Monday, April 20, 2009

Eating and Being

I think it's time to begin a series of essays that look at what we gain, and what we stand to lose, by adopting behaviors and practices that can help us all heal the world. Tikkun Olam involves continuous rethinking of how our being in the world affects its other occupants, and aims to address that impact with measures that heal rather than continue to harm.

Economists sometimes call this sort of examination a "cost-benefit analysis" but such a notion doesn't work here, because both the costs and the benefits are often hidden (we don't know what will happen, so we can't gather enough beans to count), and so we can't project numbers or statistics--and that's what's wrong with most of these analyses anyway. They're only interested in numbers. If something "costs" (in terms of money, mostly) more than it "benefits" (especially if these are long-term) then what's cheapest wins, regardless of whether or not it's good for us.

In harsh economic times, suggesting an expensive, though beneficially promising, alternative often lands us in the dust bin. We don't have any money to spend, so we sure as hell can't spend that much money now, even if it will clean up our air, our water, or make better food available to us in the long run.

So I thought I'd begin by looking at some of the issues popping up around us. Some come from the President's campaign promises, some come from common sense, others from my particular interests (permaculture, for example). All have been proposed by different people or organizations as means for cleaning up the mess we've made over the last half century or so. The first of these general topics I'd like to tackle is food in general, but I need to divide it up into food sources and food consumption: how we get our food, and what we do with it.

It was a bit depressing that my first trip out since coming home from the hospital had to be to the local Super Target, where I could get the best bang for my buck in terms of picking up most of what I needed to buy in one spot. I can get around pretty well, but I tire rather easily, and I was damned if I was going to scoot around on one of those electric carts (I'm probably still afraid of getting a speeding ticket). So, knowing that I could buy organic milk and eggs, and a few other basics there, as well as some arthritis-strength acetaminophen (onto which I'm trying to wean myself, away from the real narcs) Owlspouse and I sallied forth into the afternoon.

I'm not in the store ten minutes before I'm almost overwhelmed by the depressing amount of sheer crap that's available in these places. The level of food-processing alone represented in one section of Target says more about American gluttony and waste than one would ever need to learn. Every package (over-packaging is the first of many sins committed by food manufacturers in this country) hides a much smaller amount of food than appears on its cover photo, and every ingredient list contains up to hundreds of chemicals added to preserve "freshness" or "maintain purity." Except in parts of the "healthy" sections of the refrigerated zones, every label also includes sweeteners (mostly high fructose corn syrup), way too much salt, and trans- or saturated fats far above reasonable daily allowances. Some of these actually look like they might be pretty good--until you read the label and see the amount of processing that's gone into a simple idea, like lemon-pepper tilapia, or some kind of "Mediterranean" pasta.

In a way this exercise was good for me, because I didn't go home with a couple of frozen entrees like I had planned (so we could eat if I didn't feel up to cooking). I went home with basic ingredients instead: a couple of whole wheat pizza crusts (can't roll my own yet), some fresh mozzarella, and a bit of natural, minimally processed ham. I bought frozen berries to mix with plain low-fat yoghurt. I did spring for some organic ketchup and a new ligher mayo made from olive oil (it had some sugar in it, but no HFCS). At some point I'll get back to making my own of both, but for now (with no tomato garden yet) I have to get 'em off the shelf. So the fridge is now stocked with a versatile collection of dinner possibilities, and I got to leave the store before I needed another nap.

Another depressing element of the trip was noticing the vast number of clearly obese human beings who buy the most inappropriate foods. I'm hyper conscious about my weight now, since I'm progressing toward a point where I can get back to losing the tonnage I've acquired over the last three years of feeling too lousy to get any regular, meaningful exercise. I am painfully aware that my bad eating habits (rather than my diet itself) are to blame for both diabetes and some aspects of my ongoing heart disease. Diabetics need to pace their meals and eat frequently to avoid glucose spikes and shifts--but I had been going entire mornings without eating anything, and then having a quick lunch and then eating again only when I was starving. I know full well, that small, nutritionally dense meals to keep me away from drugs and insulin are what I need, and that effort has begun despite my current wonky taste buds (another reason to get off the narcs).

