I am not a purist. I have been known to eat junk food.
Certainly, if I am at a party or someone else’s house, I’ll try what’s offered me. And at certain times of the month I have been known to succumb to a bag of salt and vinegar chips at the grocery store, which I’ll eat about half of right away and then tuck them into the pantry closet where they’ll sit and get stale.
But mostly I don’t eat it because I didn’t grow up eating it, and because I don’t keep it in my own house. There’s rarely a soda in the fridge; candy bars (except for the emergency stash of dark chocolate) are verboten; and chips are usually limited to plain tortilla strips with which to eat my home-canned salsa.
To me, junk food is kind of like TV. While I do actually have a TV in my house, it’s old enough to need hooking up to the massive antenna on my roof, and the DTV box it needs to convert channels doesn’t seem to work. And I haven’t much cared, since all that screen is used for is Wii games and the occasional family movie.
But, when I see TV shows at other people’s houses and in bars or restaurants, I am often transfixed in a kind of stupor–at once amazed and disgusted. It’s hard to stop watching.
Junk food produces the same kind of horrified fascination (though obviously, if I’m at someone’s house, I don’t shout about how amazing/disgusting it is). Last weekend, a friend who came to our party on the Fourth brought a bag of “Tacos at Midnight” Doritos.
My son glommed onto that bag like it was his lifeline (you should hear his mother on the subject of Lunchables–at full volume in the middle of the grocery store, no less) and began cramming them down like a man starving for sustenance.
And then he gave one to me.
And it was like magic. Because those chips really did taste like a nasty/delicious taco at some dive bar in the middle of the night. The kind you slam down several of before realizing that they might not sit well with however many beers it is that you’ve had through the course of the evening.
But they’re sooo good. You can’t help yourself. Kind of like I couldn’t help myself with those Doritos–grabbing another chip–inspecting it thoughtfully for a moment before popping it in my mouth and wondering just how they did it.
I really have to hand it to the manufacturers of flavor–those scientists that engineer the artificial components of consumables that come out of bags and boxes you’ll find lining the inner aisles of the supermarket and on the racks of every convenience store.
How do they do it? Well, that’s the catch. You’re not supposed to know. It’s really too complicated, you see, and besides, it’s a trade secret. Just eat it. Just consume those chips as mindlessly as you consume what’s on the screen in front of you. How strange–and yet–how good! How easy!
Our mass-produced foods have become as mysterious to us as the inner workings of our cars, our computers, our political system, and yet we, as a culture, consume them in mass quantities, and it’s making us sick in myriad ways.
But I want to reflect a moment on the magic, and hypothesize that to many people, the magic involved in preparing a roast chicken dinner with all the fixin’s–at home, from scratch, in the oven and on the stovetop–not to mention taking what’s left of that chicken carcass and cooking it down into a mineral-rich stock for soup–may seem even more magical than a bag of taco-flavored chips. It’s also a lot more work.
Consider the phrase, “as American as Mom’s apple pie,” and then name the number of moms you know that still make apple pies–or any kind of pie at all (OK, you’re reading this blog, so you probably make pie at least as often as I do). Or even cake from scratch–not out of a box–with or without frosting that did not come out of a can.
I’d argue that here on the prairie, we’ve probably got a higher population density of people who still know how to cook–partly because we’ve come to the kind of “advancements” that allow families to eat out of a box or bag at every meal a bit later than our urban friends on the coasts.
But I could be wrong about that. We do have the Schwann’s truck, after all. And many farm families don’t actually produce much, if any, food for their own consumption anymore.
The biggest obstacle that we have in getting this country’s food system back on track is getting our population away from seeing food as mysterious flavor-in-a-bag–from seeing food as merely fuel–completely divorced from the raw materials it’s made from.
It’s not just about where it comes from; it’s also about how to prepare whole foods from scratch–showing what foods even look like in their unadulterated state, and how to make those foods into an actual meal.
Yes, it’d be nice if Americans had a greater understanding of farms, farmers, and how food is produced at the agricultural level (instead of, say, at the industrial level–which is kept mostly mysterious for a reason).
But those questions don’t often get asked unless we first introduce the difference between a jar of corn-syrup-spiked ready-made spaghetti sauce and some canned tomatoes and seasonings–and how to put them together quickly and easily to make something that is cheaper, tastier, and more nutritious than its highly-processed counterpart.
Then maybe we can progress to an actual tomato, and then the difference between a grocery store “fresh” tomato and a locally-grown just-picked tomato.
Do we need to teach people how to grow their own tomatoes? Sure–but what’s the point if they haven’t yet learned to prefer the home-grown version over the ethylene gas-ripened “slice of red”?
I think Farm to School programs are an incredibly important component of introducing kids to good, wholesome, local foods–especially considering the quality of foods currently offered through most school lunch programs.
These programs are needed to teach kids about food and to stop flooding kids’ bodies with unhealthy fats, sugars, artificial and chemical additives–not to mention being a huge boon to the producers of healthy foods.
But I also know that the school lunch I had growing up (well, once I hit junior high and high school) was often the same kinds of greasy, nasty fare that kids are getting now. The kind that made it impossible for me to remember what classes I had directly after lunch because I’d be in a grease-induced walking coma after I ate it.
Where I learned to appreciate food was at home–and getting those foods into people’s homes has got to be a huge part of the push to de-mystify what we eat. Walking into a cafeteria or a restaurant and ordering good, wholesome food is fantastic, but it doesn’t teach you about the process like opening the fridge or pantry (or walking out to the garden) and starting from scratch.
So, should we start to teach the culinary arts in school again? Perhaps, but I’m uneasy with schools trying to teach all the basic life skills that many families are no longer covering at home. There’s only so much time in the school day, and already many of the subjects once thought essential have fallen out of the curriculum.
The radical homemaker in me says that in order for individuals and families to starting eating real food again, there needs, at least, to be time to source that food, prepare it, and sit down to eat it. Obviously, growing your own food takes even more time–but a few herbs in pots on the windowsill is still something.
It’s not always that satisfying to the cook to spend an hour preparing a wholesome dinner and have everyone rush through the kitchen, grab a bite, and head out the door again (though I’d argue it’s still worthwhile to make that good food).
That is probably the biggest challenge–to see the importance of real nourishment enough to take that time–to commit to something that our society doesn’t seem to value and to turn one’s back on the allure of the “conveniences” offered us by the entirely profit-driven industrial food system.
If enough people do this–if enough communities do this, society’s values will change–or at least begin to mirror what we say we value when we talk about mom’s apple pie. Government can legislate and recommend, but the real change must take place with individuals, with families, and with communities.
It’s not about never eating a taco-flavored chip; it’s about realizing just how bizarre that chip is, and moving it way out on the fringes of your, and your family’s eating habits–moving away from processed food and making room and time for the process of real food.