“What the hell is wrong with you?”
OK… The reader didn’t put it like that. Not even a little. It actually was a great question, but it’s a question that brings me back to this, so to me the questions are related.
The other day, a reader wanted to know where I stand on buying local and organic foods. Particularly since those foods tend to be more expensive than conventional products.
It is such an important question that goes to the heart of so much of what is happening in American food at the moment. It’s also one that too easily is lost in the poetics of modern food lust.
So rather than answer it in the comments, I thought I’d give the response a proper space here.
Let’s start with a simple foundation — real food matters.
Real food matters to our bodies. We’ve all heard it before — junk in, junk out. The better we feed our bodies, the better our health. We know beyond any doubt that many of the health conditions Americans face can be traced back to diet. We also know that many health conditions are more easily managed when we eat better. We know we feel better and have more energy when we eat better food. We have fallen victim to a silver bullet approach to “healthy” eating. We have been encouraged to constantly avoid certain foods, while being vigilant to eat certain other foods. Neither approach works. Healthy eating can be summed up simply — eat real foods and eat them in moderation. Do that and you’ll be fine.
Real food matters to our environment. Sustainable agricultural practices aren’t about feeling warm and fuzzy and green. They are about our safety and about protecting and respecting the land that feeds us. Once again, it comes back to junk in, junk out. Massive chemical-based monoculture and factory farming may produce food cheaply, but there still is a grave cost. Over time, the land is depleted and must be propped up with yet more chemicals. With time, food quality and safety suffer. Think about it this way… There was a time not all that long ago when you could buy chicken and not worry about it being covered in potentially deadly pathogens. Real food is produced in ways that respect the environment, ways that understand we will only be as strong and healthy as the environment from which we draw our food.
Real food matters to our economy. Everyday Americans make real livings making real food. Growing crops. Raising animals. Producing cheese and yogurt. Baking bread. When we spend money on these products, that money goes to real families and it stays in our communities. This matters. A lot. That money continues to flow into more small, local businesses. It stabilizes our local economies. This means a better quality of life throughout our communities. It means more small businesses of all sorts are stronger. It means more land is preserved for agriculture, rather than big box stores.
Real food matters to our culture. Every corner of our country is rich with culinary traditions. Think of the fried chicken and barbecue from the South, the seafood and maple syrup of the Northeast, the Hispanic-influence in the Southwest. And these are just the obvious examples. Our local foodways and traditions are rich repositories of our culture, and are things well worth protecting and preserving. They represent much of who were are individually and collectively. But the monotony of processed foods and chain restaurants threatens this. American culture is not eating the same burger at the same storefront in every town in every state. American culture is recognizing the delicious beauty of diversity. When we surrender what makes our foods special and unique, we give up an important part of ourselves. We — and particularly our children — learn who we are in part by what we eat.
All of which brings us back to the question at hand… Do I care about organic, local foods?
Absolutely. With a caveat.
Because I distrust many of the techniques and chemicals of big agriculture, I buy organic as much as possible. But sadly, organic has been corrupted. No longer can it be relied on as a sign of quality in our food.
Organic processed food is still processed food. While it’s marginally better, processed foods of all sorts remain the primary culprit of so many diet-related problems.
I’d rather focus on real food. Real ingredients that require real work in the kitchen. Not hard work. Not long work. Not even necessarily much work. But work. Just as anything else of value in our lives, real food requires work.
But when you eat real food, I believe you actually can eat with far greater freedom than when you eat a diet consisting mostly of processed foods. Because it isn’t bacon that has caused America’s diet woes. Nor pie. Nor ice cream.
It is processed versions of these foods — and the many others that go with them — that have caused so many problems.
When you eat a diet of mostly real food, you can eat bacon. And pie. And ice cream. In moderation, of course. But still — I think — in greater quantity than if you live on a diet of fast, chain and processed foods.
Because when you eat mostly real foods, most of your diet is whole grains, sustainably raised meats, natural dairy products, and plenty of fresh produce. And when that’s most of what you eat, the bacon doesn’t much matter.
Quality matters. Junk in, junk out. Quality in, more room for indulgences.
So yes… I let my son eat an awful lot of bacon. And beef. And pork. And ice cream.
And you can, too.