But many people, even (as I discovered in the hospital) nurses, fall into a similar trap: too busy to eat well. This an issue that needs attention on its own, and I'll probably attack it in future. But for now, we need to become aware--as a nation--that "fast food" almost always equates with "bad food" and because it's often cheap, we end up with poor people in bad health because that's all they think they can afford. There's probably a great deal of literature out there on "the starving fat" and we need more than one book or documentary (Fast Food Nation) to knock some sense into our heads. If the only stores around you are convenience quick-stops and Taco Bueno, it's hard to buy nutritious food; and I don't see a lot of Whole Foods stores opening up in marginal neighborhoods.

Eating habits simply have to change. But how do we do this, bombarded as we are with advertisements that make all manner of grandiose claims about goodness and freshness and giving us "more time to spend with our families," or by all the cutsy promos for animated films that come "free" with a cheeseburger Happy Meal?

Goodness and freshness can only really be achieved by starting out with minimal processing. That means no fancy boxes and cute plastic containers that "steam" your food for you in two minutes in the microwave. If you don't have a way to steam something at work, then take a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Or take a container of soup or leftovers if you want to eat something hot (most offices have access to microwave ovens these days--but we don't need to keep manufacturing ways of making them do what they weren't designed to do if it means increasing the amount of plastic heading for the landfill).

The counter argument to all this is that Americans demand these conveniences and innovations from industry. Baloney. We're taught to demand them! Every day we learn about some new "necessity" on TV that we didn't previously know we "needed." Do people really wake up every morning thinking, "Gee, I wish somebody would invent a way for me to steam food in a microwave because I really need to be able to do this"? The microwave oven itself manages to have won me over by the fact that I can actually save a good deal of energy by "nuking" home-made frozen soup, or cocoa, or last night's dinner for lunch. Even so, if the Environmental Apocalypse came and I had to give it up to save the planet, out it would go.

Human beings aren't stupid. Or we weren't until TV was invented. We've managed to cook food ever since the Paleolithic, and all we've done through all those thousands of years is to invent more complicated, more dangerous, and more expensive gadgets to cook in and on. Yes cooking on a natural gas range is better for the planet than cooking over an open fire. But I doubt if simmering your evening meal on a six-burner Viking industrial model will win you any points in save-the-planet heaven. Cooking out-of-doors seems to spring from some sort of primal recognition of our ancestral roots, but cooking in an "outdoor kitchen" seems to defeat the purpose. Nor have I figured out quite why people find charcoal-lighting fluid a tasty addition to the flavoring of their slabs of brisket.

Once again William Morris's education of desire come to mind: What do we truly need, and what do we merely want?

If all of the fancy gadgets and maximally processed foods available have brought us to the point of being a wealthy nation of very sick people, why is that a good cost/benefit ratio? Sure we have more stuff. Sure it might be easier to whip up a meal. But what do we gain? I mean, besides weight and larger body/mass indices?

So here are my suggestions on how to combat the advertising industry's assault on our brains and our waistlines--without unduly taxing our wallets or decreasing the amount of time we have to spend with family and friends.

1. Invest in a really good cooking magazine. I know this sounds silly, but magazine subscriptions are generally quite cheap, and a single magazine that comes once a month can provide endless inspiration--especially if you sit down and talk to your kids about potential menus, what sounds good, what's in season, etc. My favorite of these is Eating Well, but Cooking Light and others can also be helpful. When you're finished with the magazine, pass it on to your doctor's office or a nursing home, or to a friend. Or (what I end up doing) create notebooks with your favorite recipes and put the remains of the magazine in the recycle bin--after the kids have made collages out of the pretty pictures. Some of these magazines have high-quality websites, too, providing access to recipe archives.

2. Take stock of your larder (pantry). Know what's in it, and focus on tinned tomatoes and beans, plus whole grains in moth-proof containers, whole wheat pasta, a couple of bottles of good pasta sauce, olive oil, dried beans, and ethnic bottled sauces--as well as the food you put up yourself from your own garden, or from shopping at the farmer's market for in-season fruits and produce. Know what's in your freezer, too, especially if you have a chest freezer for keeping the results of bulk buys. Be aware of expiry dates so that you don't end up with stuff you shouldn't be eating but can't bring yourself to toss. (I've had a couple of pounds of fresh--then--tuna steaks since a friend's fishing trip about 6 years ago. I keep forgetting to put it in the trash bin, because that only goes out to the street about once a month.)

