Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Real Food Religion

It seems I can't turn around these days without running into someone else going on and on about "real food." Now, I can't exactly point fingers, because I'm a fan of the traditional food movement myself. I believe in making food from scratch, avoiding highly processed food, and eating foods that come complete with their natural fats.

I always have been a believer in making as much as possible from scratch, simply because it tastes better that way and is better at expressing my love for the people I'm cooking for. When a friend's mother gave me Nourishing Traditions for a bridal shower gift, I learned a lot and got pretty into the idea of cooking in a more natural way. I would like to do even more -- like baking bread from scratch and lacto-fermenting foods.

However, I discovered that I am not even much of a dabbler compared to most of the whole-foods types out there. The blogs I read all seem to be written by women who make whole foods the focus of their efforts. They make everything from scratch, and every week there's another post about some food we ought to avoid. And I'm always seeing panic and guilt in a few of these posts -- not constantly, but appearing as a recurring theme. These women cry out, "What about this? What about that? I switched to whole wheat -- am I now giving my kids unhealthy phytates? I am using real butter now -- but I feel guilty because it's not grass-fed! I know I shouldn't eat battery eggs, but I can't afford any other kind!" The more they do, the more they feel they ought to be doing. And other things fall by the wayside. I nearly yelled at my computer when I read one blogger confess that, though she had intended to homeschool, she'd sent her little girl to kindergarten because she was too big of a distraction from cooking. I wanted to tell this woman, "It won't matter how well-nourished she is if she doesn't have the attention of her mother!"

That's one problem I see with the whole-foods crowd. Another is the quasi-religious attitude toward food. Normally I see it in New Age types, who do various vegan, probiotic, or other fad diets and talk about the "positive energy" in food. But lately I've been finding it in Catholics: women who consider it their duty as Catholic wives and mothers to provide their families with a certain kind of food. It is no wonder the anxiety and guilt attacks them -- they're taking on a mammoth task and endowing it with the same attitude they take toward their faith. It is impossible not to commit nutritional "sins" all the time. I read an article recently saying that "food is the new sex," pointing out that modern people make all kinds of rules about food, suffer from food guilt, and make a religion of eating the right food, while believing that sexuality is completely without any moral compass. It's true -- modern man (and especially woman) obsesses about food to an insane degree and tends to ignore the morality of more important things.

Another issue, I'm more likely to see in the posh types I meet at work. The area surrounding the school is an area famous for upper-class Catholics (which is how I managed to get a paying job here, after all, so it's not like I resent this). All of these classy Catholic women seem to make a hobby of gathering around talking about the healthy food they are eating. "I just made my own jam!" "Oh, really? I made chicken stock the other day from free-range chickens!" It's like the organic version of the more secular moms who stand around at soccer games and discuss their tummy tucks, their home renovations, or their shopping trips. (I used to make my daily bread off of that crowd instead.)

Then I might happen to mention, in the presence of these ladies, that I brought canned soup for lunch, or that I don't think I could afford to buy raw milk from a farm. And they open their eyes wide: "But that is so BAD for you!" "But raw milk is really WORTH the expense!"

What they don't understand is that, no matter how "worth it" the expense is, if you can't afford it, you can't afford it. Their income is such that they are able to pay my salary. But it just doesn't occur to them that I can't match their standard of living. Food, to them, is just one more way of "keeping up with the Joneses," one which seems more selfless than other consumerist things they could be doing, but which still becomes a class-based activity.

I don't eat free-range or locally-grown meats. I never buy anything organic, not because I wouldn't like to, but because I simply can't afford it. If I were going to put that much stock in an organic label, I would be in a panic right now, because it would double our food budget to eat those things that we're "supposed" to. The bloggers' advice is that, once you cut out junk food and impulse purchases, you'll find there's tons of money left over to buy healthy food with. But what if you already cut those out in order to pay the heating bill and the student loans? And their other tip, "Eat less food," is hardly much of an option when one of us is pregnant and the other is skinny as a rail and bikes four miles each way to get to work. I have promised a number of people that I won't let myself go hungry. And when it's go hungry or eat the food that may have MSG or BPA or any other nasty letters, I go ahead and eat the food with the chemicals. Luckily I never got far enough into whole foods that this throws me into a panic.

Instead I do what I can. I make from scratch what I can -- which isn't as much as I'd like, since I'm a working wife, but it's a lot. I make sure that our food budget goes first to meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables before any of it gets spent on nutritionally-weaker things like noodles or crackers. I have gone to Whole Foods once, at the prodding of people at work who insisted that what I wanted could only be found there, and wasn't really sold on it. Which is good, because John insists that our main shopping be done at Aldi. I am aware that there's some trade-off in quality for the lower prices there, but I think we counterbalance it by being able to afford more meat, cheese, and so forth. I've done some research on wholesalers as well, and we've been able to find inexpensive meats this way too.

