Category Archives: Ruminations

Is food the new sex?

I take the title of Mary Eberstadt’s remarkable essay in Stanford University’s Policy Review.

An excerpt:

“Begin with a tour of Betty’s kitchen. Much of what she makes comes from jars and cans. Much of it is also heavy on substances that people of our time are told to minimize — dairy products, red meat, refined sugars and flours — because of compelling research about nutrition that occurred after Betty’s time. Betty’s freezer is filled with meat every four months by a visiting company that specializes in volume, and on most nights she thaws a piece of this and accompanies it with food from one or two jars. If there is anything “fresh” on the plate, it is likely a potato. Interestingly, and rudimentary to our contemporary eyes though it may be, Betty’s food is served with what for us would appear to be high ceremony, i.e., at a set table with family members present.

As it happens, there is little that Betty herself, who is adventurous by the standards of her day, will not eat; the going slogan she learned as a child is about cleaning your plate, and not doing so is still considered bad form. Aside from that notion though, which is a holdover to scarcer times, Betty is much like any other American home cook in 1958. She likes making some things and not others, even as she prefers eating some things to others — and there, in personal aesthetics, does the matter end for her. It’s not that Betty lacks opinions about food. It’s just that the ones she has are limited to what she does and does not personally like to make and eat.

Now imagine one possible counterpart to Betty today, her 30-year-old granddaughter Jennifer. Jennifer has almost no cans or jars in her cupboard. She has no children or husband or live-in boyfriend either, which is why her kitchen table on most nights features a laptop and goes unset. Yet interestingly enough, despite the lack of ceremony at the table, Jennifer pays far more attention to food, and feels far more strongly in her convictions about it, than anyone she knows from Betty’s time.

Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. She tries to minimize her dairy intake, and cooks tofu as much as possible. She also buys “organic” in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store. Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty’s was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular. Jennifer has nothing but ice in her freezer, soymilk and various other items her grandmother wouldn’t have recognized in the refrigerator, and on the counter stands a vegetable juicer she feels she “ought” to use more.

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

In short, with regard to food, Jennifer falls within Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Categorical Imperative: She acts according to a set of maxims that she wills at the same time to be universal law.

Betty, on the other hand, would be baffled by the idea of dragooning such moral abstractions into the service of food. This is partly because, as a child of her time, she was impressed — as Jennifer is not — about what happens when food is scarce (Betty’s parents told her often about their memories of the Great Depression; and many of the older men of her time had vivid memories of deprivation in wartime). Even without such personal links to food scarcity, though, it makes no sense to Betty that people would feel as strongly as her granddaughter does about something as simple as deciding just what goes into one’s mouth. That is because Betty feels, as Jennifer obviously does not, that opinions about food are simply de gustibus, a matter of individual taste — and only that.

This clear difference in opinion leads to an intriguing juxtaposition. Just as Betty and Jennifer have radically different approaches to food, so do they to matters of sex. For Betty, the ground rules of her time — which she both participates in and substantially agrees with — are clear: Just about every exercise of sex outside marriage is subject to social (if not always private) opprobrium. Wavering in and out of established religion herself, Betty nevertheless clearly adheres to a traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethic. Thus, for example, Mr. Jones next door “ran off” with another woman, leaving his wife and children behind; Susie in the town nearby got pregnant and wasn’t allowed back in school; Uncle Bill is rumored to have contracted gonorrhea; and so on. None of these breaches of the going sexual ethic is considered by Betty to be a good thing, let alone a celebrated thing. They are not even considered to be neutral things. In fact, they are all considered by her to be wrong.

Most important of all, Betty feels that sex, unlike food, is not de gustibus. She believes to the contrary that there is a right and wrong about these choices that transcends any individual act. She further believes that the world would be a better place, and individual people better off, if others believed as she does. She even proselytizes such on occasion when given the chance.

In short, as Jennifer does with food, Betty in the matter of sex fulfills the requirements for Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Jennifer’s approach to sex is just about 180 degrees different. She too disapproves of the father next door who left his wife and children for a younger woman; she does not want to be cheated on herself, or to have those she cares about cheated on either. These ground-zero stipulations, aside, however, she is otherwise laissez-faire on just about every other aspect of nonmarital sex. She believes that living together before marriage is not only morally neutral, but actually better than not having such a “trial run.” Pregnant unwed Susie in the next town doesn’t elicit a thought one way or the other from her, and neither does Uncle Bill’s gonorrhea, which is of course a trivial medical matter between him and his doctor.

