Sunday, July 17, 2011

Modern Eating

Paris Hilton eating a burger, presumably from the Carl's Jr. ad campaign
A week or so ago I went to see Fellini's Roma, made in 1972.  Awesome movie.  A great moment from the movie stuck with me.  In the opening sequence, two Italian people are walking together off camera and chatting, and one says to the other something like, "Did you know Americans eat food out of cans?"

So funny and so true.  What is up with modern American eating?  There are obviously a lot things to say, and the topic is hardly original.  But for whatever it's worth, here's The Kramer Is Now perspective.

If you're eating out, portion sizes are too small.

Portion sizes of actual food, that is.  Portion sizes of caloric items in general are, of course, through the roof.  But when it comes to actual food -- like cucumbers, or broccoli -- your typical American meal is positively anemic.

Suppose you want to go out to lunch.  Your typical lunch out in America gets you a sandwich or burger, with potato chips or fries, and a drink.  The bread, the chips or fries, and the drink:  all empty calories.  The only food is whatever is inside the sandwich or burger:  a bit of meat, some hummus maybe, a leaf or two of wilted lettuce, and a tomato.  A tiny amount of food!

You really appreciate this when you start trying to eat only actual food.  You think to yourself, OK, sure, there's a lot of empty calories here.  But I don't have to eat it.  I'll just eat the food.  And lo, it's like 300 calories and two hours later you're starving.  You need a snack.  And American snacks are, if anything, worse than American lunches, consisting mainly of sugar, flour, and salt.

In fact, you have to act like a freak to get a normal meal of actual food in most restaurants.  A recent study found that potato chips were the number one contributor to weight gain, and that french fries were second.  The morning after the study results were announced, I happened to go out to breakfast.  I ordered an omelet with various vegetables, and told the server I didn't want any home fries or toast, and asked, Is there something else they could substitute? 

You'd think I'd asked for ketchup with my apple pie.

Food technology. 

I don't know what it is with Americans and food technology.  When you think "food" do you think "technology"?  No.  But there it is.

I've never looked at processed foods in the same way after reading this incredible 2009 New Yorker article about companies that make processed edible substances.  The author, Raffi Khatchadourian, explains that about ninety per cent of money that Americans spend in the supermarket goes toward processed food, and that this food is the product not of normal food companies but of "flavor companies" -- people that mix chemicals and materials together to try to make edible stuff.  Money quote:
"'Most of the food-and-beverage companies have become marketing-and-distribution companies,' a flavor company executive told me, only half in jest.  I understood what he meant when, in one of his laboratories, I saw a number of his colleagues working on a tasteless "slurry," consisting largely of starch, oil, and salt, which a client was hoping to transform into a marketable product."
A "tasteless slurry!"  To be "transformed" into a "marketable product" by the addition of chemically produced compounds that mimic "flavors!"  How disgusting is that?  Will you ever look at Doritos in the same way?

We don't care about food?

I'm always amazed when I travel Air France, and along with the quite good meal, I am offered a truly delicious and fresh mini-baguette.  And I always think to myself, how can it be that if Air France can provide wonderful fresh bread on every flight, other airlines can't even manage a passable muffin or sandwich?  I mean, the flight from Toronto to Paris on Air Canada has the same access to the same suppliers and ingredients as the flight from Toronto to Paris on Air France.  So why is our food so bad?

Do we Americans just not care about food?  

It may be so.  You often hear that people buy crappy food and empty calories because it's cheap.  And for some people, this is a perfectly understandable reason: if you are poor, for example, you don't have a lot of options.  But people were buying as much crappy food during the economic boom of the 1990s as they are now.  You always hear that people don't have any disposable income any more, but obviously there's something not true about this, given that the people who make GPS devices are doing fine, and who really needs a GPS device?

It's no secret that the US spends a smaller percentage of disposable income on food than other countries (see interesting chart here).  It's sometimes suggested this is because we have such excellent and efficient production, and certainly high income is part of the story.  But clearly it is also true that you get what you pay for.  And in this case, what you get is french fries, more french fries, and the occasional flavored slurry.  Yum!

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