We Are What We Eat

That is the name of the book I’ve just finished reading, the latest publication by Alice Waters, the chef and founder/owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (a pioneer in the farm to table restauarant concept). It’s full title is actually We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. It is her latest attempt to convince us that the current typical eating practices of our country (commonly referred to as the Standard American Diet or SAD diet) are bad for our health, our wealth, our communities, and our planet, and to embrace her Slow Food approach instead.

According to Waters, most Americans are victims to what she calls the Fast Food Culture. The Fast Food Culture is based on these qualities:

  • Convenience
  • Uniformity
  • Availability
  • Trust in Advertising
  • Cheapness
  • More is Better
  • Speed

At first glance, those things may not seem so bad. Why wouldn’t we want food to be cheap and available and convenient? Walters makes the case that most of us have no idea how much we are sacrificing with our desires for too-fast, too-convenient, and too-abundant food.

For example, our expectation of Availability leads us to believe we should be able to get seasonal produce, such as tomatoes or strawberries, any time of the year, any place on the planet. American and other industrial farmers have actually figured out how to do that. However, it has required them to genetically modify the produce to make it sturdy enough to store and/or to ship all over the globe. That is to say, they have bred out natural elements that made those produces delicious and nutritious in order to turn them into fruits and vegetables that can be picked before they are ripe (which is the prime time for taste and for vitamin content) and can last weeks or even months in the industrial food production/storage/delivery system. Sure, they can last a long time and withstand the rigors of long-range shipping, but they don’t taste anything like the natural products.

Doctors and nutritionists have been telling us for YEARS that the healthiest diets are those that fill half our plates at every meal with fruits and vegetables. But Americans don’t want to do that. According to an article on the website Forks Over Knives, which educates people about plant-based diets, only 12% of calories in a typical American’s diet comes from plant-based food. Even sadder, half of that comes from FRENCH FRIES…NOT the healthiest plant-based food on the planet. So only 6% of calories come from ALL plants––not just fruits and vegetables, but also grains, nuts, beans, and legumes (https://www.forksoverknives.com/wellness/standard-american-diet-sadder-than-we-thought/).

Waters argues that Americans eat so few fruits and vegetables because so many of us have no idea what the real products taste like. If you are raised on the insipid-tasting but unnaturally firm industrial tomato or the styrofoam-like industrial strawberry found in grocery stores, for example, it’s no surprise that you don’t want to fill your plates with those foods. So making vegetables constantly available leads to bland-tasting and nutritionally-deficient vegetables, which leads eaters to substitute less healthy foods, which leads to massive numbers of food-related health issues (improper diets are correlated with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and heart disease) and early deaths. This is what is happening in the US, one of the most prosperous nations of all times with some of the greatest availability of health care.

This is where cheap, quick, always available, always the same, always around food leads us as a nation–to sickness and early mortality. As a nation so committed to the SAD diet, all of us should relate to a joke that comedian John Mulaney included in his first stand-up comedy routines after completing rehab for alcohol and drug addiction: “When I’m alone, I realize I’m with the person who tried to kill me.”

Alice Waters is trying to get us all into food rehab.

Waters contrasts the Fast Food culture that underlies the SAD diet with what she calls Slow Food Culture, which emphasizes local, organic, seasonal, unprocessed, and whole natural foods. The qualities this approach to food foster includes:

  • Beauty
  • Biodiversity
  • Seasonality
  • Stewardship
  • Pleasure in Work
  • Simplicity
  • Interconnectedness

For example, look at those eggs above. Aren’t they beautiful? They are the fresh eggs I bought from Jason at Parker Farms at the Cary Downtown Farmers Market this past Saturday. I love all the different colors, not just for the visual variety, but because I know that means that they were laid by different breeds of chicken, each with its own unique set of nutrients. Crack them open and you’ll discover a beautiful marigold yolk that puts to shame the pale yolk of grocery store eggs (YES, even from Whole Foods and Trader Joe or others that charge a premium because their food is supposed to be “healthy”).

