"How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy" is a fine article by Tom Philpott, a chef and organic farmer who I've eaten with and know to be smart, and who writes thoughtfully on food issues in Mother Jones (check out his take on GMOs). "Mark Bittman," Philpott writes, "argues that the real demon is processed foods. Here's why he's right."
One problem is that the term "processed foods" is like "wealthy" or "southern Italy"; it inevitably draws a line just beyond one's current position. To someone sanctimoniously buying organic frozen madras curry at Whole Foods, "processed food" means Cheetos. And so forth.
Don't get me wrong; I like both the frozen curry and the Cheetos. But they're not my staples. One's staples should be prepared (preferably with love) in one's home from scratch out of unsexy foodstuffs available prior to 1920. But very few people seem to do that anymore. And the blame for this shift is misplaced.
America's obsession with processed food is often construed as growing out of the 1950's/1960's culture of canned and frozen foods. But that's not it. In fact, canned and frozen foods in and of themselves are nutritionally sound....at least if they're simple ingredients (e.g. spinach or corn). The problem isn't technology or commerciality, it's the unholy industry built around the concoction of prepared foods on a mass basis. Such food is less healthful because, aside from the obvious shortcuts and compromises, the inevitable bland undeliciousness must be compensated for by larding on tons of saturated fats, salt, and sugar.
Think how unpalatable your leftovers are. Commercially-prepared foods are essentially someone else's leftovers! It's not magic that renders them appealing; it's just choices you yourself would never ever make with your own cooking.
There is, obviously, another realm where food is prepared outside the home: restaurants and take-out shops. But even though the cooking in these settings is less contrived, here, too, choices are made which don't make for righteous everyday consumption. The customer must be pleased, and the cheap/easy route to pleasure (saturated fats, salt, and sugar) is larded on. My conclusion after 40 years of careful and extremely wide-ranging eating is that the difference between fine dining and cheap eats - aside from ambiance, cutlery and other trappings - is that fine dining kitchens are more stealthily meticulous in erasing their tracks re: the application of saturated fats, salt, and sugar. It's in there, believe me. If it wasn't, you wouldn't imagine paying $75+ for your supper. It simply wouldn't taste worth it.
Healthful cooking isn't bland and deprivational, if it's done with care. But it's not grabby/zippy/wow. Home-style cooking offers an earthier, homelier sort of pleasure. And very few restaurants can take the time to create and nurture this deeper deliciousness. It just isn't their model - much as restaurant-style cooking was always a poor fit for the home-cooking model.
The big problem happened when modern home cooks started trying to recreate the restaurant experience. The cookbook rage of the late 1980s and 1990s (which metastasized into the Food Network obsession), encouraged home cooks to believe they could - and should - brew up restaurant-style meals. All of a sudden, we sauced, we smoked, we adorned, we deglazed. In transforming home cooking into restaurant-style cooking, we also ratcheted up the fat, salt, and sugar just like the pros we emulate (pro chefs, ironically, rarely cook like that at home). How many home cooks serve up pot roast and broccoli these days? The premium-restaurant-experience-at-home phenomenon requires choices an earlier generation of home cooks would abhor. But we're all more premium-minded these days.
Yet even this transformation wasn't the final coup de grace. The problem is that the trend fizzled a bit, we got busy, and began short-cutting with highly-processed alternatives. And since we've grown accustomed to the Great Premium Restaurant Taste, we started scarfing up pre-prepared versions of that stuff - someone else's leftovers - so jazzed up as to be deadly as everyday eating (even if that box of organic frozen madras curry comes festooned with Roget's every synonym for "natural").
Somehow, we lost our baseline. We've all come to crave sizzly zip all the time (I apologize for my part in that; it wasn't expedient to stop mid-blather to note that healthful foods and true home cooking offer their own sort of hyper-deliciousness when well-prepared, and that this sort ought to predominate).
Don't blame Green Giant. Blame star chefs. Blame me. For that matter, blame Bittman, who was right in the middle of all that (though, in classic pundit style, he's run ahead of the marching masses and yelled "follow me!").
The solution isn't to warn people away from "processed foods". That's a poorly-understood phrase with plenty of irrational associations. The solution is to get people to calm down enough to rediscover and appreciate the subtler, earthier pleasures of simpler cooking - true home cooking. Ingestion needn't always be sexy. If we can reestablish appreciation for steamed green beans and creamy lentil soup and sauceless crispily-broiled salmon and even the occasional entirely cheeseless meal, this problem will take care of itself.
If not, then the processed/unprocessed distinction is irrelevant, because our eating choices are more wired in to our aesthetic than to any nutritional precept. Indeed, the unintended results of reductionism (e.g. "fat is bad") have screwed up our national health more than mere ignorance ever could.
Even if butter turns out not to cause instant death, no one's suggesting we lard it on. But if there's one thing the public clearly doesn't grok, it's nuanced nutritional advice. So let's not throw open floodgates on that, and let's not declare war on "processed foods", either. Rathee, let's address aesthetics, and encourage everyone to appreciate simpler, earthier, more innocently grounded flavors, and relegate the zippier, grabbier, sexier kind of eating to special occasions. The public health can be improved by improving diet, but a diet can't be meaningfully improved without reconfiguring preference.
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