Jennifer, unlike Betty, thinks that falling in love creates its own demands and generally trumps other considerations — unless perhaps children are involved (and sometimes, on a case-by-case basis, then too). A consistent thinker in this respect, she also accepts the consequences of her libertarian convictions about sex. She is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, indifferent to ethical questions about stem cell research and other technological manipulations of nature (as she is not, ironically, when it comes to food), and agnostic on the question of whether any particular parental arrangements seem best for children. She has even been known to watch pornography with her boyfriend, at his coaxing, in part to show just how very laissez-faire she is.
Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer — exceptions noted — does not. It’s not that Jennifer lacks for opinions about sex, any more than Betty does about food. It’s just that, for the most part, they are limited to what she personally does and doesn’t like.

Thus far, what the imaginary examples of Betty and Jennifer have established is this: Their personal moral relationships toward food and toward sex are just about perfectly reversed. Betty does care about nutrition and food, but it doesn’t occur to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment — i.e., to believe that other people ought to do as she does in the matter of food, and that they are wrong if they don’t. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way; it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. Jennifer, similarly, does care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex; but it seldom occurs to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way — because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done.

On the other hand, Jennifer is genuinely certain that her opinions about food are not only nutritionally correct, but also, in some deep, meaningful sense, morally correct — i.e., she feels that others ought to do something like what she does. And Betty, on the other hand, feels exactly the same way about what she calls sexual morality.

As noted, this desire to extend their personal opinions in two different areas to an “ought” that they think should be somehow binding — binding, that is, to the idea that others should do the same — is the definition of the Kantian imperative. Once again, note: Betty’s Kantian imperative concerns sex not food, and Jennifer’s concerns food not sex. In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

What has happened here? ”

Link here to the full article.

Love these sorts of articles. Years ago a friend of mine wrote a short one that I never quite agreed with but still found an interesting idea. He interpreted the stainless steel and all around industrial look of the modern kitchen (this was written ten years ago), as evocative of the workplace. Our life had become so ergo-centric that we could not help but bring the same efficiency and devotion to labour into the kitchen.

You have the right to make me sick…

Ran across this great and disturbing little article in Macleans.

McDonalds has an exemplary hygiene policy as befits an institution serving millions. An employee developed a skin condition which was exacerbated by washing. After she made this known, McDonalds supported her through 2 1/2 years of disability pay as she looked for a solution. Unfortunately, on the restaurant level, everyone is involved at some level with food so there was no position that could get around that requirement. Finally, she was let go.

With her lawyer, and by appealing to the Human Rights Commission, she was able to secure another 50,000 dollars on the grounds that her human rights had been violated. McDonalds was charged with not having done enough and that the hand washing condition could be defined as discriminatory.

As outrageous as the settlement is considering how much the chain already delivered, as pointed out in the article, this could lead to a lawsuit against McDonalds from a customer contracting food poisoning emanating from an employee who did not wash their hands, and they would probably have a case despite being placed in the position of not being able to legally enforce their original policy.

Gordon Ramsay, Ricky Gervais, African Cats and Nescafe

An Unlikely Way to Save a Species: Serve It for Dinner

The headline is slightly misleading in that the eater approach to conservation works better for plants than for small animal populations but overall worth considering. Strange to think that if left alone, many of these species will die out. Of course, on an existential note, what does it mean to be, only because you are edible.

Gordon Ramsay and James May eating bull’s penis and rotting shark and then cooking…

And now Gordon Ramsay and Ricky Gervais

And from DetectivesBeyondBorders a coffee discussion:

From Timothy Hallinan’s Thailand-set novel A Nail Through the Heart

“Twenty or so years ago, in one of the first invasions by a Western brand name, Nescafé shouldered aside the much more labor-intensive processes by which the Thais made some of the world’s best coffee, replacing taste with convenience.”
“But Rose [who is Thai] grew up with Nescafé. She adores it, hot, tepid or iced. He has seen her eat a teaspoon of it, dry. … [Rafferty] takes a sip, rolls it around in his mouth like red wine, and revises his opinion. It’s an interesting drink if you don’t insist that it’s coffee.”

I suppose that might work..I do remember when down in Mexico and then later in other coffee growing lands being puzzled about the ubiquity of Nescafe.

African Food – Mystery Meals

This wonderful little gem from someone who is not entirely up on the current (or is it just North American) slang.

Cats and Dogs – One man’s pet is another man’s meal. Ghana’s Volta Region is the place to eat pussy (tastes like chicken) In Nigeria dog meat which is roasted like beef is also belived to improve your sex life.

And back to coffee

Bargains found at Edible.com

WEASEL COFFEE

UNIQUE VIETNAMESE COFFEE
EATEN and REGURGITATED BY A WEASEL
RICH CHOCOLATEY FLAVOUR!

