Thursday, January 20, 2011
Eating real food vs. the modern American palette
(Click on the comic strip to see the whole thing)
This comic strip was in yesterday's St.Louis Post Dispatch. First let me say that it's a little disconcerting to find myself identifying so readily with a cartoon character who looks like Wilford Brimley. At any rate, I've had this exact same conversation with my own sons and my wife. My dad taps a bunch of maple trees down home, and for the past few years we've cooked up a bunch of real maple syrup in the spring. It's a bit thinner than fake syrup with a more complex flavor, but oh man is it good. I refuse to eat fake syrup on pancakes and such. If we're out of maple syrup, I'll use molasses or tomato preserve. My daughter always requests "Grandpa Doyle's syrup" on her pancakes. The boys and my wife, however, won't touch the stuff. Arguments about how store syrup is fake and HFCS is bad for you are of no avail. As far as they're concerned, fake syrup is the real syrup. That runny maple stuff might as well be creek water. On the one hand, it's hard to blame them for thinking that way. Until we started making maple syrup down home, I can only recall ever having the stuff once or twice when I was a little kid. We'd never buy it at the grocery store because real maple syrup is crazy expensive. So as far as most Americans' frame of reference is concerned, fake syrup actually is real syrup, becasuse it's all they know. In their brains and tastebuds, that's what syrup is supposed to taste like. It reminds me of a scene from the first Matrix movie:
The character Mouse goes on to speculate that perhaps the machines running the Matrix couldn't figure out what chicken tasted like, and so they made chicken taste like everything. One of the reasons that the Matrix is such a great movie is that it's an incredibly powerful allegory for modern industrial civilization. Most Americans now days have no idea what real food tastes like. For our entire lives, our expectations and preferences about food should look smell, feel, and taste have been shaped by corporations with little (if any) concern for our health and no understanding or interest in whether or not our food was real. In fact, food manufacturers prefer fake to real food in virtually every instance because the inputs for fake food are cheaper, and fake food has a shelf life that fits the industrial distribution model. Whole swaths of the grocery store are, as Michael Pollan puts it, little more than rearrangements of corn,soybeans, or both.
Given all of that, it's no wonder that our brains recoil a bit when we're presented with real food. "Syrup's not supposed to taste like that! These green beans are too crisp! Why are there bones in this chicken?" The irony, of course, is that we're rejecting the genuine as artifical, when it is our understanding of cullinary reality that is artificial.
What amazes me the most about this situation is that once your give up the fake food for a while, and once your body has acclimated itself to the sensations attendent to real food, the fake stuff tastes... fake. To me, HFCS based pancake syrup tastes acidic and chemically. Most canned vegetables are lacking in flavor and texture, and canned soups are overly salty. Don't get me wrong, we have all of those things in our house right now (the first as a conceit to my wife and sons, and the other two because my home canning operation is not yet as robust as I want it to be). I'm doing my best to eliminate processed foods from our diet, but it can be difficult at times given my family's corporately formulated expectations. Getting past that is largely a matter of continuing to provide them with wholesome, fresh, real food.
Yes son, maple syrup is supposed to taste like that. Our preferences and personal tastes, however, are simply all in our head.