And yet, I don't feel guilty. Even Nourishing Traditions reassures its readers that a healthy person on a fairly good diet can handle all kinds of toxins -- not that we should be eating them with gusto, but that the body can deal with the occasional chemical without becoming sick. After all, most people are fairly healthy, even without following any of the real food philosophy. Luckily, whole foods aren't a diet that you have to do completely for it to be any good. Even a small change helps. My efforts (which I'm not really sticking to at the moment) to cut out sugar certainly made me feel a lot better, even though I didn't, at the time, do a single other thing the books suggested.

So -- for now, I'll accept Christ's words: "Do not ask, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?' All these things the pagans seek ... Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." I have a job and a husband and a baby coming very soon. I'll do what I can for these, and any preferences for food are going to have to come second. I wish more people would remember this, even as they follow a whole-foods mentality: that their efforts in the kitchen are all in vain if they are put above other, more important goods.

Thoughts? I don't think I have any real-foodies reading this blog, but I may be wrong. Do you think this is a fair assessment? Have you struggled to find a balance between feeding healthy food and all the other tasks on your plate?


Heather said...

I'm not a "real foodie," more of a sponge foodie (read and observe and learn about all the differences and pros and cons and then adjust as fits my habits and goals), but I know a lot of "whole foodies" and it is quite annoying when they (and other types of foodies, like local, organic, etc.) focus on one type so zealously that they tune out everything else, particularly if listening would contradict what they're doing.

People need to have priorities and if they're only doing something because it's the hot thing to do at the moment, then it's not Real anyway.

There definitely has to be a balance, as you write here. And prioritization. Balance between family, finances/affordability, preferences, the kid's palates, health issues, etc. Too often people get hung up on their own ego and it's a shame because it ends up hurting themselves and the causes they supposedly are trying to espouse.

Thanks for writing this out loud, Sheila! It's not something that gets spoken openly very often, even in written word.

Sheila said...

I'm glad you see where I'm coming from here. Actually, I was afraid you wouldn't like this post if you read it, for fear you would think I meant that anyone who follows a particular diet has this attitude. That's not so -- it's an attitude I'm complaining about, not a set of food choices. I am so much on the fence about real food myself that I haven't yet found anyone who quite agrees with me about it -- either they go for it completely, or they don't see why I try to go for it even halfway.

Fidelio said...

* laugh * What a great post!

Warren said...

I am a bit wary of the Raw Milk folks. Great, if you're amish.

But here in the 21st century, we pasteurize our milk, and people don't die of nasty diseases.

I know they have a retort for that, and this, and the other thing. And then there are the "anti-milk" people, who have lactose intolerance, and transmogrify that personal suffering into the universal principle that milk is itself bad.

And don't get me started about Vegan-type (PETA) pseudo-foodies.



Sheila said...

I've considered Raw Milk. Was almost convinced. Then realized how much money and hassle it costs to get it, and reconsidered. Not to mention that I'm not taking any risks with my health right now -- baby takes priority over everything.

Meredith said...

Eating is not like art; it has to get down every day and perfection is not necessary! It's good to have ideals - my mom has been teaching me what good food is and is not ever since I was tiny, so i have certain principles - but you are NOT going to die if you drink a Mountain Dew or eat a Slim Jim (ew) like, once a month. You're right that food has become a religion for a certain set of secular people. (Also just health and Avoiding Toxins in general. You can scare yourself to death wondering, "does this milk have hormones? Does my makeup have parabens? Will my chemical sunscreen interact with my mineral powder and poison me?" Not the best use of your time.)

Sensible things like not wasting your money on cookies/crackers/soda, cutting sugars, buying (as you said) "meat, milk, eggs, vegetables" - this is sane eating. Even if it isn't "organic." (and labels can be misleading!) Especially at this tough, make-do time in your young married life, there is no way you should be held to some preposterous Arugula Gold Standard of food-ism.

The big-eyed, born-again foodie moms sound a little naive. Maybe they need to think back to their own days as young, poor newly-weds... and bear in mind that they're talking to a school teacher working for a Catholic school (such schools almost never pay what a public school would, from what I can tell).

Anyway, despite all this, cooking is funner when you have enough cash to buy pine nuts or mushrooms now and then; and I look forward to the day when you can stay home and make your own bread and jam to your heart's content. And have a bit of garden, too. (It's so much cheaper and nicer to have herbs growing around your house when you need them. Those packages of herbs in the store are SO expensive.)

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