Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hot Dogs and Forbidden Fruit

When the weather is as grey and muddy as it has been this January, my kids tend to get cabin fever, so as an antidote, I took the boys to eat lunch and play at the indoor playground in the mall. We sat at a table right outside the GNC store. The store windows were decorated with larger-than-life black-and-white posters of athletic bodies exposing lots of taut, shiny skin. The posters were surrounded by sober ads for supplements and weight loss drinks and weight gain drinks and “super-food” bars. I had to laugh. Next to those gods and goddesses of bodily health, we were enjoying (yes, enjoying) a delightful lunch of hot dogs and generic Cheetos.

The juxtaposition between those ultra-serious advertisements and our fun-filled little repast was downright comical. While my boys and I licked fake cheese off of our artificially orange fingers, I got quite a kick out of watching the women in tight jeans and the men in tight shirts parading into the nutrition store. In fact, the delight it gave me was almost excessive. Those black-and-white posters of hot bods dressed in Spandex were perfectly joyless when compared with the cheery, little ketchup-smeared faces in front of me. With us were all the smiles, all the color, all the joie de vivre. With them, only sexy pouts glaring into the middle distance and daring me to feel guilty for the greasy meal I’d set before my children.

But "guilty" is exactly what I refuse to feel. I don't plan on making Cheetos and hot dogs a daily staple of our diet, but neither am I living in fear of the "long term side effects" from an occasional dose of nitrates and food coloring. Worrying is bad for my health. Rock-hard abs and buns of steel are fine, if that's your cup o' tea. (Although displaying them in Spandex shorts at twice life size is another thing....) But pursuing the ultimate body or the perfect metabolism is not my only goal in life. It's not even a major goal.

Of course I want to be healthy. Of course it's better not to be out of breath just walking from the car to the couch. Of course I want my kids to live for a long time. Of course I'd rather not have my family suffer from disease. But there's so, so much more to good health—bodily and otherwise—than what I put into my mouth every day. However, from some of the conversations I've heard and articles I've read, you'd almost think that food was both the root cause and the ultimate solution to every kind of evil.

Given all the money and time and effort we put into our food, it's not surprising that we have strong opinions on the subject. And I think it’s good that we give some thought to what and how we eat. But something else seems to be going on here. Food has become a topic that is almost too hot to touch.

From Julie & Julia to Food, Inc., we're fascinated enough by food to pay exorbitant prices to watch movies about it. There's an entire television network devoted to it. A huge, adoring crowd showed up at WSU this month to hear Michael Pollan speak on the subject. We have chefs with celebrity status. We have major cities legislating whether we're allowed to buy a cookie made with shortening.  And then there are food books and food magazines and food discussion groups and food manifestos and food blogs. We are, in a word, obsessed.

Don't get me wrong. I love food—from homegrown tomatoes to Hostess Ding Dongs. But it's because I love food that I hate so much the way we've distorted it into something overbearing and monstrous. Instead of consuming food, we're letting it consume us. We're food fanatics. Cuisine cops. Nutrivangelists. The Gourmet Gestapo. Casually mention in mixed company (only as a hypothetical social experiment, of course) that you fed Twinkies to your children for breakfast, and wait for the sharp intake of breath and the stunned silence to follow.

Because we won't allow food to play its proper role as a source of strength, pleasure, and culinary imagination, food has become a real point of contention: You use margarine instead of butter? Your lettuce isn't organically grown? You cook in a non-stick skillet? Your peanut butter has corn syrup in it? You buy milk from the grocery store? Your bread comes in a plastic bag? Don't you know the myriad sins you've committed (you hard-hearted, environmentally insensitive, nutritionally ignorant food-heathen)?

The way people sometimes talk, you'd think that eating the forbidden fruit was only a minor mistake when compared with the unforgivable crime of eating genetically modified apples. White flour and homogenized milk are the new hellfire and brimstone, and the only "sins" that ever come up in conversation seem to be related to chocolate cake. Everyone seems to be laboring under a burden of guilt that has more to do with transfats than with transgressions.

Just take a look at the way women's magazines are emblazoned with with "guilt-free" recipe headlines—right alongside "sinfully decadent" desserts.  And the absolution for all of our corn-syrupy trespasses? More food, of course.

I found this description on a cup of yogurt that I bought not long ago: "Spoon. Savor. Stretch. Sigh. Trust calming notes of lavender to satisfy the senses and soothe the soul."

