The Matter of Food

Today I went to the grocery store for the second time this weekend because I forgot paper towels and muffin papers.


Big deep breath. After my post from yesterday, I began thinking about ways to help the whole of humanity by being one person leaning towards the solution side of things. It is one thing to get pumped up on sentiment and another to make everyday changes that will be a small contribution towards a solution. Paper towels are such a trivial luxury. They use resources. They aren’t recycled. I have had times in my life where I was so poor that I stole toilet paper from the library. Paper towels are an oddly big deal to me. But are they really? It is easy to switch to dish clothes and not use paper towels. Muffin papers are also an unnecessary luxury. And I used gasoline to go get these items. Ugh.

Today, I made food for the week for my household because I like to turn the oven on as little as possible and conserve energy. I made a pot of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin bread, a couple of strombolis to cut into portions for lunches, and corn chowder. I try very hard to use fresh vegetables that are in season. I am always more than a little horrified at the number of perfectly good jack-o-lanterns that are left to rot and not cooked down to be made into pies and bread. There is an apple tree on one of the paths and I will collect the apples and cook what I can down to can applesauce. Sundays are a day of abundance, good smells in the house, and work to prepare for the week because I do not like to use prepackaged foods and I try to incorporate as many plant-based foods as I can into my diet for the week. I am increasing my efforts more and more to consciously choose what foods I eat, buy locally, eat seasonally, eat a plant based diet, and conserve energy in as many ways as possible.

There is a wonderful book titled “What the World Eats” by Faith D’Aluisio and includes photographs by Peter Menzel. I highly recommend buying this book or at least checking it out from the library. It is fascinating and eye opening. For instance at the time that the book was written a family in eastern Chad at the Breidjing Refugee Camp spent approximately $24.37 on food for a week for six people. A typical day might include 3 meals of porridge made from millet and water with a little oil to coat the pot. Here is one of Peter Menzel’s photographs from the book that shows what the family has to eat for the week:

A week’s worth of food for a family in California cost approximately $159.18. The menu for the week was varied and included such processed foods as frozen pizza, corn dogs, boxed cookies and cereal, canned spaghetti sauce, pre-made tortillas, and canned soup. Their groceries for the week also included packages of red meat, eggs, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, grapes, tangerines, and apples. According to the book the family from United States ingests 1047 calories from animal products daily. Contrast this photograph of the family from California with the photograph of the family from Chad:

In the United States the free market system and the free market economy is almost a religion, but the free market economy has strength to shape what ends up on the market if enough people consciously at the grass roots level work together to influence what is to be sold. Production practices and labor issues have been influenced by consumers consciously choosing what they will or won’t buy. The Grape Boycott of the 1980’s was lead by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. The organizers predicted at the time that a 15% drop in market sales would reduce the profit margin enough to influence the use of pesticides and sway practice. It did.

Currently not only is the over use of animal products, meat, eggs, and dairy products, contributing to the rise of diseases like cancer and heart disease in western countries such as the United States, but because of the demand for meat, milk, and eggs swaths of the Amazon rainforest have been leveled to make grazing land, chickens are packed into factory farms where the farmers are forced into buying specific antibiotics to keep production up and maintain contracts with well known distributors, and grain that could feed the third of the planet that subsists on $2 per day goes to feed cattle that never evolved to eat grain in the first place. It is estimated that raising cattle has a greater impact on global warming than any other human activity– more than home heating or the use of automobiles.

Imagine the impact on the world if every family in the United States halved their consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products.

Prior to World War II the supermarket really did not exist and pre-packaged foods were almost non-existent. People ate more seasonally and their food sources were more local. They shopped at a local butcher, bought milk from a local dairy, and went to a local grocer who probably bought from local farmers. It was a very different world. In this time before, pre-packaged convenience foods were rare. I once met the chemical engineer who invented Captain Crunch. Not only do pre-packaged convenience foods make food preparation faster they bring a higher calorie meal with less phytonutrients to the table. We as an animal that has evolved to survive are wired for two things: food and sex. We have built in physical sensors that tell us when we are full and to stop eating. However, if what we are eating is calorie dense, we keep eating to get the appropriate full sensation. So if a person is eating the high sugar processed breakfast cereals, they keep eating until they feel full eating way more than they need. They also get a high dose of sugar that makes their blood sugar levels go roller-coastering. The scenario is no better for greasy chips or frozen pizza. Obesity is the world’s greatest health epidemic at the moment. It contributes to many other diseases and is causing a health crisis in many parts of the world. On top of the obesity problem, many people are lacking in the nutrients that they need to be healthy. They are literally eating and eating but malnourished and their bodies cannot repair themselves

Imagine the impact on the world if every family in the United States chose to forego pre-packaged convenience foods or gave up anything made with corn syrup and corn oil.

In many parts of the world farmers grow their product for a pittance and the product is bought by a distributor/factory who then sells it to a company that packages it and sells it in the super market. The other scenario is that the farmers are driven out of business entirely and end up working as low paid employees on land that was once their own but has become part of a large agribusiness farm. Indigenous crops and the ability for people to feed themselves is lost. In addition, the use of petrochemical fertilizers is introduced and the soil eventually needs more and more fertilizers. The soil experiences a type of collapse as the pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers make it neutral to grow hybrids selected for traits desired in western markets but not necessarily hardy on their own. Indigenous crops are simply lost because the seeds are lost or become cross pollinated with the hybrids.

