Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Incredible Edible Guilt

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord, tell me what to eat. If I should die before I wake, I blame that Big Mac, fries, and shake.

In case you haven’t noticed by now Reader, I loved the ‘70s. The movies, music, TV shows, the sharp edged toys that left you giddy with pain, the clothes, the objectification of my sex and the insensitivity to anyone different from me, but what I loved the most was the way we ate.

Bread was a Wonder and sandwich spread a Miracle, while Whip was a Cool or a Dream. Pops Rocked, Pepsi-Cola hit the spot, but if you wanted a smile, have a Coke. A sandwich was a sandwich but a Manwich was a meal. Hamburger had a Helper and Cheese was a Whiz, though nothing melted better than Velveeta. TV dinners were from Libbyland unless you were a Hungry Man, and margarine fooled Mother Nature. Choosy Moms chose Jif unless they were friends with Skippy or Peter Pan. Cereal was Life and Lucky if you were Charmed. Trix were for kids and Loops were Fruity. Steak-Umms was where the beef was, or was it? And Chicken was Kentucky Fried, "finger lickin’ good," so said the Colonel that crispy cool angel in white. Kool-Aid Chased Your Thirst Away but astronauts got the Tang in the end. The Jolly Green Giant had a farm in a can and a Happy Meal made your day. We couldn’t pronounce anything on the ingredients list, but did that really matter? Of course not, like French, we thought they were just made up words anyway. If candy cigarettes, bubble gum cigars, and Veal on a Stick were wrong, nobody told us.

Until they did.

“Watch Food Inc.!” the chorus in my head sang week after week. I wanted to, but I was told it would turn my stomach, and unless that was going to firm my abs, I wanted no part of it. I was already scared of food. I packed heavy, armed with my lists of the dirtiest produce and the deadliest chemicals every time I went grocery shopping. I suspected every box to be a bandit, every can to be a con, and in every package a pirate. I tried to stay in the green zone where the real food was stationed, but sometimes I had to breach the perimeter for a can of beans or a bag of rice. I ran through those middle aisles where the most offensive products lay in wait yelling, “Cover me!” to my fellow shoppers.

And when I finally rolled my cart out of the suck and into the sun, my stealth mission accomplished, do you think I could remember where I parked my car? No. Not once.

I decided if I were going to watch Food Inc. I’d make it part of a double feature and pair it with something even scarier. I considered Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but ultimately decided on 1973’s Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson . It's a cautionary tale of industrialized food production at its worst. The year is 2022 and the food supply has been reduced to nutritionally complete squares called Soylent Green. They look like toxic Triscuits and according to Edward G. Robinson’s character Sol, they are “tasteless, odorless, crud.”

In fact, “Soylent Green is….!” No, I’m not going to tell you Reader just in case you’re still trying to catch up on your 1970s sci fi movies like I am, but if you happen to try it and you find an earring or a tooth in your Soylent Green, don’t fret. At least you’re getting your protein!

In this version of twelve years from now, Soylent Green is necessary because there are no more crops, forests, or animals. Even the Hamburglar has retired. The world is a soulless nowhere that can’t nurture even the humblest seed. A little far fetched maybe, but when Moses and Rico from Little Caesar are telling you you’re doomed, it’s hard not to whimper, “Please save me” a little bit.

As soon as I threw away every box of crackers in my house, I turned my attention to Food Inc. This will be nothing compared to the horror I just watched. It was a bigger horror and no Charlton Heston to hand down the answer, no Edward G. Robinson to shoot us out of this mess.

Cows standing ankle deep in manure (side of E. coli anyone?), live hogs crushed in what look like runaway elevator shafts, chickens never seeing the light of day, and working conditions morbidly derisory. Beautiful. If Upton Sinclair could see how meat production has devolved, he’d write a sequel to The Jungle. One sentence: “I thought we went over this already, Dumbasses.”

I hear the future of the Fisher Price “See ‘n Say Farmer Says.” When you pull the string chickens don’t cluck, pigs don’t oink, cows don’t moo, and turkeys don’t gobble: all you hear is, “Help.”

Early in the film, the following statement appears on the screen: “After the decline of tobacco, many farmers in the south turned to chicken farming.” Honestly, after stealing a peek of how chickens are now “farmed” I think I’d rather go back to saying, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Poultry pumped full of chemicals may look pretty on a plate and even taste ok, but how much are we willing to sacrifice for aesthetics? Is a nation that dresses its dogs like people really willing to do this to another animal?

