Slower Food for the Fast Food Generation

burger"I didn't realize my mother was a good cook until after I moved out the house…I had one of those mothers, you know, no matter what you want she has the ingredients at home. You say, 'Mom, I wanna stop and get some McDonald's.' And she goes, 'I got hamburger meat at home.' You say, 'But I want McDonald's hamburger!' and she says, 'I'll make you a hamburger better than McDonald's'… And she take the egg and the green peppers and the onions and chop the green pepper up in big chunks…and put paprika and all this shit in…And you're thinkin' to yourself, that don't look like no McDonald's…And the other kids got McDonald's! And you standing there with this big house-burger. And kids are honest, they say, 'Uh! Where you get that big welfare-green pepper-burger?' And you cry, 'Uhhhh, my mama maaade it!'"
-- Eddie Murphy, from "Raw"

As children of the '80s, we were the first generation for whom Ronald McDonald was as readily recognizable as Santa Claus, and our comfort foods are more likely to come from a drive-thru window than a home kitchen. It was during our childhood that the junk food era truly arrived. We were in elementary school when advertisers discovered that impressionable children, with their fickle tastes and bandwagon-hopping habits, made excellent targets. We begged for Happy Meals with the latest plastic action figures. Our Saturday morning cartoon fest turned into a sugary cereals advertising blitz: "Gotta have my Pops … Just follow your nose! … Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids … I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!" Advertisers bypassed the parents and marketed directly to kids, causing a proliferation of products that were every kid's dream and every parent's nightmare--for example, Cookie Crisps, a cereal that is unabashedly just cookies. Commercials conditioned us to want to tag along on trips to the grocery store, but only so that we could slip Pop Tarts into the shopping cart when Mom wasn't looking.
mcdonaldsMy childhood home in Southern California was just five freeway exits from the birthplace of McDonald's, and, despite my parents' best efforts to feed me vegetables, I developed a taste for those greasy, crisp hash brown patties at an early age, as did many of my peers. These childhood eating habits weigh heavily in determining what we will eat as adults; the tastes and preferences we develop as children tend to stick with us. Wholesome, natural foods are often touted in gourmet circles as tasting superior, but this is unlikely to be the case for anyone who acquired a taste for salt and fat by age five. I still crave McDonald's hash browns. As a kid, the only thing keeping me from them was my parents. So what happens when the Fast Food Generation strikes out on its own? Well, it isn't pretty.

When I left home, I knew nothing about food -- not how to cook it, certainly not how to produce it, not even how long it might keep in the fridge. I can't blame this on my parents, since I was better off than many of my peers: I at least knew how to scramble eggs. Certainly, few teenagers are worried about their inability to provide themselves with food. There will always be a burrito stand, a fast food place or a convenience store packed with easily recognized microwaveables to the rescue. And in college dorms, there is the under-appreciated Mom-substitute, the dining hall.

After a year of dorm food -- which, being the undiscriminating glutton that I regret to admit I was, I quite enjoyed -- I moved into an apartment with friends and realized I was utterly helpless when it came to food. We all were. Not that we went hungry, of course. Every college town has its share of cheap-food entrepreneurs, preying on the food ignorant. We stocked up on Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and Top Ramen, ordered pizza and grabbed burritos. Needless to say, a serving of Top Ramen doesn't pack much nutritional punch: 2 percent of your daily Iron, 0 percent of your daily Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Calcium. One 18 year-old student of my acquaintance rushed to the doctor within months of entering an Ivy League university, complaining of severe constipation. The doctor's first question: "When was the last time you ate a vegetable?" Not since her last trip home. And while eating out of a box may seem cheap--a packet of Top Ramen is always under 50 cents -- you pay a lot for convenience. Noodles with spice costs much less if you make it yourself--and that's not even considering the environmental and human health costs.

Of course, there are the exceptional youths that do turn on the oven. Many young women, myself included, and a handful of young men, learn a family recipe or two, or at least have some familiarity with how cooking works. There are the creative kitchen types, who approach cooking as a strictly imaginative enterprise. They create a sandwich of peanut butter, pickles and Tabasco sauce and can't wait for you to taste it. And, true, there is the occasional gourmet among us, like a roommate of mine who, within a month of living on his own, insisted on making vegetable stock from scratch and scoffed at my use of bouillon cubes. But this gourmet approach seems to transform cooking into a sort of elite hobby. It doesn't recognize the utter practicality of it, the need to supply yourself with edibles. Young gourmets may spend four hours making one elaborate dinner with the help of many sous-chefs, but then get take-out the rest of the week. And in the end, most young people wouldn't last a week without help from the food machine. In the words of Carl's Jr.: "Without us, some guys would starve."