Soothe the soul? Right. So if I'm crushed with Chicken McNugget guilt; if I'm sorrowing over pesticide sins; if I'm living in biotech fear, the solution to my guilt, sin and fear is...yogurt? Pardon me while I search for the nearest complimentary air sickness bag. The yogurt was tasty, but the quasi-religious marketing pitch makes me rather sick.

And yet… This food-based salvation message does appear to be just near enough to the truth to make it particularly persuasive to our spiritually vapid culture. I know that organic brown rice will not save my soul from damnation in the lake of fiery fryer grease, but at the same time, food and drink are very near the true Salvation message: Body broken (bread broken); Blood shed (wine poured). True Gospel is all tied up with a meal.

We are all hungry, I think, for the True Bread. But the problem is that we think we can find it at the Co-Op bakery. And so the Co-Op bakery suddenly takes on an importance far beyond providing a nice bagel to go with our morning coffee.

The True Bread unites us.  But we have we allowed Wonder Bread to divide us. We're too busy cat-fighting about the Nutrition Facts printed on the side of the package (Package? What package?) to rejoice in what we have so bountifully received. We let ourselves complain about our spouses, lie on our taxes, ignore our kids, and gossip about our neighbors. But God forbid that we should allow any government subsidized corn product to cross our lips.

In other words, our priorities are all in a big tangle.

We've stepped beyond dietary prudence into the realm of dietary paranoia. My most recent issue of Martha Stewart Living has a whole article devoted to identifying "dangerous" produce and encouraging me to check 5-digit barcodes for the demonic number 8. I talked to one mother who won't serve cake at her kids' birthday parties because of all the empty calories and refined whatnots it contains. We're all so worried about staying alive that we're forgetting how to live.

I may, possibly, be two percent more likely to have thyroid problems if I eat a Twinkie than if I abstain. But I know for a fact that I'm thousands of times more likely to be hit by a bus if I leave the house than if I were to stay in bed all day. But does that keep me from stepping out the door? Hardly. I have a life to live.

Ah, there's the rub. That's the thing about living: It'll kill you. But who of you by worrying can add a single day to your life?

Instead of worrying and feeling guilty over eating hot dogs rather than hummus, I should be thanking God for the joy and unity that comes from sharing food of all sorts around a table. To paraphrase Proverbs, better is a dinner of hot dogs and Cheetos where love is than a bowl of sustainably grown quinoa with hatred. I am not going to hyperventilate over what I eat. My salvation does not depend upon it. So after breathing into a brown paper bag for a few minutes, lets fill that brown paper bag with lunch, shall we?

God's bounty is vast enough to include Cheetos and chèvre, hot dogs and hummus. There's a whole world of flavors and textures—of edible joy—left to be discovered, and I'm never going to sample more than the minutest fraction of it before I die. (This is one of the many reasons to look forward to the resurrection of the body and not just the immortality of the soul; my taste buds will live into eternity. Glory.) Food, in its rightful role, is a blessing and a delight.

Therefore, under the disapproving gaze of the black-and-white GNC gods, I can laugh with ketchuppy lips and lick salty orange fingers with my children. Contrary to popular belief, I am allowed to eat my Cheetos with joy and drink my Diet Coke with a merry heart. A merry heart, after all, doeth good like a medicine.


Heidi said...

Hannah, I always get excited over this subject. Well done! The first commandment with a promise was honour your Father and Mother. The promise: "That your days may be long in the land". The key ingredient to long life!

Bridget said...

Um, I have to admit I have not actually read the post yet (but I will...). I saw the apple print and had to comment--you gave me a copy of that, for some event (birthday? Christmas?) and I have it hanging on the wall in my bedroom. Random, but good. :)

Bree said...

Thank you cousin for taking the time out of your busy life to write. These articles of the past months have been a balm to my "sometimes" weary self. I am most grateful.

Paula Gibbs said...

Hannah, I really enjoyed reading this post and a lot of your old ones (I somehow missed seeing your blog...sleep deprivation does that to a person). Nicely said.

Brad Littlejohn said...

Thanks for these thoughts, and for presenting them in a (very well-written) way that avoids much of the shrillness and some of the straw-men that seem to usually appear in these kinds of sound-offs. I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, and looking for a good opportunity to discuss my thoughts, so when Rachel pointed this out to me, I jumped on it as such an opportunity; so I apologize in advance for writing a small essay in response.

