Questioning Food

I never gave much thought to what I ate, aside from how it tasted. Food was good or bad, based on how it made me feel at the moment of consumption. I laughed at the idea of counting calories, and never once considered an ingredient list. Throughout my life, I have been blessed with a thin figure. No matter how bad my diet (and it has been bad), I never gained any weight. Sure, I’m shorter than average and I’ve been balding since age 19, but I never had to worry about getting fat. I simply ate what I liked.

Knowing what I liked wasn’t always easy, though. One of the worst parts about college was having to figure out dinner. I remember coming home in the evenings and going over the familiar choices: pizza, the deli, a Chicken Madness sandwich, Wendy’s again? There were so many nights when everything seemed terrible – I was sick of it all. Cooking was a hassle, but cooking was only part of the problem. To cook, one had to plan ahead, to shop, and to clean up afterwards. It was hardly worth it. I remember the relief I would feel when finally settling upon a suitable meal for the night.

Living in China was bizarre for me. I’d grown up in a household where food was something that just had to happen – an unavoidable hassle borne of necessity – and here I was in a culture where everything revolved around food. Food was given as a gift, it was a sign of status. Twelve o’clock noon was the national lunchtime: “Every Chinese eats lunch at noon,” an employer once told me. Dinner was a subject of great importance. As a guest in someone’s home, I would be expected to eat beyond fullness, and to compliment every dish. It was strange at first, but then I started to get used to it; soon I, too, was greeting friends not with “Hey, how’s it going?” but with “Hi, have you eaten?”

This year things have gotten even more complicated, as America’s food chain has become an issue of national conversation. I watched Food, Inc and didn’t eat meat for a week. When I craved a hamburger, I went to Whole Foods and demanded grass-fed beef. Slowly I forgot the film and went back to my old ways – but not all the way back. I started asking waiters where the meat came from. Most of them didn’t know. I followed Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and starting reading blogs about school lunches. Then I saw King Corn and started wondering why America grows so much corn – and where it all goes. All of the sudden I was starting to question everything about what went into the stuff that went into my body.

Not even pizza is safe! At least, not Big Pizza. Yes, we have Big Oil, Big Pharma and now Big Pizza. Turns out Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s and Pizza Hut have cornered the global pizza market (worth $36 billion a year and counting), and naturally, for the worse. The dough is made in factories, where it’s x-rayed to be sure it’s free of scrap metal; the “process tomatoes” grown specially for “Pizza Sauce Ready-to-Eat” are planted by GPS-guided tractors and pumped full of nitrogen, and the cheese – oh God, you don’t want to know about the cheese. The end result of all of this is that farmers in the poorest countries are driven out of business, and so they go looking for non-existent jobs in overcrowded slums. And you just wanted a pizza for game day!

How do we put an end to these horrors? Surely it’s possible to feed all of mankind without destroying the livelihoods of 80% of us? And what about meat? Is there an ethical way to eat it – a way that scales to feed six billion people? What about nine billion?

The Junta will tackle these questions and more at our next discussion. Please join us in Brooklyn the night of December 14th. Details to follow.

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