By Jennifer Leonard
"Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat." – Victor Lindlahr
Food, food, glorious food! I love it, naturally, and deplore it, when de-natured by packaging, processing, and even partial hydrogenation.
I admit it. I’m a picky eater. I know I sometimes make fellow diners wriggle in their seats as I search the menu with a discerning eye (and appetite). Or when I make it a challenge for the chef by asking him or her to whip up something steamed, not sautéed; fresh, not fried. I’m a vegan at heart, but I’ve noticed over my lifelong relationship with food that I am more practically described as part functionalist, part sensualist. I like to eat to nourish. I also like to eat to taste, smell, see and touch. There’s nothing better than the vivid color, tangy aroma and invigorating taste of just-squeezed OJ. Or the velvety finish on a fresh peach. Likewise, when the stars align, there’s something seductive about pairing the right wine and combination of fresh herbs with, say, wild salmon or raw goat cheese.
But here’s the catch of the day: I am how I am because I give a damn. (Aside from my predilection for coffee and dark chocolate), I won’t just shove something into my mouth because it’s available. I want to know where my food comes from. I want to understand the impact of my choices both for my body and the greater food ecology in which we live.
I’m taking the time to articulate personal standards here because I recently was on assignment with colleagues in the middle-of-nowhere-Indiana, where I was left with few food options when it came time to eat. Consensus ruled and we ended up at a popular fast food chain where beverages were artificially sweetened, cheese was full of fillers and even the salads had chunks of mystery meat in the mix. So while sitting uncomfortably at a plastic dinette with immovable chairs watching others eat nuggets and fries, I confessed softly that I was having a hard time with it all. In response, I got “Oh, c’mon! Embrace the real world.”
Real world? Real food? Really?
Truth be told, real nutrition is what I crave. But more and more, the options made available to the mass market are simply standardized, readily available and affordable semblances of food that have become accepted as viable food choices. How is it that in this day and age it’s acceptable to apply “real world” to food that isn’t real at all? These sad attempts at real-world offerings neither fuel the body nor feed the soul. They are incapable of tantalizing the eyes, the nose, our palettes. (Unless you consider the smell of grease a god-send!)
For me, if Bland on a Soggy Bun means “real world,” then beam me up, Chef Scotty! I level-headedly understand the role fast food has served and will continue to serve. But, please, can more of us join forces to rethink how it’s done? Can we take a moment to dream up some delightful alternatives to the menu of the day?
Take me where the sun and earth and water grow my food; where people have passion for harvesting and preparing meals; where communities come together to celebrate the bounty; where absolutely fabulous brunches and picnics and dinner soirées are the norm for one and all. Where options stretch beyond the dullness of drive-thrus, strip malls and convenience stores shelved with products that never expire.
I’m not a “return to Eden” delusionist. I wholeheartedly feel that healthy, sustainable and harmonious interconnectivity between the natural world and what we create from it (and ingest) is truly possible. I applaud those chefs, farmers, artists and food hobbyists out there who recognize this and are doing what they can to experiment in the fields, labs, orchards, kitchens and backyards. I also want to extend an invitation to any one of these creative folks (or combinations of a few) to collaborate with me on a food-related project to redefine and redesign what’s really real. And distribute it more equitably. And promote it more enthusiastically. And leave people licking their fingers, wanting more.