Are we obsessive about food? The popularity of Michael Pollan's recent books (The Omnivore's Dilemma, preceded by The Botany of Desire, and followed by In Defense of Food) suggests that we are. Pollan is a serious science writer and director of UC Berkeley's program in Science and Environmental Journalism.
But science battles pseudo-science in the food wars: The continuing popularity of the 20-year old proto-vegan tract, Diet For A Small Planet, long discredited by the food-science community, makes my point.
But the fact that I write, and you read, a continuing series of articles about food, in a small rural community paper, also makes my point. We care. We also have an awareness that what we eat is related to matters like world hunger, habitat destruction, depleted waterways, deforestation, rampant agribusiness and the preponderance in our national diet of processed, salty, unhealthful foods. It doesn't take a proselytizing vegan to make that point.
So now you're sighing, and gearing up for a rant on healthy, natural, "locavore" foods, right? Well, relax. Lighten up. Let's talk about how crazy we can get about food. Let's discuss food neuroses. You know, the weird way of eating that almost everybody has?
Except you and me, of course. Well, I'm not so sure about you.
Logically, of course, we should all eat like dogs. No human takes food as seriously as a dog. Have you ever noticed that dogs always eat "the good stuff" first? If you give them a bowl of Science Diet Lamb & Rice, with a few scraps of steak leftovers at the bottom of the bowl, they will burrow through the kibble to get to the meat first. Know why? Because you might die at any moment, and then you wouldn't have eaten the good stuff. Nothing neurotic about that, it's just common sense for carnivores.
But we don't do that. We don't begin with the créme brûlée, proceed to the pan-braised salmon and only then address the rice pilaf and the grilled vegetables. We have rituals. Even for those of us who don't like to think that custom dominates our eating, we are slaves to our culture.
It's true that Beni and I have broken out of the American Breakfast Culture (see "A Breakfast Odyssey," Feb. 14, 2008). But generally, we dine on the same things as other omnivores: meat, fowl or fish, often with a simple sauce or condiment. We add a number of complex carbohydrates, which we attempt to vary as much as possible. For example, the genus Brassica — which includes cabbages, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards and Brussels sprouts, all high in vitamin C and trace minerals. We have evolved from a diet full of potatoes, breads, tortillas and pasta, to occasional splurges. We tend toward seasonal squash, sweet potatoes, dry beans and fruits. We eat salads as often as possible, a practice made luxurious by local farmers who supply the Co-op with baby greens year-round. When we have good cheese, we eat it twice a week, with one of our summer soups from the freezer, and fresh fruit. Beyond that, we have no rituals.
So it is enlightening to discover how many people have developed rigid constraints about diet, presentation and eating. For example, there is a large group of people (Groucho Marx famously among them) who can't abide eating from a plate on which any two food items are touching.
Another common neurosis involves the sequence in which different items on the plate are consumed. One of these is the clockwise compulsion, in which each bite has to come from the next portion, until all finish equally. A variant of this is the need to take equal portions of each food, so that at the very end, there is precisely one bite of each left.
One woman writes of having a meal with one of each type: "My food-neurotic friends sat across from each other and tried to function. One of them was the typical 'no food touching, one thing at a time' kind, where he separated everything on his plate, and ate it clockwise, till he finished with his entree. The other friend had to eat everything in exact proportions, one bite at a time, equally. Sometimes, to make it happen, he had to shove two bites of different things in his mouth. Watching them kinda stare at each other, and look uncomfortable was genuinely entertaining."
It must be exhausting, counting bites and worrying about food co-mingling. Still, there are many, if less common, neuroses:
"My mother-in-law once exclaimed about the delicious looking, wonderful smelling dessert we were serving, then announced, 'Well, I won't like it — it has raisins'."
"I won't eat pancakes unless they are neatly stacked, cut into eight wedges (after buttering each one) then pouring syrup on them. I eat from one stack at a time going counter clockwise; it's my mom's fault though — that's the only way I know how to eat them."
"I know a 4-year-old with over-indulgent parents who's allowed to eat nothing but macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches."
"One of my closest friends claims to be allergic to onions. Yet she eats them in restaurants and at my house (they're cooked into her food and she doesn't know they are there). She also claims to be allergic to tomatoes, but two nights ago ate double helpings of Bolognese sauce."
"My mother has to salt everything before she tastes it, and then wonders why my cooking is 'way too' salty."
"A co-worker claims pork gives her serious indigestion. Still, she eats a McDonald's Sausage McMuffin every morning, no problemo."