In response to your opening anecdote, let me offer the following (fictional) one: My family and I were hanging out in Barnes and Noble reading a fine selection of Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, and Twilight novels. Nearby, a bunch of people in slacks and sweater vests parade by into the “Classics” section, and start pulling out Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and all those big heavy tomes. We laugh at them and their tight-lipped, stuck-up ways; we know how to enjoy life. We believe that reading is something to enjoy, not to labor over, so we’re going to stick with our Danielle Steele.

Now, GNC is not the Classics section of food. Far from it, and I have little interest in defending that attitude toward nutrition, which is, I would agree, a rejection of true love for food. But you seem to have lumped together every kind of concern for good food and healthy eating, every kind of rejection of fast-food and synthetic sugars, from the most undernourished diet ascetic to the most world-embracing gourmand, as if these were the same thing. And so you champion the hot dog and Cheeto-eater over against a true love of the goodness of food. You act as if people who care about organic food, about not eating cake that’s full of odd chemicals and destructive sugars, about eating and enjoying food the way God made it to be eaten and enjoyed, are unable to embrace life or enjoy food. But that’s like the person who thinks that someone who prefers Tolstoy to Twilight must be laboring under some kind of odd works-righteousness that refuses to enjoy reading, when it is actually because the Tolstoy reader appreciates reading so much that he refuses to settle for a cheap substitute for a genuine literary experience.

The kind of joyless and bland health-fooders that you speak of do exist, but I’ve rarely encountered them. What I’ve encountered is people who love food so much, and are so excited about how God created it, that they want to enjoy it the way He made it, in all its fullness, rather than settling for artificial, chemically-imbued, relatively tasteless (except for synthetic taste stimulants that all taste pretty much the same) substitutes. What better way to thank God for his bounty than to consume His bounty, rather than corn syrup factory’s?

Incidentally, this embrace of creation is also more healthy. So it’s not: “Don’t enjoy life so that you won’t incur unnecessary health risks” (your example of not leaving the house so you won’t get hit by a bus), but “Enjoy life the way God intended and you’ll enjoy it more and be healthier at the same time!” That doesn’t mean you can never occasionally enjoy the “guilty pleasure” of a Twinkie (my wife, for example, gives me a hard time for the compulsion I have to get a Carl’s Jr. burger every couple months), but it means you should expect and accept a little bit of gentle mockery, as you would when you casually mention in mixed company that you enjoyed watching Legally Blonde 2 last night (or Avatar, perhaps!).

If someone is really trying to shove a natural-food lifestyle down your throat, they are turning a blessing into a curse, and I agree with your criticism. But that’s different than you feeling uncomfortable because they’re pursuing it themselves--what’s wrong with the mom who doesn’t want to serve cake at her own kids’ birthday parties?

Brad Littlejohn said...

Of course, that leads to the second point--you complain about guilt-tripping and “ethical” food--what I eat should be my business, you say. But I don’t know...I don’t think this is entirely voluntary; there is an ethical dimension, and I don’t see how we can avoid it. For one thing, you might say about the health issue “It’s my health; it’s my business”; but if I had a chronic alcohol or tobacco problem, my friends ought to make me feel ashamed of it and to help me live healthier. Some parents (not necessarily any in Moscow) feed their kids such junk that it’s almost as bad as letting them get hooked on cigarettes, and, I don’t know, it seems like at some point at least that becomes an ethical issue.

More importantly, though, is it not an ethical issue if we buy and eat food that is unethically produced? Let’s stick with the obvious example--the way most meat is now produced flagrantly violates Biblical standards for animal treatment. That being the case, it seems like it does become an ethical issue, and Christians ought to buy humanely-farmed meat. If there were two used-car salesmen in town, and you learned that one of them got his cars by swindling old ladies or blackmailing people into giving him cars, while the other was above reproach, wouldn’t you have a responsibility, inasmuch as possible, to buy from the latter? But someone will say, “Well, how do we know this meat was ethically produced?” Well, what if you knew the first used car salesmen was a crook and you didn’t know about the second--he might be, but hopefully he wasn’t; wouldn’t you still have a responsibility to try to buy from the latter (or not to buy a car)?

I don’t know...maybe you wouldn’t have such a responsibility; indeed, I hope not, because if so, I fail abysmally. Unfortunately, as an ethics student, I find my conscience vexed with these questions and it isn’t easily assuaged. If I’m wrong, please tell me.

