In Los Angeles last fall, I was visiting a friend for dinner. Standing in the kitchen, my friend exclaimed, "Oh! I never know what's best to serve anymore. I was going to make you quinoa — but we can't buy that and displace the indigenous people in South America." But there was more. "I was going to serve pasta," she continued, "but you might be gluten-free now, so I've made long-grain rice and gluten-free pasta."
Am I the problematic eater that came to dinner? Or are my friends indicative of our increasing food neurosis? In our contemporary world, food is not just a source of nourishment, but a daily public conversation. I worry that such concerns are based on vanity and self-righteousness rather than enlightened health trends.
These ever-anxious ruminations on what we put in our mouths seem to be part health, part political, and part pop-cultural issues. Scare-mongering headlines clog my Facebook and Twitter feeds like, "Walnuts Are Drugs, Says FDA," "Blood Avocados: The Dark Side of Your Guacamole," or "Arsenic in Your Food" "Quinoa: The Dark Side of an Andean Superfood." And with the rise of celiac disease (and the ensuing craze in gluten-free labeled foods, of which Americans spent an estimated $7 billion on last year), the movement to label genetically modified foods, or the NPR- induced kale surge of 2013, there is constant conversation about how to live a more balanced life through our plates. It's all terribly confusing, guilt-inducing, and hard to navigate. And I wonder: If everything we eat holds such political and ecological weight, what do our personal practices say about us?
I, myself, am a flexitarian. I go to the farmer's market every Saturday for my fruit and vegetables because I believe in supporting farmers and eating local. I spend most of my grocery money on seasonal and heritage produce. I buy an employee-owned almond butter brand. I loathe vitamins but have a healthy addiction to salads and green juice. I prefer quinoa to brown rice for its higher nutritional value. I eat real butter but don't drink milk because I have an enzyme intolerance, but I will eat steak once a month for the protein. I'm also very privileged to be making these kinds of decisions in 2014.
For me, though, this careful attention to my food supply is in a direct correlation to how I was reared rather than a passing contemporary trend. I was raised a vegetarian by my labor organizer father who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. As a family, we were boycotting one agricultural industry and brand after another throughout my youth. My parents politicized their food intake. Our vegetarianism was a call to action. As a young child, these messages were already ingrained in my head like religious scripture, "Meat is bad, processed sugars are bad, foods with color are evil, pesticides kill babies, organic is livelihood, vegetables are superior, fruit is a gift."
But growing up, it was virtually impossible to order a salad without bacon bits or have vegetable soup that was made without a meat broth. We used to travel far to co-ops or farm stands to buy premium organic produce or less processed consumables. Now as an adult, I am still hyper-conscious of the food I consume but tend to shelve my food politics to myself. In the midst of that decision, I continue to confront the memory of societal rejection.
But today, we're still struggling with an incredible amount of complex food issues. American farmers are still using harmful pesticides and animals are inhumanely slaughtered. Food allergies to grains and nuts are on the rise because of the use of antibiotics in industrial crops while new bioengineering is aiming to make stronger plants. Laws in our country protect industrialized food businesses but hurt local farmers. The FDA continues to struggle to label food in misleading categories like "natural" versus "organic." At the same time, consumers have more access to published research thanks to the internet, meaning they no longer have to buy products that aren't compatible with their food politics. With so much information on the internet, the action of food shopping is now an obsessive compulsion, a right and an obligation to being cognizant of the global food system.
Public personas have stepped in to weigh in their emotional dilemmas, from Michael Pollan's nine popular food books to date, Mark Bittman's TEDtalk "What's Wrong with What We Eat," to Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. With an increased awareness to these sorts of conundrums, the discerning shopper is becoming much more nuanced and erudite in reading labels. But it's also turned into something more; food has become a high fashion fixation, a Lucite box to stand upon. In New York City, models sip organic green juice between runway presentations during New York Fashion Week, while young media professionals are stocking nut bars in their messenger bags, and gluten-free vodka is trending in the booze sphere.
Juice Press founder, Marcus Santebi, tells me his in-demand, $12 juices are all about sex appeal. "It's a soulful statement we make when we invest in ourselves and talk about what we consume for our bodies," he says. And invest we do, while Santebi and partners get rich: American's spent about $5 billion in juicing alone last year. I am guilty as all hell for spending a lot of money on them myself.
Just talking about the kinds of food that we prefer to consume is the ultimate selfie. "Let me tell you about me and what I am wearing on the inside." In this writing, I know I am taking that self-portrait, that my finger is on the shutter button, but even with all of this information and focus on what I consume, I'm nowhere nearer to understanding what it says about me or what it all means. Maybe it's more about my internet diet and social media binging, or my search to find some sort of deep-seated truth with my food in a food system fellowship. I'm the one giving myself the eating disorder and trying to name it at the same time. Am I being judgmental? Enlightened? Principled?
Or am I just as neurotic as a Woody Allen character?