It’s been almost a year since I first watched Logorama, the 16 minute, 6-years-in-the-making nugget of consumerism commentary brilliance that won the Oscar for best animated short – I have to believe it was by a landslide. The film came up in conversation recently, and I decided to revisit. Here’s the overview: the setting is Los Angeles, re-made such that absolutely everything is one of the 3000+ logos the animators tapped to build a parallel world. Pedestrians are the little yellow AOL people, the stoplight is a Stop’n’Shop sign, entire buildings are just block words like ‘LEGO’, etc. The story: there are a couple of snarky little sub-plots, but essentially the film is an epic shoot-em-up that devolves into larger catastrophic events.
The action starts when two Michelin men in a cop car spot their suspect, Ronald McDonald, and give chase. McDonald speeds a red van down the highway, gleefully smashing into other logo-ized vehicles, and finally crashes in front of a Pizza Hut, spilling his cargo of weapons. Moments later, he kicks in a glass wall and uses a machine gun to spray bullets everywhere, laughing manically all the while in true Hollywood ultra-villain style.
It’s hard to say if the filmmakers intended it this way, but it’s really, really hard for me not to see this as a crystallization of popular sentiment about McDonalds. Despite the fact that their global, mulit-billion dollar business continues to hum along, there’s no denying the entrenched association with obesity and corporate irresponsibility. The 2004 documentary film Super Size Me pretty much sums up the nutritional issues (although not the environmental, of which there are plenty). In the most recent high profile attack, a class action lawsuit was filed to stop the use of toys in Happy Meals, alleging consumer protection law violations.
And there, symbolizing it all for us in a movie saturated with symbols, is the familiar red-and-yellow clown kicking kids in the head, touting poison, running people over, and shooting at the police. I can imagine a range of responses: the 30 million+ people who eat at McDonalds every day might cluck and roll their eyes, but nutrition advocates are likely to call it barely an exaggeration. In any event, the film in general is grand fun – have a look-see:
Two weeks ago the FDA announced a proposal to require things like a dead person’s toes to grace cigarette cartons. Dead person’s toes! What would it look like, I wondered, if the same idea were applied to food? The images you see below were knocking around violently in my head since the FDA announcement until I finally released them with the help of photoshop the other night. It’s a little different to see them up on the big screen. I have to admit, amusing but unrealistic. It makes me think of Marion Nestle’s comparison of nutrition advocacy to anti-smoking advocacy in the book ‘Food Politics’, the bible on the issue of the same name. In it, she talks about how fighting against unhealthy food is exactly like fighting against tobacco except it’s much, much more complicated. Smoking is an optional activity that everyone agrees will lead to an early, painful death. Eating, on the other hand, is a necessary activity that will detract from the health that you would otherwise have IF you consistently make the wrong choices. “Don’t smoke,” is a simple instruction. “Eat well,” is not.
However….I wonder about the environmental and safety issues, particularly surrounding animals. It’s pretty hard to argue against the negative consequences of meat: most prominently, the repulsive nature of factory farms (what happens to the animals in them, what happens to the land around them), and the plain inability of the earth at some point to support the demand for meat when quality of life worldwide reaches a certain level. Not to mention a slew of other issues, like concerns about super-viruses resulting from the copious application of antibiotics to livestock, health impacts from over-eating meat, etc. Anyone who says there’s nothing wrong with current meat production and consumption is like anyone half a century ago who pointed to this advertisement and said ‘See? Smoking is fine!’.
People really like meat. I, in fact, really like it. So yummy*. But people really liked smoking, too. So. I’m thinking…factoring in the complexity/strength of the psychology and culture around eating it, and the size of the industry that supports it….maybe in the year 2365 we’ll start seeing pictures of manure lagoons on menus.
*yes of course I generally stay away from the factory farm stuff
(PS Check out some more sophisticated examples of food-related health warning labels here.)
FDA's proposed warning labels for cigarettes
What warning labels for the environmental consequences of food might look like (Image credits: Alliance for Natural Health (chickens), factoryfarm.org (lagoon), and Aston Student’s Guild (menu) ).
