Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Real Cost of Food

FoodVibe readers might have read Michael Pollan's recent article on food policy in The New York Times magazine. The article was written as a letter to the next “Farmer in Chief,” then unknown. However, in a pre-election interview with Time Magazine Barack Obama cited Pollan’s article:

"I was just reading an article by Michael Pollan,” he said, “about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and that are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs..."

Obama merely cites the problems Pollan exposes. But Pollan's article also offers an "elegant solution," which involves the following initiatives:

1. Resolarizing the American: returning to the sane roots of agriculture: diversified, sustainable crops, nourished by the energy of the sun.

2. Regionalizing the Food System: emphasizing local foods.

3. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture: early food education; leading by example.

It’s heartening to know that Obama is aware of Pollan’s ideas. Perhaps an Obama administration will attempt to implement its own elegant solution. But Pollan’s article speaks to me not only as a government solution, but a call to action—a call to support sustainable, local food with my wallet.

Of course, many people and organizations have been sounding this call for years. But now, in the face of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the call to support sustainable, local food is more important than ever.


Because sustainable, local food is more expensive than conventional farmed food.

It’s more expensive because it’s rare. It’s more expensive because the farming techniques are laborious and time intensive. It’s more expensive because many small-scale organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies.

Pollan cites a provocative justification for the added expense:

“It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat,” Pollan writes. “It probably will — as it should. Paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals.”

To me, the phrase that sticks out here is “the real cost of meat.”

To my taste a $.99/lb turkey simply sounds suspicious. At Whole Foods Market, this season’s turkeys—free-range and free of antibiotics and hormones—cost $2.49/lb. The difference is significant, especially in these lean times. But what, really, are you getting when you buy a $.99/lb turkey?

Likely, it has been frozen and preserved from the prior year. Likely, its been farmed conventionally, meaning it DOES contain antibiotics and hormones. Likely, it has lived in filthy conditions, unsuited for any being, let alone one that we might eat--and where there’s filth there’s disease

Good food costs extra money, yes. But it is food, after all.

This is how the Free On-Line Dictionary defines food:

1. Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.

According to this definition, a McDonald’s Cheeseburger is not entirely food. Yes, it consists of essential nutrients that might keep one alive. But what does this livelihood look like?

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger produce energy?

Why don’t we ask Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian who made Super Size Me, in which he demonstrated the health effects of McDonald's food by eating nothing but McDonald's three times a day, every day, for 30 days? Some of Spurlock's claims about McDonald's the company have been challenged, but no one has challenged the depiction of how McDonald's food actually destroyed Spurlock's body: he gained 25 pounds, suffered liver dysfunction and depression and extreme, crippling fatigue.

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger stimulate growth? Maybe so, but not the type of growth we expect from food. Pollan noted in a recent interview with Terri Gross that the hormones fed to McDonald's cattle before slaughter might have devastating effects on young children and unborn children:

"...even microscopic amounts at a certain moment in the developmental process," he says, "whether in the fetus or the child, can have a dramatic effect."

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger maintain life?

In a very, very limited sense. Spurlock's physician, after all, compared Spurlock's diet to a severe alcoholic binge.

Does anyone eat McDonald's every day. Of course not. Spurlock's example is exaggerated. But FoodCrack, which is not entirely food, exists everywhere. The majority of American families, for example, eat inexpensive, conventionally raised meat. With this meat, they might also be consuming their fair share of antibiotics, hormones, and filth.

Is this food? And is this food really cheap?

Pollan writes:

" food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence...not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive."


In the wake of 9-11, George W. Bush implored Americans to go out and buy things. His implication was that spending was our patriotic duty. Regardless of your political beliefs, I think it’s true: what we buy identities a part of our character.

Our spending decisions matter. When we buy a locally grown apple from a small farm, for example, we are announcing not only the type of produce we prefer—fresh picked, ripe, seasonal—but the type of agriculture we support: small scale, local, with minimal impact to the environment, and maximum impact to our good health.

I buy free-range chicken, for example, because I support the idea of chickens roaming freely. I eat free-range chicken, on the bone, on the other hand, because my lust for deliciousness calls for the best meat, and because, as an anemic and a diabetic, I need a viable, healthful source of iron and protein, without the health-threatening additives--I need real food.

This is not an issue of elitism, as some might argue. As Pollan notes:

"It should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry."

To me, food choices are political choices: when you buy food, whether it be from Whole Foods or McDonald’s, you make a political statement about the type of agriculture you support, the type of world you want to live in.