As each generation gets further from the farm and closer to the strip mall, our dependence on convenient, prepared foods is pushing us deeper into oblivion.
I spent the first few months on my own learning to add flavor packets to various kinds of boxed rice and pasta. I wasn't feeling too healthy and my tastebuds were mired in depression. The day I bought the same grease-trap burrito for both lunch and dinner, I decided that something had to change. I broke out the Joy of Cooking.

Cooking turned out to be pretty easy. Once I had mastered boiling pasta, I moved on to tomato sauce, then on to lentil soup, and so on, all the way up to cheese soufflé. It was a gradual process, but by my senior year, I was pretty handy in the kitchen and my friends thought I was a total domesticated freak. In one of our early cooking attempts, my boyfriend and I baked Bisquick biscuits in a toaster oven (the only cooking apparatus that served the twenty-some people in his boarding house) and his housemates crowded the kitchen to laugh at the spectacle--not because it was pathetic that we were making Bisquick biscuits in a tiny toaster oven, but because we were earnestly baking.

When I learned how to cook, I got curious. On the now rare occasions when I ate out, I wondered how I could reproduce each item. Some fancy things turned out to be easy: Pesto pasta was a 20-minute affair requiring little more than a bunch of basil, and I realized that restaurants were taking me for a fool, charging $7 or $8 -- at an upscale place as much as $15 -- for a plate of the stuff. I saw a recipe for potato gnocchi in a magazine and discovered that these delectable dumplings, which I had considered the height of cooking complexity, were merely flour, potatoes and salt.

It was a great day when I found out I could make pesto with a $1.50 bunch of basil, but the real coup came when I saw a basil plant on sale for the same $1.50. I blended up months of pesto, plus contributed basil leaves to tomato sauce and whatever else came along, with that buck-fifty. Looking back, it was probably only a matter of time before my interest in food led me to gardening. After many false starts and plants that died way before their time, I got really into growing food items. I packed containers with salad greens and let huge tomato vines adorn the fire escape of my Brooklyn apartment. (My mouth waters when I imagine what I could someday do with a backyard!) In less time than it took me to earn a college degree, I climbed from the ranks of the food helpless to become the kind of person who stores homegrown vegetables in the freezer for winter.

My harvests are modest -- a few tomatoes backed by a great deal of pride--but I have learned a lot, and once I had grown my own, I started looking at food in a new way. The sterile produce aisles with their anonymous bins and occasional sprays of cool mist suddenly seemed more bizarre than enticing. It was hard to picture all of these drab, uniform fruits and vegetables growing in dirt and on trees. And yet, at the same time, my initial instinct was to trust these undoubtedly pesticide-laden items more readily than my own coddled crops. While I unthinkingly downed supermarket produce, I subjected my own harvest to careful scrutiny, picking over each leaf and washing everything obsessively for fear of eating an aphid or something. And in fact, utterly processed, packaged foods continue to seem most trustworthy of all. The less I've had a hand in bringing a food item into existence, the more foolproof and reliable it seems. I guess you could say I am such a dupe of the food industry that I trust it more than myself.

I think many young people share this misguided feeling. A friend told me about bringing neighborhood kids to her community garden in the Bronx and showing them they could pick and eat fresh peas right off the vines. They were horrified and broke into peals of gross-out laughter, screaming, "She ate that from the plant! That's disgusting!" They'd be much more comfortable (although probably not ecstatic about) eating frozen Green Giant peas, which are just green spitballs compared to garden-fresh peas.

I had a similarly revealing experience with my six year-old neighbor. We were planting some seeds together in her small backyard when she turned to me in confusion and asked if we could actually eat these food plants if they touched unsavory dirt. I suppose you could chalk this up to adorable childhood ignorance, but this kid is extremely savvy. She knows every Avril Lavigne lyric, but she doesn't know that vegetables grow in the ground. And how could she, when she only sees vegetables on a plate or in a store? She was very excited when I listed "arugula" among the seed packets I had bought, which I at first took to be a sign of her extraordinary sophistication. The misunderstanding became apparent, however, when she added, "Mmm, I love chocolate arugula!" This poor child thought we could plant rugelach, a pastry.