This coffee is first eaten by Weasels which then regurgitate it, no one knows why they do this but it is then collected by locals in remote forest areas and then cleaned and roasted.

It has a unique rich chocolatey flavour and is best served as an espresso with a dash of condensed milk, just as they do in Vietnam.

CIVET COFFEE

THE RAREST COFFEE IN EXISTENCE
UNIQUE DELICATE FLAVOUR AFTER FERMENTATION IN THE CIVET’S DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
ONLY 500 KG’S OF THIS COFFEE ARE FOUND EACH YEAR

This is the rarest and definately most extraordinary coffee in the world! This coffee has been selected for us by Paradoxurus Hermaphroditis. Better know as the Common Palm Civet Cat. It prowls the Sumatran coffee plantations at night, choosing to eat only the finest, ripest cherries. The stones (which eventually form coffee beans) are then collected by cleaning through the droppings by the natives who collect it.

Kopi Luwak as it is known, is considered to be the world’s finest coffee by Native Sumatrans. This coffee has an Intense but delicate flavour and no aftertaste, which is unique in coffee. This flavour is due to the fact that the coffee has been partially fermented by passing through the system of the Civet. Only about 500 KG’s of this coffee are found each year.

But seriously, the coffee in this town’s restaurants…

Not long ago I was out at the Red Ox and though the meal was not great, parts of it were quite good but what was rather annoying was that the coffee after was of the quality one would expect while waiting to have your muffler changed. And perhaps what was most irritating about the experience was how common it was. The same thing happened a few months ago at the Hardware Grill as well.

Why is this even possible? Do chefs and eatery owners not realize that the last impression does in fact last. Brown swill will discolour the most remarkable dinner for me.

One would expect that with the amount of effort that is taken to pair not only parts of the repast, but the wine with the food, that some notice would be taken of the coffee. Its really quite strange. Theories anyone?

Ottawa thoughts: January 2008

Spent the last few days mostly flying. To Ottawa for a meeting and all those sorts of things that go with it. Anyways, just a few rambling thoughts while enroute.

1. Security checks. What will they do when they find out you can make explosive clothing? Issue everyone hospital gowns for the flight? And those restrictions on toiletries….I think a smart airline would hand out packages of shampoo and toothpaste to everyone as they disembarked.

2. Flying in general. Each time there seemed to be a significant delay in getting off the plane. European low cost airlines had two used exits, like a bus. Great idea. Can you imagine if every time you took a cab you had to wait for three minutes to get out?

3. Airline entertainment. On Air Canada they have little screens on the back of most seats and you can pick from many movies, tv shows etc. And boy was I happy about the headphones on the trip back when a man slumped over his own not inconsiderable stomach (not obese enough to qualify for the extra free seat that has just been legally declared..and that is worth a rant elsewhere) slept and loudly snored for the whole flight. So anyway because things are so wonky with the system I watched In the Valley of Elah which seemed good but started stop go stopping and then ground to a total halt halfway through. Then watched Invasion with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in German (which I can partially speak) with Japanese subtitles. The English would take me to French, and the French to German and the German to the Italian, and the Italian would just shut down the movie. I think it was good, and maybe it seemed even classier because it was now a foreign film though the soundtrack slightly preceeded the action so that when Nicole was maybe or maybe not shooting someone, she would still seem to be deciding as you heard a shot. It was still tense but in a different kind of way. Also I mean classy in as classy as you can get when the means of transmission is one person vomiting in the mouth of another. A remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; has there ever been a really bad version of this?

Also saw a little of Jody Foster in The Brave One which ended because we were landing. (I did go through five selections in a row with all reporting “not available at this time”). Though in English this also had Japanese subtitles…looking around it just seemed to be me getting this special service…had I pressed some hidden control?)

4. Valet service, no less. So end up going to this function at the 18 club, which my Ottawa friend (who I’ve known from my schooldays) tells me is tres chi chi (though he would eat nails before ever uttering such a phrase). And yes, valet service in front. I have always had a hard time accepting that certain professions consist of doing things that not only can anyone do for themselves but things that aren’t all that unpleasant either. Its modernish inside and what they called Big Apples (Bacardi big apple rum, green apple Sour Puss, Asian Pear Liqueur & butterscotch schnapps) were in every hand. Then comes the endless parade of small portioned foods. Not exactly tapas; I’ve had those, and they can be of a size but things like a cheesecake drizzled with one thing and infused with another and served on a spoon. The biggest items were various small sate. They even had a very small hamburger held together by a toothpick and sporting a very small comical but precisely accurate bun. After sampling and sampling and a few too many Big Apples considering my friend was picking me up for drinks, he did.

