March 15, 2007
Don’t let foodies eat up all the fun
This time of year finds me on the treadmill in the mornings, futzing around the gym, taking walks around the neighborhood, eating lots of grilled chicken salads. I'm in training -- not for the recent Los Angeles Marathon, but for the marathon weekend in May when my wife and I travel to another city with several like-minded couples without our kids to spend time listening to music and eating, eating, eating. New Orleans is a favorite destination; this year, for a change, we are headed to Vegas.
The research begins months before: Where to eat, what dishes to order, what's new, what's worth revisiting. Can we sneak one more meal in between lunch and dinner? A palate-cleanser? We savor every bite, from the food stands and lunch joints to the fancy and not-so-fancy dinners. I know you're thinking: "That's not healthy!" But it sure is fun.
I may practice Judaism, but I observe Foodie-ism. And Foodie-ism is becoming less and less fun.
Food has become the obsession of an increasingly judgmental nation: We care not just about what we should eat, but what we shouldn't. Adherents of this cult believe that certain foods are inherently good, and others bad. The food police are everywhere, and the political correctness surrounding food has become a topic in recent books from Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" (Harper Perennial, 2005) to Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (Penguin Press, 2006). Foodies appreciate restaurants and chefs much like they once did books or films, and the topic of food now finds its way into discussions of health, medicine, science and travel -- it is all-encompassing.
Within this cult, social status rises and falls on where you shop for your food, how it is prepared and where you and your children eat it.
In his new book, "The Gospel of Food" (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.95), USC sociology professor Barry Glassner discusses how, in his words, we have created "a religion of eating."
Consider the following: Will eating egg yolks shorten our life? Will drinking pomegranate juice extend it? What makes a restaurant exceptional? When is a cuisine "authentic" and does it matter? What is organic? How is it different from "natural"? Is organic or natural produce fresher, healthier, better? Or is it just more expensive?
Increasingly, we define who we are by where and what we eat.
I have often wondered why I am supposed to be impressed when a friend brags that his toddler enjoys sushi (after all, it's not so unusual in Japan). And I have seen the look of horror on a parent's face when she learns that her child loves McDonald's (particularly if the child went there with the nanny). Is fast food really evil?
Don't pretend that you don't have an opinion. But what you think may not be true. Glassner's book is here to tell us that "everything you think you know about food is wrong."
Recently, over an excellent meal downtown at Zucca Ristorante, which I confess included a shared mushroom pizza, Glassner explained that, "pretty much every prescription of how to eat has huge holes in it."
By eating foods with little taste (such as a boneless, skinless chicken breast with no sauce) are we actually extending our lives, and if so by how much? No one can give an exact number. Are we eating foods that we believe are "good" for us, at the cost of actually enjoying what we eat? On the contrary, Glassner quotes many studies that demonstrate that we absorb more nutrients when we enjoy what we eat.
As Glassner makes clear, the science behind many of these studies is imperfect.
No one food or diet suits every person, just as no study can take into account each subject's genetic history, the way their body absorbs nutrients, their stress and the impact of physical activity in their life. They are just postcards of what we, as a society, are choosing to believe at the moment. It is exactly the kind of topic Glassner loves to explore.
Glassner was born in Roanoke, W. Va., which has a small but tight-knit Jewish community. He attended Northwestern University, graduating with a double major in journalism and sociology, and then received his doctorate in sociology from Washington University in St. Louis. He worked as a journalist for ABC Radio and freelanced for newspapers before returning to academia.
Currently Glassner holds the position of executive vice provost at USC, and he spent six years as the director of the Casden Institute for the study of the Jewish Role in American Life (disclosure: in 2001 Glassner hired me to co-author the institute's first survey).
Glassner is probably best known for appearing in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" as the voice of reason speaking about "The Culture of Fear," his last book in which, as Entertainment Weekly put it "Glassner lucidly exposes how the media and politicians play to Americans' fears, presenting anomalous incidents as rampant dangers."
He has brought the same approach to the subject of food. Glassner focuses a critical eye on the scientific studies that have sought to demonize foods such as the egg yolk, the potato, cheese or whole milk, and he debunks the doctors, nutritionists and writers who promote what he calls "the gospel of naught -- the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks. The less sugar, salt, fat, calories, carbohydrates, preservatives, additives or other suspect stuff, the better the meal."
His conclusion is that "no food is inherently good or bad." Much like the scene in Woody Allen's "Sleeper," we have learned that foods that were thought to be "bad," like chocolate, coffee or wine, have now been found to have health benefits.
Over the course of five years spent on the book, Glassner had some amazing meals, he told me, at some of the country's best restaurants, such as The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Daniel in New York and Spago in Beverly Hills. "The Gospel of Food" explains what makes these restaurants and their chefs great, and also why the reviewers tend to have great meals there (generally the restaurants know who they are and give them better meals).
He also enjoyed a great variety of ethnic cuisines, becoming familiar with the varieties of Thai cuisine, Korean cooking and even a Korean version of Chinese food.