3. Most of my readers already know about our adherence to the Only One Thing rule regarding children's activities. If your kids aren't overburdened with lessons and sports outside of school, they can spend more time with you on the design and preparation of meals. At the weekend, prep veggies for weekday meals, bake bread and healthful cookies, make soup, bottle jams, jellies, and seasonal veg. Use the time to plant gardens if you have the space, and involve the whole family. There is nothing about gardening that's intrinsically difficult, and there's something everyone can do--even if they're in a wheelchair. Make sure you have an active compost heap or bin, and that all your vegetable waste, garden weeds, grass trimmings (if you dont' just mulch them), etc. go into it. Put someone in charge of compost care, and then switch off periodically.

4. Stop drinking soda pop. Of any kind, especially diet. There is no earthly reason--beyond addiction--to drink this stuff. It's expensive, it's saturated with high-fructose corn syrup, it's wasteful of raw and manufactured materials, and it doesn't do you any good. Instead of sweet fizzy drinks, buy mineral water by the case (Costco sells San Pellegrino Water for under a buck a bottle when you buy it this way). Then add a bit of lemon, fruit juice, ginger syrup, or other flavoring if you don't like it plain. It won't take you long to wean yourself from your Diet Coke habit. Depending on how badly you're addicted, stopping this one habit could save you piles of money and/or hundreds of calories every day. Or, make "sun tea" from fruit- and herb-infused tisanes--like those made by Celestial Seasonings, or Tazo, or any of a huge number of other brands. If you need these to be sweet, add a little sugar or honey--but try to do without, or wean yourself from "needing" sweeteners. These and both black and green teas taste quite nice with a bit of lemon over ice. The result: no calories (if you don't add sugar), plus some herbal and/or antioxidant benefit.

5. Stop thinking of dessert as a regular part of every meal. There is no eleventh commandment that says "thou shalt have dessert every night or be forsaken by thy god." Desserts should be two things: occasional and nutritious. Perhaps for Shabbat or Sunday dinners, a special occasion, a holiday, a birthday, etc. But not every day. A cookie or two with milk after school, a whole-grain fruit muffin for breakfast, a sweet rather than savory vegetable dish (glazed carrots and mushrooms)--all of these can add sweetness and flavor without huge numbers of calories. One alternative for dessert is a fruit course following the main meal, but there's no reason that fruit can't be part of the meal itself. If it encourages lingering for conversation, a bit of fruit and cheese with the last of the wine might be encouraged. But not the obigatory pie a la mode.

6. Watch the alcohol intake. The general rule with frugal eating and drinking is that the less you consume in quantity, the more you can afford in quality. So instead of buying two $6 bottles of marginal wine, check the sales for a bargain $12 wine (sometimes knocked down from $20 or more), and drink it slowly, savoring it rather than just getting snockered. A little alcohol seems to be good for us, but drinking a bottle a night just adds useless calories. Do you really have to have a glass of wine with your veggie chili? Good beers are generally cheaper than good wines, but again, moderation in all things. It might not be necessary to have alcohol with every dinner, but opt for a nice fizzied fruit juice or glass of mineral water instead.

7. Care about your food. You don't have to have an overly-sentimental attitude about cows to be concerned about how they're treated before they land on your plate. If an animal suffers unnecessarily, why would you even want to eat it? Complete, abstract detachment from food leads to factory farming, disgusting abattoir practices, and an instrumental disregard for the welfare of the animals with whom we share this planet.

8. Minimize meat consumption. If you can't afford free-range chickens or pastured beef, try saving up for it, and make the meat meal a special one, requiring deliberation and careful preparation. We take way too much for granted as it is, but if we make food derived from the deaths of other animals, it should certainly be something particular in our lives. Even if you're not a religious person, realize that a living creature died to make this meal, and show it some respect. If you find the idea completely distasteful, maybe it's time to give up meat altogether. But if you can cut the number of meat meals down to two or so a week, you can afford that happy chicken or happy pig, and you'll support the people who go to the trouble to raise their animals properly.