5. The walk down tavern. We parked and walked down a seedy throughfare to what looked like a fourplex kind of entrance to a basement suite. I don’t remember seeing any sort of sign, and on entering, found a warm, happy and bustly neighborhood feeling pub with four different stouts on tap. Had a couple of oatmeal stouts and that kind of great conversation you can only have with someone you’ve know your whole life, and both of you long past the point where there is any need to hide anything at all. (I am going to find out what the place was called and post it…its worth a visit if you make to the capital.)

6. Cormac Redux. My takeaway reading was No Country for Old Men, a Cormac McCarthy book I had thought before not quite up to his usual standard but this time through I am finding line after line that seems really good. Haven’t been able to see the film yet and thought I’d do this in the meanwhile. Marquez’ Strange Pilgrims is waiting at home on the bedside table as well as my next reread Cees Nooteboom’s All Soul’s Day which I remember as the consummate modern European novel.

7. Irish weather. And lastly, and I cannot convey quite how much pleasure it gave me to turn on the BBC on the television only to hear the Australian weather report being delivered in a strong Irish dialect by a beautiful woman.

Wise words of Michael Pollan, and French dining

From an interview in the New York Times, Michael Pollan makes perfect common sense.

I think health should be a byproduct of eating well, for reasons that have nothing to do with health, such as cooking meals, eating together and eating real food. You’re going to be healthy, but that’s not the goal. The goal should just be eating well for pleasure, for community, and all the other reasons people eat. What I’m trying to do is to bring a man-from-Mars view to the American way of thinking about food. This is so second nature to us — food is either advancing your health or ruining your health. That’s a very limited way to think about food, and it’s a very limited way to think about health. The health of our bodies is tied to the health of the community and the health of the earth. Health is indivisible. That’s my covert message.

And a comment on the culture:

Americans are a people so obsessed with nutrition yet whose dietary health is so poor. That strikes me as a paradox. We worry more about nutritional health, and we see food in terms of health. Yet we’re the world champs in terms of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and the cancers linked to diet. I think it’s odd. It suggests that worrying about your dietary health is not necessarily good for your dietary health.

Med Journal Watch has an interesting article on the French Obesity Paradox (they eat more fat than Americans but for some reason are not). When students from Chicago and students from Paris were asked questions about how they decided when to stop eating, it seemed as though the Americans took their cues from external sources (when the television show was over, or they ran out of beverage) compared to the French who turned internally (when they felt full, or it no longer tasted good).

Chewing the fat, weighing in on obesity…

Let’s start with the assumption that being fat is not the best thing. Until just a few months ago it was thought fairly severe diet restrictions tacked years onto life, but the latest studies suggest that slightly overweight people might have the advantage. Its not that they are fitter but that if any crisis comes about, they have reserves to draw upon; they can safely lose weight. The perfectly thin people are on the edge and cannot afford a chronic illness. But once you go from slightly to quite obese, you assume too many added risks to keep the advantage over the thin.

And it is not so long ago that fat was a status symbol, considered attractive because it indicated you had the resources to obtain good food. Recently, in India, this had a modern manifestation when diabetes was considered a bit of a status disease, a byproduct of success. In the developing world, thin is still rarely a matter of choice whereas in the developed world you have the thin rich and the fat poor.

In our world, fattening food is cheaper and in the developing world fattening food is dearer. Fattening food tends to be processed and so it makes sense it would be costlier. In North America, strangely enough, processed foods are subsidised to a much greater degree than “natural” foods. The result is that if you are poor and wish to fill your belly, processed foods are the most reasonable choice.

Obesity has ended up being a more complicated issue than anyone thought it would. Where once it seemed a simple equation of how much you ate balanced against how much you exercised, it turns out that our physiology complicates things so that once you have extra weight on, you become more efficient at retaining it. And if you measure exercise in terms of calories burned , that measure tends to be terribly overestimated (its lower than is commonly thought, and it is usually and erroneously compared to zero when it needs to be compared to the calories that are burned in the resting state). Take almost any exercise and compare it to the calorie counts of foods and if that is the equation, hours of exertion can be undone by a muffin or two.

Of course, exercise is very good for you. It just isn’t necessarily the calorie burner in and of itself. For one thing it makes you fitter, which is somewhat independent of weight, and for another it may have further effects on your general metabolism (you might burn more at other times than when you are actually exercising) and of course it seems exercise puts one in a better frame of mind. (And while you are exercising it is unlikely that you will be eating muffins).

