Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nom Nom Nom

Woohoo! This year's Blog Action Day, also known as #BAD11, focuses on the topic of Food, which I am actually interested in! I've enjoyed writing for previous years, but those have tended to be issues that I recognize as very important but don't think about that often. In contrast, I, and I'd presume to say almost everyone, thinks about food on a daily basis.

Over the years, I've come to treat BAD as an excuse for some rambling reflections on my personal connection with the topic, and then kind of try to tie in with some larger political themes. Shall we give that a shot again?

Food was an important part of my life growing up. My parents were great about making sure that we always ate meals together as a family - and, with six of us all at different stages of life and with a wide variety of interests, that can't have been easy! My mom was and remains a great cook, and I can still remember a lot of the dishes that she would make. We grew up in Minnesota, so there were a lot of classic casseroles like Tuna Noodle Casserole, and a chili with spaghetti in the broth, and seaburgers, and meat loaf... all kinds of stuff. She also tried to serve nutritious food, though I resisted mightily. I think that I would refuse to eat just about anything that was green - I didn't like broccoli, didn't like lettuce, didn't like celery, didn't like green beans, didn't like lima beans, etc. ad infinitum. I think that I liked canned corn, and tolerated canned carrots, and that was about it.

My strongest emotional connection was and remains with my mom's baking. She was a famously talented pie-maker, and could make an incredible variety of pies. Her most famous one was probably a rhubarb pie, made from our backyard patch of rhubarb. She also made a wonderful apple pie, a special-occasion strawberry pie, occasional blueberry pies, a sticky-sweet-but-delicious pecan pie, and more. The only pie I didn't care for was a sour cream apple pie, which I had decided at some point that I disliked. But, since she was known to make multiple pies, I almost always had an alternative anyways. Even today, when I'm feeling brave enough to attempt making a pie, I almost always steer away from the types my mom made, since I know they'll never meet those standards, and instead I usually end up making new kinds like sweet potato pie.

Beyond pies, she would also make birthday cakes for us. Early in life, I settled on a favorite birthday cake, which I continue to have every July: yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Some years we would put M&M candies along the edges.

And, of course, there were the cookies. Mom made cookies throughout the year, but a sort of Cookie Armageddon would strike just before Christmas, where our home would fill up with literally hundreds of cookies: chocolate bon-bons and Mexican wedding cakes and a variety of sugar cookies (in our family, we follow a strict hierarchy: Trees > Bells > Stars). It made an already special season even more special.

And, really, it's that "special"-ness of food that's so important and rewarding. Food isn't just fuel, it isn't just a source of calories, it isn't just a bundle of nutrients. Food is a very primal way of connecting with one another, of building shared experiences and common sense memory. When I sit down with my family for Thanksgiving, we're not just enjoying one another's company, but also tapping into a tradition that stretches back thirty years, and is all the more powerful because it's operating on the taste and scent planes, in addition to touch and sight.

I can't claim that I ate especially well as a high-schooler; like most of my peers, I enjoyed eating, but I kind of shudder now when I think about WHAT I ate. Lots of frozen pizzas, and frozen chicken pot pies, and Doritos, and cans of soda. It went even further downhill when I went off to college. My freshman year, I took advantage of the all-you-can-eat pricing at Center Court and loaded up on the (surprisingly tasty) choices, often dominated by pizza and pasta from the Italian kiosk (to this day, I get queasy when I see fetuccine alfredo on a menu, after one too many scoops from the congealing tray they always had on display there), or burgers from the grill, or ginormous sandwiches. In later years, I increasingly took advantage of the speed and convenience of Bear's Den, which led to a steady diet of fried chicken tenders and fried mozarella sticks.

As with family meals, food in college served an important social purpose beyond just feeding our bodies. I remember huddling under the stairs in Lopata II, enjoying Cheap Lunch with a circle of friends; or a weekend brunch in Center Court with the other floormates from Beaumont Hall; or a late-night session in front of the TV, laughing at The Daily Show while picking our way through trays of fried food.

I was probably at my least healthy when I graduated from school. I lived for a few years in Kansas City, and struggled a little with putting together a bachelor lifestyle that wouldn't kill me. I avoided eating out, and started "cooking," but my cookery wasn't anything at all notable. I would occasionally fry up burgers, but most of my meals tended to be Hamburger Helper-type affairs: the recipe would typically start with melting together a stick of butter and a cup of milk in a skillet, then adding raw meat and finishing with some dried pasta and flavoring packets. I doubt that this food was any healthier than what I was eating at college, but I do think that it was a healthier habit to get into: I was, very crudely, practicing making my own food at home, and developing a set of habits around preparing, serving, and saving food that would serve me well in future years.

