Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Slow Food

In my story blog, I just wrote about farmers' markets: Farmers' Markets. In an earlier post on this blog: Very Interesting Articles on Food, I referred to The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan discusses the issues of slow and fast food in our society.

Since I wrote that post, I've been thinking about the problems it embodies. For example, so few people have the time to take advantage of an enterprize like the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market. Our trip there (written up in the story blog) was part of a week off of work for Evelyn, who normally just doesn't have time for more than one place to buy food. Her local supermarket has lots of produce, but not organic produce, and not much that's locally grown. And her daily life just doesn't admit the time to make the rounds of every special produce source. I admit that I also rarely take the time to go to the Farmers' Market, preferring the easier acccess of Whole Foods and the local independent source of fruit and veg, the Produce Station.

Evelyn doesn't even have the time to read Pollan's book. So I'm going to explain how I interpret the slow food movement. There are two challenges about local, organic produce. One is that it takes too much time. The other is that for most of the year, here in Michigan and in most of the country, nothing is growing. We could put some cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and less perishable varieties of apples in our root cellars the way that people used to do, but then our winter and early spring diet would be pretty boring. Making jam, fruit preserves, pickles, and so on is an even more drastic time challenge, and leaves open the question of whether you are really retaining/improving quality.

Pollan acknowledges these challenges, but he isn't writing about what it's like to actually feed a family. He's theoretical! Also he's dealing with the commercial issues such as the deterioration of the meaning of the word organic as the government regulates its use and permits the industrial food cartel to misuse it. The word "slow food" is the best I can do right now to refer to the opponents of all industrial, all highly processed food all the time.

Some of the slow food writers are true fanatics. They judge harshly anyone who puts a higher value on other activities than procuring a perfect diet for themselves and their children. I dismiss them immediately, because I want to talk about the reasonable ones.

What issues do I see as important? First, is habit. Evelyn may not have time to buy only organic local fruit and vegetables, but she makes sure that her children are learning to eat produce, to like less-processed foods, and to regard sweets as only an occasional part of their diet. This approach seems to me to be in the spirit of the writers I like.

The second issue that's important is indeed one for activists only. Evelyn is a victim of the fact that grocery stores make the most money in the "center aisles" as Pollan and the others document in detail. The highly processed packaged foods and speedy transportation from farm to local markets throughout the coutry were once a triumph. New packaging and preserving technology and fast transport solved many problems. Among these problems: food that was so far from fresh that it was unsafe, improperly labled foods, intentionally adulterated foods, and challenges of bringing produce to markets in emerging big cities. Originally the food industry was doing people a favor by solving these problems, such as the emergence of trustworthy national brands, but it's now gone too far. As a result, if we want less processed foods we are faced with the same old problems in new form. Organic food may travel less well than produce that's picked unripe and kept too cold or whatever (for more details, it's Pollan all the way).

But lots of the old changes towards standards and speedy delivery to market remain a good thing. Here's an example. Oranges were once rare and special. The groves of Florida and California were developed symbiotically with railroads, and suddenly, in cities in around 1900, one could eat ripe seasonal citrus fruit at reasonable prices. This is still wonderful, if you ask me. Yes, things then got out of hand. The citrus industry around 1950 invented a really industrial process for making frozen orange juice from a combination of old frozen stuff saved up from a number of years' crops to control sugar content without adding sugar. People drank frozen OJ instead of eating fruit. It went all the way to High-C which has what? 15% fruit juice? We now have the choice of the "fresh pack" juice, which at least tastes better. But above all, we can still get oranges, clementines, grapefruits, all in their wonderful thick protective skins. Do I wish they weren't sprayed with insecticide? Sure, but I say what's wrong with eating them anyway if we wash and peel them?

I think there are lots of tales like the citrus fruit one. I think that looking for good fruits and vegetables in the market is possible. And I think that the proponents of slow food are right when they see the problem as collective. It's not our individual choices but what the food industry is doing to many regulatory activities that's really dangerous. Falsifying the word "organic," looking the other way about antibiotics causing drug-resistant strains of germs, subsidising inappropriate foods for school lunches, and other forms of subsidies. This is where I really agree with Pollan, Alice Waters, and the other writers.

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