One of the great joys for my wife, Julie, and me is watching our 7-year-old eat. He approaches a plate of food with something like awe. A smile breaks across his face and questions fly across the kitchen: What’s this called? How do you cook that? Why are those potatoes yellow and not brown? If he senses we’re not looking, he will surreptitiously grab a handful of vegetables or noodles to explore their texture and temperature.
Soren happily chows down with no thought of calories, carcinogens, grocery bills, fat grams, E. coli, or genetically modified ingredients. His only real concerns at the dinner table are that something may be too spicy or, even more tragically, that we might have forgotten dessert.
Dining with Soren offers a glimpse of Eden, remembrance of a time when we assumed that everything on our fork was wholesome. This has always been childhood’s state of grace, and it was shared by most American adults until sometime in the 1970s. It may have been cyclamates, a carcinogen lurking in every can of diet cola until the FDA banned it. Or the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, which indicted meat-eating as a waste of valuable food resources that heightens world hunger. Or maybe it was just our collective belly expanding a little more every year. But over the past three decades, Americans have become ever more wary of what they eat. Now we talk about cheesecake and pork chops in hushed tones once reserved for oral sex and hashish.
The simple act of breaking bread has become a complicated matter of personal health, humanitarian concern, political commitment, and public safety. That’s one reason it’s so much fun to watch Soren eat. For him, food is about tasting good and filling up, not a thrice-daily symposium on medical and moral issues. It’s not surprising that many Americans are sick and tired of thinking about everything they put in their mouths. "Damn the tofu and oatmeal and skim milk," they declare, "I’m going to enjoy a double bacon cheeseburger with extra mayo, a supersize order of fries, and a bucket of Coke." Burp!
And we can see the results all around us—in rural landscapes overrun by factory farms, in food and water laced with chemicals, in the cardiac unit and cancer ward of a hospital near you.
Like it or not, what we eat has consequences for us and for the world. Dinner is not something that just magically appears on our plates. In ordering a burger or making a salad, we are inextricably linked to the land, cycles of rain and sunshine, farmers and farmworkers, compost or chemicals, processing facilities and slaughterhouses, truck drivers and miles of highway, co-ops or corporations—to a whole web of ecological and human activity.
"You are what you eat. We all know that old motto," notes Mark Ritchie, a longtime food activist who is president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "But now we know that what you eat dramatically affects the well-being of many others—human, animal and otherwise."
The system that delivers food to our table is far different from the days when Farmer Brown trucked his sweet corn, pears, and eggs to town. It’s changed radically over the past 25 years as family farms have been displaced by huge operations that de-pend on intensive chemical use, minimum-wage workers, and industrial facilities such as animal confinement buildings. This same period has also seen the rise of the natural food business, offering us healthier and more environmentally sustainable alternatives to practically everything in the supermarket aisles.
"Eating is the most intimate relationship we have with the environment," explains Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, which coordinates the Organic & Beyond campaign, and the editor of a compelling new book, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Island Press, 2002). "Three times a day, it’s how we can re-create the world. We can shape a different future for our children, for farmworkers, the landscape, wildlife, villages around the world, and genetic diversity.
"We all want to do the responsible thing," Kimbrell continues. "Who wants to be cruel to animals and poison the soil? But what’s great is that being responsible also means better health and better-tasting food you can enjoy with a greater sense of joy."
The joy of eating! That’s what everyone seeks at mealtime. Soren exudes it every time he tears into a a platter of pancakes. Joy is the much-advertised promise hawked by fast food chains and frozen dinner manufacturers. And it’s the point of the obligatory picnic scene in almost every foreign movie and food magazine: a long table under a canopy of trees, laden with fresh-from-the-garden delights and plentiful wine, surrounded by several generations of smiling people engaged in robust conversation.
Cooking and eating good food are the cornerstones of human civilization, our daily reward for all the hard work and innumerable difficulties of life. I have a favorite story that I’ve heard quoted numerous times. There was once an extensive study of National Merit Scholars to find the common denominator in these bright kids’ upbringing. Turns out it wasn’t household income, private schools, parents’ educational levels, or wealthy neighborhoods. It was families who ate their meals together.
