Thursday, April 10, 2008

On food

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.
Being - as you know - a non-religious sort of chap, I am not one for mantras, incantations, that sort of thing. But I have had the above words in my head since reading Jason Epstein's elegant piece in the New York Review of Books about Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. I think I am on the side of the angels on this issue: mostly, I make my own meals from vegetables which I buy locally. But still, I have found it useful to keep Pollan's advice in mind while negotiating the heffalump trap-filled aisles of the supermarket. I did think of buying some packets of noodles, until I read the small print and found that the largest single component of the "flavour pack" is salt, closely followed by some flavour enhancers (quite what flavour they enhance is anyone's guess), some assorted E-numbers and various other ingredients which would have been unknown to Aunt Daisy. I suspect the beef-flavour noodles contain nothing that has been near cattle; the manufacturers could quite probably declare said noodles to be suitable for vegetarians, although to do so might alert their intended market - of people who think they are getting a nourishing meaty meal in a packet and in an instant - to the fact that something very odd is going on.

Of course, it will be objected that Messrs Epstein and Pollan are talking about America, the land of the freely ensnared, where everything is authentic but nothing is real. And such an objection has a point, since an American supermarket – which will sell a hundred-thousand different products, all of them packaged crap – is a wonder to behold; moreover, the USofA is a place where buying fresh fruit and vegetables is a slightly-outdated and cranky pursuit of middle-aged liberals, the sort of people who are portrayed by Alan Alda and Candice Bergen in films set in New England university towns.

Such objections also would have substance if America was over there, in some way distant – like other countries. After all, Russia under its present elective dictatorship produces some of the most poisonous wodka known to man, but reserves it for consumption at home, where the demand for oblivion is scarcely met by supply. We produce our own equivalents, which are much better and much more safe, producing the desired delirium without causing blindness. America, by contrast, brings us only woe. Its main exports are its own myths, which it not only prints but fries, deeply. And these myths include those of food which is both plentiful and cheap, while having qualities of coolness that cannot be found at home. And we munch these myths, we supersize them, and then add relish.

If we took a moment to ask ourselves, "how did we come to this," we would be stumped for a reply. What, after all, is a burger? It has no relation to anything we have eaten traditionally and only a slender association with a form of meat that was brought to America by German immigrants. For reasons to do with its period of mutation during the 1950s, the burger is covered in lifeless salad vegetables, encased in a bun of unknown provenance and sold with limp chips. To make matters worse, this toxic combination is usually sold with a drink that keeps dentists and dieticians in business the world over.

McDonalds, of course, made a local delicacy of this global sludge by adding the miracle ingredient of sliced beetroot; unto us was born the Kiwi Burger, surely one of the most spurious yet effective marketing ploys in our history.

Worse horrors still are to be found in the KFC (which, incidentally, no longer stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken or for anything; its is one of those de-meaninged acronyms, like ASB) next door. There, our Polynesian neighbours feast on family-sized tubs of instant Type 2 Diabetes, accompanied by mounds of mashed potatoes soaked in gravy - a bizarre addition to the traditional chicken'n'fries combination which suggests that somehow the secret recipe fell into the hands of Yorkshiremen, who made additions to suit their own tastes. From them it came to New Zealand, where people who had lived on fish and fruit for generations rushed to chow down on the nutritional equivalent of an influenza-infected blanket.

Even stranger still is the pizza, a rather inconsequential side-dish (a traditional Neapolitan pizza is nothing more than the base, the tomato sauce and the cheese) which has been distorted into shapes that would be inconceivable in its homeland, so that it could become a convenient main meal for people who eat on sofas (which they call couches), consuming piles of dough while they consume equally bland Media. The diversity and perversity of pizza toppings is remarkable; and I speak not just of the Hawaiian pizza, with its innovative ham-pineapple-cheese combination: the nadir of the pizza came in the early 1980s, with the invention of the chow mein topping - a cultural mix which suggests that, when Marco Polo came back from the East, he brought not just rice but takeaways.

My point, for the benefit of readers distracted by whatever simulacra snack they are eating as they read, is that the laughably inappropriately-named "meals" served by fast-food franchises are not just bad for your arteries. They distort your notions of reality. These creations are not meals. A meal is made up of major food groups in some sort of pleasing combination. A meal is made with a certain amount of attention and demands a similar amount when it is eaten. Most importantly, a meal tastes of something.

I challenge anybody who claims to enjoy this sort of mush to describe what tastes are involved. I think we can all agree that the substance of such food is pretty dodgy - mostly starch and meat "products" which are unidentifiable - not just as to what animals they come from but what parts of whatever animals are used. But the more important question is about what flavours are produced by this stodge. I would suggest the answer is – almost none. Fast food does not really taste of much at all. And what tastes it does possess are mostly similar across all possible combinations, as if the same bland stuff had been manipulated into various food-like shapes and given suitable connotations – Mexican, Chinese, Italian, whatever; which is more or less what has happened.

Now, before nutritionists rush in where angels fear to tread, I do realise that what the fast-food eater is getting is not a taste but a feeling – one of starchy fullness with a sugar-high on the side. But what troubles me is that we (truth to tell, probably you rather than me) have abandoned tastes as objects of eating. It is enough to have those feelings of satiation and excitement. The age-old requirement (except for readers in England) that food have at least one taste has become redundant.

For that matter, fast-food doesn't smell of anything either. Restaurants, caf├ęs, delis and bakeries are full of smells but fast-fooderies are almost odourless; all you can smell is the other customers. Given how much stuff is being produced at any one time in the kitchen which stands straight in front of you, why is there no smell? Obvious answer - it is all artificial; if they wanted anything to have a smell, they would give it a smell. Less obvious answer - it doesn't matter. Smell, like taste, is unnecessary. Its the feelings that count.

