18 February 2012

Surfeit U.S.A.

February 17th, 2012. 9:42 PM. Perched in bed, trying to empty my head.

Watching "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" on the telly with my daughter tonight.  It was her choice.  The Wee Lass digs the show, and by extension so do I. We both enjoy the breadth and depth of people, places and especially the food highlighted on the show.  There is much to see and so much to eat in this country.  So while I was watching, chatting with my daughter about the yummy stuff we were seeing, what was it that was causing me some disquiet?  It's food, man, not a scary movie.

It hit me, then and there, in the middle of a segment on a mighty fine-looking Cuban sandwich (even the bread had me fascinated) that I knew the source of my perturbation.  It was the abundance.

I was struck by how every dish I saw prepared seemed to be based on the idea of endless abundance. A cuisine of inexhaustible resources.  Monster portion sizes.  Long ingredient lists.  Everything done "with a twist."  Even the condiments oozing out of a sandwich and dripping down a forearm is pitched as the mark of a really good dish.

I confess it all puzzles me slightly, especially the juice down-the-arm thing.  I think what bothers me the most about that in particular is that it seems kind of...infantile?  Is that the word I am looking for?  Personally, when I eat a sandwich, I don't want it spraying out on me.  I enjoy my food, but have no desire to treat it like finger paints.

Anyway.  I digress.  The gist of my observation is that the food culture in this country is not unlike the energy culture: we predicate our actions on having abundant and cheap raw materials to fuel our consumption.  It explains why a hike in food prices or fossil fuels causes everybody to stress out.

I watched. I wondered, what happens when we have to make do with less? I was thinking of the Italian cucina povera (literally translated as "poor kitchen"), an approach to food and eating that arose out of the necessity of dealing with not having a plethora from which to choose.  It is about making do with what you have to create something bigger in its whole than in its sum.  Do we even know how to do that anymore?

The issue has been on my mind a lot in the past year, as I have delved further into the bachelor life I lead and trying to establish a cuisine for myself while dealing with unemployment.  I realized that I could no longer afford to treat every meal as separate and unrelated to the other things I would eat.  That can get expensive and wasteful, especially if one does not deign to eat leftovers.

I understand that restaurants do not and cannot approach food the same way as the home cook.  They have to sell the food to prosper and survive.  But watching another humongous portion disappear down another celebrity gullet, I sensed a little bit of fear underlying the gloss and dazzle.  It is the fear of not having enough, of the good stuff running out. 

The parade of Bigger! Spicier! Glossier! things is an attempt to persuade ourselves that we will always have everything, and that we don't necessarily have to be clever to eat well.  This never-ending stream of plenty distracts us from truly considering what we eat, and as the credits rolled, I pondered the consequences of not thinking about our food: we forget how to fend for ourselves.


  1. So we reach the outer limit of food fascination, eh?.

  2. Oh, hon - you've touched on something near and dear to my heart.

    When the Green Revolution is over, due to a lack of fossil fuels or loss of topsoil, we're going to be in a world of hurt. 100 years ago, we spent about 25% of our income on food, and many more man (or woman) hours preparing it - today, we spend less than 8% of our income and cooking food is just too much trouble; why would you want to when you can just open a box and throw your dinner in the microwave, or drive by a window and grab it? I said something the other day about preparing 21 meals a week (3 meals a day, 7 days a week) and my readers were stunned.

    I've started a series about watching our latest side of beef be butchered, and I'm amused (but not really surprised) at how that grosses people out. We've become so disconnected from where our food comes from - I saw a photo recently of a letter someone had written to a local newspaper, objecting to hunting season. The letter writer gave their opinion that hunting was completely unnecessary when you can just go buy meat at the grocery store, where no animals were harmed or killed. You can laugh at that - I did - but I'm not really surprised. No one has to think about the origins of their food when they can just go to the grocery store and buy a steak, encased on a styrofoam tray and neatly wrapped in plastic, and their salad in a bag - with the dressing and croutons already included!

    Gah...I could carry on about this all day, but I won't hijack your comment section any more. For now. ;)


  3. Raised on a self-sufficient ranch--this is something dear to my heart. I don't allow my kids to watch animated tv or child-actor shows. (seriously, all they do is portray adults as idiots) So they've been raised with the full gambit of national geo, the food network, travel, science etc... After the first episode of Man vs Food, I forbid it. The entire premise is simply over-eating.....it made me ill. You have so eloquently addressed this. I love your brain.

  4. The food you see on these shows have become commodities, much like books and movies and uh, blog posts. And when there are so many people vying for the same dollars, the way to get attention -- at least in our culture -- is to go over-the-top, whether it be explosions in a 3D movie, a scandalous title, or a sandwich that is so big that one person could never eat it.

  5. Are you aware of marylandtable.com? Among its other joys: I now have my (local, grass-fed, organic) milk delivered to my door in glass bottles, that I return and they reuse.


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