The Gospel According to Barry, Part 1

I finally picked up Barry Glassner's The Gospel of Food last night, and I started reading before bed, expecting to get about 10 pages in before I conked out.

I read 174 pages. I have no idea what time it was when I finally forced myself to put it down, but it was no earlier than 2 a.m. And, although I probably could have lasted a bit longer, I deliberately stopped before the "What Made America Fat?" chapter, because I didn't want to be sleepy for that. (Also, frankly, I didn't want to have my enjoyment of the rest of it trashed if Glassner isn't as critical of the "obesity" hysteria as I hope he is -- though I have faith that he regards it with a satisfyingly critical eye, at least.)

Can I just TELL YOU how much I love Barry Glassner? I don't even know what to say about the first 174 pages of this book; I just want to quote them all. In lieu of that, I will encourage you as strongly as possible to buy it. Even if it all goes to hell in the fat chapter, the first 174 pages are worth the money.

What I love about Glassner's writing -- and I devoured The Culture of Fear just as quickly a few years ago, right after I saw him interviewed in Bowling for Columbine -- is that he really seems to prize reason above all else. That doesn't mean he's unemotional or narrowly focused; he believes, for instance, that it is reasonable to enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating. (And he's goddamned right.) It just means that his apparent agenda is to advance the cause of critical thinking, not any specific point of view. And that is why I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading him.

So Glassner cops to being a card-carrying member of the Slow Food movement and describes some meals he's had at ungodly expensive restaurants in utterly porny detail, but he never allows his preferences to give way to snobbery. He refuses to demonize processed food or fast food, choosing instead to take a thorough look at the many pros and cons of both, the real people (often highly trained chefs) who produce the recipes, and the real reasons why people choose them over fresh, whole foods. (Progressives who act as if everyone who makes that choice is an ignorant dupe of Big Food -- or even simply too poor to have other options -- take a well-deserved licking for their [okay, our] presumptions here.) He also acknowledges that those amazing, memorable meals he's had at fine restaurants have most often been when he was in the company of a powerful critic the staff spotted -- when he's dined at the same places as an average (albeit monied) Joe, the experience has been far less thrilling. Food can be a mindblowing art form, but even those willing and able pay top dollar don't necessarily have access to the highest expressions of it. Verrrry interesting.

Glassner also untangles a lot of food mysteries I've wondered about -- such as the meaning of labels like "organic," "fresh," and "natural" (not much, in every case) -- without ever taking a gotcha tone one way or another. He acknowledges that, personal health-wise, something marked "organic" is unlikely to be much better for you than its non-organic counterpart (in fact, the best alternative might come from a small farmer who does farm organically but can't afford to jump through the hoops required to earn an "organic" label), and that the organic movement is infected with a lot of "New Age blather and inferior food." BUT, he says, even huge suppliers like Organic Valley demonstrate "obvious sincerity about the social and ethical commitments of their company." An Organic Valley product may not be substantially better for you, but it's better for the farmers who are protected from price fluctuations, the people who live near those farms and aren't exposed to pesticides, and the animals who have much better living conditions before, um, being slaughtered. So there are plenty of good reasons to buy organic, even if they're not the reasons why most consumers actually make that choice.

"Natural" on the other hand, is pretty much a load of crap (which I was just thinking the other night while examining Al's Sprite can, which simultaneously claimed to contain "all natural flavors" and "no fruit juice"). One example is "natural" vanilla, which comes from the bean, and "artificial" vanillin, which comes from wood pulp. Both come from perfectly natural ingredients and are practically indistinguishable chemically, but only one is allowed the "natural" label. On the other hand, for a food to be labeled "natural," it only has to have 51 percent "natural" components, and the taste usually comes from the 49% of artificial crap anyway.

