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The Locavore’s Dilemma

Another busy week, and now… vacation.  Well, at least a vacation from having to drive into London and teach.  Unfortunately, not a vacation from work.  I have such a mountain of it piled up in front of me that I have pretty much resigned myself to having to skip Christmas this year.  I am going to head down to Niagara to stay at my parents’ house, but they are actually leaving town.  My mother leaves today to spend a few days with her parents in Kingston, then is heading down to Ithaca to  my brother and sister-in-law’s.  This is where we spent Christmas last year and it was quite delightful.  They bought a new house this summer and are looking forward hosting Christmas there.  My father and other brother will be leaving for Ithaca on Wednesday, as soon as my brother finishes work.  I, however, will be sitting in an empty house for a week and grading essays and writing my dissertation.

On the one hand I am looking forward to finally getting a chunk of time to get caught up.  On the other, I really could use a break and some social interaction.  Life gets depressing quickly when living and working in isolation and I am already feeling pretty bleak after just a few days alone here out in the country.  This is why I want to at least stay at my parents house as I know neighbours and have friends relatively nearby whom I can visit in the evenings.  Where I live now, the neighbouring houses are mostly empty and my closest friend is an hour away.

This week I actually enjoyed my first local dinner invitation.  It was absolutely delightful to spend an evening chatting and eating with a group of really interesting and kind people.  I haven’t done anything of the sort in ages.  In fact, while enjoying the meal I realized that it was the first I had eaten in ages with multiple courses.  As I cook and eat alone about 99.9% of the time, I usually just  make one thing and eat it until it is gone, then make something else.  This could explain why I am starting to get bored with just about everything I put on my plate these days.  Having a multiple course meal adds variety and makes eating more fun and exciting.

I just finished (re)reading Michael Pollan’s The Omninvor’s Dilemma. This is really a great book – very interesting and eye opening.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand our food system.  There are a few points where I think Pollan falls a bit short on his analysis (for example, when talking about the ethics of eating meat, he doesn’t even touch on the ethical problems of eating the mainstream alternative: Soy), but for the most part the book is an excellent introduction and even fairly advanced analysis of how we feed ourselves.

One point raised in this book that is really starting to resonate with me is Pollan’s comment that we (in North America) no longer have culture to guide how we eat.  Instead, we turn to so-called experts.  As a result, for the first time in history, children do not turn to their mothers (and grandmothers) to learn how to eat.  This is very problematic for the omnivore, according to Pollan.  For the omnivore can eat almost anything, but that doesn’t mean that we should.  Indeed, the reason behind cuisines is that they offer us guidance as to how to eat well.  Many food items do not release their nutrients in ways that we can use them unless they go through a certain process.

Take soy, for example.  Its proteins are essentially unavailable to us until soy is fermented.  This is why traditional cuisines use fermented soy products.  Our new uses of soy (for example, textured vegetable protein or TVP, as a ground beef replacement) is not fermented and thus a very poor source of protein.  People don’t seem to know this, and the “experts” don’t tell us.  Well, at least not the “experts” we have ready access too, through media and advertisement – those paid by Big Ag and Big Pharma.  They push soy as the ultimate healthy solution to eating meat and all the ethical and environmental problems that causes.  These claims are true, I believe, of ecologically grown and traditionally fermented soy products (tofu, soy sauce).  Independent researchers, however, have very different stories to offer about their industrially produced counterparts: these soy products are a poor quality protein source, genetically modified and potential carcinogenic, and produced using very environmentally and socially damaging practices.  For more on this topic, read this article and its many links.

While I never thought much about it before, it is indeed striking that we don’t eat the same way as our parents.  What does this say about our society?  I completely disagree with my mother’s obsession with low-fat products, for example. I eat full-fat everything, believing it to be healthier.  She believes the exact opposite.  Each of us has come to our conclusions through listening to “experts.”  Her advice comes from conventional medicine and nutrition, mine comes from alternative medicine and nutrition (such as from the link above, or books like Nourishing Traditions).  So who’s right?  As our eating traditions have been destroyed, we no longer have any way of knowing.

As Pollan points out, different cultures around the world have dramatically different approaches to their diets.  Some eat mostly plants, others mostly meats.  All tend to be quite healthy, except for Western diets.  So one thing I am certain of is that the way we eat here in North America is wrong.  But even if I turn to my grandmother for help, I can’t find what I am looking for.  She also learned to cook in an era of processed foods, with recipes that call for ketchup or bar-b-q sauces, or cans of mushroom soup.  Of course in her youth, these items were still probably relatively healthy and cooking this way a relatively close simulation to older traditions.  Not today, however.  Nearly 70% of all processed foods on the market today contain genetically modified products and I am not interested in eating any of it.  I strictly avoid anything that contains soy, and do my best to avoid corn and wheat unless organic, locally grown and (in the case of wheat) fermented before I eat it.  I cannot, therefore, use my grandmother’s recipes.

As I get ready to head home for a couple of weeks, I ponder just how much food to bring.  I don’t like making a fuss over this, separating myself from others by my choices around food.  Food actually is often used to draw lines of distinction between different groups of people – for example not eating pork, or beef and so on, according to religion.  But while these customs serve to distinguish various collectives, they also serve bond together the people within them.  This is simply  not the case with all the eating fads found in North America (of which I fully agree that eating locally is one).  Here, as Pollan remarks, you can find four different eating regimes within a single family of four.   This does little to strengthen social ties.  Indeed, it serves to further fracture and individualize our communities, not coincidentally very helpful to the capitalist cause.

In many ways, my determination to eat as ecologically as I know how goes against what I believe food to be all about: community.  At the same time I am becoming more and more adverse to eating industrial food.  While eating locally has introduced me to new friends and community, it is separating me from others.  Trying to decide where to draw the line, how to find the balance between an ethic of eating and building community is what I believe to be the Locavore’s Dilemma.

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