My epicurean epiphany started when I moved to California. Off the bat, I started shopping at Food Maxx, still buying mostly the same stuff as I had in Kansas City, but starting to experiment with some Hispanic flavors. The big turning point came about a year later, when two unrelated events propelled me into becoming a more serious home cook. First of all, out of nowhere I received a sample issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. I thought a couple of recipes looked good; made them; decided they tasted REALLY good; and ended up subscribing. For the next several years, every two months would give me a new magazine with enough recipes (with leftovers for one person) to keep me going with fresh, new, interesting dishes. Around the same time, Albertson's went bankrupt and closed a bunch of their stores, including one at Leigh and Southwest Expressway where I used to always shop. When coming up with a new routine, I started patronizing the Campbell farmer's market, and quickly fell in love with it. Every Sunday, I would wander into the market with a few empty bags and an open mind. I would walk up and down, check the prices on everything, try a few samples, look for anything that looked especially tasty or interesting. If I saw a fruit or vegetable that I didn't recognize, I would buy it, take it home, and then look it up in The Joy of Cooking, a massive cookbook that my aunt Fran had given me as a graduation gift years ago but was finally getting put to constant use. Between Cook's Illustrated for main dishes, and the farmer's market for produce and side dishes, I had a steady influx of new and stimulating challenges. I loved Christopher Kimball's methodical, precise approach to cooking, which gave me the confidence to try making complex dishes. Over time, I gradually got better at using my tools (it used to take me ten minutes to mince an onion, it now takes me about thirty seconds), gradually upgraded my tools (I can no longer imagine having a kitchen without a garlic press), and learned some fundamental but important principles for cookery, like the importance of a heavy skillet or the role acids play in baking. Even more gradually, I've slowly become comfortable with more of the ephemera of cooking: being able to "tell" when something is done cooking by the look and texture, or having a sixth sense kick in moments before something becomes overdone.

All this cooking stuff was pretty new for me. I think that I would make Macaroni & Cheese while growing up, and I've been making chocolate chip cookie bars since I was in junior high school, but otherwise I couldn't make anything that didn't come from the freezer. I think my parents were probably amused when I would gush at how much fun I was having with cooking - I'm sure I never gave a hint of interest back when I could have actually helped out in their kitchen!

Cooking has become a very important part of my life lately. It's an activity that both physically and mentally rejuvenates me; it requires a certain amount of focus, yet doesn't occupy all my attention, and so it can feel very relaxing and productive at the same time. I'll typically cook a fair amount over the weekend, and depending on what it is, I'll often save some in the fridge for the next few days, and some more in the freezer for a longer-term leftover. Even having a ton of leftovers, I'm able to get a lot of variety in my diet, and because I rarely repeat dishes, I don't have enough time to get bored of what I just made.

In recent years, I've grown increasingly fascinated by the economic and political aspects of our food system. The first example of this for me was Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation". Now, I'm actually less tied to fast food than a lot of people I know. When I was growing up, I ate fast food maybe a total of a dozen times, mostly on family vacations; since then, I'll occasionally stop by a restaurant, but have never regularly patronized the major fast food chains. Still, FFN greatly disturbed me. It goes beyond the problems with fast food itself, and taps into what has been wrong with our country's food supply in general: the deplorable conditions in the meat-packing factories, the totally backwards approach to food safety (where the USDA doesn't even have the authority to order a recall, and has to rely on manufacturers to do so), the way we cannibalize animals and have them eat one another's flesh, which in turn has led to the rise of scary new diseases like BSE.

For a few years, I pretty strictly confined myself to only eating organic meat, and almost always eating organic produce. I've since softened that stance a bit; I still prefer organic when I buy stuff for myself, but since the food I buy and prepare myself forms by far the largest part of my diet, I don't worry about the few times when I'm eating out or at a friend's house. More importantly than that, though, is probably the way that Fast Food Nation helped un-jar my meat-centric approach towards meals. For a long time, I just took it for granted that any meal I ate would have to include meat, in some form: either chicken tacos, or beef chili, or Swiss steak, whatever. Increasingly, I have many more vegetarian meals, and when I do have meat, it tends to be a smaller component in a larger meal, like a stir-fry or pasta with chicken and vegetables. It also helps that I now live on the West Coast and have much better access to a huge variety of fresh and delicious fish. For me, fish used to mean either fish sticks or canned tuna. Now, it means a yellow grouper curry, or a salmon burger, or toro sushi, or simply broiled snapper. Ever since I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium's phenomenal Seafood Watch guide, I've been able to happily and confidently buy and eat all the delicious seafood I want.