The situation of our ignorance is deteriorating rapidly -- even at age six, I'd like to think I knew that pastries didn't grow on trees. As each generation gets further from the farm and closer to the strip mall, our dependence on convenient, prepared foods is pushing us deeper into oblivion. Not only do we no longer know how our food is grown, we don't even know what it actually is. (I only recently found out that peanuts are seeds that form underground.) And we don't care. Perhaps we don't have time to care. In the endless hustle of earning money, going to school and whatever else, it's all we can do to microwave a frozen dinner at the end of a hectic day. (Although, we could make a lot of meals in the three hours per day -- on average -- that we currently spend watching TV.) Our society increasingly considers food preparation nothing but an unnecessary hassle. Why bother with one more thing when we already have so much on our plates? As a result, younger generations aren't learning much about food or how to prepare it. And in the post-Home Ec era, it's a little unclear who, if anyone, should be a pupil in the kitchen -- daughters are glad to sever their historical bondage to housework, and sons aren't eager to forsake the video game console for the stovetop.
tomatosAs many young activists become increasingly aware and concerned about the history behind what they buy, the politics of food are finally being brought to the table. The many students who courageously reject sweatshop-made apparel would probably also object to the horrors of industrial agriculture, but this industry has managed to keep its secrets amazingly well packaged. A T-shirt without a "Made In ____" label would be suspect, but foods can be anonymous and get away with it, perhaps because they seem like they can't possibly have anything to hide. An apple is an apple, right? If it looks good, it is good. The secret behind the success of industrial agriculture and junk foods may be just that: production is focused on making things look good, duping our senses into thinking that these products are wholesome, healthy and harmless.

From factory farms to packaging plants and fast food restaurants, the food industry has connived us into assuming that we should take no part whatsoever in bringing food to our tables -- our only job should be gulping it down. As the farmer and writer Wendell Berry says, "That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so." Nor should we trouble ourselves about what follows the brief romance between food and taste buds. We are expected to think of food only as it enters our mouths, and maybe not even then, since taste is not greatly prioritized either.

In fact, a lot of what we eat tastes terrible, and most of what tastes "good" is just fake -- utterly bland food highlighted by chemical flavor. Take the fast food milkshake, for example, the quintessential great-tasting fast food. A Burger King strawberry shake is not strawberry at all. It actually contains artificial strawberry flavor, a lab creation consisting of 48 different chemicals. (Way to go, science!) All this for a flavor that occurs, in a more complex, less saccharine version, in actual strawberries that grow on real plants in the soil. Artificial flavor is a crucial ingredient in all fast foods and packaged foods (take a look at the ingredients lists) and without it, lemon Jell-O would not taste like lemon, Welch's grape soda would not taste like grapes, and "buttered popcorn" Jelly Bellys would sure as hell not taste like buttered popcorn. (That so-called popcorn you're tasting is methyl-2-peridylketone.)

So if prepared foods are actually bland and nutritionally barren, what do they have going for them? Well, they at least look good, and as Americans have come to accept lack of taste, we rely increasingly on looks to stir our appetites. This has resulted in a kind of hollow food porn, peddled everywhere from Dominoes commercials to Taco Bell drive-thru menu consoles. The pictured food is colorful, flawless, seductive: "Get the door, it's Dominoes!" True, the pizza in the box rarely looks as perfect, but fake foods have hijacked our trust. The uniform, unblemished items now look delicious to us -- more delicious, even, than any foods we flawed humans could make ourselves. (Consider Eddie Murphy's mom's burgers.) The truth is that these sexy foods have the equivalent of a chemical boob job. Artificial colors team up with artificial flavors to make bland goo into "apple pie" or "strawberry filling."

Our instincts to eat tasty and good-looking foods aren't superfluous. We're alive today because at some point our lucky ancestors knew that ugly colors meant foul meat and bad tastes meant poisonous plants. But these days the food industry is fooling our instincts, getting us to eat foods that in the long run endanger us and our world by dressing them up as foods we recognize as good. Americans' unwitting seduction by Big Food has already fattened us up for the kill: a recent study found that 65% of Americans are now overweight, and that number has climbed ten percentage points just in the decade since the fast-food-free-for-all of the 1980s. Only time will tell what other consequences may arise in our bodies or our planet. Perhaps the greatest offense, as far as the health of people and environment is concerned, is the factory farm.
farm rowsDrive up the 5 freeway from Los Angeles to San Francisco and you will see vast swaths of land divided like lined paper into precise, unending rows. These are the industrial farms where most of our food originates, and although they do look kind of cool driving by, they are a serious hazard to the health and well-being of the soil, air and water, as well as the people who work there. Emerging from the drab suburbs into the open farmlands of the Central Valley can make you breath a sigh a relief -- Ah, there is nature here, after all! -- but in fact, these factory farms are anti-nature: gigantic mono-cropped fields that expel all other life. Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers soak into the land and drift into the air and water, making the five-legged frog, among other aberrations, a tragic reality. The truly frightening thing about these chemicals is that they beget more chemicals. Insect pests and weeds adapt and the chemical-laden soil loses its natural fertility -- which requires upping the ante. More pesticides, more herbicides, more fertilizers. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year. Most of them are migrant workers who sweat out long and literally backbreaking days picking the fields for pittance pay.

