Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of Those Interminable Essays I Get Sucked Into Doing to Try to Prove That I Have a Lot to Say or
I'm Bored By the Obsession Contemporary Smart People Have With Our Food and Where It Comes From.

Believe me, I like a superior meal when I can get one as much as any reasonable person, but the extent and tenor of the mental energy being expended on it by my generation especially is getting out of hand. Listen, I know that anything you buy from any entity that makes a lot of money is never as good, or as good for you, as something made by hand from small scale enterprises featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients. My preference would even be to have such meals whenever they are practicable. However, I don't care enough to put this quest at the center of my life, even though increasingly I see people insisting I should. I can easily enough live with most of the slop sold at supermarkets and served at the Olive Garden if I have to. I can't seem to bring myself to hate white bread, store-bought salad dressing, factory farmed meat, and highly processed crackers, cheeses and pies, as much as I ought to. Given the class issues so pointedly involved in this whole food movement, the passion for which I do not so fervently share, I am a little resentful that this is becoming such a big issue socially. Politically it seems to have aims with which I would be inclined to be somewhat sympathetic but I would like it better if I felt a little more of the spirit of say, Jefferson, and less that of Robespierre (i.e., humorlessness tending towards authoritarian fanaticism) among its advocates. Not that such people don't already run most of what passes for cultural life at the local levels in this country. We can never have everything we want, and for my part I would far rather have entertaining company whose basic interests ran somewhat along similar lines as my own over some horrible salty dish than have an exquisite meal acceptable to the stringent requirements of the food police, given that it seems difficult to have them both at the same time.

Of course I am threatened by these enlightened modern eaters. They are the same ones who have always had lots of coll friends, known in the long run how to position themselves to land desirable and comparatively lucrative jobs, been aware of the best bands and on top of all the latest trends and gadgets in technology, while I continue more or less eating a 1940s diet and catching up on the art and ideas and scientific advances that were current in that era, while having nothing to talk about when confronted with contemporary adults. He who subsists mainly on eggs and bacon, pancakes, butter, steak, roast chicken, potatoes, peas, pork chops, corn, gravy, chicken broth, tomato soup and dinner rolls, and has never had caviar and still thinks of it as something only rich people eat does not get invited to many groovy dinner parties. In my defense I also like a lot of the Mexican dishes and so on that have entered the culture since then [as long as they existed in Mexico in 1940], the year-round availability of salmon, and I have come a long way in my appreciation of lettuce drenched in corporate salad dressing in the last five years or so [though not other salad ingredients for the most part]. In beer I have even become somewhat demanding after spending my year overseas; I haven't bought a mass-market American brand in 13 years, and will argue to anyone who will listen that the taste tests where domestic microbrews defeat esteemed Czech and German pilseners are frauds, that the samples of the foreign beers being tested are almost certainly not the same product sold in their domestic markets (In wine, alas, I'll pretty much drink anything, though I have begun of late to shy away from anything under $7.99 a bottle). In the end, though, there are just too many fronts in the food wars to keep up with. Such as:

Vegetarianism: Obviously I am not a vegetarian. Among other things (such as that I really don't like vegetables) I'm not convinced that it's really that healthy for people, certainly for children. If humans, and Northern European types in particular, have not in fact evolved to need and thrive on a meat-based diet, any understanding or sense of this as possessing real truth has eluded me. Is not our height, our strength, our increased brain capacity the result of a diet rich in animal proteins? Are not vegetarians kind of, well I don't want to say boring, because I am boring, but they become rather a sect apart from other people, because you can never really share food with them, which as we all know often substitutes for sensual communion in a pinch, and the crowd over on the veggie side, while some of them are tempting, are more tempting in a way that makes me strongly desire to see them digging into a steak at my table than that I should go gnaw on a cucumber on their blanket.

Then of course there is the cruelty, the brutality issue. A lot of people seem to think that the typical meat-gorging, comfort-loving, essentially disgusting modern suburbanite would never have the stomach to be able to kill an animal themselves, which means that they therefore shouldn't be eating them. But I don't think these people get around much, because apart from a few sensitive overindoctrinated types such as myself who might struggle with this at first, I am pretty sure this would not generally be a problem among the general run of the population (and anyway, I have also been assured, often from the same quarters, that if a fascist regime with snappy haircuts and uniforms ever seizes power and commands this same overfed class to set violently upon certain of its neighbors that it will set to bludgeoning them gleefully and without a second thought). After one such occasion of being pummelled by a militant vegetarian in a moral debate regarding the horrors of meat-eating, in which this argument was among those raised, my wife suggested that anybody would be able to kill an animal if he was hungry enough. Of course the point is in modern middle class life no one is ever hungry enough to justify killing an animal, and that there is more than enough lettuce and sprouts available for us all to live well and sustainably, and due to the health benefits, for much longer than we do now.

As you can see, I am really unwilling to concede this ground in my life. It would be one thing if my friends and people I admired were exhorting me respectfully and as a mental equal to consider the arguments, but this is almost never the case. The culinary philosophers are obsessed by how far removed modern man has become from the sources of his food--this is lamentable, but probably necessary given the population explosion and therefore in a way rather admirable--but people seem to have had much less angst about killing pigs back in the days when those beasts and humans lived regularly on much more intimate terms than they do now. One can think of so many examples from the arts in which the reality that farmers kill farm animals is simply an unconscious fact of life, something taken for granted. Jude in Jude the Obscure had some problems turning the knife in the pig's throat, it is true--his lusty, bawdy mismatched first wife had to help him because he wasn't controlling the blood flow properly--but he was a sensitive soul who continuously had trouble confronting and dealing with the messy realities of existence. I don't remember that he became a vegetarian. In the Laura Ingalls books, the acquistion of a new animal is immediately anticipated in the form of a steaming Sunday dinner somewhere down the road. This art exhibit of paintings from the 30s I went to in Washington recently had a couple of cheerful, totally unironic Grandma Mosesish pictures by a lady from Iowa depicting the simple pleasures of farm life one of which was titled "Slaughtering Day" in which several pigs are in the process of being hung up, gutted and butchered by the hardworking menfolk. Even in the movie Oh Mr Porter I wrote about recently, some pigs being left at the station by their owner, the instinct of the railroad employees (and I know this was a joke, but still) is to turn them into bacon in time for the morning's breakfast (the joke comes when the farmer comes back and asks where the pigs are as the stationmaster is lifting a slice of bacon to his mouth). I know none of this quite justifies slaughtering individual beasts on an individual level, even if I take the egotistical human chauvinist route and posit that my existence is more existentially substantial than a cow's. I am not however convinced that my well-being as a whole human, in this world certainly, will be improved by abstaining from meat. Perhaps morally it will; I have always been morally weak, though this has always seemed to me as much a matter of assertiveness as anything else. The people I think of in my life as the staunchest moralists are those who let it be known that not only do they live by a code, but that they insist upon others following the same code, or at least deferring to the moral authority of the moralist while in his presence. I never do this.

The stuff that gets written about how to feed children and so on, that you must control their diets and deny them french fries and so on, I think are ridiculous. Obviously there are things I don't let my children eat and drink, but one can be reasonable. The occasional french fry or prepared dinner isn't going to retard anybody's development. As in all matters, moderation is the key.

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