Perhaps this is an unreasonable assumption. Many families, for example, can only afford to buy foods that support out-dated, oil-based agriculture—who’s to say these families do not support something like Pollan’s notion of sustainability?

I’m certain many low-income households would love to eat better, to eat more healthfully and sanely, to support local and/or organic farming. There are federal programs, too, that support this type of lifestyle. Also, there are, certainly, inexpensive venues for local sustainable foods. As Nina Planck writes:

"Self-appointed populists point out that the mesclun at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City is $32 a pound. Yes, some farmers sell it for that. I don't buy it myself, but that's not the only kind of lettuce available."

Just down the street from where I live, a neighbor imports fresh produce from Lancaster. Recently, I bought about 60 local pears for $2.

To me, it's about effort: taking the time to find good places to buy real food. Whole Foods Market is not the answer--it's merely part of the answer, just as the local farm is part the answer, and the guy down the street.

It might be cynical to say, but it's true: a great deal of our ability to influence the world is predicated on how we spend our money. In America, we speak loudly with our wallet. Now that our wallets seem to be shrinking we might focus even more acutely on our expenses. We might not have extra money to waste on food that is not entirely food. We might need to buy the most energy-promoting, growth-stimulating, and life-maintaining food the market has to offer. In that case, real food is the only answer.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Low Brow Epicurean: A Primer

I’m no foodie.

To me, the term evokes elitism, snobbery, and condescension. Upon hearing the word "foodie," I think of a fastidious cook, pacing the kitchen, obsessing over minced shallots. He sits with his coworkers during lunch, describing the porcini dust he sprinkled on last night's grass-fed steak. He eschews my beet salad because the beets are not locally grown. He makes me feel like a culinary barbarian.

Though I celebrate food, I feel the perpetual outsider. Perusing the pages of a cooking magazine, I'm lost among the kalamata olives and goat cheese. My eyes glaze over the glossy apples and perfect looking plum torts. I like to eat and cook, but haven't fashioned it into an all consuming life's philosophy.

I've always thought, "Isn't there a place somewhere in the food universe for people like me?

Now I know there is.

I'm the anti-foodie, the low-brow epicurean. Allow me to explain.

Low brow epicureans enjoy gourmet delicacies, but are really at home with the culinary mundane. In fact, sometimes they prefer to mix the two. This seems to be the true essence of who we are—a mutant strain, a hybrid.

Whether it be Bordeaux or brown bag, it’s all good because the low brow epicurean is culinary contradiction personified. He is a hot pastrami sandwich with extra Russian dressing on an open-face bun of toasted spelt; Jack Daniels sipped from a crystal snifter; Kobe steak served with fresh greens over a bed of Uncle Ben’s.

Sensing this about myself, I rebelled against the foodie establishment for most of my adult life. I ate anything I wanted, any time. I scorned exercise. I reveled in foodcrack. I drank cheap beer. I smoked menthol. I saw my weight balloon upwards in excess of two hundred and twenty pounds. At 5'6, I was a walking heart attack.

While the foodie prefers filtered Britta water, the low brow epicurean
prefers to drink it sans cup. Notice the extended pinky finger.

Recently, though, I've made strides towards regaining balance. In doing so, I’ve ironically picked up some foodie tendencies along the way. I've lost 60 pounds, mostly through changing my diet and exercising. I buy local produce, organic meat. I rarely eat anything with more than two or three ingredients in it. I juice.

I’m also now more health conscious than I ever was before. I quit smoking. Gave up alcohol. I enjoy yoga. Ran a half-marathon. I've almost regained my former NCAA Division 1 figure. I can even see my abs again, poking through. They're forlorn, angry at me. Emerging from their long exile, they blink and rub their eyes. They say, "Dude! What the hell was that all about?"

I still consider myself well outside the mainstream when it comes to food consciousness and health. I’ll always identify with the low brow because I’ll never forget what it was like during those dark days. I’ll never forget what I was like—indiscriminate, yet persnickety in my tastes. I recall feasting on omelets made of half a dozen free range eggs, lunches of entire blocks of parmesan reggiano. I remember waking in the middle of the night and staggering into the kitchen where I would stick my finger three knuckles deep into the cashew butter, pulling up a tasty, gooey glob. I was always the voluptuary in my excess, the slob with the golden spoon. No meat without ketchup. No necktie without a stain.

Have you ever done this? You may be more low brow than you think.


When I walk into stores like Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca, I feel like an amateur. I'll never know how to use the smoked salts properly. And I'm sure I'd torch that grass-fed steak.