--Brad L.

Claire said...

"The True Bread unites us. But Wonder Bread has divided us."

Yes, yes, yes.

kelly said...

Brad, you seem so eager to post your own thoughts on this issue that you have missed Hannah's point entirely. As a sugar-eating, Legally Blonde-watching mother of three, I don't have the time to hash this out point by point so let me just say this: you say Hannah has "lumped" all health conscious eaters together in order to reject them as a whole but quite the opposite is true. She repeatedly says it is Not about the food but about the Attitude. And, for the record, one of my greatest joys as a mother is preparing and frosting a beautiful cake (full of sugar and love!) and presenting it to my children on their first birthdays to dig into with reckless abandon. To miss that joy because of an overhyped fear of refined sugar is beyond sad (and not even a little Godly).
And Hannah, "Better is a dinner of hot dogs and Cheetos where love is than a bowl of sustainably grown quinoa with hatred." Best food quote ever. Now I'm off to make my kids a lunch of organic, homemade hummus with a side of Ranch Doritos (yum!).

Brittany Martin said...

Hannah, this is great. It reminds me of the other day when my kids were eating Cocoa Krispies. I noticed that the side of the box said that eating Cocoa Krispies "boosts your family's immunity." And "boosting immunity makes family life better."

I would love to see an advertisement that said, "You should eat this because it tastes really good."

I made a link to your article from my little blog, thanks!

Hannah G said...


I don't especially want to turn my little blog into a debate forum, but I also I don't want to simply ignore what you've said, so I'll comment briefly and then drop the subject.

My main concern when writing this post was by no means to say that food is an unimportant issue and that we should all just leave each other alone about it. My point was that we seem to have inflated it (whether on aesthetic, environmental, agricultural or salutary grounds) into an ultimate, heaven-or-hell issue, and in doing so have failed to first approach our food with joy and gratitude, recognizing that God is the one who gave it to us in the first place. I, for one, am not championing Cheetos and hot dogs as the best possible sack lunch I could have eaten with my kids. And it probably wouldn't take much to persuade me that such a meal is inferior on a number of levels. What I was trying to point out (however unsuccessfully) is the kind of ethical myopia that makes food our central topic of moral concern, outrage, and debate, while other—far greater—issues are blurred into the background of our distorted vision.

The food fanaticism we find—even among many Christians—seems to ignore a large portion of what the Bible has to say, both directly and indirectly, about food. For example, my husband reads from Proverbs everyday at our breakfast table, and it has struck me repeatedly that most of the promises related to strength, health, and long life have absolutely nothing to do with food. From reading Proverbs, I come away with the impression that an early death could easily be more directly related to bad-mouthing my parents than to putting "bad" things into my mouth.

So no, I'm not saying that what I eat has no ethical or communal ramifications. What I am saying is, let's be (joyfully and gratefully) prudent about our food choices rather than paranoid. And let's not, in a triumph of bitter irony, bite and devour one another as we discuss what we mean by "prudent" eating. Proverbs 15:17 seems pretty clear: love triumphs over lunch.

Brad Littlejohn said...

Thanks for that. I wasn't trying to turn it into a debate forum either, but I figured that you were intending to generate discussion with that sort of post. So I thought it would be helpful to jump in.

I certainly agree with your point that obsession about healthy food is more unhealthy than eating unhealthy food is. Imbalanced moral outrage on any subject is, well, imbalanced, and therefore unhelpful. And perhaps that's what you really have encountered a lot of, and are thus reasonably responding to. But, given that I've encountered very little of that, my concern was that you were (as I have seen others in our circles do) responding to the kind of position I just sketched as if it were food fanaticism or imbalanced moralism. It seemed that you were painting with a fairly broad brush, implying that those who wanted to steer clear of Cheetos and who were into organic food (which describes many folks in our circles) were obsessed or ascetic. If I read too much into it, forgive me; I certainly support your attack on food-Pharisaism, I just want to limit its collateral damage.

(Hopefully this answers your objection too, Kelly. For the record, I'd probably feed a ridiculously sweet cake to my son as well, once he's old enough, but I know friends who probably wouldn't, and I think they have good and godly reasons.)

Erin said...

I thought this was superbly written. I loved it!
I love your paraphrased proverb. I shared it at our own dinner table this evening.

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