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Blog // Thoughts
May 16, 2008

The Theme Of Food And Spirituality

Last week’s post, Further Thoughts On Food And Spirituality attracted some very honest comments and clearly touched a nerve with some readers. It’s certainly a topic I’m noticing in print as well. This week Dan Barber (chef and restauranteur) wrote a thoughtful and challenging piece for the IHT. “Cooking, like farming, for all its down-home […]

Last week’s post, Further Thoughts On Food And Spirituality attracted some very honest comments and clearly touched a nerve with some readers. It’s certainly a topic I’m noticing in print as well. This week Dan Barber (chef and restauranteur) wrote a thoughtful and challenging piece for the IHT.

“Cooking, like farming, for all its down-home community spirit, is essentially a solitary craft.

But lately it’s feeling more like a lonely burden. Finding guilt-free food for our menus – food that’s clean, green and humane – is about as easy as securing a housing loan.”

Barber goes on to cover some of the issues which Michael Pollan tackles in the excellent book, In Defence of Food (I’m currently reading his other book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Both Barber and Pollan highlight the way the industrialisation of food has been a triumph of quantity over quality, but has left us with a nutritional and health deficit.

“If financially pinched Americans opt for the cheapest (and the least healthful) foods rather than cook their own, the food industry will continue to reach for the lowest common denominator.

But it is possible to nudge the revolution along – for instance, by changing how we measure the value of food. If we stop calculating the cost per quantity and begin considering the cost per nutrient value, the demand for higher-quality food would rise.

Organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain.

Where good nutrition goes, flavor tends to follow. Chefs are the first to admit that an impossibly sweet, flavor-filled carrot has nothing to do with our work. It has to do with growing the right seed in healthy, nutrient-rich soil.”

It’s a prize riddle indeed that the answer to our epidemic of obesity may well reside in prizing food more, and in being willing to apportion a larger slice of our budget to food. The challenge is to think in terms of quality, rather than quantity. To be prepared to pay more for less and in turn to support not just some vague notion of organic food, but more concrete solutions built around sustainable, local, diversified farming.

The problem, as I see it, is not just one of commerce or economics, it’s actually one of culture and socialisation. What Barber makes plain is that the rejection of the oil-dependent, hormone and drug addled industrial food machine with something far healthier and more ecologically sound is, in principle and practice, a decision that parallels the gourmet mindset. It’s a move that requires us not just to rethink how we grow and transport our food, but how we approach food in our lives; the extent to which we “love” food.

“Leave our agricultural future to chefs and anyone who takes food and cooking seriously.

We never bought into the “bigger is better” mantra, not because it left us too dependent on oil, but because it never produced anything really good to eat.

Truly great cooking – not faddish 1.5-pound rib-eye steaks with butter sauce, but food that has evolved from the world’s thriving peasant cuisines – is based on the correspondence of good farming to a healthy environment and good nutrition. It’s never been any other way, and we should be grateful.

The future belongs to the gourmet.”

In more than a few moral communities, it’s hard to be a gourmet. Prizing food is seen (wrongly) as a measure of pride or even selfishness. In fact, it can often be interpreted as a moral good to feign a lack of interest in the quality of food. I’ve never understood how disrespecting oneself, by feeding on junk, can be a moral virtue. I did try to live it, and regretted the consequences. It’s something we should really be more critical about as faith communities.

In the end, there seems to be a pretty clear connection between the question of food, the issue of spirituality and the way we live out our ethics in economic and social terms.

[tags] Gourmet, Farming, Ecology, Environmentalism [/tags]

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