"Americans," I remember hearing Julia Child warble, "are afraid of their food."
So true--for me at least. My first apprehensions about food were based on a realization that, unless one was extremely careful, food could make one fat. But since those days, my food fears have expanded and become more sophisticated as a result of years of exposure to "healthful hints" and the latest reports on what is likely to kill us in the food we eat.
On grocery-shopping days, my food fear escalates into a phobia. Take today, for instance. Heart full of dread, I wheeled my cart into the supermarket's produce section. Ostensibly, this should be the least fear-inducing part of the place. What could be healthier than fresh veggies and fruit?
Because I grow most of the vegetables that can be frozen, I don't even look at broccoli, spinach, chard, and so on. Those are safely in my freezer, and I am not afraid of them. But I don't grow my own apples, for example. And here the dilemmas begin. Should I buy expensive organic apples that have been trucked across the continent with much damage to the environment, or opt for local apples that have been sprayed with god-knows-what? There is a new apple on display today, the "Pinata," fresh from Washington State and combining "typical apple character with tropical flavors." What kind of idiot do these grocers think I am? Don't I know genetic engineering when I see it?
O.k., but I need some fruit. What about grapes? There they are, in seedless splendor, just arrived from Chile. Forget the hydrocarbons that their trip shot into the atmosphere. Who knows what they were sprayed with? Ditto for those beautiful pineapples, and the oranges, and the off-season berries. I leave the produce department with some sweet potatoes (at least you peel those) and a box of raisins (I need those antioxidants in one shape or another, and these come from nearby California).
I push my cart to the fish department. Fish is supposed to be good for you, and I like fish. I like salmon. Here's some--oops, no. It's farm raised. You thought factory-farmed chicken was bad? Wait til you hear what the fish farms are doing not just to the fish, but to the coastline. Plus, see that orange color? Do I really want to put that into my body? There is some fish that is not farm raised: it comes from Ecuador, and from Indonesia. I can just see the black clouds of diesel behind those trawlers. I can feel the emptiness of the over-fished depths.
Deep in the bowels of the store are canned goods, sitting in their baths of salt. I put a can of organic chickpeas in my cart anyway. Who cares where they came from? Here be pastas. What could be wrong with macaroni? Wheat, that's what! Wheat these days contains high amounts of gluten, and you should eat it in only tiny amounts. But, you say, bread is the staff of life! As if.
I pick up a 25lb bag of white rice--don't worry, it's for the dogs! So is the big tray of chicken drumsticks, and I even feel guilty about feeding those to the dogs, given what we all know about Purdue et al., but it's better than the regular dog food, which contains even worse horrors.
The Mediterranean diet is supposed to be the epitome of healthy eating. I was brought up on the real thing, and I love that kind of food. Which begins with olive oil. I have always looked down my nose at the "extra virgin" stuff, preferring the darker, more flavorful oils. But it turns out that something in the processing makes the extra virgin oil kinder to your heart. I used to like buying olive oil. Now I do it with a frown.
Forget the cereal aisles, the bakery, the ice cream section. I pass those by, a monk in the midst of Vegas. In the dairy section, I buy a big package of string cheese, which I will cut up into tiny pieces for dog treats. I look at the racks of eggs: regular eggs (from hens enduring unspeakable torments in cages), organic eggs (well-fed hens, but probably still caged), cage-free eggs (a million hens kept in a building, as free to move about as people on a metro platform at rush hour), and finally, free-range eggs, almost as expensive as the Faberge kind. Well, at least I have my four girls at home, who are a little bored because they cannot go outside, but are otherwise all right. I go back to the produce section and buy them a couple of cabbages to peck at.
It never fails--by the time I get to the checkout, I am depressed. Isn't it ironic that, in the midst of plenty, I am practically starving. Surrounded by foods from all over the planet, I can allow myself to eat only a tiny percentage of them. What is wrong with this picture?
On my way out of the store, I pass by a new display rack--garden seeds! Utterly premature in this climate, but there they are--the embryos of chard, spinach, lettuce, peppers, basil, tomatoes...my only hope, my bulwark against starvation.