My reading continues, and over time I've become more passionate and less militant about food, if that makes sense... I'm learning more about the problems with the way we produce and eat food, but also recognize that there are multiple ways to make things better. The single best food-related book I've read may still be Marion Nestle's "What to Eat" - it came at a great time in my life, and helped stave off the confusion that I would have otherwise come up against if I tried to keep track of what's good and bad for you. Nestle has a wonderful approach which allows you to throw out all of the news-cycle-driven "health" stories that are constantly produced, with a bewildering set of recommendations and reversals, and replaces it with just a few simple, basic principles: "Eat less. Move more. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Don't eat too much junk food." Cool! There's lots more that you can learn, but if you just follow that sound (and simple!) advice, it's really hard to mess up your diet.

Michael Pollan takes a similar kind of tack, although he is perhaps a bit more interested in the production of food, where Marion Nestle focuses more on the distribution and consumption. Pollan's alternate mantra is "Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Just eight words - a winner!

The food-related book I've most recently read, though it's actually a bit older, is Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." This is much less overtly political than Nestle or Pollan, but is quite emotional and heartwarming, while still tapping into some of the same national themes that those other authors work with. Kingsolver has the most up-close view at actual farming of the bunch, and unlike the others, who point to the problems with the current system, Kingsolver shows (and lives) an alternative approach to how we can feed ourselves.

These days, the food information I'm most interested in comes from Nutrition Action Healthletter, a small monthly from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Along with the EFF, I think that the CSPI are some of the good guys in American civic life. They lobby strongly, based on the most solid, proven science, for effective legislation to improve Americans' physical quality of life. They were responsible for putting nutrition labels on food products in the supermarket; they helped push for the US standard for organic food; they led the successful drive to remove trans fats from our food supply; and they continue to be at the forefront of every important food-related issue. Beyond their lobbying, though, I just generally dig them for their common-sense approach to everything. Whenever someone publishes a new nutrition study, every newspaper and magazine in the country will simply reprint whatever the researchers say. Nutrition Action, though, will actually break down the study, help explain whether it was well-done or not; whether it confirms or conflicts with previous studies on the topic; explains how reliable the results are and who they apply to; and gives bottom-line recommendations for how to integrate this new information. More often than not, that ends up meaning ignoring it, and I'm glad that they can cut through the noise and help people stay focused on what's really important. Like Nestle and Pollan, they help drive a consistent message. There's a nearly infinite variety of healthy diets out there, and you shouldn't stress out about whether you're eating the right "miracle foods" or have the hot supplement of the month; instead, just make sure that your plate is mostly full of fruits and vegetables. That's it! You can pick the fruits and vegetables that taste best to you, and you can prepare them in a variety of ways, and you can enjoy sweets and meats as long as you don't go overboard.

I'm so very fortunate to live in California, where it's probably a lot easier to find fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables year-round. I've gradually come to realize that this is one of the big intersections of cooking and food. Cooking is kind of a great equalizer: if you cook well, you can elevate humble ingredients to a strong finish. However, if you're starting out with great ingredients, little or no cooking is required to bring it out. I still do cook a lot of my vegetables - one of the things I've realized as an adult is that, unlike my parents, I dislike the texture of hard vegetables, and a lot of the same foods that I despised as a child, I now enjoy if I cook them until they're soft. (I don't like eating raw celery, even with dips, but will gladly eat celery once it's braised. I don't care for raw carrots, but think that roasted carrots are some of the most delicious sides imaginable, and steamed carrots tossed with a little pepper and thyme aren't far behind.)

I think that there are improvements we can make in our approach to food, both on a micro, personal level and at a macro, societal level. The two levels are linked but distinct, sharing the same ultimate goal of improving quality of life, but the personal level focuses on actions that we can take today, while the political level seeks to improve the playing field. On a personal level, the most important thing we can do is to cook more and to eat socially. Cooking brings us into a relationship with our food, and is a powerful foundation for all the other improvements we can make in our culinary lives. It's impossible to eat healthily if we eat out all the time, and it's nearly impossible to even tell just how unhealthily we're eating, thanks to the gargantuan portions and the difficulty of obtaining good information about the food. When we cook, though, we have control over every aspect of the meal. We can shape it to our own tastes, and we know exactly what we're putting into our bodies.

