01 March 2011

And it's ok if this world had a billion saviours

because there's so many things to be saved

Now that I'm back on the exercise bike 3 times a week for an hour each session (believe me, there is nothing on earth like pedaling a bike when you can't feel half your leg. It's painful and weird) and since I can't move the bike so I can see the television, I'm catching up on my cooking magazines. Yesterday, I read an article in the January Bon Appetit by Mark Bittman that amply illustrates the pitfalls of our food and how we approach it.

I'm not a fan of food fads and fad diets. So really? I'm not interested in acai or goji or Mediterranean or polo-pescatarian or what have you. Or the Potato Diet or the Lemonade Purge or Splurge or Cleanse. Enjoy your buzz words. I eat carefully and with enjoyment and with interest.

And to his credit, Mr Bittman also seems disinterested in labels and fads. He writes that he decided to clean up his diet because he was overweight and had some weight-related health issues. But then he wanders into incredibly dangerous territory: talking of eating "sustainably" and "acting more kindly to the rest of the planet." What exactly does that mean? Well, to Mr Bittman, it evidently has a lot to do with adding more plant material to his diet and eating less meat. And again, laudable, certainly. Then I read the recipes he's included in his article.

Food, its sourcing, its safety, its availability, its healthiness have all become huge, global issues in my lifetime. Just about everything about food production drives me berserk, from genetic engineering to irradiation to ripping up the rainforest for the sake of Big Macs. I'm old enough to remember a time when we cooked and ate what was readily available in season and no one was buying off season produce from South America. The shrimp came from Guaymas, not Thailand. Eggs from the local ranch. Milk from the dairy across town. We grew some of our own vegetables. Eating at a restaurant was an incredibly rare treat, and fast food just as rare. Don't get me wrong, though: I'm not going to pretend that everything we ate was local. Apples don't grow in the desert.

There's a lot of good stuff about the globalization of our palates. I'm really happy that kim chi and I met. I'm a fool for cheese: French cheese, Spanish cheese, Stilton. I take great gustatory pleasure in Marcona almonds.

Largely, though, I agree with Mr Bittman: the diet in the U.S. is pretty much insane, and that mostly has to do with the availability of cheap, processed foods. But bringing the planet into this argument is wandering a slippery slope on par with the global warming debate (yes, the globe is warming. It does that pretty regularly. Yes, humans are gross polluters and need to change their ways for many, many reasons. Whether and where the two meet is still up for discussion. Scientists like to place themselves up there with the gods when they "discover" something. And then Mother Nature knocks them off their pedestals... But we were talking about food).


Mr Bittman goes on to offer up some recipes for his sustainable diet. First up: Pancakes with tropical fruit.

So, we're talking about lowering carbon footprint, something Mr. Bittman mentions specifically.

Where does unsweetened coconut come from?

Where do mangoes grow?

Where does pineapple grow?

Bananas are imported.

And this lowers my carbon footprint how? Not to mention that fruits and vegetables grown in other countries aren't subject to the same regulation that exists in the U.S. Do you know what your non-organic bananas are sprayed with? I do. So this leaves us where on the planet-friendly debate?

Moving on to the tomato soup: 2 14 1/2-oz cans of tomatoes in juice.

Whoops. BPA is frequently found in canned foods. Not such a good thing, healthwise. Canned tomatoes also show up in the pasta recipe and canned coconut milk is used in the pancake recipe.

Mr. Bittman later notes that he set up eating rules for himself, including this one: "I eat no processed foods at all, including no white flour, white rice, pasta and sugar." Well, according to his recipes, he breaks that rule regularly because what he really means is that he doesn't eat refined foods. The vegetable broth in his tomato soup recipe is presumably processed (there's no recipe to make it from scratch), and certainly all those canned tomatoes are processed. Dried cranberries are processed, as is frozen phyllo dough in the pear-cranberry turnovers.

So, why am I not just picking at this poor man, but nit picking here? Because food--its sourcing, its safety, its availability, its healthiness--is a complex issue, and while some of us might have noble intentions about eating to save the planet, how well do our intentions stack up against reality unless we're willing to eat the dandelions out of our wasteful lawns?

(And for what it's worth, dandelion greens are good for you.)

Honestly, I think Mr Bittman's intentions are great, and yes, I want to do a better job of eating carefully, too. Frankly, his coconut pancakes sound delicious despite all the shipping involved in that tropical fruit (wicked use of resources). And the changes he's made to his diet make a lot of sense, as does his advice that everyone needs to figure out how similar changes reasonably can be made to his/her own ways of eating. We certainly can make a difference, a little at a time, by changing bad habits and eliminating the worst offenders from our diets. But I would caution that we proceed carefully before patting ourselves too hard on the back about how our changed eating habits are "saving the world." Unless you personally are producing everything that goes into your mouth organically and sustainably, you're probably in the same container ship with the rest of us.

Go listen to some good music: "Story of the Grandson of Jesus" from the album Feel Good Ghosts by Cloud Cult. For the purpose of argument, I used the definition of processed food used by Boulder County, which is here.

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