I was looking for an excuse because, though we had a lot of good times together, the experiment was unwieldy from the beginning and downright oppressive by the end. The learning curve just wasn’t steep enough to warrant the continued effort – maybe because I wasn’t looking hard enough, but really, prices on a micro level just aren’t the right place to look for an extended period of time if an education about the food system is what I’m after. The tipping point came with this book: ‘Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Truly Responsibly’, by James McWilliams. Somewhat similar to Bjorn Lomborg, of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ fame, who says we’re putting our efforts in the wrong places when it comes to climate change, McWilliams cares deeply about sustainable agriculture but annoys enviro-foodists by pooh-poohing their value set as misguided, over-simplified, and sometimes actually harmful. Some people nod their head knowingly at this book, others get pretty grumpy. For me, it was just a big fat reminder that this stuff is complicated. Food miles are a small part of the total carbon footprint of any given food item. Harmful insecticides are used on organic produce. Etc. I’ve come to view my comparison of sustainable and conventional food as capable of highlighting NOT the cost of a lowered impact on the environment, but the cost of piece of mind, soothed conscious, and a slightly higher quality of life. Some stuff I buy that is purported to be more sustainable than its conventional counterpart actually is. Some isn’t. For most of it, no one can say for absolutely sure without doing an exhaustive life cycle analysis study, and even then, it would probably still be up for debate. So. This issue, which had been nagging me all along, finally grew into a insurmountable demotivation to attack that growing list of receipts.
If it was easier, though, I would keep doing it. There’s something extremely satisfying about cataloging one’s life – neatly tracking mundane and repetitive happenings – interpreting them, giving them a second life in the form of proof that they happened – it’s like taking pictures on vacation, you become a tourist in your own everyday life. The problem is, the act of recording becomes a part of everyday life, and then you’ve not only got an echo issue, but a priorities one.
It’s TOUCHING all the food. This is the insight I have to offer you from my one day of working in vegetable retail. If you’re anything like me, and I feel sure that many of you are, this piece of intel speaks to your most fanciful childhood visions of a perfect world. Countless waking-dream-sequences, often involving a swimming pool, a diving board, and large quantities of things like mashed potatoes have periodically arrived unannounced in my head for years. I also think it might be interesting, for further example, to drape oneself in miles of yard-long beans and go striding down the sidewalk with all of it trailing behind you or perhaps wade through a lake of peppers, which are hollow and would probably make soft, pleasant thwacking noises as you moved around.
This is where I was trying to keep my mind from wandering to the day that I went to work for Heinz at his Du Pont farmer’s market stand. He shows up with a band of hard-working local-food-committed DCistas every Sunday morning around 6am to throw up his tents and fill the tables underneath with mounds of colorful deliciousness. My job was to arrange the deliciousness and re-arrange and then arrange some more when market-goers came by and tarnished my impeccable hills of organic-local yummy. This was important work, mind you – the vast majority of Heinz’s income comes from the Du Pont market, and people in this country generally don’t buy food unless it screams out to them “HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY PASS UP THE OPPORTUNITY TO OWN THIS SCRUMPTIOUS PERFECTION??”. The arranging allowed for ample opportunity, obviously, to interface with the produce. To hold armfuls of it. To dump out boxes of it. To catch big melons that were thrown to me rapid-fire over the side of a truck and listen to one of them go splat on the concrete (was not my fault). It was fantastic.
Food trending fascinates me. Any trending does, actually – from last spring’s rubber boots to corporate jargon patterns – but since food is such a fundamental part of being alive, it’s particularly interesting to watch how easily people are, how easily I am, so heavily influenced. A couple months ago, I finished reading David Kamp’s “The United States of Arugula: The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution” which deals primarily with the tastemakers of 20th century America, and why we’re eating the way we do. It’s not an exhaustive survey, nor does it examine in fine detail how or why certain ideas and ingredients caught on the way they did, but instead it is more like a collection of engaging stories about the famous chefs, food writers, etc (I do highly recommend it). There’s a fantastic bit about aged balsamic vinegar. Aceto balsamico. Originally, it was made for a few wealthy families in a tiny region in Italy, aged over decades, and used in tiny amounts for special meals. Then, in 1978, Dean & Deluca (a specialty food store) popularized it as a fat-free salad dressing with the help of the New York Times, and it became all the rage in the US. And then? It became all the rage in Italy. Allegedly, many Italians didn’t even know about balsamic vinegar until Americans started eating it so profusely.
Obviously, there is a little more to this…I mean, Kamp writes that the company Dean & Deluca got their first shipment from had a 150 case minimum order, so clearly it was already being produced in industrial quantities – but the point is, a swank Manhattan store and a major newspaper made balsamic into a regularly-consumed household item for the first time, even in the country where it first originated. Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this principle of food trending has resulted in the spread of local/organic – in a more complicated, but in essence the same exact same way as balsamic’s rise to fame, ‘organic’ has been popularized as a healthier alternative to the point where Walmart is the largest purveyor of organic food. Perhaps one of the sustainable food movements’ biggest assets is the fact that we’re all a bunch of followers.
