I’ve spent the last two months mostly on the road, talking to audiences around the country about my book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the questions it raises about how and what we eat. Most of the posts here on TimesSelect represent my thoughts in response to questions put to me by those audiences as well as readers of this site. Complicated as they may seem, many of the questions — Local or organic? Carnivore or vegetarian? — boil down to variations on the most basic question of all: What should we have for dinner?
So who are these “food police” we’re starting to hear so much about? The term has begun showing up in media accounts of campaigns to reform school lunch or in discussions of the food industry’s growing legion of critics in the media. It’s the “food police” who want to get soda out of the schools and who argue that fast food outlets should disclose nutritional information about what they sell. The “food police” supposedly want to take away your constitutional right to a Big Mac — or, at the very least, your right to enjoy a Big Mac with a clear conscience.
Once upon a time Americans had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices: fat vs. carbs, organic vs. conventional, vegetarian vs. carnivorous. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying “your mom.” She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But Mom’s influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the $36 billion in food-marketing dollars ($10 billion directed to kids alone) designed to get us to eat more, eat all manner of dubious neofoods, and create entire new eating occasions, such as in the car.
“Elitist” is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and “elitist” has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche. Thirty years ago the rap on organic was a little different: back then the stuff was derided as hippie food, crunchy granola and bricklike brown bread for the unshaved set (male and female division).
Late last month the Chicago City Council took the incredibly courageous step of banning the sale of foie gras — the livers of ducks and geese that have been force-fed corn — within the city limits. The move, which followed on the heels of an equally bold ban signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, risked offending such well-organized and powerful food-industry interests as, well, let’s see …. the two tiny farms, one in Sonoma County and one in New York’s Hudson Valley, that produce the entire U.S. foie gras crop.
I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. Corn-distillation plants are popping up across the country like dandelions, and local ethanol boosters in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and even Washington State (where Bill Gates is jumping into the business) are giddy at the prospect of supplanting OPEC with a homegrown, America-first corn cartel.
Several readers of my last few posts about eating locally have asked for some resources. Certainly it can feel daunting to leave the familiar confines of the supermarket, where you can find just about everything you want, arranged according to a comfortingly predictable map.
So which side of 14th Street should we shop on? The south side, where Whole Foods has planted the flag of industrial organic food, or across the street at the Union Square farmer’s market? The last time I was in that neighborhood, I stopped by the meat counter at Whole Foods and was delighted to see they’re now carrying grass-finished beef, the only kind I buy. It’s one of the most sustainably grown foods you can eat. But I was dismayed to discover that the grass-finished beef at Whole Foods had traveled all the way from New Zealand.
At the risk of sounding more equivocal than any self-respecting blogger is expected to sound, I’m going to turn my attention from the benefits of Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the organic food market to its costs. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the advantage of making organic food accessible to more Americans is outweighed by the damage Wal-Mart may do to the practice and meaning of organic food production. The trade-offs are considerable.
Let’s take another look at “the elitism question” – the idea, trumpeted by the industrial food companies and their defenders – that because organic and other alternative foods cost more, they’re an upper middle class luxury or, worse, affectation. It is true that organic food historically has cost significantly more than conventional food, but now that retailers like Wal-Mart have decided to move aggressively into organics, as reported in Friday’s New York Times, that is about to change.