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Monday, 14 November 2011

Live to Eat, or Eat to Live? Part 1 - My Food Revival

I remember a time when food was just a functional necessity for me. Eating distracted me from other activities, shopping for food was costly, and preparing food was a chore. Like getting a fill-up at the gas station, I ate so I could get on with my life.

That time of food faux pas seems so far in the past now. The past, though, teaches lessons, and the overfed and poorly nourished ghost of my past serves as a reminder of what a poor relationship with food looks like. Ashamedly, I reflect upon the times I complained about the home cooking (why don't you make pork chops instead?) or scarfed down a meal so I could eke out a few more minutes of videogaming. Never again, I say... never again.

Eye-opening documentaries like Supersize Me and Food Inc. helped bring society's relationship with food to the forefront of my conscience, and compelling reads by my quasi-hero Michael Pollan propelled me to action. Pollan is a wonderful author and the best part about his books are that they celebrate food and value our synergy with foods, unlike diet books that promote specific nutrients while demonizing others. So instead of saying "saturated fats are bad for you" or "you need more antioxidants" Pollan says "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And "Eat what your grandmother ate." It really is that easy!

His underlying message is that society's (particularly North America's) relationship with food has degraded to mere inputs into our bodies that provide the means to stay alive. With that mindset we value quantity over quality and nutrients over wholesome goodness. We allow the agriculture-industrial complex to manipulate our food, process it, inject it, industrialize it, medicate it, dye it and transform it and package it into an attractive and edible object with physical substance and a tolerable ration of nutrients and flavour, but is no longer exactly food, even though it still sort of, kind of, looks like it.

Worst of all, the agriculture-industrial complex has switched its power source from the sun to fossil fuels. Pesticides are sprinkled on fields, synthetic fertilizers replace natural nitrogen-fixers that typically reside in healthy soil, but are tilled too heavily by machinery, and instead of letting animals live off the land, grains are trucked in as replacement feed to grass.

The magical synergy of food is lost when it is treated as a statistic. There is something beautiful about broccoli. And it's not the fact that it has an amazing 82mg of vitamin C per cup, plus countless nutrients. It's how that broccoli is happily eaten, slowly digested, and the vitamins and nutrients effectively released into the bloodstream. Industrial processes can't imitate this nature process.

Society's relationship with our food sources has also been severed. Once upon a time, food was handed directly from a farmer with a real name and a face. That has largely been replaced by the popular myth that the supermarket is where food comes from. The mythical existence of these so-called farms can still be glimpsed on the food packages.

As food consumers, we should know better.

Oops, I mean "eaters," not food consumers. The problem with the food industry and too many of its consumers is it sees food as a commodity. It has erased the lines that tradition had drawn over thousands of years to ensure we appreciated and ate healthy food.

I aim to bring back that tradition.

So, like a boring reality show, I embarked on a painstaking journey to reform my diet. McDonald's, Michelina's and Delissio went from staples to rare indulgences. Grocery shopping shifted from the arenas of Walmart and Superstore (sorry Vivian) to the smaller Sunterra and farmer's markets, with a focus on local, seasonal and organic foods. I have since reduced my meat consumption by at least half, and stopped worrying about the cost of food (although I acknowledge it's easy to say this as a single male). I even spent a day working on a farm, learning the ways of the peaceful and wise agrarian man.

Cooking, once a task on par with cleaning the bathtub, has become a fulfilling ritual often with tasty results. Ironically it took being away from home for me to realize how lucky I used to eat. I think having to cook one's own food helps one to appreciate the effort and love that goes into a complete meal. Cooking really is an art, and pleasing the taste buds is the work of a true artist. Same as growing food.

From field to fork, food is a chain of events powered by the sun and cultivated by passionate people, but the art is being lost due to many reasons, primarily low cost. I strove to reconnect and understand food again.

I'm not alone in my food revival. The Slow Food movement, which aims to combat the rising tide of fast food, is gaining momentum. It's never too late to jump on the bandwagon.

Part 2 aims to expose the gruesome science behind our food culture, including focusing on specific controversial foods. Stay tuned!

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