Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Food ("Anything That Moves" by Dana Goodyear)

Deep down, I'll always be that chubby 12-year-old grabbing at candy in the supermarket check-out lane. And for the first twenty years of my life, my diet was dominated by everything a blubbery pre-teen might consider ambrosia delivered directly from the gods themselves:  Doritos, Cheetos, Pizza Hut, Snickers, McDonalds, Kit Kat, Sara Lee, Little Debbie, Blue Bunny, Little Caesars, and so on. Even now, years after dropping 100 pounds, cutting most fast and processed foods from my diet, and starting my own (relatively small) backyard garden, I can't deny the fact that 90% of the food sold at my local supermarket is both disgustingly inedible and completely delicious.

And that's the point. All of those foods have been tested and manufactured--rather than, say, planted and harvested--to be not only delicious and convenient but addictive. When I think back to how insatiable I was with a bag of anything--potato chips, crackers, candy--I shudder to think what those not-quite-foods were doing to my insides. Yes, there was the fat and sodium and cholesterol, but there were also the chemicals pumped into each bite--tasteless little additions with thick, multi-syllabic names, each transforming a simple list of ingredients into an encyclopedia entry. We've taken food--the thing meant to keep us energized, healthy, and strong, the thing that is supposed to come from nature alone, the thing we need to survive--and turned it into our greatest enemy, a source of obesity and illness and death. And not only that, we've taken this dangerous food--so omniscient, so affordable, so mouth-wateringly tasty--and made it inherently addictive, so the very things that hurt us the most are also the ones we cannot stop eating.

The irony is that I only came to appreciate food--its purpose, its sources, its benefits--at the exact same moment when I could no longer eat as much of it as I wanted. Suddenly my horizon was filled with shelf after shelf of local foods that were actually good for me...and I found myself having to walk away, my hunger tempered by an equally strong obsession with watching calories and not falling off the proverbial food wagon. Thankfully, though, my new eating habits are moderate compared to others around the globe--not the "foodies" we hear so much about on television and in print so much as fringe cooks and fearless eaters, both living along the boundary of what is considered eccentric eating and what is downright dangerous.

Dana Goodyear documents this shaky little tightrope walk with utter seriousness; never once does she find herself questioning the entire premise of her book, which is more than I can say for myself. Not that her subjects aren't fascinating in their own right, or that Goodyear's writing isn't spot-on wonderful--because they are, and because it is--but the idea that thousands, even millions of otherwise sensible Americans would take the most basic cornerstone of life and transform it into something more seems at times utterly incomprehensible, if not downright silly. There are Californians who risk imprisonment and death from unpasteurized milk and shit-covered eggs because they want their food as natural as possible, which means untouched by government regulations; at times their crusade feels more like a revolt being staged against genocidal totalitarians than government's bureaucrats. There are the Japanese whalers who exploit a loophole in international law to hunt sharks for their fins, which are illegal in the United States but find their way into not-so-underground restaurants anyway, and the activists who go undercover to expose this activity...an assignment that, ironically, requires the consuming of said shark fins. And there are the chefs who see marijuana as the next frontier in culinary arts and arrange small, private gatherings at which the much maligned plant is the central feature of each dish.

But perhaps the strangest and most ironic chapter concerns a series of chefs who stand aghast as foie gras--goose liver fattened through forced feeding via a tube--is outlawed. There is something perverse about professional chefs pushing back against the prohibition of intentionally overfed animals because it means they cannot over-feed their own customers, and it is a disconnect in reasoning that is both ticklishly funny and deeply disturbing:  these chefs have put so much passion into this one supposedly vital piece of meat that being without it is somehow devastating, even as the world around them suffers from poverty and malnutrition by the billions.*

Which is the greatest disconnect among Goodyear's subjects. For all the ethical nuances and moral debates inherent in the food and its eaters--whether any animal should be up for grabs or only certain ones, the role of government oversight in what we eat, the level of animal cruelty that is acceptable in the preparation of our daily meals--not once do any of Goodyear's subjects realize just how precious these debates are. When a chef prepares a massive, multi-course meal, whether it be in a five-start restaurant or their very own living room, they are doing so simply because they can:  there is no food shortage, widespread pestilence, or fascistic government embargo stopping them from pushing a menu to the next level. They are allowed to serve full, gluttonous meals while soapbox-preaching on the unfairness of animal-cruelty laws or the stranglehold of the FDA because food is a luxury to them rather than a necessity, just as it was to that chubby 12-year-old so many years ago.**  When someone adopts an approach to food that shuns fast or processed foods, he or she is doing so because they see the detriment to not only their own health but the health of the world around them. They see food for what it is--rich, sustaining, necessary--rather than what it has been, which is a dangerous luxury.

To say, as Goodyear does in her subtitle, that this movement towards "fearless" eating is the beginning of "a new American food culture" is pretty prescient, though not for the reasons Goodyear intends or her readers might assume. Only in America, a country where 40 million of its citizens live with food insecurity while simultaneously one-third of the population is obese, can the glamourization of food be seen as ordinary or interesting rather than brazen and heartless. When Goodyear's subjects elevate food beyond its original purpose--its only purpose--they do so for the benefit of themselves and the similar-minded around them only, and that is a great shame indeed. For them, food is a commodity, a lifestyle, a weapon; to millions of others--the population that does not appear in Goodyear's book or, for that matter, the world of her subjects--it is a necessity, and a scarce one at that.

*In deference to these chefs, I will concede that what happens to geese is nothing compared to what happens to cows, pigs, and chickens by the millions across the United States, and to be offended by one while condoning the others is simply hypocritical. At this point, I should note that I'm a vegetarian, so I'm an observer on this front and have no horse in the game, so to speak. I should also note that much of the "beef" Americans eat is, in fact, horse.

**In deference to Goodyear's subjects, the FDA is pretty idiotic in most instances...just not in this instance.