Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. “I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe,” he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable.
On May 26, John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, wrote me a letter (also published on the Whole Foods Web site), taking issue with some of the points I have made about his grocery chain–in my book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in my column for TimesSelect and in some of my public remarks.
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?
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.
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.
To someone who’s spent the last few years thinking about the American food chain, a visit to Manhattan’s Union Square in the spring of 2006 feels a little like a visit to Paris in the spring of 1968 must have felt, or perhaps closer to the mark, Peoples Park in Berkeley in the summer of 1969. Not that I was in either of those places at the appointed historical hour, or that the stakes are quite as high.
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground.
Carbophobia, the most recent in the centurylong series of food fads to wash over the American table, seems to have finally crested, though not before sweeping away entire bakeries and pasta companies in its path, panicking potato breeders into redesigning the spud, crumbling whole doughnut empires and, at least to my way of thinking, ruining an untold number of meals.
The first time I heard about the Slow Food movement, recently arrived on our shores from its native Italy, I thought the whole idea sounded cute. Here were a bunch of well-heeled foodies getting together to celebrate the fast-disappearing virtues of the slow life: traditional foods traditionally prepared and eaten at leisurely communal meals.
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.