Friday, July 11, 2008

Phood Filosophy

This clip from CBS purports to detail the devastating effects of rising food prices on the poor. What came across (to me) was not so much the struggle to make ends meet, but more the sense of panic that somehow the food would "run out". In a way, this does make sense--when you're poor, food and money are more or less interchangeable, and the urge to hoard is especially strong if you have enough of neither.

And so the dutiful cameraman records images of people stocking up with entire pallets of canned beverages (presumably soda), boxes of frozen fish sticks or chicken nuggets, bulk quantities of prepared pancake mix and jars of applesauce and small closets' worth of Froot Loops.

But the point of all this is not to lambast the food choices of the poor. At the far more upscale Albert Heijn (a Dutch supermarket), I see people with far more money buying more or less the same sorts of things: soda and/or beer, frozen meat in stick form, pancake mix, jars of applesauce, loaves upon loaves of squishy bread (cereal isn't nearly as popular here).

People eat what they eat because it's available, and it's what they know. How we eat is far more a matter of comfort--emotional as well as financial--and availability, and far less a matter of taste and nutrition. It was the case before agriculture arose, and it's the case today. You can see it for yourself--if you go to a supermarket and watch how people shop, most of the time, most of their money will be spent on things that they consider "basics" in accordance with the culture they grew up in. Humans are largely conservative when it comes to their food repertoire.

And if you think about it, it makes sense--the old "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality. In the days of hunting and gathering, someone who found an edible plant probably ate it while it lasted, knowing that trying other plants nearby might result in nasty poisoning or general unpalatability. The requirements for food were (and still are) abysmally low: enough calories to make getting it a worthwhile effort, and isn't poisonous or rotten. Nevertheless these criteria limit our choice of plants, and the cost-benefit analysis (in the crudest sense of the word) of hunting means that going after deer will probably be more beneficial than wasting your energy hunting mice. Our sense of taste has evolved to facilitate the selection of edibles. Of the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami), sweet taste signifies sugars, the preferred energy source of cells; sour indicates fermented, and therefore rotten, foods; salty tells us that the food contains the sodium that is so vital to fluid balance; bitter is the taste of many plant alkaloids; umami is the taste of protein, another vital component of our diet.

Most of the cuisines around the world tend to fall in the middle of the spectra of tastes, falling safely within a reasonably balanced combination of the flavors. There is a base flavor, if you will (rice) that gets augmented (lemongrass, lime), but generally speaking, no cuisine is exclusively sweet, salty, spicy, or bitter. I would posit that this has to do with "taste fatigue", whereby eating a lot of one particular flavor results in a kind of boredom with that flavor, and you stop eating it--variety is good. A more scientific analysis has to do with the lateral diffusion of crops (as opposed to longitudinal) means that the same types of food could be smeared across the Eurasian continent that Jared Diamond puts forth. Local variations of a theme (wheat, millet, barely, rice) might arise, but the idea that you could grow up grasses and eat their seeds was everywhere.

This tells us three things: humans are inherently conservative in their food choices. The second conclusion we can draw from this is that health has far more to do with lifestyle than it does with what you eat.

It might sound like I'm restating the obvious, but considering the legacy that Kellogg and Graham left, and considering how many books promise you that if you just follow such-and-such a diet plan you'll get a whole new life, perhaps it's not so obvious after all. The diet of a Mongolian yak herder is simply not healthy to someone working in a cubicle, and the diet of the average cubicle dweller is probably woefully inadequate to lumberjacks working the Siberian winter. You are what you eat, in the sense that the foods you like are a reflection of the culture you grew up in, but you are more what you do. You can see the truth of it especially in cultures that are transitioning from no-car to cars: in China, obesity rates, while still ridiculously low compared to the United States, have skyrocketed if you consider that as early as 15 years ago, nobody in China was fat. I've also observed it in Holland, too--traditional Dutch fare was the food of farmers, designed to fill you up with as many calories as was possible to cram into a bowl, but if you keep eating that when you're living in a city and the hardest thing you have to do is stop by the supermarket on your way home, well, the end shouldn't be so surprising.

The third conclusion we can draw from all this is that from Japan to Spain, the one universal thing about good food is that it's fresh. Whether you're eating Hollandse Nieuwe haring or edamame, fresh food is good food. I don't know what it is about, say, a homemade gelato made with fresh strawberries, that makes it tons better than the pink "stuff" sold in the supermarkets--a more intense, realistic taste, certainly, but there's also something richer and more satisfying about fresh food in general that's hard to place. Je ne se quois, indeed.

I'm tempted to say that there's a moral to all of this, but really there isn't. There can't be: food is such a basic need that any attempt to moralize on the topic would just sound idiotic, biased, most likely both. Still, I would encourage you to try new foods whenever you can. Try cooking old food in new ways. Expanding the horizons of your knowledge is, as I've always maintained, never a bad thing.

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