Thursday, April 22, 2010

Americans like to quantify things. Even better, we love to rank order anything: 10 Worst Dressed, 25 Best Beaches, Fastest Ways to Lose 10 Lbs. Perhaps most of all, we want science to tell us what will make us healthy and happy, in simple, easy numbers. We don’t especially need to know what the numbers mean; we’re just reassured by their presence on a package. 6 grams of fiber! Do we know how many we need and how it helps?

I’ve been thinking recently about how often science must measure what it can. Sometimes that means measuring what our current technology or knowledge allows us to quantify, even if we don’t fully understand what the ultimate consequences are. Think of all the years when what we knew, or could , measure was total cholesterol, before we understood how differently HDL (the “good cholesterol”) functioned in our bodies from LDL (the “bad cholesterol”). Realizing that we are far from knowing everything about how our bodies work isn’t really the problem. Nor is the inevitable truth that we have to make choices based on that necessarily limited knowledge. It’s not, in other words, a problem with science itself. It’s how we treat the information. It’s a problem with how much we want to believe that this time, the article online or the package label can tell us the singular secret that will solve all of our problems.

Michael Pollan introduced us to Gyorgy Scrinis’ term “nutritionism” to describe our adoption of the ideology that nutrients are what matter, rather than food – the part rather than the whole. If you haven’t read his discussions of this phenomenon, you can find them in his book In Defense of Food or an earlier New York Times article. I think there are interesting implications to his ideas not just for how we choose to eat (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), but also for how we think about the advice we get from media about health. More on that later…

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Liver, beets, tapioca, and why a blog

As far back as I can remember, I’ve said that there were three things I wouldn’t eat: liver, beets and tapioca. These go together with the other personality-by-line-in-sand declarations, like not playing charades, wearing pink, or ever again living where I can’t smell the ocean. In the interests of full-disclosure, though, I have to admit to many more things I was sure I didn’t like. Lima beans, brussel sprouts, cooked celery, savory with sweet - suffice it to say, a long list of refusals. Most of them, it turns out, were just stories in my head, but they were stories with force. The mind is powerful, and when mine flexed its muscle in the direction of gastronomic preference, I took its stories as gospel Truth.

As with all stories, these yielded only when more seductive ones came along. Their biggest rivals were the exuberant pleasures of growing vegetables and exploring farmers markets. The final downfall of many food dislikes, though, has been my husband’s cooking. My stories just didn’t have a chance against the smells coming from the kitchen. First he snuck the celery into the stock we made from our CSA pastured chickens (Crown S Ranch in Winthrop, WA), producing something I swear I can feel every cell in my body sucking up like oxygen. Before long, celery was diffidently sliding in elsewhere, minced so fine I couldn’t even be sure it was there, except that the taste was clearly greater than the sum of its more visible parts. Finally, I had to confess myself converted a few weeks ago when the velvety stir fry he made both convinced me I finally understood umami and had brazen chunks of celery smirking up at me.

These commanding yet ultimately fickle tales I’ve had about what I do (or more often don’t) eat have often intersected with larger stories. As a girl child growing up in Southern California, I had all the familiar ideas about food and body image; there was a year I pretty much lived on Diet Coke and apples. During the months I spent getting chemo and radiation treatment for Hodgkins, the well-intentioned doctors gave me a cookbook whose prime directive was adding ice cream to every meal. While macrobiotic, I obsessively counted percentages of soup, beans, seaweed, different colors of vegetables, and how many times I chewed every bite, sure that this was the secret to life, longevity and happiness. Each of us eats in the center of a sort of Venn diagram of overlapping stories. Our families, communities, and cultures provide an often unconscious backdrop for what we choose and what we believe about food.

These are the stories I’m most interested in. Why do we eat the way we do, individually and collectively? What allows us to choose food that nourishes us, body and psyche? What keeps us gulping down massive amounts of processed pseudo-food? I believe that these stories are both personal and communal. They come from everywhere: how our families taught us about food, the dairy council sponsored food group guidelines so many of us were indoctrinated in, our society’s obsession with what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”

There is a rising interest in what is called Food Cultural Studies, both academically and in the “popular media.” For me, this is an almost magical moment of convergence. Having spent several years training in academic Cultural Studies in a previous life, I am now studying nutrition and clinical health psychology at Bastyr University. The old biker mantra an ex of mine was so fond of keeps coming to mind: rubber side down. For me, this is the place where rubber meets road, the necessary friction between the stories we have and the choices we make. And that, dear reader, is what I’d like this blog to be about. I want to share my tentative scratchings toward understanding how food and culture intertwine, to talk about the things I read and learn along the way. I hope to hear your ideas and your stories as well. Perhaps I’ll even learn to love beets.