The question is, how can we build the infrastructure needed meet the demand without dumbing down the product. Just like few of us eat balsamic vinegar as it was originally intended to be (as Marcella Hazan put it to Kamp, the most common form of it today is “red wine vinegar plus caramel”), there’s a continual stream of suspicion about how organic Walmart organics really are. Fashion really only brings us quantity – how do quantity AND quality get closer together on a large scale? I hear there are a lot of people working on things like regional foodsheds, urban agriculture, and vertical farming…..that sounds like a start.
You’ll notice that I haven’t posted for two weeks. I won’t be shy about the fact that this was a blatant attempt to build suspense regarding my pursuit of the 95% sustainable food goal. This technique seems to have worked marvelously – just the other day, in fact, I was biking to work when a police officer (!) stopped me and demanded to know what my progress has been. I pleaded the 5th, offered her half my lunch, and tried to escape when the light changed, but she was having none of it. Because I was late for a meeting, I eventually admitted that the numbers have been sliding. She – as surely will be the case with all my readers – was deeply disappointed to learn that instead of swallowing up the .01% that stood between me and victory (so close in week 25!) I have been pulled in the opposite direction over the past two weeks. This is almost exclusively due to the fact that I have a social life, however, a craving for fresh buttermilk donuts and blueberry compote sprinkled with lavender sugar at the wine bar Ripple also played a role. As did my unfortunate decision to wander into the world of fresh-made, home-delivered meals via a groupon deal (bad idea, don’t do it). I mean, this wasn’t a precipitous drop in sustainable buying – you’ll notice the graphic above doesn’t look markedly different than the last one – but its certainly statistically significant.
More to the point, it’s the lack of casual eating-out options in DC (anywhere?) that serve organic/local, or adequately inform diners about it when they do, that foils me. If I want to eat out with friends, it either has to be a picnic or the 95% goal for that week is history.
I speak out to restaurant entrepreneurs everywhere. Start something that serves organic/local affordably. Make it a take-out/over the counter thing. Hire idealistic college students who will work tirelessly for the mission, cut costs by leaving the décor ironically spare, and shamelessly trumpet your focus on sustainability as though your life depended on it. There are TONS of us who want the good stuff, and don’t need the white tablecloth. Seriously. Email me and I will point you toward hip neighborhoods in DC with empty storefronts, just waiting to be filled with the hungry and the environmentally aware.
Last week I set a goal for myself: go sustainable for 95% of my food purchases (some info here on what counts as sustainable in this project). I didn’t quuuuiiiittteee make it. I was doing fantastic, buying up lots and lots of seconds* tomatoes and peppers, plus a buncha eggplant from Heinz last Sunday. My plan was to cook it all up and stick it in my freezer for safe keeping till cold weather hits. Which I did. And got all cocky with my o-so-many-pounds-of-locally-procured goodness. I thought, eh, what’s a non-organic-or-local ciabatta loaf next to those overflowing bags I hauled home from the farmer’s market? Then came – this is what got me – a prosciutto craving. An environmentally correct variety of prosciutto does not appear to be readily available, however, this was not about to stand in my way. And that’s what put me over the edge in terms of cost – as you can see above, I am .2% away from being able to round up to victory. It’s nice that I’m a clear winner in the weight category. This is largely because tomatoes are heavy and prosciutto is light.
I’m rather dismayed. But I’m getting back up on that horse. Week 26 results to be posted in a mere 7 days.
*‘Seconds’ refers to the veggies or fruit that aren’t quite up to par aesthetically, but is still perfectly edible. So it gets a serious mark-down. Since I bought so many seconds last Sunday, my stats page of the Food Log Project is showing that I actually saved money by buying sustainable instead of conventional during Week 25.
I had all this on my mind a few weeks ago as I watched the Thomet girls prance barefoot around their 28 acre playground: the farm Next Step Produce in rural Maryland. They leisurely snapped peppers, beans, and figs off the vine and nibbled them down to the stem as they introduced me to the fields and orchards. I got a mini-lecture on composting while they dug in a huge, long pile of dirt to let the steam rise up from it into the hot August evening. They engaged themselves in the business of tomato sorting (more on this here), examined the progress of the kiwi trees, plunged their hands into huge sacks of seeds, rode the tractor – all in a very second-nature sort of way. That night, I watched them tuck into a ultra-fresh dinner of a cucumber salad and ratatouille-like veggie stew with millet.
Farming has its hardships, let’s not forget. But surely, the experience of having such an intimate knowledge and trust of the land bred into you from day one is priceless. I left thinking that a childhood on a farm – in the traditional sense – may just deserve the pedestal that society has put it on. One more reason to protect farmland and farmers.
