Friday, December 5, 2008

In Defense of "Food Issues" or Yesterday I was Called a "Stick-In-the-Mud"

This week we have had a fascinating combination of weather all of which has made for slow going. Monday and Tuesday: 5 below zero (nail guns and air compressors revolt). Wednesday afternoon: blowing snow (tarps revolt, plus it's unsafe for carpenters working on the roof especially in the dark which right now is about at 4:30). Friday, today: rain and 34 degrees (again, unsafe for carpenters working on the roof). We were hoping to have the whole roof sheathed this week - looks like we're a little more than half way there.

Meanwhile, I have an itch in my brain that needs scratching.

Yesterday, as a friend and I were paying for our meal and trying to head out the door of a local food establishment, the owner called me a "stick-in-the-mud" for discouraging his offer of taffy for the children in an open bowl by the cash register. "Thanks, but no thanks," I said, hopefully not sounding as insincere as our governor a few months ago.

A few weeks ago at a really very fun, warm and enjoyable Thanksgiving potluck, I had to remove four bowls of M&Ms to an up high location in the kitchen so Oliver would stop eating chocolate before eating his dinner. This was somewhat challenging since the 20 or so other adults and children in the room seemed to be consuming and enjoying the chocolatey appetizers just fine.

Then, this morning, Brian got annoyed at what he called my "obsession with food issues" when I tried to point out the difference between some sugary, artificially flavored Quaker Oats instant oatmeal that he managed to find hidden at the very back of the pantry and the new box of organic, all natural Costco/Kirkland instant oatmeal I was hoping he would find. I have been fighting a flu bug of some kind, and he prepares meals so rarely these days, that I felt like I should keep my mouth shut since he was kindly making breakfast.*

However, I just can't keep my mouth shut. Last month I read Micheal Pollan's recent book In Defense of Food. I know this is part of the problem (or part of the solution depending on your perspective). It has awakened a sleeping giant in my brain and in my heart. For many years, the giant has been at rest, not comatose per se, but lounging out, making leisurely comments from the peanut gallery, definitely not standing up tall and proud and loud. After reading this book, the giant is standing up again. Here is why.

Human beings have these amazing things called brains - brains that think, that learn, that grow and evolve. My brain happens to be particularly interested in food: taste, nourishment, energy, and the sustenance, safety and sustainability of whomever will consume the food. Brian's brain happens to be particularly interested in shelter: houses, buildings, concrete, lumber, roofing systems, shear walls, energy efficiency and the sustenance, safety and sustainability of whomever will occupy the shelter.

Brian has learned after years of trial and error, education, and work experience that houses should be built with six or eight inch walls. The house will not fall down if it's built with four inch walls, but it will be a much stronger house that will last longer and waste less energy with a thicker wall. Similarly, I have learned that the human body will be stronger, will last longer, and will waste less energy if it consumes healthier foods, say, fresh whole wheat and whole grain breads instead of white bread. We are surviving just fine and probably consumed quite a bit of white bread in our combined 80 years. But now, my brain knows better.

Brian has found that formaldehyde-free insulation doesn't smell nearly as bad as the other brands of fiberglass insulation that are available. Now, we choose to use formaldehyde-free, no matter what some of the construction materials sales guys say about marketing hype - it just feels right, it just seems to make sense, it's not that hard, and we just know it must be better. And, I buy organic and locally produced foods whenever I can because no matter what some of the old school farmers or parents might try to suggest (or deny), buying organic or locally produced foods simply feels right, makes sense, and we know it must be better (no need here to go into research and proof that for the most part it IS better). When I was a little girl, it wasn't even an option. Although less pesticides were probably used on the foods I ate as a child, I am sure there was a good amount of things happening to my food that my parents didn't know about and that probably weren't very good for me. I also probably ate more candy, soda, and fast food than Oliver gets.** I survived. I'm even healthy. But does that mean I should eat the same way I ate as I child or a teenager or one year ago if I know something different now?

I am about to embark on a long-term experiment of making food for others. They will pay money for it and they will choose which foods I have available for sale that they like best mostly based on taste, price, looks, and overall satisfaction. I feel as obligated in continuing my obsession with food issues as Brian does to studying new building codes as they are released, or taking a class on earthquakes, or talking with experts in the field about roofing shingles or techniques for preventing mold and mildew. Need I go on? It's really rather odd that professional development is so widely accepted, even assumed for many fields of work - but not, I think, for being a homemaker or a parent, for running a household, for managing the health and well-being of a family all of which are as or more important than any career.