Why do Jason’s egg yolks look so much better? Because his chickens are TRUE free range chickens, allowed to spend the day roaming the land on his farm, pecking away at bugs and flowers and scraps and grass and whatever pleases them. In case you never realized it, neither chickens nor cows originally ate corn. How do I know that? Because both chickens and cows originated in Asia, North Africa, and/or Europe, NONE OF WHICH had corn (at least not until the Columbian exchange, in which Europeans introduced chickens and cows to the Americas, while the Americas contributed corn and potatoes to the rest of the world). Natural chickens, like so many wild birds, mostly eat bugs and land covering plants and grasses.

So when industrial food producers brag about their chickens and cows being raised on “golden” corn (or my favorite–eggs that announce their chickens have a vegetarian diet like it is a good thing), they are selling you a bill of goods. Both chickens and cows originated roaming around the pasture, which is the best place for them to get both the exercise and the nutrients they need to thrive. However, it is cheaper and easier for industrial farmers to keep them caged up for their entire lives (or as much as they possibly can) and stuff them with corn, which is one of the cheapest foods to raise in the Americas. And they don’t just leave the corn alone; Monsanto has genetically engineered corn to withstand Round Up, a herbicide farmers spray heavily to kill weeds despite its dangers to the environment, the consumers, wild birds and animals, and even the farmers themselves.

Now, you might be thinking, but farmers like Jason must use Round Up, too, right? Wrong. Jason and many other small farmers, certainly at our local farmers markets and probably yours as well, follow organic practices, which prohibit the use of commercial chemicals in fertilizers, feed additives, or pesticides and herbicides. However, because the government regulations are geared towards large industrial operations, most small farmers don’t have the profits to jump through all the regulatory hoops to become certified as organic. That is why I usually call them “organic-ish” in my blog.

Here’s the thing. So why don’t these small farmers use these unnatural chemical products in their farming…other than the fact that they aren’t good for the earth, the animals, or the people who are going to eventually eat their products? Because they don’t have to. Because guess what happens when you let your chickens roam… They eat the bugs and the weeds that are the enemies of the corn or other plants. They poop in the fields, which enriches the soil naturally. It is a win-win situation for the farm and for the chickens, although it does take more work for the farmer.

Nature evolved the plants and the chickens to live together in a way that they benefit each other. Just as happens between us and trees/plants––we need to breathe the oxygen they give off, and they need the carbon dioxide we contribute with every out breath––chickens and many farm plants have a symbiotic relationship, which each providing something the other needs. This is why biodiversity and interconnectedness is a hallmark of Slow Food Culture. Nature has it all figured out about how people, animals, birds, plants, and trees can all live together.

We humans, however, became greedy. We can raise more chickens or cows in the same space for less money if we pen them up and stuff them with the cheap fuel of corn. But to do so, we subject the animals to unhappy, unnatural, unhealthy lives; the earth to poison (much of which ends up in the water we drink or the food we eat); the farmers to unpleasant, dehumanized, monotonous work; and all the rest of us to the products of the Fast Food Culture explained above.

So, is cheap, convenient, always-available food really a good thing?

I’ve only scratched the surface of the problems with our industrialized food system; I recommend you read Waters book for more details if you have concerns about the health of your food and our planet. But realize that literally, we ARE what we eat. So what do you want to put into your body? Those beautiful eggs shown above laid by chickens living as they are designed to live? Or plain white eggs with anemic yolks produced by chickens who not only never get to go outside, but the majority of whom (in the US, at least) are stuffed into high-density “battery cages” that are so inhumane that they are illegal in Europe and many other countries, including Bhutan and India?

It’s your choice.

2 thoughts on “We Are What We Eat

  1. You know that I love this topic. I had the pleasure of eating at Chez Panisse in 1989, an earthquake impacted the area before we arrived, and there were aftershocks and looting. Alice Waters was not there, and though good, it wasn’t as I had dreamed. I appreciate these slow food pioneers, and glad to have local farmers and a garden at home.


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