Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I think foodie-ism is not really about food

At Easter dinner, an interesting discussion cropped up. It started by someone asking why in the world someone would want to collect first-edition books, because wasn't the value of the book solely in the words printed therein, and therefore an electronic version of a landmark book was every bit as valuable as a first edition? And from there we somehow got onto a subject very often discussed by the family: food.

I've said before: I'm not a foodie. If by foodie we mean someone who considers herself an aficionado of certain (or all) types of gourmet food. While the definition of what we mean by "gourmet food" has changed over the last fifty years, as people become interested (or obsessed) with the provenance and nutritional effects of food, it's still pretty much the same impulse: to set yourself apart by gaining a commanding knowledge of and refined taste for expensive grub.

At least that's my opinion. The other people in the family no doubt feel they're interested in the provenance and nutritional value of food because they care about their health and that of the planet. And yeah, I get that. Some foods are better for you than others, and some foods are raised in more sustainable ways.

But what irks me are the lengths people go to to control these aspects. It isn't enough to, say, shop at Whole Foods or some other store (and let's not make this about Whole Foods) because you feel they do a pretty good job of assessing these issues of provenance, nutrition and sustainability and making the decisions for shoppers (in my opinion, that's their job, and why should I do it if they're already doing it?).

No, one must educate oneself about these issues and make choices for oneself, ultimately becoming one's one purveyor, buying directly from ranchers you've met personally who can provide a detailed description of the life of that cow from conception through slaughtering and continuing onward until the side of beef is at rest in your personal $10,000 top-of-the-line freezer. One must go to farmers markets, not just shopping if you please, but engaging the farmer (not his or her worker, but the grower herself, and god help her if she doesn't have dirt under her fingernails) as to the location of their plot, the methods they used to raise their vegetables, the things they put on the plants and the things they refrained from putting on; the conditions for workers on the farm; the Ph of the soil; and every other possible bit of information. And so on, ad degustandam.

Foodies would say that this attention to detail makes them more healthy, and encourages farmers to raise food in ways they approve of: "sustainably," "organically," and so on -- supposedly the twin goals of foodie-ism.

My question is: Is this really about health and well-being of oneself and the earth? Or is this really about fear, and control, and trying to stave off death?

I think that no matter how healthfully I eat, I will eventually die. In fact, I seriously doubt that making every single correct choice, when it comes to what I eat for the rest of my life, will extend my life more than a year or two. Set aside the likelihood of me dying in an accident or from a communicable disease, because I realize most people still die of heart disease and cancer. In my case, I think cancer is more likely, as my father (who worked for 40 years in oil and chemical refineries, albeit in the office while wearing a white shirt and tie) died of brain cancer in his mid-70s, and I lived from ages 1 to 6 in one of those oil refineries. It hasn't killed me yet, so maybe it's not going to; but I have had the exposure, for what it was worth. Can what I eat affect that?

And more to the point: Can I, by jumping through hoops to ensure the correct provenance of my hamburger, rather than noshing at Burger King and Taco Bell as I do at least once a month, affect anything? Yes, it's probably worse to eat Burger King every day than to eat ecologically blessed beef three times a week. But if I only have to make the choice twice a month, and I choose Burger King every time, is that really going to kill me? I kind of doubt it.

Of course, by choosing Burger King I'm missing out on the sense of virtue, the feeling of control, the feeling of being part of a dietary and ecological elite that my other family members are enjoying. But I don't think that feeling extends your life either.

My mother, who died six months ago, lived til 90. She wasn't in bad health until the last five years. She also smoked heavily for 50 years, ate crappy American food with hardly a fresh vegetable for most of her life, and exercised fairly little after age 25. If she had lived a "more healthy" lifestyle, would she have lived til 95? Maybe so, and maybe she would have preferred it to dying. But 90 years is already a long time. On the other hand, Herman Wouk just sold a novel at age 96. (Wouk is the perfect example of the kind of mid-century realist who's out of style now, but "The Caine Mutiny" is a crackerjack book. Dare you to read it and be bored.) If I'm still writing at 90, or 96, or 106, maybe I will wish I had been more finicky about hamburger. But if I last that long, I have the feeling that the 2010's fad of near-worship of food will, at best, seem like a pretty amusing piece of nostalgia.

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