Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Classic Repost - Some Thoughts of "Foodieism" and Obesity

I recently deleted my MySpace account. I spent some time taking my favorite posts and reposting them as "classics" on Shipwrecked & Comatose's new location here on Blogger. Before deleting the account I made one last run through that blog and tried to find any other blogs I felt were worth saving or taking a second look at.

There was one that caught my eye that I hadn't saved elsewhere yet. It was a blog that had been on my mind since I read a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly. Many bloggers were in an uproar over it. The article, as much as I could figure out behind the three-dollar words and overbearing tone, is that "foodies" are just glorified, elitist gluttons who use their love of food and cooking to lord over the common folk and rape the planet.

Foodies, according to the author, will eat anything and everything to somehow prove themselves, and justify their lifestyle. If that means eating a tortured house cat, so be it. Foodies delight in watching slaughter because they need to prove to vegetarians that they know where their food comes from. Foodies don't understand how real people eat. They can afford to eat the way they do and shove that knowledge down everyone else's throats.

I think I can join my fellow bloggers in taking exception to much of that. We all love to eat. We all love to cook. I think the blogging community can agree that most citizens of the developed world would be much healthier if we all ate more fresh food and less processed crap did our own cooking. Beyond that, I don't think we all feel the need to eat everything and anything just to prove that we are willing to do so.

We all have our limits and our preferences. I'm not willing to eat an animal that is acknowledged in our culture to be a house pet (unless the circumstances were really dire). I acknowledge that it may be hypocritical, but is it any less hypocritical than saying you will only eat meat from a kosher animal? We all have our reasons for drawing the line at certain animals. I am willing to acknowledge that there are places in this world where house pets are a silly luxury and it would be a waste to not eat an edible animal that would otherwise compete with you for food sources. On one hand, I have not eaten veal since I was in high school. On the other hand, I have developed an unfortunate taste for foie gras in recent years. Some folks will go to great lengths to taste new and exciting animals. I personally don't care if I never try certain ones. All of us are different.

Then there are foods that I simply don't like. I say I'm not really a foodie because I'm picky. I may be pickier than most, but that doesn't mean every food lover in the world loves every food. Most of us have limits on what we don't like. I hate foods that foodies stereotypically love like seafood, olives, and blue cheeses. I may be extreme, but I'm not alone. I don't have to enjoy everything and neither does any other food lover.

However, there is a dark side to the whole foodie movement. This is the side that I can't deny. This is where the accusations of elitism ring true with me. I understand them well. When I found this old blog, I knew I had to repost it because it does address that one critique that I can't help agreeing with.

Sometimes phrases like "local and seasonal", "sustainable", and "slow food" make me want to tear my hair out and commit uncharacteristic acts of violence.

Why should I feel that way? After all, the whole "localandseasonal" movement is supposed to be aimed at people like me. Isn't the revered localandseasonal all about us liberal treehuggers? Shouldn't I be supporting it with every ounce of my being?

The thing is I'm not just a treehugger. I'm also a champion of the downtrodden and a believer in open access, and that's where localandseasonal rubs me the wrong way.

It all started with a newspaper headline.

Kevin and I dream of one day getting ourselves out of this hellhole known as NY and retiring to the country. One of our dream destinations is Chincoteague of course. Because we like to dream of the place as our final home, as well as our favorite place for vacation, Kevin subscribes to the local paper, The Chincoteague Beacon. It helps us keep tabs of what's happening down there.

The headliner for this week's issue was that Accomack County, VA is the fattest county in Virginia. It is the Number One county for obesity.

How can that be? I wondered. If I lived in that area, I believe I'd be so very healthy. There are beaches for swimming. There are horse farms for riding. There are quiet streets for biking, tails for hiking, and lovely estuaries for kayaking. The area is surrounded by farms. Chincoteague hosted not one, but two farmer's markets the week I was there. There is also a large farm-fresh produce market on the island and several small vegetable stands. There is fresh seafood for sale everywhere. If you're willing to stick a net in the water, you can pull out some fresh seafood yourself. How can people be anything but healthy in such a place?

Perhaps I should back up and think about a few things for a moment.

I remember during my first trip to Chincoteague, my mother made the observation that many of the locals were missing teeth. She thought it was a pretty good indication of the economic situation of the area. In today's messed-up world of health care, good dental care is somehow a luxury and not a necessity. Even people with health insurance don't always have dental coverage. It's not something I'm used to, having grown up in a wealthy NYC suburb where some quality time with the orthodontist is as much a rite of passage as a bar mitzvah or one's first car, and cavities are few and far between.

When I go down to Virginia, I often visit relatives in Ocean City first. When I drive the back roads from Ocean City to Chincoteague, I see some of the worst poverty imaginable. I see homes that don't look as if they could possibly be habitable, but still have a car in the driveway or a flag on the porch, or other random signs of life. The area is definitely depressed.

I often personally find it hard to be politically correct with my eating habits. I have a two nearby farmer's markets that take place near my home on weekends. There is one near my office during the week. I still have trouble making time to get to them. I spend my weekends in the rural areas of Sussex County NJ where farmstands abound in summer, yet I don't always have a chance to stop by and buy something (although I find it funny that I drive to NJ to buy "local"). I don't belong to a CSA because I'm not sure it would be economical for me to buy all of that farm bounty for a two-person household(and also none of the CSAs in the area deliver through the farm markets where I shop). I am supposed to be the kind of person who wants to, and should be able to buy all of the fresh local produce she wants, but often I don't. It's often just not convenient, and it's also not always cheap.

