“Aren’t you eating anything?”
The question came from my host. She had invited me to a summer potluck in the spacious backyard of her home, and knowing — as everyone else at the party did — about my work in the area of wholesome food, she had thoughtfully coordinated food for a variety of tastes and preferences. Alongside an enormous chest of sodas and giant bags of potato chips were platters of fruits, veggies, and salads. For the meat lovers, there were warming trays heaped with sumptuous helpings of grilled sausages, burgers, and chicken.
Most of the guests were already eating, but there I stood, empty-handed. My hesitation was due, in part, to the fact that I like to know where my food comes from. I’ve learned through painful experience that all foods are definitely not created equal; I once weighed twice what I do now and was plainly unhealthy.
My host was well aware of my background, and wanted me to feel taken care of. Her face, watching me with my empty plate, wore a pained expression, and the plaintive quality in her voice hit me like a sucker punch of five-pepper chili. Several of the other guests, and even the family dog, watched and waited for my reply.
Is it an act of culinary elitism to question the origin of the steak on your plate? (“Excuse me, dear, but did these barbecue ribs come from a good family?”) For me, the answer is no, and yet sometimes I can’t help feeling like, well, a food snob. I gave this matter some thought recently, while noshing on a few pieces of cave-ripened raw cheddar. OK, I know how seriously snobby that sounds, but I swear, the whole time I was eating, I never once extended my pinkie finger. Eventually I concluded that culinary separatists fall into two distinct groups: elitist and realist.
You can spot the elitist by the size of his wallet and his vocabulary. Driven by ego more than anything else, the elitist wants the best that life has to offer, and he’s willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, the elitist often confuses what’s best with what’s most expensive. He gets lost in the blizzard of food-industry buzzwords and substitutes marketing hype for common sense.
This leads to some interesting sound bites, such as, “I just paid $12.50 for this pint of virgin-pressed goat butter. It’s made from cage-free cows, you know.”
Once you get past the clueless jargon, the flawed logic of the elitist is easy to follow: The more expensive an item of food, the better it must be. Take, for example, some of those new fortified energy drinks we’re seeing on the market. Their primary ingredients tend to be sugar and marketing razzmatazz. When you calculate the price per gallon, some of these drinks cost more than the gas in your car.
The realist shares some key traits with the elitist. She, too, wants what’s best, but unlike the elitist, the realist relies on common sense to guide her decisions on food. She understands that the price you pay for good food is not just in dollars but in time, in effort, and in cultivating real knowledge about what to eat. She’s learned that you don’t have to be rolling in dough to eat well, but it does help if you’re willing to roll your own dough from time to time.
The realist has done her homework and actually knows the difference between biodynamic and organic food and the food-like substances found in school-lunch programs. She knows that some conventional produce, like onions and sweet peas, are less likely to carry pesticide residue, so it’s not always necessary to pay a premium price for the organic versions of these foods. Better yet, she can grow her own.
She believes that farm-raised meat is better for her body and her conscience than factory-farmed meat. The realist may garden, lobby for farmers’ rights, or belong to a CSA. She’s smart and knows the difference between nutrition science and nutrition marketing.
Perhaps, most importantly, she knows her own body. She’s learned to just say no to foods that work against her physical and emotional well-being and chooses not to support producers who don’t practice sustainable agriculture.
It takes some effort to be a realist, but it‘s effort well spent.
So what happened at the potluck? With a little prodding from me — “Everything looks so good, what would you recommend?” — my host happily pointed out the dishes that were to my liking. I was relieved to discover that when it comes to food, I’m a realist. I went with the veggie platter, some spring water, and a hamburger, minus the bun. It was all real food, and I felt good about eating it.
I didn’t even miss the cave-ripened raw cheddar.
Richard Morris writes and speaks on the topics of healthy and sustainable foods, and runs the website Bread and Money and the blog Free Radical Report. He lives in Virginia, but is moving to a farm in Michigan this summer.
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