Thursday, December 15, 2005

Food Philosophy in a Fast Food Nation

Let me start with this: I love french fries. And I am not alone.

Several weeks ago I blogged about my choice to become a vegetarian (read entry). For years I was a vegetarian, but that initial phase was set in motion less by philosophy than by an urge to control my caloric intake. I met a Hungarian in 1997 and soon thereafter sat at his mother’s table. The chicken paprikas and the winter salami were divine. Thus began an earnest meat eating phase. Actually I think it was a healthy phase insofar as I enjoyed what I ate without undue worry about calories. Thus for many years I maintained a "vegetarian" philosophy--an awareness that my eating habits were not in tune with my own health or the health of the environment, but did not practice it. I went about my eating with a robust appetite but without much thought.

Occasionally I would stop to ponder the right way to use foods. Should I pay money for bottled water that has been shipped half-way around the world? Is it right to stuff cows full of antibiotics? Would I want to work at a Fast Food place? Then my father recommended Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nationsoon after it debuted in 2002.

I found the book a fascinating account of the Fast Food industry's history in America, as well as an expose about where and how foods are produced. He hits on issues such as the Fast Food’s use of advertising to attract children, the safety and worker’s rights of restaurant workers as well as slaughterhouse workers and farmers, and the impact of the industry’s demand for uniformity of product has on agriculture and the environment.

Schlosser’s work deeply impressed me and for a time I abstained from Fast Food. I am weak, however and slowly gave in and ordered fries, now and then. Then I started a demanding job whose commute took me down a strip of Fast Food restaurants. It started with fries—my personal addiction—and ended up with numerous meals consumed in my car between work and meetings. I had fallen, totally. At least I didn’t take my family there, I reasoned. It was so convenient and so yummy. Let me be clear: I love, desire even, a good burger and a heap of fries. This is why it is hard for me to say no.

Now I live in a neighborhood in a larger city that allows me to walk almost everywhere I need to go. If it is too far (or too cold!), I can take the metro or the busses. The occasion to enter a Fast Food chain is rare. Thus my consumption has declined. My life has slowed down as well. Instead of rushing to work and rushing home exhausted and starved, I lead a slow writer’s life. In my pajamas till noon, then out in the city to a local independent bookstore to read or write some more. There are numerous independent bookstores and cafes from which to choose. Yes, Starbucks is just around the corner. Yes, I do go there—mostly for hot tea and a study session. Starbucks does not offer french fries and a burger; so, for the time being, their establishment is less problematic for me.

Perhaps my change to a slower lifestyle has given me the time to think more deeply about my food philosophy. When I met a certain Iranian at a party, who is a practicing vegetarian, I was primed to commit myself to practice my food beliefs as well. It was also necessary for me to sit down and spell out my food philosophy, which is why I am composing this entry.

First, let me clarify my gastronomical values:

1) I value the environment. The Fast Food industry has changed the American landscape because of its demand for uniformity. All french fries must be x inches long, etc. So instead of local farmers with local potato varieties, we have mass farms producing one potato. Cows are produced and kept alive by antibiotics so that each hamburger patty is exactly uniform. Cows today, bred for the Fast Food Nation, are not fit to stay alive, let alone eat. Pink-in-plastic salves our consciences. Thus I should abstain from eating foods that are grown/raised in ways that damage the environment and biodiversity.

2) I value community. So I will make the effort to eat local products. For example, here in Boston I have been eating fish and canned tuna (harvested safely). The fish industry has its own problems, I am sure. But at this point I feel that fish farming has fewer problems and that it is healthy to consume fish. As I am currently based near the Atlantic, certain fishes are local. It makes sense to consume the local product. If I lived near an organic beef ranch, I would readily consume that product. If I lived in Hungary, I'd go for salami. Or if I lived in Japan, I would readily consume tofu. Local is good.

3) I value hospitality. This is where my vegetarianism gets grey, but I am okay with the grey. Hospitality trumps philosophy. If a person prepares meat for me—especially in their home—I will never refuse it.

4) I value rituals. Holidays—Thanksgiving to weddings—trump philosophy. I wish I were Indian and had grown up in a vegetarian family that had special lentil dishes for holidays. But I didn’t. In my family, the turkey reigns. What can I do? I could abstain, but that is so abrasive and just plain sad. At this point, I do not have children of my own. So, perhaps I will have to reevaluate my traditional menu if I have my own little ones to cook for. On the other hand, perhaps it is healthy to reserve meats for special occasions? For example, eat the turkey on Thanksgiving as long as it is a local, fresh bird.

5) I value my health. This means that I will consider my personal health needs when I choose my foods. Preservatives and chemicals, in general, can be easily avoided. Food in boxes makes a big profit for the food industry, but it is not necessarily healthy for me to consume.

After this values clarification work, I realize that I am not really a “vegetarian”. I do abstain from most store bought meat and other industrial foods, and I do abstain from Fast Food. This means: no french fries, unless they are prepared from fresh potatoes, which is more difficult than giving up meat. Since I do not completely abstain from meat, I can't call myself vegetarian. Yet there is no catchy title for my food philosophy. Is there? Let me know if there is!

Here a few things that Schlosser recommends can be done in an effort to use food wisely:

1) “Nobody in America is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit.”

2) Ban advertising directed at children less than eight years of age. “Today the health risks faced by the nation’s children far outweigh the needs of its mass marketers.” Thirty years ago cigarette ads aimed at adults were banned and smoking has decreased ever since. This ban would also encourage fast food chains to alter their recipes for children to make them healthier.

3) Fast food chains should provide fair wages and adequate health care benefits for their workers instead of churning through unskilled labor.

He recommends the following websites:
The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is an organization trying to limit marketing to kids.
This is a rowdy, iconoclastic website about McDonald's
The Slow Food Movement promotes agriculture that is traditional and sustainable, as well as food that is delicious.
Dale Lasater's "wonderful" grass-fed beef, availabe online
Mike Callicrate sells natural, antibiotic-free and hormone-free beef, produced outside the industrialized, meatpacking system.
This site has turkey, chicken, pork, lamb and wild salmon produced the "right way" and for sale online.

I urge you to read Schlosser's book for an in-depth look at these issues and what you can do to become a thoughtful eater. Food and eating are central to our biological and social lives. It is too bad that so many of our food decisions bypass our brains.

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