Just as the American farm has been transformed in recent years, so has dinnertime. Joy is out of the picture in many (if not most) households, where time-pressed people wolf down microwaved dinners or swing through drive-up windows. Breaking bread has become refueling, and it’s often a solitary activity since everyone around the house is ruled by a hectic schedule. No wonder we cherish movies like Chocolat, Babette’s Feast, and Like Water for Chocolate, and that corporations pour millions into ads artistically trying to convince us that Velveeta and Kentucky Fried Chicken are pure, unadulterated fun. The joy of eating has, in many ways, become a vicarious thrill.
That’s the real reason—not warnings from killjoy nutritionists and activists—that mealtime now feels unsatisfying to so many of us. Though we’re loading up on calories, we are starved for ritual and leisure and pleasure. Thinking too much about what we eat is not what robs us of happy meals, but rather putting too little thought into the important role that food plays in our lives and in the wider world.
Don’t despair (or head to Taco Bell to drown your sorrows in baja sauce), there’s also good news from food’s frontlines. In the same way the natural food business sprouted as an alternative to industrialized agriculture and junk food, a new movement has arisen to put the joy back into eating. Beginning with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, which, inspired by peasant food traditions around the world, put a premium on fresh, local ingredients, there’s been a growing appreciation for authentic, healthy food. The newfound popularity of regional cuisine, the growth of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and the happy emergence (or in some cases re-emergence) of microbrew beers, artisan cheeses, traditional breads, all-natural meats, and heirloom fruits and vegetables amount to a culinary revolution.
While the quest for tastier food is what drives these trends, they square with most environmental and ethical concerns. Fresh organic produce from local farmers not only improves a meal, it prevents pollution, saves fuel, and boosts your local economy. Dairy and meat from free-ranging animals that have not been force-fed antibiotics are both tastier and healthier. (There is no ethical consensus, however, on using animals for food. Vegetarians and vegans argue that killing animals is cruel no matter how humanely they were raised, while meat eaters note that carnivorism is a fact of nature and that manure from livestock is essential in most methods of organic farming.)
The organic label has now become familiar to us, but Jim Slama, president of Sustain, a Chicago-based environmental advocacy organization, says that’s just the beginning. Slama envisions a time when you will be able to know the story of what happened to food on its way to your plate. Beyond the organic label ensuring that your food was raised without chemicals, irradiation, genetically modified ingredients, or toxic sludge, a "fair trade" label will certify that the people producing it were treated and paid well, and a "regional" label will let you know where it comes from. Sustain has launched an organic local foods initiative in Chicago. This is also the theme of the Organic and Beyond campaign (www.organicandbeyond.org), a coalition of grassroots groups that includes Sustain.
While some folks might view such a project as more reasons to feel guilty over lunch, it actually offers the chance for a richer connection with our food, a way to put meaning back into our meals. Sure, you probably don’t want to know the story behind a serving of factory farm meat: an animal stuffed into a tiny cage, living in its own excrement (which is then flushed into a stream), pumped with antibiotics, slaughtered by a poorly paid worker in a factory notorious for on-the-job injuries, doused in a chemical bath, and then shipped to a faraway supermarket or fast-food joint. Maybe you don’t want to know about all this, but it will affect your health, your environment, and the social fabric of your country.
But what if that animal was raised on a farm in your region, perhaps by Farmer Brown’s great-granddaughter, and you could see it from the highway grazing in a pasture instead of the ugly confinement buildings that now dot the countryside? And what if your milk and butter came from a small organic co-op, and a lot of your vegetables from the backyard or an old gardener named Tony (or Rosita or Mr. Nyugen), with whom you talk about baseball and the weather every Saturday at the Farmers’ Market? Would you feel different cooking it and eating it? Would you mind paying a little more for it, knowing that it was good for you and good for other people too?
Soren remains the joy-of-eating authority around our house. Although he doesn’t labor over the ethical dimension of every bite he takes (the direct link between the cute piglets he plays with at his cousin Leah’s farm and the beloved corn dogs he orders at his favorite neighborhood grill is still hazy for him), he does like to know the story behind his food. We found this out last year when we joined a new CSA run by friends, Don and Joni. Every week all summer we’d get a heaping box of greens, herbs, peppers, and vegetables along with organic eggs Don and Joni brought from one of their country neighbors. On Labor Day, we drove out to the farm to help with the harvest. Julie and I volunteered to weed the tomato patch while Soren was pressed into service picking vegetables. After a while, he ran over dragging a heavy pail. "Mommy, Daddy, look at these cucumbers," he sang, holding one above his head as if it were a championship trophy. "I picked them myself!"
And for the next week, Soren jubilantly ate cucumbers at every meal, including breakfast.