prices for organic, so the cost of production is less relevant in the price-setting. Thus, this principle may often conflict with other principles, particularly for people who have limited resources.

Not a lot of animals. and Not animals that have been treated badly. Most of us come from genetic stock that didn't eat a lot of meat (Arctic natives notwithstanding), and we don't need to eat animals to thrive. They're tasty, though, and we seem to be omnivores in general. This one is more a health principle than anything: there's increasing evidence that an excess of animal products isn't very healthy for you. A lot of meat seems to be associated with colon cancer, for example, though the link is far from direct. A little bit of lean meat isn't going to hurt, and neither is a little butter. A 24-ounce steak and a stick of butter, however, are more problematic, and not just because there are a lot of calories in both.

Here's the other thing, though. I think a lot of the factory farming of animals is tied in a disturbing causal circle with the amount of meat we eat. I think the factory farming of animals is harmful to them, to the land on which they live, and to those of us who eat the animals, and I'd rather we move toward a situation where we eat less meat but it's of higher quality and has been treated better while it's alive. It would be more expensive, perhaps, to eliminate the huge factory farms (though we have to ask, "more expensive for whom?"), but perhaps not. In any case, better-quality meat, in smaller quantities, seems like a good trade-off. Possible? I don't know.

Cook from scratch and utilize ingredients that have been processed minimally. This one is much more complicated for me, and part of the explication belongs in another post about why I cook and why I liked to cook. The other part of the answer, though, is that I think that cooking is a basic skill that everyone should possess, at least in rudimentary form. Everyone should know how to follow a recipe; buy groceries; sew a button on a shirt; clean a bathroom; balance a checkbook or otherwise manage finances. That's one thing. The other thing, though, with the cooking from scratch, is that I think taste and smell are a huge part of our bodily repertoire--40% of the five senses, after all--and that we should take advantage of that bounty and enjoy food. For me, one of the important paths to that is doing my own cooking--that's one of the best ways, if not the only way, to truly find out what you like to smell and eat. When you buy a can or box of something--one of those mixes with a little spice packet, or a can of soup--someone else has decided how your food will taste. (The same is true in a restaurant, of course, but work with me for a minute.) When you sit down and read recipes and decide to try something new, at first you're going by someone else's ideas, but, very quickly, you start changing the recipes. (More difficult to do with baking than with cooking, but still possible.) I always leave out the bell peppers, because we do NOT get along, and I don't bother making a dish that features bell peppers, but I also know that you can adjust any spice or seasoning. There's something tedious about cooking, of course--having to feed a family every day probably wears thin--but there's something exciting about it, too. I like the rhythm of finding recipes, making a grocery list, doing the shopping (the stepkid likes to be the "lister," i.e., the person who crosses things off the list), making the food, knowing it's there in the freezer. I like knowing that I have sufficient supplies and sufficient skills, at this point, to throw something together, and those skills have been a huge help when I've been really broke and needed to stretch a dollar.

As for the minimal processing, well, there's increasing evidence that highly processed foods aren't that great for you, either. Personally, I think that most processing sucks the life out of the food, and I don't think that injecting a chemical back into it is the answer. Do I buy frozen meals? A few, when they're on sale at Whole Paycheck, to have for those times when I just don't want to deal with anything, but they could easily sit in the freezer for three months, and I tend to get the Amy's Organic or something. When I've had the Lean Cuisine-type meals, I've found them just yucky--sugar, salt, and chemicals, attached to gloppy rice or noodles or low-grade meat. That sucks the joy out of food, for me, and numbs the palate and the senses. I think that it's bad for one's energy level, too--whole grains and relatively fresh vegetables and complex carbohydrates and the like take time for your body to process, and your blood sugar and energy level aren't going to spike and crash as much as they will when you survive on sugar and low-fiber highly processed carbohydrates.

Eat seasonally. This one is more loosely interpreted, what with frozen organic vegetables and canned organic tomatos being available year-round, but I think it's a cousin to the "eat local" principle. Tomatos and corn on the cob are meant to be eaten within minutes of picking. Hours, if necessary, but not days or weeks, and not thousands of miles from where they were grown. It's just wrong. Strawberries are best when they're ripe and sweet and tender. Strawberries that have been shipped rarely have those characteristics. Rasberries are one of the finest things in life--they are also extremely fragile. So, really, raspberries from, say, Chile, are going to be missing something that the raspberries from an hour away in Michigan will have. Peaches--they should be sweet and fresh and so juicy that your elbow gets sticky from the nectar running down your arm. That means that there are a few good weeks for raspberries, peaches, fresh tomatos, corn, and so on; it means that some pleasures can only be enjoyed briefly, and that some pleasures can only be enjoyed later if you have a freezer or you can can or preserve your food. But that's okay. It reminds us that life is cyclical, and so are we.

I should add that I'm not really fanatic about these principles. Put a cheesesteak with onions from Jim's Steaks or Joe's Steak Shop in front of me, and we got something goin' on. TastyKakes, too. Good chocolate. Hard candy. And, about six times a year, a Dr. Pepper. I like to go out to dinner, and not just to get ideas for my own cooking. But I couldn't do a steady diet of any of those things any more than I could do a steady diet without any of those things.

Updated to add links to an article about cooking at home and one about strawberries.

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