As for "fresh," in addition to finally explaining to me how we came to have supersweet fresh pineapple year-round, starting about 15 years ago (hardcore chilling and the addition of previously stored fruit juice to balance the flavor), Glassner makes a point that occasionally gets some play in the media but is really not said enough:
If these sorts of wordplays and legalistic shenanigans [to earn a "fresh" label] seem absurd, so are the public's misconceptions that motivate food companies to sell their processed foods as fresh in the first place. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables tend to be at least as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, but most food shoppers imagine otherwise. Consumers are largely unaware of contemporary techniques for flash-freezing and canning that retain micronutrients that are often lost during the packaging and shipping of fresh produce. The levels of many vitamins decrease dramatically in fresh fruits and vegetables within several days after they have been harvested and refrigerated.

And you know, I knew all that, but I still feel mildly guilty when I turn to my trusty bag of (organic!) frozen veggies for dinner or berries for a smoothie, instead of using the real thing. I buy frozen mostly because I inevitably waste fresh stuff; I'd love to be the kind of person who goes to the market every day and buys exactly what I need for dinner that night, but, um, I'm not. So even if I only buy one apple and one green pepper and one zucchini when I go to the store, I can be sure at least one of those will rot before I use it. (And don't get me started on heads of broccoli/cauliflower/lettuce or, the worst offenders, bunches of herbs. WHO THE HELL CAN USE 50 HANDFULS OF CILANTRO BEFORE IT GOES BAD? I'm not opening a Mexican restaurant here; I'm making six fucking tacos!) Frozen fruits and veggies allow me the freedom to cook what I feel like when I feel like it -- and to say "Screw it, let's go out" without feeling guilty about those peppers that are getting squishy in the crisper. But then, there's always that niggling guilt about how I'm copping out, compromising my culinary integrity and possibly my health -- and above all, being a Bad Fatty. I must earn my right to be unapologetically fat by eating only raw, fresh, organic foods!

That kind of thinking is what Glassner calls "The Gospel of Naught" -- the idea that we should all be eating as little as possible, with as little enjoyment (and as much effort) as possible, for optimum health. (He specifically goes after Walter Willett within the first few pages. Heh.) This leads to incredible misconceptions about what kind of nutrients human beings actually need to consume.
For one of his studies, Paul Rozin [a psychologist at UPenn] presented the following scenario to a diverse sample of Americans: "Assume you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health." Seven choices were offered: corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate.

If you guessed that hot dogs and milk chocolate are the closest of those foods to being nutritionally complete, you get a gold star. Fewer than 1 in 10 of Rozin's subjects picked one of those.
In response to another set of questions, half of Rozin's respondents said that even very small amounts of salt, cholesterol and fat are unhealthy. More than one in four believed that a diet totally free of those substances is healthiest, when of course, they are crucial nutrients for human health. Without them, we could not survive.

Emphasis mine. The "Gospel of Naught" has trained us to "see pleasurable and healthy eating as mutually exclusive." And that's a problem for our health, on a lot of levels. Not only does it keep a shocking number of people from realizing that fat and salt are necessary parts of a healthy diet, but -- as Glassner explains on the very first page -- some studies have shown that enjoying your food makes you get more nutrients out of it. He talks about one study in which groups of Thai and Swedish women were given Thai food, Swedish food, and some other food "that was high in nutrients but consisted of a sticky, savorless paste." The Thai women absorbed more iron when eating the Thai food, which the Swedes thought was too spicy; the Swedes absorbed more iron when eating traditional Swedish food the Thai women found unappealingly bland; and neither group absorbed much iron when eating the pasty shit.

How weird is that? And what could it mean, if it were found to be true on a larger scale? Is the "French paradox" really a result of better portion control, or is it a result of the French enjoying their fucking food? Citing another study of Rozin's, Glassner writes:
Among the findings: the French view food as pleasure, while Americans worry about food. Asked what words they associate with chocolate cake, the French chose "celebration" and the Americans chose "guilt." Asked about heavy cream, the French selected "whipped"; Americans chose "unhealthy."

I know which camp I'd rather be in.

All right, I could go on and on, but I don't want to wreck the whole book for you. Go buy it. Meanwhile, I'm off to read what Glassner has to say about fat. I expect there will be more gushing tomorrow.

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