I look at the neatly ordered rows of olives and spices, the rainbow panache of fruits displayed like a color wheel. I have sudden pangs of self doubt. I begin to sweat. I think to myself, "I can't cook. I don't even know how to eat."

I watch a foodie inspect the Swiss chard. He speaks in soft, knowing tones with the produce boys. They look in my direction, pointing. Noticing the ketchup stain on my tie, they laugh, "Go back to ShopRite! I hear they're having a sale on Wonder Bread!"

I retreat to the frozen food aisle, where I get dark and cynical. In the checkout aisle I fantasize how I would exact my revenge on the entire establishment:

"Do you have a coupon for this?" asks the young man at checkout. His haircut is shaggy, trendy. His expressionless face, slack. "It's on sale this week."

I look around, behind me. He's the only one on duty. The time is now. I lean in, moving my face inches from his.

"What did you call me," looking at his name tag, "Frank?"

He perks, backs up a bit, "Um, nothing, I just..."

"Did you say what I think you just said?"

"Look man, alls I asked was..."

With military precision, I'm behind the register smothering his nose and mouth with a chloroform soaked rag. I guide his limp body downward as it slumps to the floor. I look around. No one has noticed. Stage one, clear.

Switching the aisle light to "closed", I grab the microphone to the store p.a. system. It gives a short, piercing, shrill of feedback. I hunker down, below the checkout lane, out of view. Squatting on my haunches, I straddle Frank's body. Stage two, clear.

Over the store p.a. system comes, "Attention Whole Food's shoppers. Today is our 'Slaughter Your Own Livestock' promotion. Hector in Meat will be assisting people with dogs, cats, horses and goats. It can get a bit messy back there, so please bring your own rubber boots and smocks. We'll provide the buckets and blades."

"Also, starting tomorrow our produce aisle will no longer exist. Instead we'll be offering the finest selection of cigarettes, 40 oz. malt liquor, and scratch off lottery tickets. Pick a winner."

"Please remember to try our deep fried, nacho-cheese flavored fried pork rinds. They're on sale this week from the Amish country, fresh from the farm and straight to you.

"Finally, if anyone needs Frank, he'll be at the ShopRite across town. He says they're having a great sale on Wonder Bread."

Switching off the p.a. I peek my head up. The store is a comedy of errors. Employees sprint across the floor. They smash into one another and fall down in a blind attempt to ascertain the situation. Foodies wander around the aisles confused, not knowing what to do. A stray shopping cart careens into a seasonal display of stacked winter gourds. They scatter everywhere.

Knowing the final moment has arrived, I check Frank. He sleeps like a baby. I leave the money for my items in the breast pocket of his green apron and slip out the front of the store to find my car. The door to my Hyundai station wagon is strategically left unlocked, keys waiting in the ignition. I peel out with screeching tires. Stage three, clear.

I pump my fist in the air. With David Lee Roth singing "Panama" over the car stereo, I laugh all the way home.


Even though I've changed my ways, a small part of that culinary barbarian remains. Something deep inside me still has no time for one who can't make at least a respectable attempt to drink a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I still have a somewhat jaded impression of those who can't deign themselves to ever eat fried foods—at least once in a while.

But I'm cool with foodies now. I think. My wife even says I've become one. She may be right. I have to try hard to keep it real, to always remember where I came from.

Tomorrow I'll have egg whites for breakfast. The Weight Watchers guidebook tells me that three egg whites equal only one point. By my old standards, that means I can eat a dozen, maybe two dozen, and still be well under my point quota for the day.

But what if I cook them with half a block of skim parmesan reggiano? I'd then have to add a few slices of high-fiber, one hundred percent whole-wheat bread. Freshly crushed black pepper corns. Salt. Ketchup. Tabasco. A good, strong cup of Café Bustelo with vanilla almond milk and honey would then just throw it all together nicely.

Oh, the possibilities.


Steve's Curry Rosemary Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

This is the perfect snack for dieters fighting those crispy-textured junk food cravings that can strike at any minute. Feeling the foodcrack binge come on, this recipe has saved me many times.

2 cups pumpkin seeds taken from a fresh, large pumpkin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons mild yellow curry powder
2 teaspoons coarse unrefined sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash and strain seeds in a colander until they are clean and free of all excess pumpkin strands.

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Spread seeds evenly across a broad pan or cookie sheet.
Cook for 15 minutes, or until a deep, golden brown. Shake the pan every five minutes to make sure they roast evenly.

Serve hot, or let cool to save as a future snack.