Although In Defense of Food is a bit academic at times, I do highly recommend it. It focuses on a number of food issues that I have felt strongly about in my heart for a long time but have only articulated in quiet ways. Like don't eat high fructose corn syrup. Don't eat foods that won't rot (like Twinkies). Take time to eat meals with people. Connect together the whole food chain: where the food comes from, how it's prepared, how fast you eat it, how if feels in your stomach once it's past your mouth, where the food waste goes, and on and on. Don't trust nutrition science to be the authority on calories or fats or vitamins, trust yourself. Enjoy eating whatever it is you decide to eat.

The now standing up giant is much bigger than little old me. There are others out there in addition to Michael Pollan that are really trying to bring attention to the interconnectedness of food issues with so many other important world-wide problems. Agriculture, petroleum dependency, the environment, education. I, for one, feel more awake to it all than I have in a long time. And that doesn't make me feel at all like a stick-in-the-mud, or like I "have issues." It makes me feel alive. It makes me feel like I can make a difference whether it's just for Oliver, or for every person that walks into the Flying Squirrel.

On candy and children.
In Pollan's book he discusses the importance of food as culture. Nutritionists can research until the cows come home (a whole problem in and of itself when you consider industry's influence on the nutritional information we actually get). However, he suggests it's actually the act of eating in the context of family and culture that teaches children how to eat. Yes, childhood obesity and diabetes in this country is partly due to children eating fast food, soda, snacks and candy and, simply eating too much. But, it is also likely due to parents not eating meals together with their children. Or having the TV on continuously while eating. Or eating quickly prepared food in five minutes that involves little or no clean up time. I don't know a whole lot about being a parent. I am learning as I go. But I do know that it is my job as a parent to give guidance to my child in hopes that he will make good decisions as he grows up.

Does Oliver think that I am a "stick-in-the-mud"? Maybe. Sometimes. But he probably eats a lot more homemade cake, muffins, brownies, cookies, pies and breads than most of his friends and he seems to think they make just fine treats. He also gets his small share of the chocolate bars, hot cocoa, mints, Halloween candy and Fair food in which all of us partake on occasion. I still don't think he should eat taffy full of artificial flavors and colors and sugars, especially right before nap time. And I still think he should eat a good dinner before he eats a bowlful of M&Ms even if we're at a party where the adults are all eating M&Ms before dinner too. Hopefully I am not too heavy handed and he learns to make all kinds of good decisions when he is old enough. Call me a stick-in-the-mud. I can take it. And I can dish it out, too.

* In Defense of Brian: I just have to note that Brian is no stranger to a discriminating diet. In fact, at times, he is more likely to turn up his nose at something that is fried or overly sweet than I am. And, in fact, on occasion he does a fine job making non-instant oatmeal adding honey, fruit, milk, and cinnamon as he sees fit.

**In Defense of My Childhood and My Parents: Brian and I are both very lucky to be children of parents who paid attention to what we ate as children. Our mothers made baked goods from scratch most of the time. We ate together as a family most of the time. We rarely had candy, chips, soda or fast food available. We ate vegetables. Brian's mom even used whole wheat flour and such. AND, we got Halloween candy. AND, we enjoyed ice cream and birthday cakes and many other treats. We were always well fed and well nourished. Thanks Mom and Dad.

1 comment:

  1. Anita - As you know, I was involved in the natural/organic food business for a decade and our family has pretty healthy eating habits. This is perhaps the best introduction to the topic I've ever seen. You did it without the heavy preaching of many health food enthusiasts, without fear-mongering, and without the dry statistical approach that rarely sways anyone (though that is my preferred approach anyway, just because of who I am!).

    One of the craziest things I've noticed is how studies are always coming out that change the latest take on a particular food or class of foods and that ends up leading to mass confusion. However, I have noticed that the following seems to be universal food truths:

    1) Eat a wide variety of foods.
    2) Don't eat too much of any one thing.
    3) The less processing, the better*

    Your brother, Joe

    * raw food best, quickly steamed second best, quickly stir-fried third best . . . Twinky-style processing dead last.