“I don’t eat that”: confronting our food neuroses

I’m going to sound about a thousand years old—and not a little intolerant—when I admit my fondness for two venerable alimentary maxims: “Eat what’s set before you” and “Clean your plate.” More specifically, I’m attracted to the straightforward, can-do spirit animating this approach to feeding ourselves, a spirit that is totally lacking at today’s dinner table.

To wit: parents bending themselves into knots trying to get junior to eat something other than Cheerios.

Diets so restrictive they could barely keep a goldfinch alive.

Worried hosts emailing guests well ahead of time to make sure their dinner choices won’t offend or poison them.

To be clear: this post is not about the care that must be taken by the poor souls suffering from debilitating, or even life-threatening food allergies. I could write a book about the terribly toxic agri-industrial practices that may be bringing on these severe reactions, but that is a subject well beyond the scope of this post.

Nor is it about the rejection of highly processed, chemically laced food-like products that are so lacking in nourishment they shouldn’t even be called food.

No, my beef is with the glorified fussiness that has become a cultural norm in the West.

Eating has become a minefield, subject to snobbery, political correctness, and an ever-changing host of health fads supported by “science.” Anyone paying any attention to these has likely considered giving up butter, only to find margarine’s properties far more death-dealing, or realized, after years of thinking eggs were too high in cholesterol to be eaten regularly, that the latest research pronounced them benign.

Having worked in the food service industry, as a grower and lover of good food, and an interested observer of human behavior, I offer this light-hearted guide to some of the characters occupying the modern food stage, all of whom I believe deserve to wear the fusspot crown:

The tinkerer: We’ve all known a few folks who are constantly and quite dramatically adjusting and re-adjusting their diets, through a belief that something they’re eating is making them sluggish, moody, bloated, or otherwise unwell. Their bodies are like Ming vases to be handled and nourished only with the utmost delicacy by a battery of vestals in the alternative health industry.

I have a few dear friends like this, God love them. Their shopping and cooking routines are frankly exhausting. I try to make a meal free from dairy on their behalf, only to discover they’re now happily eating cheese, but have eliminated wheat and sugar.

I like to think of the tinkerer as the dreamy idealist of the food world, convinced that in that spirulina shake or shiitake mushroom extract they will find perfect health and vitality, if not Nirvana. Their restless questing for this Holy Grail of diets makes them the natural heirs of King Arthur and his Camelot crew.

The militant vegan: Ten years ago I worked as a cook in a vegetarian restaurant that employed and fed (or tried to feed) a number of vegans.

On days when we made lasagna, my bearded co-worker offered to do extra dishes if I would grate the cheese, so averse was he to the handling of dairy.

When mice took up temporary residence in the walk-in fridge, we were responsible for setting snap-traps in the kitchen against the little buggers that could bring the wrath of the health department down on the restaurant’s poor owner.

I wasn’t surprised that the vegan members of the staff were having trouble getting this distasteful job done, thus prolonging the problem. I became the designated mouse-catcher on my shifts since I was already tainted by being a meat-eater.

Vegan customers often walked into the kitchen to make sure their tofu wasn’t being cross-contaminated with butter, and we were regularly grilled on the provenance of all ingredients in a cake, pie, or main course dish, as though we might be guilty of sneaking beef broth into the lentil bisque.

Observing one more pallid customer eyeing her wheatless, dairyless, flavourless cookie with characteristically vegan suspicion, I thought to myself, “How would you survive in the wild?”

Vegans remind me of an endangered tropical species of bird or mammal that subsists only on the fruit of one special hidden tree that is threatened by clearcutting, or about to be ravaged by an incurable tree disease.

Omnivory— eating from many food sources, animal and vegetable–has historically been a predictor of species survival and population health. Why else are the world’s cities bursting their seams with crows, pigeons, raccoons, rats, and yes, humans? One could argue that the earth could do with far fewer members of each of these species—and I would not disagree. Just like the kid who eats only pizza and chicken nuggets is vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies, though, those who practice restrictive diets must take expend extra time, energy, and money in sourcing and preparing acceptably nutritious food.

To me, it’s a great irony that both highly-processed food and extreme veganism have the potential for malnutrition. It’s true that opposite extremes are still in themselves extremes.

The political activist:

Here’s where I get to discuss my preferred brand of food neurosis, the area in which my partner would gleefully accuse me of classic foodie snobbery, the kind that comes with “certified organic”, “locally-grown”, “fair trade” stickers securely attached to its compostable, brown-bag packaging.

Yes, food is intensely political.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I asked a friend over for coffee; he approved of my fair trade dark roast, but chided me and my flagging political awareness for the “conventional” chocolate chips he had spotted in the cupboard.

I’m the kind of person who can get behind a good cause, a rousing protest, a punishing boycott of almost any variety. I love the self-righteous high I get when I bring my own mug to a café, or circulate a petition opposing a bottled water company, or buy coffee beans with names like Breaking the Silence or Happy Turtle (10% of proceeds going to some good cause).

I remember watching a PBS documentary about the birth of the suffragette movement in the US and falling in activist love with votes-for-women matriarch Lucretia Mott for refusing to serve white sugar at her house because of the working conditions of sugar plantation workers in the West Indies.

I have a picture of renowned anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva posted above my desk, face beaming, imploring me to save both my own heritage seed and the world.

That I get to make choices about what I eat—one might say, the luxury of political awareness—marks me as privileged. Good food (i.e. unprocessed, non-GMO/organic, locally-grown, fairly-traded) should not be more expensive than its conventional counterpart, but it is.

I know a local farmer who, though not certified organic, still grows vegetables with minimal chemical inputs (he estimates being 75-80% organic) and natural fertilizers. He prices his produce at a level affordable to low-income patrons, believing that healthy food should not be the province of only the rich. I’m hoping this is a model that will grow and spread, especially as more and more folks realize the truth of the maxim, “Let food be your medicine.”

There’s more I would like to write about in connection with food and class culture. Because this post is becoming ungainly, I will continue the discussion next week.