9. Think about what you eat. Learn about the chemical properties of what you consume, and how it reacts with other nutrients in your body to become you. It's astonishing how ignorant people are about the origins of herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. So turn suppertime into an exploration of science and culture by discussing where tonight's meal came from. Prepare meals with an ethnic theme and learn about the culture that developed it. Learn to make simple cheeses, and build a meal around a ball of home-made mozzarella. Learn traditional spice combinations from other parts of the world. Preserve a few lemons and experiment with recipes that use them. Cure some olives. Encourage your children to invite their friends (and their families) over for dinner. If the friends come from somewhere else, encourage a recipe exchange.

10. Enjoy your food. There is nothing more basically human than sitting around a table sharing food. If your family has prepared the meal together, you've sacrificed nothing. Your time has been well-spent, and you're acting more responsibly toward both yourself and the planet than if you'd rushed of the Micky Dee's for a couple of Big Macs and a Happy Meal. Oh. And turn off the TV.

End of sermon for the day, but this will continue. Happy eating!

Image credits: Alanya Market, Turkey, by NobbiP. Wikimedia Commons.


Martha Z said...

You are right, of course, but most of us take the easy path. I feel virtuous because I bake my bread, shop at the farmer's market and cook from scratch. I take a lot of short cuts, though--habit.
Young families feel overwhelmed so they grab something easy from the freezer case rather than spend the weekend preparing and freezing food for the week.
Our culture would have to take a complete U-turn, one parent working and one making a career of homemaking. A commitment to less stuff and more living.
Never a soda drinker I have found one good use for a diet coke--it keeps me awake driving across the Sierra.
Glad your better, I enjoyed the essay but I'm afraid your preaching to the choir.

Owlfarmer said...

I'm afraid I'm pretty much always doing that. But you'd be surprised at how many people equate the real essentials of life--like cooking and eating--as taking up valuable time that could be used elsewhere. I say, take some of that "elsewhere" time and put it back where you can really do something meaningful with it. The overwhelming comes from turning your priorities over to someone else and actually choosing to participate in activities far less enriching than taking things more slowly, with the entire family.

I really miss the time I spent with my kids, and look forward to having a grandkid or two to do some cookie- or bread-baking with. These are the things I remember about being a child. And mine did Only One Thing each, but enjoyed that and still had plenty of time for goofing off and hanging out with their parents.

Margaret said...

I loved, loved, loved this post! I read "Laurel's Kitchen" when I was in highschool and it changed my entire view of food. Although I'm no longer a vegetarian, I try to stick with the basic principles that I learned in that book (which I highly recommend to anyone that is considering a change in their dietary habits).

I'm so sorry to hear that you haven't been doing well. I hope that you are feeling better soon and I'm very glad to hear you're takings steps to protect your health.

By the way, I totally agree with you about the fact that consumers are conditioned to think that they need highly packaged goods and convenience foods. I've had people look at me like I'm nuts when I explain that I make my own sauces, bread, etc. It's our consumer culture that makes people think there's something unusual about preparing food at home! Again, great post!

Owlfarmer said...

Good to hear from you, Margaret. Laurel's Kitchen and Diet for a Small Planet were two of the earliest influences on my philosophical development--even before Morris.

Thanks for the concern, too. I'm actually doing fine--it's before when I wasn't doing well. Mechanical valves are not the ideal solution for everyone, but as long as I manage my coumadin/warfarin correctly I should be around for a good deal longer now.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you're doing better! Loved the post. You're right on the money. We've gotten to where we eat horribly because we just don't have time and by doing that we become so unhealthy that we lose twice as much time to health problems. About 4 years ago i drank about a dozen sodas a day and my cholesterol was thru the roof and my blood sugar was way out of whack. Since then I've managed to break my soda habit (haven't had one in over two years) and by making healthier food choices cholesterol is now in the correct range. It's actually much easier to eat healthier than most people think, and doesn't add all that much time. The hardest thing is to break the sugar addiction.

Anyway glad to hear your doing well. This is my last quarter but maybe i'll bump into you at the museum one day.


Owlfarmer said...

I now have a reason to make sure I attend graduation!