"For most of our married life hubby refused to eat pasta. He loved spaghetti and meatballs, though, because spaghetti is not pasta."
"I was shopping with my mother the other day and, on the way home, she said, 'Oh, I forgot to buy eggs.' 'No problem,' I said. 'I bought two dozen. You can have one of them.' She said, 'But I don't like the brown ones.'"
"One of my brothers will not eat chicken wings because 'chickens don't wash their underarms.' The other loves hot wings, but just about passed out the first time he saw chicken feet in the stock pot."
So we can all be a little freaky about food.
It is not my intention to offer up for ridicule those who suffer, for whatever reason, even the young girl who refuses to eat anything that's not white (leaving what? Tofu, cottage cheese, milk, feta, mayo, bread with the crusts trimmed ...). Seeing a plucked, freshly hung duck can be traumatic for someone who loves Peking duck, as it is for any carnivores who don't want to confront the fact that the meat case is the end product of animals dying.
Instead of pursuing this admittedly complex thread, let's discuss the issue of obsessive versus quirky preferences. What really constitutes food neuroses? Where does mere preference end and actual neurosis begin? White eggs over brown? Yellow processed sliced cheese over white? (There is neither taste nor nutritional difference in either example.) But there's a difference between having to eat the same number of green peas or corn kernels every time (after carefully counting and arranging each pea and kernel), and simply preferring that your mashed potatoes don't come near the cranberry sauce.
When does one cross that fine line? I suspect that it has more to do with control than anything else.
We live in a decaying late-capitalist society. From the laws of the land to the food on our table we are dominated by corporate interests and megastar politicians — and it's clear most Americans prefer it that way (why else would Arnold Schwarzenegger be our governor?). Most of us don't sense we have control over very much in our lives; so if we can reject brown eggs, or onions or raisins, it may give us a feeling that, in one tiny sphere, we actually manage our universe. It provides the illusion of empowerment.
And, after all, mere preference is not a pathology.
I do not include the problem of eating disorders, a very serious issue.
Maybe there is a kind of continuum ranging from eccentric personal choices to obsessive-compulsive syndrome. But once a person's preferences become so noticeable or so numerous as to interfere with their own pleasure, or the pleasure of others, we need to take notice. For example, if you can't stand the cranberries touching the potatoes, and your solution is just to put turkey in between, you're happy, no one's the wiser and everyone has a nice dinner. But if someone serves you a turkey dinner already plated, and you have to ask for another plate, that's crossing a line.
It's inescapable that some people need to draw attention to themselves with food issues. Just look at how much attention kids get when they are fussy eaters. There are people who have never grown out of their childhood eating patterns. You know them, I know them. Without attaching labels, they have made choices that are exclusionary. And I don't care if they are carnivores ("I only eat at the top of the food chain") or vegans ("I don't eat anything that poops"), or gourmets or anti-gourmets: they are snobs. They have come to regard their dislikes as virtues.
But exclusion of sensory experience is not a virtue. To deny any shared human experience is to deny the essence of life (and yes, I include my own denials, such as kidneys, tofu and okra — my failures all). As Tony Bourdain says, there is no good side to being a snob. Food is about as basic a common human bond as you can get, and those who misuse it as a platform for elevating their personal eccentricities or promoting public attention are, sorry, neurotic.
So, after all this, you want a recipe? OK, lemme think. Something that just touches on the fringes of obsession ...
Obsessive RoastedBeet Salad
(adapted from Michael Symon; serves 4)
• 1 lb yellow beets (obsessive: you can add red, but they bleed and look icky)
• 2 oz good olive oil
• 4 big handfuls baby greens
• 6 oz Cypress Grove Chevre, in large crumbles
• Juice and zest of a large Meyer lemon (or small orange)
• 1 T balsamic vinegar
• Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 275. In a large metal bowl pour just enough oil to coat beets, and sprinkle them with salt. (Also obsessive, because the oil can be anything; you are going to peel the beets, and the salt won't permeate the skins; but it makes you feel very cool). Bake on a cookie sheet for 2 hours, until fork-tender. This is the key to roasted beets — long and slow. When cool, peel, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and toss with a bit of oil and salt.
Have ready 4 salad plates. In the same metal bowl, put remaining oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and lemon zest and whisk vigorously. Add greens, and using one hand, roll everything gently to coat. With the other hand, take plates one by one, and use your messy hand to plate greens. When plates are evenly distributed, add beet cubes, then cheese. Sprinkle citrus juice over all, and chill.
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