Cooking at all is great. Even better is to cook primarily with produce. Nothing against a juicy steak, but bringing more plants into the diet makes you feel better, and gives you a better variety of food. For extra credit, cook with food that's in season (it's cheaper and tastes better), grown close to where you live (tastes better and is better for the environment), and organic (healthier for you and better for the environment).

And, just as importantly, enjoy food. It should be shared, it should be savored. Pay attention to what you eat. Pay attention to what you like. Try to develop a vocabulary for the flavors you encounter. Whenever you share a meal with someone else, ask them what they think of it, and see if they can raise anything that you might have missed.

On the social level, we have already made huge strides in the past decade. Books like Fast Food Nation and groups like the CSPI have helped significantly decrease the cannibalism in our cattle; they have led to greater transparency in nutrition information at chain restaurants; they led an absolutely crucial and revolutionary charge in Congress that resulted in the successful passage of the most significant overhaul in our food safety system in the past 80 years, finally giving the FDA the authority and resources to proactively prevent poison in our food supply. Sadly, the Republican party is trying to gut the law, so we'll be playing on the defensive for a while yet, but even if they manage to strip funding from the FDA, the country as a whole will have a far safer food system than we did at the turn of the millennium.

That doesn't mean that the job is over, though. The highest priority should be maintaining the Food Safety Modernization Act. Next to that, in my opinion, is the importance of increasing the availability of healthy, real food. People like me who are lucky to make good incomes and live in fairly upscale neighborhoods have an embarrassment of fresh food supplies available (within roughly a three-block radius of my condo is a Trader Joe's, a Safeway, a butcher shop, a greengrocer, and a small upscale independent grocery). However, many Americans live in "food deserts", which have plenty of McDonalds restaurants but no grocery stores with fresh produce. Kids grow up in these places with horrible nutrition, and as a result we're seeing children growing up into both first-world obesity and third-world malnutrition. Solving this problem will require the cooperation of government, business, and grass-roots social groups. The federal government can help by subsidizing the production of produce (currently most subsidies are directed towards grain crops like corn); state and local government can help by using zoning to encourage development within food deserts, streamlining approval for businesses moving into such areas, and providing tax incentives to the first companies moving in; and local community groups can help clean up the blight that tends to scare away new investment.

Besides this, we can help align our country's actual government policy with our stated aims. For decades now, Congress has acted very schizophrenically, on the one hand deploring the decreasing health of our country, and on the other hand massively supporting the system that has led to that poor health. The prime culprit here is the Farm Bill, which overwhelmingly subsidizes the production of grain crops using unsustainable levels of pesticides and other gunk. That has led to a highly inefficient series of outcomes: we sweeten our drinks with corn, and we turn corn into fuel for our cars (arguably better than burning gasoline, but corn is one of the least efficient alternative fuel sources, and is only chosen because the government has made it cheap). This has also led to the monoculture of our agriculture; Iowa used to grow a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, starches, and animals, but now produces almost nothing but corn, soybeans, and pork. We should put our money where our mouth is: support small-scale mom-and-pop farmers instead of subsidizing ADM and other corporate behemoths; cut down on subsidies for commodity crops and increase subsidies for fruits and vegetables, which will help drive down their price, make them easier to buy and more available, and increase consumption; and reward farmers for farming sustainably and preserving their topsoil, instead of relying on ever-increasing chemical support.

The Farm Bill will probably be coming up for reauthorization in 2012, and in the middle of a huge election, I can see it being very political. We should take that opportunity to align our tax dollars with our goals, instead of putting them at odds with one another.

Until then, though, there's plenty that we can do in our own lives to improve our diet, and vote with our dollars for better food. The market for organic foods and farmer's markets have exploded in the past decade, as a direct result of the increasing demand from regular consumers. Food quality has been one area where the government has followed public opinion, not driven it, and the choices we make today will not only benefit us, but the rest of the country as well.


  1. I clicked on your blog randomly from the BAD website. I related to a lot of your points, especially about how at first, learning to cook anything, even Hamburger Helper, helps pave a road to healthier habits, and how over time, one can read tons about healthy eating and sustainable agriculture, and then settle into a nonmilitant way of appreciating food. Overall, great post, and I'm glad to have stumbled upon it.

  2. Thanks, Mai! I just checked out your own blog - great stuff! I particularly enjoyed the great pictures you take... they make home-cooked meals look as appealing as they taste!