Mikayla and Hazel in the bean row.
Mikayla and the pepper patch.
Mikayla, Hazel, and their father Heinz.
Mikayla digging in the compost pile. I don't know how she could be, it was so hot just a couple inches down - I could barely touch the dirt.
I have completed week 24 of the Food Log Project, and I’ve decided to step it up a little by looking harder at the stats and setting goals. I started with a mini-analysis of the last three weeks. As you can see from the charts, I’m spending LESS money on sustainable, but getting a lot MORE grams. I know how incredibly impressive this seems. How, you shout, how could this be possible? We all know sustainable costs more! It’s simple. Restaurants. 60% of my food dollars went toward eating out over the past 3 weeks* and nearly all of it counted as conventional. Further, the pie charts show that I spent 63% of my food dollars on conventional food.
In other words, I very rarely buy conventional food at the store or market, and I am very rarely able to buy sustainable when eating out. And eating out is almost always more expensive than groceries. I do try to eat at sustainable-focused restaurants, but even when a menu brags (usually vaguely) that ingredients are locally sourced, I can’t be sure that it’s safe to count the meal in my spreadsheet as sustainable. I haven’t worked up the nerve to start marching back to kitchens and pumping the chefs for more detailed information.
All that eating out was delish, particularly the mobile, BBQ, Mexican, and Salvadoran food I had last week in Austin. I have no regrets. However, due to the unfortunate dips in sustainable food consumption as well as cash reserves, I have renewed determination to eat IN, and for the first time I’m setting a goal for myself: 95% sustainable this week. Seems lofty, I know, but based on the stats, this should be low-hanging fruit. Even as I write this, I can hear you cheering me on.
Results and a new goal to be posted next Sunday.
*This is definitely more than usual, and it’s because I was uber-busy or on vacation.
The subject of simple pleasures is so frequently discussed and even more frequently enjoyed that it seems the true, naked gorgeousness of them can only be appreciated in very occasional moments of clarity. Typically, these come after some kind of dry spell. Indoor plumbing after a backpacking trip is a good example. You absolutely cannot recognize the brilliant convenience of water appearing and disappearing exactly where you want it to, at exactly the rate and temperature, like you can when nothing of the sort was remotely possible in the previous days or weeks.
I had a similar feeling the other day in a garden. It is an oft-repeated disgrace that city kids think eggs grow in cartons, etc. But the same criticism applies on some level to anyone (most of us) who is not regularly involved with or at least observant of food production. When you only see it neatly arranged in the store or served up ready-made on a plate, you can be forgiven for not consistently visualizing each item’s origins inside an animal or in the dirt, out in the open air sucking up sunshine. You just don’t think about it. I certainly don’t. I just buy the stuff. The sign says ‘local’, it looks yummy…sold.
So I had a humbling, surprising, ultra-simple pleasure the other morning when I went with my friend, the energetic Rhoda Trooboff to her patch in a community garden. My job was (predictably) to weed, and I was rewarded for my efforts with Rhoda’s insistence that I take anything I wanted. I picked a few each of the blackberries, squash, squash blossoms, chard, tomatoes, and eggplants, and went home to feast. Simpler than indoor plumbing. And older.
It was such a different way to go about my lunch. Instead of a monetary exchange (budgeting, price comparisons, waiting in line) a mystery (how it was grown, who grew it, if those people were treated well, how it was transported) and all kinds of other baggage that I spend a lot of time thinking about – instead of any of this, I was reminded that with the right preparation, I can just wander outside and pluck a meal straight from the earth. It’s like a metropolis of complication was suddenly leveled, leaving behind just me and Rhoda and the vegetables, clinging to their vines. It was, so so lovely.
And then I went to the Thomets, where I got an even bigger back-to-the-roots dose, and also a reminder of how difficult ‘the right preparation’ can be. Of course, Rhoda 100% made my happy garden moment possible.
As a side note, the squash blossoms were particularly tasty. I realize this isn’t a great example because of the complexity-ridden additives, but I’d never had stuffed blossoms before, and I thought they were so much fun. First, I mixed together polenta (organic), eggs (organic, and 1 per 4 blossoms), dried herbs (farmers market) and feta cheese (conventional). I put a couple of spoonfuls into each blossom, and folded the petals over themselves (I should have used toothpicks to hold them together). Then I sautéed the little orange packages, about 2 minutes each side, and lunched.
If you have your wits about you, this is all the information you need to duplicate the recipe. If you must satisfy tendencies toward the exacting, check out variations here and here.