Is Our Food Culture Killing Us?

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I was born and grew up mostly in Japan, the second of four children of missionary parents who went there in 1955 to convert the Japanese to Lutheranism. Instead, the Japanese converted my family to better eating. Japan’s luscious fruits seduced us first (loquats, persimmons, nashi, the ubiquitous mandarin oranges), but we children fell hard too for its “diner” foods (donburi, ramen) and fishy snacks, especially dried squid and those delectable tiny spicy fish whose bones crunched so satisfyingly when we bit into them. My parents were Western Canadians, so we mostly sat down at dinner to what I still think of as “Lutheran food”—meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, casseroles—but here too Japanese habits slowly transformed our table. Feeding four children on a missionary’s pay is no easy business. Meat was expensive, and there weren’t really any supermarkets in Nagoya or Tokyo in those days, either. So my mother biked daily to the local shops, buying small quantities of meat or fish and larger quantities of vegetables—greens, beans, those lovely little eggplants—that she began heretically sautéing or steaming rather than boiling to death. The electric rice cooker that is a fixture in all Japanese kitchens got hard use in ours, too, and while my mother cooked most of the time, my adventurous father occasionally took a turn. The food I still associate most strongly with my childhood is my father’s fried rice. He’d sauté some onions, throw in whatever leftovers he found in the fridge—two hot dogs, some cooked carrots, half a cup of peas—add a couple of cups of boiled rice from the cooker and pour soy sauce over the whole mess. To our mother’s irritation, it was the favorite food of us kids.

Families with more than one or two children put them through a kind of sorting hat, and I somehow ended up as both surrogate son (the one my father shouted for when he needed to move a couch) and surrogate cook, left in charge when my parents had Bible studies or fellowships. I can’t remember when I learned to roll piecrust, knead bread, fry a chicken, or make a basic white sauce, but long before we left Japan for Minnesota in 1974, when I was almost 15, I could be trusted to put on the table a dinner that everyone would eat. And while we mostly went back to Lutheran food in Minnesota and began buying the kind of sugared cereals and soft drinks that have caused obesity and diabetes rates to shoot up worldwide, we still ate more vegetables than any other family we knew. My father, who never paid for anything that he could make or do himself, pegged out a huge garden behind our mission-owned house in St. Paul, and it was my job and that of my older sister to keep it weeded. This was hot work, but we had salads throughout the summer and frozen beans, peas, and corn, as well as jams and jellies and quarts of pickles, throughout the winter.

I left my family, and my faith, before I was out of my teens, but the foodways of my childhood have stayed with me. I still tend to shop almost daily, often by bike, and for four decades, I’ve cooked and sat down to dinner—with housemates, with family, or on my own—almost every night. Sure, I went vegetarian for a time in my 20s. I also learned that the white sauce and piecrust I made as a child have fancy French names (béchamel, pâte brisée) and developed more range. But I still don’t cook the expensive cuts of meat that I never ate as a child (or buy prepared foods or order takeout), and the pastas and risottos I served my kids and their ever-famished friends are, after all, just the Italian relations of my father’s fried rice. I stopped growing tomatoes when I moved from Massachusetts to New York and stopped baking all our bread about a decade after that, but I still can’t roast a chicken without boiling the carcass down for stock or pass the farmers market at the end of the summer, when field tomatoes are knocked down to a dollar a pound, without making my son carry home 40 pounds so I can cook and freeze pasta sauce for the winter. “You might be a professor, Susan,” one friend once said to me, picking her kids up after dinner, “but you’re also a farm wife.”

I’m not, of course, not least because a real farm wife in the United States today might live amid an ocean of soybeans and in a food desert, miles from a decent grocery store. I, on the other hand, live in Manhattan, less than six blocks from two farmers markets laden with grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and all manner of fresh produce from Ulster and Dutchess counties’ orchards and family farms. We think of how we eat within a framework of choice, but as Bee Wilson tells us in her new book, The Way We Eat Now, that is ridiculous. We “choose” within a contained food environment, one shaped by availability and advertising, prices and profits, traditions and trends. How we eat has less to do with conviction and still less to do with virtue than with habits and traditions, environment and especially economics—that is, with the complex social order within which we live. New York, for example, seems to offer almost limitless “choice,” but its cornucopia and variety (its Michelin-starred restaurants and gourmet food trucks, its farmers markets and specialty stores) coexists with rampant inequality and ill health. New York might seem a foodie’s heaven, but one-fifth of its residents live below the poverty line and an additional 25 percent in what the city calls “near poverty,” and homelessness has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2016, 1.2 million New Yorkers were “food insecure.” Today almost 1 million are living with Type 2 diabetes. Commendably activist though the city’s government is, battling those statistics with a host of neighborhood- and school-based health and nutrition programs, New York nevertheless captures perfectly the polarization and paradoxes of “the way we eat now.” And this is why I fell so hungrily on Wilson’s book—devouring it, really—in a quest to understand a global food culture that, frankly, is killing us.

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