Imagine if I lived in the kind of poverty I often see on vacation. If I can't always make it to the farmer's market because the one job I work gets in the way, how can someone working two or three jobs do it? What if you don't have a car and the farm markets or stands are not in walking distance, or accessible to public transportation? How about the cost? A dollar can buy me a cheap mac-and-cheese kit that feeds at least two people. That same dollar won't buy me two apples at the farmer's market.

Then there is the exercise thing. How many of the people living in these shacks have the leisure time or energy to walk? The roads are great for bike riding? Great. How will they buy the bicycles, or the kayaks to explore those estuaries? Can they afford the fishing equipment and the licenses to fish? Do they have hours to spend at the beach to perfect their body boarding skills? (You also have to pay a permit fee to park at Assateague for the beach.)

Remember the 80s when Satan Reagan said that poor people obviously weren't going hungry because they were fat? They're not fat because they're eating too much. They're fat because they're eating too much of the only food they can afford. It's low quality nutrition combined with lack of safe and plentiful opportunities for exercise. I should never have questioned why a place as beautiful as Accomack County, where opportunities to be healthy are plentiful, has the nighest obesity rate in Virginia. It's obvious. There is just so much poverty. The links between poverty and obesity sometimes seem to be ignored by both the localandseasonal proponents and the "let them eat more cake" crowd who thinks they're not hungry because they're fat.

This is why I join those who call people like Alice Waters elitist. Don't preach about good health to the choir when the people who most need fresh food have no access to it, and couldn't afford to eat in your restaurant. Michael Pollan can kiss my fat, cellulite-riddled butt with his plea to grow your own food. If you can't afford your own land, the seeds and equipment to sow it, and the apparatus and chemicals needed to keep the vermin from eating your crops before you do, that's pretty useless advice. (I do like his advice to avoid eating anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Thanks for telling me I shouldn't eat tofu, Mike!)

In the end I'm not surprised that Accomack has the highest obesity rate of any county in Virginia. I would like to know if anyone else is surprised and if anyone is going to do anything about it.


The Blonde Duck said...

Hear, hear!

katiez said...

I should mention that growing your own food is also damn hard work... I'm glad I live where people have a greater appreciation and much less fussiness about food... And one can eat very good food (not fancy) for not very much money. It's actually more expensive to eat at McDonalds than at a local cafe.

bellini valli said...

So well said. One case in poibnt would be breakfast cereal. All if the sweet cereals at the grocery store are always on sale. For those who need to pinch their pennies it not often a case of nutrition.

Jeff Hickmott said...

Love it.

The Blonde Duck said...

Have a good weekend!

Sue said...

I agree with you...SO MUCH. I can't help but feel that it's easy for people, who can afford it, to preach organic food. Of course, organic is better, but what are you supposed to do when you think all you can afford is a big Mac? The not so easy answer is that cooking from scratch brings a wealth of benefits even if it may cost more in the short term. The trick is to take ALL of these factors into account when we’re thinking about our own food philosophies. What’s reasonable, what’s affordable and what’s realistic. I think it’s perfectly realistic to rail against complete total crap like Cool Whip, for example, but, the occasional doughnut or Carvel brown bonnet – also crap, but taken over the course a year, probably not that bad.

Emily said...

Bravo! Well written! I completely agree with you.

polwig said...

I have yet to visit Chincoteague and its famous horse run but we often go to visit Tangier Island and other places on Chesapeake Bay, they are amazing but also "different" and poverty stricken. One thing for certain they rely on their land and way of life for generations and if the crabbing is slow so is their economics. There are two things that influence food consumption (or anything really) time and money. If you have to work two jobs to afford your house you will get anything into your kids bellies when they are hungry and do not have the luxury of sitting for 3 hours over a stove, for them just to tell you they will not eat it when it is done. Great job !!

The Blonde Duck said...

I hope you had a good weekend!

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Thanks for all of the positive feedback all. No easy solutions for these problems because you have too many people shouting different opinions about what should be done. The loudest voices are unfortuantely the ones who say, "Don't tell me what I should eat," or "Don't tell me what I should feed my kids!"

Sue - Agreed that you need to consider the long-term benefits, but while you can tell someone not to eat Cool Whip, but can you tell them to go to the farmer's market insetead of McDonalds when the latter will feed you more immediately for less money? That's the heart of the issue.

Katie- If only they would mark up McDonalds! Too much bad food is subsidized these days and the food industry has karma in their pockets. People who work multiple jobs don't have time to do that yard work either.

Polwig - You must go see the ponies sometime. Best thing ever!

Jonny said...

Rachel - I'm in total agreement with you. Choices are not democratic. Many people simply do not have the luxury of choice. They eat what they must to survive, even if, ultimately, it's killing them. I think there's another element to this, which is time. It takes time, land, effort and some knowledge to grow your own food, but the time component is the most difficult to obtain, particularly if you're working more than one job just to make ends meet. Happily, we're above the poverty line, but with a job and a kid I've been trying to find the time to germinate some seeds for three weeks now. It might be fall before I get around to it.