I could go on. I will go on. But you are probably eating lunch. In the meantime, consider the implications of the global food shock, which Russell discussed a few days ago. The fast-food manufacturers could have a corn syrup crisis on their hands.


Robyn said...

McDonald's tested the Kiwiburger in Hamilton when I was a teen. From what I remember, they had introduced it for all the customers who were incredulous that they did not serve burgers with beetroot and a fried egg, because that is wot is in a proper burger.

But we can take confort that in New Zealand, it's pretty standard for a burger to be made with lettuce, tomato and other salad ingredients, whereas a standard hamburger in America is the meat with sauces and condiments.

And Subway introduced grated carrot for our Aoteroan palate.

George Darroch said...

Artificial food colours are set to be removed from hundreds of products after a team of university researchers warned they were doing as much damage to children's brains as lead in petrol.

Via the Independent.

david said...

the nadir of the pizza came in the early 1980s

A person of my acquittance mourns the loss of Dominoes' meat-pie pizza. Which was, as far as i can tell, a meat pie dropped on a pizza base from not inconsiderable height.

But then she's Scottish, I imagine she was disappointed they weren't deep fried.

Anonymous said...

"Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plant."

Wholeheartedly agree but - to my mind- another word is necessary:


I had a nextdoor neighbour who was a good friend: he reguarded any food as fodder but it - and cooking of it - was a major part of his considerable gift for hospitality. Some of his cook-ups were seriously - lacking in taste & charmm - but he could cook whitebait fritters that - honoured the fish (tho' I'm very sure they'd've preferred to be continuing upstream...)

I dont - wont - eat crap food. I do eat flesh (fish, fowl (especially titi), and whatever family & friend hunters have shot) but the flesh is never hulking chunks- more a deliciousness added to other deliciousnesses. And, with a will to enjoy what is
humanely harvested, carefully cooked -humans thrive-

cheers! Kia ora!

Anonymous said...

here i was hoping for a paragraph on the nutritional benefits of nicotine (cf preservatives in instant noodles, etc)

Will de Cleene said...

The rot started when McDonald's got away with calling itself a restaurant.

Peter in Dundee said...

Hmmm vodka, Russian in fact. I have some experience in the matter. When we were visiting the recently ReNamed St Petersburg back in '94 my wife and purchased a small bottle of what purported on the label to be Bisongrass vodka from what seemed to be a reputable establishment. We consumed the contents of said bottle over the course of an evening and after a filling meal. Next day we were very, very ill. I being slightly less so than my wife took the kids to the playground over the road from the hotel while my wife had a little lie down.

Now we are currently in possession of a 2/3 empty bottle of 'Russian Standard Vodka', though the largest letters on the label are in Cyrllic. We are all Europeans now and can handle such things you see. It hails from St Petersburg, claims to have been established in 1894 and has double headed imperial eagles too. It ain't half bad whether straight, with a little pomegranate molasses (oh YES!) or in a Freddy Fudpucker. However I noticed just now it does have a sort of stamp certifying it as Export Standard Russian vodka....

I take your point about how bad burgers can be, but they do not need to be that way. The ones we make at home served very fresh from the finest steak mince and between ciabbatta buns are about as far from McD's as you can get.

We also manage here in Scotland not to eat deep fried pizza, though I have seen it offered at the chippy. We also have world class fish and chip emporia close by that relate to the bottom end of the market hardly at all. It is not a sin to fry a fish after all, it is all about HOW you fry the fish.

And how's this for irony? I make a stunningly wonderful cous cous, full of things like fresh herbs and veg etc that my wife cannot get enough of and others rave over. But I cannae eat it, due to being gluten intolerant (all properly tested I assure you and I am NOT allergic).

However when I compare our trolley at the supermarket, overflowing with fresh fruit and veg, with those beside us at the tills I despair. I wouldn't care except I have to pay for their health care through taxes. That is the real tragedy of it all.

Still, with food prices going the way they are then having a choice will soon seem like a very fine thing indeed.

Anonymous said...


more of the better food!

use your local farmer's markets!

Sanctuary said...

Beautiful. Mssrs. Litterick and Brown are the best writers in teh biosphere, I do believe. Actually, I would probably add Deborah as well, if it wasn't for the fact that when grumpy I plummet into a Manichean world view and sometimes the unhappy confluence of her writing something I don't agree with and me being grumpy coincide.

Food - fast food anyway - isn't just a feeling, its part of being successful, of being part of the consumer culture. As such, it has become another front in the war on leisure. We have managed to confuse being busy with being successful. Grabbing takeaways on the way from the gym to the cocktail party after working late to finish that terribly important report is an irony that most people are sublimely unable to perceive. Which somehow segues (to my satisfaction at least) to the question of happiness, or rather how much we also confuse happiness with consumption. Much of the underlying fear about the global energy/food crisis is that somehow not being able to buy strawberries in July and a $40 DVD player or not being able to afford cheap takeaways, weekend shopping trips to Sydney, and a second hand imported Toyota Land Cruiser will make us less happy. I remember as a lad making preserves at home with my seven siblings, and storing them in the back porch. It is an unalloyed pleasant memory of family before the bittersweet experience of adulthood on us all. Don't get me wrong - cheap food is one of mankind’s great triumphs and one I should not wish away, but we see to confuse the luxury of twenty brands of cheap LCD TV’s with the freedom of real choice and we seem to think that being a bit poorer will make us a less happy.