There are efforts to make sure that farmers get their fare share for what they grow and bring to the market place. This has multiple effects such as allowing farmers to maintain the ownership of their farms, make enough to feed their families and prosper, improve soil if organic products are requested, and maintain the diversity of seeds and plants.

Imagine the impact on the world if every family in the United States chose to buy such fair trade items as coffee, chocolate, and tea.

This is only a little bit of my thoughts on individual ways to lean towards being part of a global solution and nothing that I am writing here is particularly new. If anyone reading this blog wants to view some good documentaries for further information/inspiration try the following: Foodmatters, Forks Over Knives, and All In This Tea. These are just a few of the many documentaries available!

We evolved to cook? What should we make in the kitchen?

I am in the process of writing a vegetarian cookbook that I am hoping will be a type of The Joy of Cooking cookbook but for vegetarians. Mrs. Rombauer’s book is a classic. In addition to easy to create and delicious recipes, I want the book I am writing to have informational sections on ingredients, cooking utensils and equipment, menu planning, and cooking techniques, similar to The Joy of Cooking, but for those wishing to follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian food can be quick, economical, tasty, beautiful, and have less of an impact on the environment even if a person’s diet is not entirely vegetarian.

In the July 17, 2010 issue of New Scientist, there are two interesting articles that relate to cooking and vegetarianism. Despite that my high school chemistry teacher was a gourmet cook and insisted that cooking was chemistry, I don’t often see science articles about cooking. Articles about vegetarianism have become more prevalent because of environmental concerns.

The article about cooking hypothesizes that cooking is what made us human. According to the article which is entitled, “I cook, therefore I am… human,” Richard Wrangham of Harvard University presented further evidence at the Evolution 2010 conference to champion the “cooked-food” hypothesis of human evolution. The cooked-food hypothesis is that humans were able to evolve from earlier primates because they acquired a taste for cooked food and the nutrition derived from it was of better quality and more efficient so bigger brains and more complex social relationships developed. Some of the evidence pointed to to support this theory involves the amount of chewing time and molar sizes in various primates as compared to humans. Two other paleoanthropological researchers, Christopher Organ and Charles Nunn who are also of Harvard, predicted that if humans were adapted to eat cooked food, then humans should spend less time chewing. They gathered data from various primates and humans about body size, genetic relationships among species, and the amount of time that each species spent chewing and determined that a species of our size should spend roughly 48 percent of the waking day chewing. Humans only spend less than ten percent of the day chewing. Also, our molars are simply not as big as the molars of other primates that need to chew a far greater percentage of the day. Homo erectus, an early ancestor of Homo sapiens, had considerably smaller teeth than other earlier hominids. According to Wrangham this is evidence that H. erectus cooked their food.

The only problem with this idea is that the earliest evidence that hominins could control fire is from about 790,000 years ago. H. erectus appeared between 1.8 to 2 million years ago. There should be more evidence of cooking hearths. Or should there? Maybe our early ancestors were stealth cooks. It seems to me that the lack of evidence of cooking hearths does not rule out the hypothesis. It just means that the evidence of such is not there to conclusively prove that cooking happened.

The other thought is that hominins evolved to cook and that somebody let the hearth fire go out. Oops. And they had to wait around for a million years or so for another spark to be captured.

The other article about vegetarianism is entitled, “What’s the beef with meat?” and discusses the idea that if everyone ate a vegetarian/vegan diet that this might save the world from ecological disaster by reducing every individual’s carbon footprint on the planet. The article’s thesis is that this is a simplistic idea and there is more to consider. The article states that a meat-free world would be greener because there would be less need for cropland, potentially more forest and greater biodiversity, lower greenhouse emissions, less agricultural pollution, less demand for fresh water, and many other conditions and situations that would be desirable. After this the article argues for the continuance of a diet that includes meat based on the following points: 1. sheep and goats can graze on land that is not suitable for farming and turn inedible grass into meat and milk calories; 2. pigs and chickens can subsist on leftovers and be biological composters of a sort and turn scraps into calories; 3. animal by-products like manure, leather, and wool would disappear if the world became vegetarian; and lastly manure could be used to generate biogas and subsequently electricity.

All of these points are good points. The article goes on not to advocate that things remain as they are with the wealthiest countries eating a proportionally greater amount of meat and incurring the health deficits and generating great quantities of greenhouse gases as a result of the consumption of meat, but rather to advocate for a more thought out approach to the use of animals for calories. The article points out that as more countries gain wealth their consumption of meat also rises and in wealthier countries the desire for meat continues to rise. It offers as a solution that we change how much meat and what types of meat people eat. Rather than expecting grain fed and fat chickens, scrawnier free range chickens that had been fed scraps could be what was available. Also, meat consumption would need to drop to a portion of meat only once or twice a week as opposed to daily. The article skeptically asks, “Would people really accept pricey free-range beef and scrawny barnyard chickens perhaps once or twice a week?” In my opinion, is such a consideration an option, when, as the article also points out, if the desire for meat continues to grow that the impact could be environmentally disastrous?

We may have evolved to eat cooked food– tubers, roots, seeds, grains, and meat. I do see cooking as a form of everyday art—evolved as much as we have evolved. It is meditative, self expressive, and a reflection of how we choose to live. It can be part of creating a life of beauty and harmony. It is one of the most basic things that we do because we need to eat and we may need to eat food that is cooked (to be honest, I am still thinking about this because of information that I have read from the Raw Food movement). As a species that has the ability to be self-reflective, analytical, and capable of solving problems, examining our collective and individual relationship to the planet and our most basic biological needs and imperatives seems tantamount if we are going to survive the short geological timespan of the next century.