When I posted this post the other day, I was still participating in the comment thread over at Rod Dreher's blog, which eventually got over a hundred comments. If there's one thing I think we can all agree about, it's that discussions revolving around food, cooking, and eating are likely to stir up a bubbling pot of emotions and end up served with sides of defensiveness.
Why is that? Why do so many of us take the Food Wars so personally?
Some of it, I'm sure, can be explained by things like family, tribe, tradition, and culture. Recommend earnestly to a spiritual son of Dr. Johnson that he ought to be eating steel-cut oats for breakfast every day, and he is likely to respond with that famed lexicographer's dictionary entry for the word oats: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people." Try to tell a person whose abuela cooked and served the most delicious arroz con pollo that white rice is an evil carb of glycemic doom, and if you're lucky, you'll merely be ignored. Sincerely suggest, as the cure for all ills of the body, a diet of the foods of ancient hunter-gatherers to people who still hunt for the table and even occasionally gather, and you'll be pegged for the sort of city folk you probably are. And attempt to tell a child of any race or nation that broccoli is much, much better than candy, and all you will do is teach the child not to trust your opinions or tastes.
But there is another factor to the Food Wars, and I think it goes something like this. At some point in most of our lives, most of us will have the luxury of thinking about food in a series of simple questions and answers:
1. Am I hungry? a)yes--go to 2; b)no--return to 1 later
2. Is it a meal time? a)yes--go to 3; b)no; return to 1; c)what on earth could that possibly matter?--go to 3
3. Do I want to cook something? a)yes--go to 4; b)no--go to 5; c)cook? It's not a holiday!--go to 6
4. Do I want to cook something easy or difficult, time-consuming or fast, healthy and good for me or definitely not, etc.? Go to 7
5. Do I want cold cereal or other no-cook snack food options, etc.? Go to 7
6. a) What restaurant do I want to go to, ranging from healthy gourmet to fast food? or b) do I want to order take-out or delivery?
7. Is there a) anything in the house to cook with/snack on, or b) do I need to go to the store? If b), reconsider restaurant option.
I've left out a few steps and options, but that's pretty much the internal dialog lots of us have in our college or early-twenties years. Some days we want to breakfast on cold leftover pizza, and other days we want our dinner to be something healthy and home-cooked (and some of us will call Mom at that point, one of the options I didn't get into in the list). Whatever the choice ends up being, the only person we have to consider for the majority of our meals is our own self; when plans are made to eat with friends or family or significant others, the questions about whether it's time for a meal and whether we want to be the ones cooking take on different importance.
But for many of us--and let's face of it, most of the ones I'm talking about now are women, though there are some men who do all or the majority of the cooking at home--that dialog changes dramatically when we're no longer thinking about feeding only our own selves.
At that point, the beginning question of our earlier reflections, "Am I hungry?" fades into insignificance. It's pretty hard to fathom a well-run home in which all of the members of the family, from the parents down to the smallest baby, simply grab and eat what they feel like when they feel like it. Nor does the sane household cook try to prepare as many different meals as there are family members; there may need to be slightly different menus for the toddler crowd than there are for the grown-ups, but having to offer different choices to toddlers, preschoolers, young school-aged children, junior high and high school children, and one's own spouse quickly spirals into insanity in most situations. A rare mother or father may be able to feed a family of four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, etc. all of whom have important and medically significant dietary restrictions, no two alike--but I think most of us would agree that this is a strange and difficult situation, not a model for family meals.
At that point, many cooking moms (and cooking dads) learn the art of compromise. Mom may secretly long to eat crisp seafood stir-fry and colorful salads at every meal; Dad may secretly desire saucy and authentic Boston baked beans--homemade, and full of diced pungent onions and other potent ingredients. But each may realize that the children will balk at the octopus in the first dish and the onions (or the beans themselves) in the second, and Mom and Dad may have to decide on foods that are just as true, real, authentic, healthy, and delicious, but that the kids might actually enjoy. Mom might prepare a nice oven-baked chicken tenders dish that is nothing like the frozen stuff, and she might serve some of the lovely fresh vegetables cut into strips that are fun for children to dip in a variety of light dressings; Dad might start the children off with some black beans mixed with mild salsa and served with sprinkles of shredded cheese--and, as a treat, scoop-shaped taco chips to use as edible spoons. Both are introducing the children to real food, simply prepared and easy to enjoy--but neither is getting to eat the exact healthy food they most want. And yet, because of the ability to compromise, the children are one step closer to healing the breach between "grown-up food" which they think of as stuff that is good for you but tastes terrible, and "kids' food" which, preferably, comes out of a fast-food bag or leaves orange 'cheez' dust on your hands, but which--to them--tastes wonderful.
And once in a while, Mom and Dad can indulge the kids with something junky they truly like, and save some of the less-accessible but terrific home-cooked stuff for a meal after the kids are in bed. Complete with candles, which do not have to be handmade from the wax of local bees in order to give a nice touch to the meal.
The reason that the Food Wars get so personal is that it's hard to hear the message: "I just want to encourage everybody to eat healthier, and in a more purposeful way, which is why you should really try [fill in the blank]. Instead, many of us hear: "Until you learn to do things my way, you're probably no different from the junk-food junkies and drive-thru demigods whose only thought is to cram greasy, filling, salty/sweet garbage down their fat-engulfed gullets to satisfy their appetites as fast as they can--and did I mention, you're probably poisoning your kids?" Alas, that's not a message that's ever going to win fans, especially among the people who already make daily compromises between what (in a perfect world) they'd like to cook and eat themselves, and what they need to do, as a service of love, to feed their families.