Saturday, August 23, 2008

The omnivore (food writer's) dilemma

A word on why I write so frequently about food and, when I can get away with it, food's connection to the environment. Many times exploring the world of food can be fun, but as anyone who's read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or "Fast Food Nation" knows, it can also be painful. Ignorance really is bliss, and the more one learns about the way most food is produced in America, I find, the more one loses one's appetite.

This is why I feel I can no longer eat most forms of meat, even though this handicaps me as a food writer in the eyes of some. And this is why I constantly champion local, organic, etc., even though these ideas and words are beginning to lose their meaning and to sound hackneyed and impoverished even to me. Because below these "nice" words lies an ugly reality, and it's one I am fighting to change, even as I babble on about the wonders of chevre cheesecake and huckleberry ice cream.

Food in the new millenium is as much about pain as it is about pleasure, but unfortunately the former is not one many people enjoy hearing about. So since this balance is lacking in my published work, I feel the need to address that aspect here.

I'll be posting in 2 parts. I'll begin with this introduction.

Last night, I was telling the b.f. a story I had heard on This American Life on a drive I took to NYC this spring. It was on the "Matchmakers" podcast, Act 3. It's called "Babies Buying Babies", and it starred a factory reject doll named Nubbins. Perhaps you've heard it. This is the summary from the TAL website:

Elna Baker reads her story about the time she worked at the giant toy store, FAO Schwartz. Her job was to sell these lifelike “newborns” which were displayed in a “nursery” inside the store. When the toys become the hot new present, they begin to fly off the shelves. When the white babies sell out, white parents are faced with a choice: will they go for an Asian, Latino, or African-American baby instead? What happens is so disturbing that Elna has a hard time even telling it.
Spoiler alert: What happens is that, rather than purchase an African-American doll for her white child, a customer chooses to adopt a deformed white doll the "nurses" at the toy store have dubbed Nubbins, a doll they never expected to sell. (Note: when Googling this episode I came across other blog responses to this episode, including an account from an adoptive mother who stated that unfortunately, the real adoption habits of parents in the U.S. tend to fall along similar lines, an aspect of the story TAL did not explore.)

As TAL pieces tend to be, this narrative skirts the boundary between provoking laughter and tears. I finished my own re-telling with a bitter laugh and said, "It's sort of depressing, really."

The b.f. surprised me by sighing and saying, "Ryan, I want to make you happier. I want you to be a happy person."

I responded by sighing back, then quietly but firmly explaining that while there are things that make me unhappy, I would rather be unhappy than uninformed. And yes, sometimes the information I consume (served up by the "liberal" media, which, it's true, tends to traffic in sometimes cynical truths) makes me unhappy.

When you believe, for example, that we should be working to preserve the environment for ourselves and future generations, or that we should be making food choices daily that underscore our values, or that women should be treated as equals among men across the globe, and then day after day you find that there are millions who would disagree with you or at least fail to support you in this view, then it's difficult to feel happy about the future implications of that fact. And when your enemies are not "Republicans" or "Democrats" but simply iniquity and ignorance, which are about the same as "Terrorism" or "Drugs" in terms of combat-ability, it's hard not to feel as though your work will never be done.

However. Because these stories of iniquity and ignorance exist, I know that it could be so much worse for me. I have my health, I have more than enough to eat (especially lately, with all these food articles!), I do fun and creative work daily with people who support and respect me, I have a lovely apartment in a safe and pleasant neighborhood, I have a loving (if deeply quirky) family, I have a committed and accomplished partner, I have smart and caring friends, and I have a wonderful puppydog, who is himself grateful to have been rescued from iniquity and ignorance and given a happy and healthy (for the most part) life of his own.

I am a happy person. I am living in difficult times. I am working always to make them less difficult for myself and those around me, and writing about food and all its implications is an integral part of that.
Outside the blissful Eden of ignorance, my way often feels like a long row to hoe. But I don't think I would be happier if I laid my tools down and walked away, because I would have to leave myself and all this behind. And I like who I am, anger and sadness and all.

(Image from

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