Did you know that owning a German shepherd dog leaves a carbon footprint twice that of driving a Toyota Land Cruiser? Two hamsters is like owning a plasma TV. Hence the rising interest in books with titles like Time To Eat The Dog; A Real Guide To Sustainable Living. The book was written by the Vales, a couple of architects in New Zealand and they make a compelling argument for not owning pets unless they are edible. I guess you are OK with your horses, but you might want to re-examine your attachment to the cats.
On the same side, with a slightly different motive, is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. His book presents a dramatic case for not eating anything with a face, or “you don’t put a fork in your friends.”
I didn’t make it very far into this book; the well-written descriptions of how animals are slaughtered did me in very quickly. Coming so soon on the heels of having read The Chicken Plant, a short story by John Armstrong, I simply could not handle any more depictions of animal murder.
Pete, fearful of my becoming permanently free of my flesh-eating habits, handed me a book he had just finished reading. It is called In Defense Of Food and is written with humour and grace by Michael Pollan
Pollan tells us there is a new mental illness on the rise; it is called “orthorexia” and is identified by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. I immediately felt a kinship with those unknown sufferers; I too have gradually become intensely concerned with what we eat. It is partly due to the fact that since we moved to the Yukon I have become the one solely responsible for the purchase, storing and preparation of food. At the same time, we moved to a place where processed food constitutes most of the items available on the shelves of our local grocery store and where the ‘fresh’ produce isn’t.
Coincidentally, as I learned to cook and became interested in the process, I became more and more aware of the zillions of bits of information about the state of food in today’s world and none of it was very nice.
We no longer talk about food, claims Pollan; we talk about nutrition, and nutrition is a science that is shaky at best and downright damaging at worst. There is still an enormous lack of understanding in how foods work in the human body, especially how they work in conjunction with other foods.
What really caught my attention and imagination was the news that the human digestion system has roughly as many neurons as the spinal column and that while no one knows exactly what they’re up to their existence suggests that there is a whole lot more going on in digestion than simply the breakdown of food into chemicals. Doesn’t that conjure up some fascinating possibilities? What do you think those neurons could be doing?
This author came up with a term that was new to me: “parking lot science, after the guy who lost his car keys and went looking for them under the streetlight not because that was where he lost them but because that was where it was easiest to see.” The science of nutrition is like that and it is not through any real fault of the scientists but because the complexities are simply awesome.
The addition of smoking and drinking on the part of any individual in the study group changes the veracity of any information gathered. Also, most subjects lie, either a little or a lot, in surveys where they are asked to report on when, what and how much they ate at any given time. Lying aside, people often simply don’t remember with any accuracy but will fill in the boxes anyway. The unreliability of the surveys combined with the placebo effect, makes the work of nutrition scientists pretty much screwed. They soldier on, however, motivated by the large sums of money available from Big Food.
Not all the scientists are oblivious to what they are in fact learning; the fact that school lunch programs have become a repository for all the factory-farmed products that consumers aren’t buying has come to media attention through publications by a few of those scientists prepared to be brought down by exposing their own integrity and concern for what is happening to the western diet.
A few of the more repellent things that are happening are:
Cheeseburger in a Can, accompanied by the serving suggestion that the product be heated in the unopened can in a double boiler.
Batter Blaster is pancake batter in an aerosol can. At least it claims to be ‘organic,’ a feature which is negated by the aerosol can.
Then there are Grapples which are grape-flavoured apples. There is no ‘why’ for grape-flavoured apples in the ad, but there is a very interesting ‘how.’ According to the producers, the apples have been through “a relaxing bathing process” on their way to becoming grape-flavoured.
This author also addresses our Judeo-Christian “guilt” about food and how the hurried careless pace at which we eat is one of the consequences of this guilt.
He describes how a fast-food hamburger has been engineered to offer a succulent and wildly tasty first bite, a bite that would be impossible to enjoy if the eater could picture the feedlot, the slaughterhouse and the artificial grill flavour that went into its production. This hamburger is to be hurried through, largely ignoring what it might exactly be and how that will affect our bodies, our health.
He addresses the difficulties in changing the American way of eating, largely because aside from the enormous profits made from it, it suits a culture in which the people put money-based success at the centre of like, who work long hours, get only a couple of weeks vacation a year, and most critically, don’t have a social safety net to cushion them from the daily blows of modern life – they don’t have family, or a community that they are an integral part of. By not making time and slowing down to eat in friendly groups we began the process that has led to the population that eats the most and is the sickest – and the fattest.
What does Pollan suggest? He says we ought to eat food; by that he means actual foodstuffs, the sort which have not been purchase at the same place your car eats, for instance.
He says we ought to eat mostly plants.
And most sensibly of all, we ought not to eat too much. Given the accepted, expected gross size of portions of everything in the western diet this is probably the best suggestion of all.
He also touches on the pleasure of food and of eating. He recommends we eat slowly, deliberately, with knowledge and gratitude. No eating alone, if possible, and no eating in front of a TV or while reading a book.
Naturally, we should try to grow as much of our own food as we are able. Tending a garden re-establishes our connection to our food and thus our connection to the soil, the water – all of nature.
My attempts at gardening last year simply reestablished my ever-ready feelings of inadequacy and ignorance, but after reading In Defense Of Food, I think I am ready to try it again this summer. Nothing Michael Pollan suggests could be considered radical or difficult but should a great many people follow his advice, the impact would be beyond imagination. Voting with our forks, we could change every aspect of how and why we live.
I am on board with this one, and shall be regarding your horses with a fresh eye.
Heather Bennett is a writer
who lives in Watson Lake.