The thing is that exercise cannot make up for the lack of physical exertion in our everyday existence. We used to have to work for everything. We tended to have a manual job, and once that was done, we still had to expend effort to keep things going. Its not as though you couldn’t be fat in the old days but if you were, you were less likely to be soft.

Everwhere I go I see assists for everyday tasks. I hardly have to use energy to open a door anymore. Now I make a point of never using these things but though they might have been originally developed to make life easier for the disabled, the people I see using them the most are the children. They see the big buttons and its fun to see the door open in front of you, so they press it. Add to this all the automatic doors even without buttons, the elevators being used to go up one floor, escalators instead of stairs, moving walkways in airports, golfcarts both on the course and in airports now, power windows and brakes, and so forth. Remove these and many of us would drop a few pounds right there and we’d be stronger to boot.

And you just know there are a few stairclimbers in that gym.

The other great contributor I see to promoting weight gain and loss of fitness is the greater geographical freedom we have now in work and school. When I went to school, you attended the one near where you lived. As a consequence almost everyone walked to school. Now as a result of people choosing schools, sometimes across the city, it is too far too walk, and the schools now are major sources of traffic congestion (and global warming I might add). This also contributes to a loss of community.

In my city, and many others, public transportation is so poorly supported that is makes more sense to drive and even that walk to a bus stop would make a difference.

Its a choice. Modern civilization has been geared towards ergonomics when inefficiency and friction would make for a healthier population. Success breeds new weaknesses. Maybe this is one of those tradeoffs we prefer; better to be coddled and get a little fat and soft in the process. Everything has a cost and all things considered we are living longer despite being weaker.

I do however feel insulted by what seems to be a conspiracy against my self sufficiency. The unfortunate Safeway clerk will lose their job if they forget to ask if I need help out with my bag of oranges. (I’ve stopped joking; its just sad now). I don’t like it that while elevators and escalators are prominent, stairs are hidden and out of the way. I like to use my body. It was made to do things not just to move effortlessly through space. I am particularly annoyed that this culture of cars has transformed public space into something unpleasant to walk through.

I exist therefore I destroy: reflections in the age of further cognitive dissonance

I’m glad we are capable of cognitive dissonance. In other words, that we can hold in one brain, ideas at odds with one another.

Today I had a piece of bacon dipped in chocolate (a recent posting from AVClub had me curious and this is one taste I will be coming back to). I ate and enjoyed this piece of bacon which added one more piece to the thousands I have consumed to date (not that I have been keeping track, might be hundreds, not sure) not to mention the many cuts of pork, and the bits of ham I have eaten over the years.

Some people would say that this means I do not like pigs. In fact, not only do I like them, I worked on my grandfather’s farm with them (free range pigs for those who make the distinction) and observed their obvious intelligence, their curiosity about the world and their love of community. I was in even closer relationships with cows, which I milked every morning, and anyone who has ever milked cows by hand on a traditional farm, knows that a bond develops between you and the animal. Do I eat beef? Yes.

Some people hold that those who eat animals do not love them.I think most people like animals, and that almost everyone who eats them likes them well enough.I also think that most people like nature in general despite the act that every day by the very act of existing they eat up a little more of it.

I have a daughter who I love dearly. That daughter eats up larger and larger pieces of the world as she grows. My own ecological footprint is very much larger because of her. I am entirely to blame for her footprint and all the footprints of her potential offspring. That I had her does not mean that I do not love the world, and yet paradoxically, it is the worst possible thing I could have done. My reproduction could end up being more momentous than any oil spill depending on how fertile she and her children are.

One more confession. I own a pet. A Siberian husky (in my lifetime personally I have had another Siberian, a few turtles, and a cat and have been part of households where we shared more dogs and cats, birds, and gerbils). I believe in the freedom of animals, of natural living, of fair treatment and yet I enchain an animal to keep me company. I isolate it from its natural pack and constrain its behaviors in many ways. I love my dog but am I being just? Do I not use the same excuses for having it that were used to justify slavery? It lives a healthier and safer life than in the wild etc..

Is there any possible resolution to this conundrum? Its part of being human that we can even ponder our effect on the world, and though cognitive dissonance probably arises simply because there is no overall plan to make our abstractions and behavior cohere to some internal consistency, it is intriguing to imagine that it arose to resolve this horrible paradox of being, that to live is to destroy, and though we can minimize the damage we cannot erase it.

Some might put this down to just coming to terms with “the circle of life”, that we must embrace the dark as part of the light, that all energy is reborn but if your car happens to run over my dog, that is of no consolation to me. And that philosophy could well lead one to accept genocide and murder. I think the answer lies more in being aware of the pain of existence rather than avoiding it through sophistry.