The old philosophical brain tumbler, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” doesn’t seem to matter anymore when we have to ask, “What is a chicken and what is an egg?”

I’m of two minds about this whole antibiotics in beef thing. See, I think we can make this work for us. If the smarties can make a phone that does my taxes, then why can’t we cure a simple respiratory infection with an amoxicillin burger? Can’t we perfect this love affair between grease and antibiotic? I want to live in a world where I go to the doctor hacking and coughing and walk out with a prescription for a double bacon cheese burger (hold the ammonia) twice a day for two weeks. Now that’s agribusiness I can get behind. Excuse me, what? The antibiotics in food are only going to make us sicker in the long run? Never mind.

Reader, you might wonder why my righteous indignation about animals doesn’t translate to vegetarianism. Well, I’ll tell you. I like meat. All of us, every day, rationalize and justify our decisions until we come up with a way to sleep at night. For me it comes to this: I don’t know if an animal has any conscious understanding of the length of its life, but surely, even the dumbest beast on the block must be somewhat aware of the quality of its life. Does it intellectualize it and compare itself to the pampered dog or cat? No, but I believe it feels pain and it suffers. My husband Graham and I decided that the least we could do was continue to buy organic and extend our attempt to eat well by buying meat raised in humane conditions. Ha. Easier said than done.

My first crack at being the Saint Francis of grocery getting took me to four different stores where I had to choose between Farm Fresh, Family Farmed, Farm Raised, Free Range, Cage Free, Omega 3+, Pasture Raised, Sustainably Farmed, Amish Farmed, Vegetarian Fed, Grass Fed, Naturally Fed, Organic, and Mostly Organic food. I needed help. "Oprah! Yoda! Where the hell are you?” I exclaimed in the meat department of Kowalski’s. Not only was my mind reeling but also the adding machine in my head. I would have to stick half this stuff down my dress just to be able to afford the week’s food. We did it though. For the last month we’ve eaten little that we didn’t have to feel guilty about. (I’m not apologizing for my Mongolian Beef from Pei Wei last night. I’m just not.) The problem is when it’s so much cheaper to eat poorly, you can’t sustain the perfect diet unless you have unlimited funds and the fortitude to go searching for the "right" food through store after store.

At the end of the month I sat Graham down and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news and good news. The good news is we’ve eaten better in the last month than we ever have. The bad news is it’s so expensive to eat perfectly that I’ve spent two months of the grocery budget and next month we have to eat the dogs. More good news though! They are semi cage free, omega 3+ because of all that fish oil I’ve been feeding Gizmo, they eat an organic diet, and are humanely raised if you don’t count the times I’ve tried to put Halloween costumes on them."

Don’t worry Reader, Sidney and Gizmo are safe, but I did realize that it’s not as easy to put your money where your food is, or your mouth where your expensive food should go or…oh you know what I mean. We have to make the best decisions we can for our health and conscience sake. At the end of the day when we’re scraping what remains of our processed, genetically modified dinner from our plates we have to ask ourselves, are we OK with what we're eating?

We need to think about the fact that if we're walking through the frozen section of the market and we look back at a bag of Wanchai Ferry we'll probably turn into a pillar of salt. We need to think about the fact that no matter what the mom holding the plastic jug of toxic blue sugar water says in the commercial, there is something different about high fructose corn syrup and we need to learn more about it. Its suspicious ubiquity makes products like Throwback Pepsi, made with actual sugar, seem like health food.

Is it really just coincidence that when high fructose corn syrup shows up in everything from bread to tomato sauce to pop, that one in three people born in the US after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes, one in two among minorities? It seems diabetes is the new black. That’s not funny.

I’m not pressuring anybody to buy organic or cry over the animals. That’s my bag and you don’t have to buy it. I am suggesting that health care reform start at our own tables with an honest assessment of what we eat. Otherwise we might as well stop screaming about who’s paying for health insurance and invest in life insurance. Our kids will need it for their own medical bills.

Since I watched Soylent Green, these throwaway lines keep running through my head.

“Most people like to live.”
“If you say so.”

Could it be that silly '70s movie saw our future a little too clearly?

1 comment:

  1. I'm eating nothing but home grown Radishes from now on. It's the food that feeds my soul!