Eat food.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.
Not too much.
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crap – is a wonder to behold; moreover, the USofA is a place where buying fresh fruit and vegetables is a slightly-outdated and cranky pursuit of middle-aged liberals, the sort of people who are portrayed by Alan Alda and Candice Bergen in films set in New England university towns.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, cafés, 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.