Consideration for how our food is grown is usually presented as a personal choice: healthy-hippie types choose to shop at farmer's markets or consume organic whole foods because they don't want to ingest chemicals, and the rest of us consider the cost and decide we don't mind eating a few pesticides now and then, so long as we can maintain our convenient lifestyle. But our choice of food is also a political one, just like our choice of clothes, for example. The anti-sweatshop movement focuses on the rights of workers (not, say, on sweatshop-made clothes being flimsily constructed or too itchy), but the natural food movement often presents the issue strictly from a taste and consumer health standpoint. Those are important considerations, but what about the migrant farmworkers who pick our food? What about the soil and water contaminated with chemicals? What about the animal habitat that cannot coexist with a factory farm? Our collective choices determine whether small farmers will survive and whether chemical-free farming will succeed. And whether our taste buds will learn the subtle pleasures of real food.

The massive scale of production on factory farms requires an equally massive market, and that means serious shipping, which goes a long way toward explaining all those abominable trucks that clog our highways. A map delineating the roads traveled from food producer to eater would show a mess of long red lines, many of which would be traveled in both directions. Florida orange juice journeys to California. Garlic trucks all the way up from Mexico to New York, even though it grows fine in every region of the United States. Almost 22 percent of our produce actually make the trip from other countries. Despite the comparative advantage myths of free trade economics, this is not based on any orderly logic, but the simple calculation of whether Florida's Natural can ship orange juice to Orange County, California and still make a profit. Certainly the environmental costs are not part of the equation: most of our food travels 1,500 miles on average before it reaches our mouths, requiring insane amounts of fossil fuel

With all that shipping, our produce doesn't exactly reach us at the peak of freshness, and a lot of what you are paying for when you buy food is gas. The fact that is isn't just a heap of mold by the time it reaches us is thanks to wasteful refrigerated shipping, and to the development of new vegetable hybrids designed to withstand the journey -- they taste bland, but they ship great! Europeans have been known to laugh out loud at the hard, flavorless orange balls that we accept as "tomatoes." (They have also been known to chant "Non à McMerde!" at protests.) Hybridization of food plants has brought us such brilliant innovations as iceberg lettuce--it ships, it stores, and it now comprises 73 percent of the American lettuce crop. Oh yeah, and it's completely bland. No wonder people have to slather their salads in ranch dressing.

As food is increasingly provided for us without any input on our part, we lose a lot. Our health seems to be the most obvious casualty, but there are wider consequences. We lose our sense of independence -- How many of us can produce something as simple and crucial as a loaf of bread for ourselves? -- and we lose appreciation for what food actually is: extraordinary combinations of plant and animal products that keep us alive and bring us pleasure. (Can you believe strawberries exist? Way to go, nature!) The more reliant we are on the big growers and food producers, the more ignorant we become, which is why genetically modified foods, for example, were able to slip into our daily meals with little ado. Whether or not the so-called Frankenfoods are dangerous, it is disturbing enough just to not know when we are eating them, which is "practically every day," according to Mark Schapiro in The Nation magazine: "Unless it's duly labeled, chances are anything with processed soy or corn has been genetically modified." That includes my favorite cereal, Crispix, and just about anything else that's processed, or sweetened with corn syrup.

Although it affects our lives more than any other consumer good, we don't know our food very well. It reaches us as inert objects on a plate in a restaurant, in a foil wrapper at a fast food joint or in a heap in the grocery store. It's easy to lose sight of the obvious: food comes from a living thing, plant or animal, although these days a lot of what comprises food also has origins in a lab in Jersey. We also lose appreciation for farmers, who seem to be mere relics of a bygone era when food actually had to be grown and harvested. (The caption of a New Yorker cartoon reads, "What do I care if a bunch of farmers go broke? I buy my food at a grocery store!")

Industrial foods suggest that our dinner can be manufactured like any other product, but the truth is, food will always have to be grown and harvested--at least, any food I would ever want to eat. Too often it is grown with pesticides and harvested by exploited farmworkers, then shipped, processed and packaged to death before it reaches us. Fortunately, however, it's not hard to take food into our own hands. House-burger, anyone?

Emma Pollin is a 23 year-old freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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