I have always been a little choosy about what food I eat. I was raised almost entirely on Italian cooking – few ingredients, simple dishes, eaten when foods are in season – but I am American, after all, so despite my mom’s best efforts, I still crave disgusting delights like Taco Bell or Burger King every now and again.
I’m not sure if it was my mom’s influence, or just my personality, but I have always been wary of meats. I only like certain types of meats and certain cuts. I definitely don’t like my meat to taste “gamey.” There’s just something about meat that kind of grosses me out. I’m not sure if it’s the animal rights issue (because I do purchase leather products, although I would never feel comfortable wearing a fur coat or leather jacket, I appreciate the superior quality of leather shoes and wallets, for example) but something about eating animals seems a bit odd to me.
For a very brief time, I was a vegetarian. It was pretty easy to do while I was in university and the year afterward. I lived in Connecticut, tofu and other meatless products were easy to come by, and I never had to struggle to find what I wanted. Now I must admit, even during that time I was a very very lax vegetarian and would often “cheat” if there was something I really wanted.
However, all bets were off when we moved to Germany a year after I graduated from university. I tried my hardest to remain a vegetarian for about a month into life in our new home. Every time I ordered something from a menu I went through a complicated process of naming every sort of animal part that could be in, let’s say, my potato soup. “Is there ham? Pork? Bacon? Meat? Pig? Fat?”
Of course the answer was always no, and the soup always arrived with bits of fried pork skin (or something else I didn’t think to explicitly mention in my ten minutes of questioning prior to my order). So I finally gave in. I do have a weakness for pork products and I was living in the land of sausage.
Now, many years later, I have definitely given up any attempts to be vegetarian, but I still choose my food carefully. Unless I can clearly identify which part of the animal (and which animal) a certain dish is coming from, I opt for the vegetarian version. And I find myself choosing meatless products more and more lately.
Around two years ago I read Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, which describes his international search to find the perfect meal. Many of the stories he shares revolve around the closeness of most cultures to their food, specifically the actual life and death of the animals they eat. He talks a lot about the sterile food environment that most Americans are raised in – meat comes from a tightly sealed, vaccine-pumped, package in the US, not an animal.
Personally, I can totally relate to this concept. If I had to kill the animal I eat to make my meal, you can bet I’d be a vegetarian (which I do understand makes me somewhat hypocritical for eating meat in the first place, but I think we all know I’m not perfect). I do find it strange that we are so removed from our environment – I remember watching a Jamie Oliver show around the same time that I read Bourdain’s book (so obviously the same problem exists in the UK) about how British children don’t know what vegetables look like before they’re cooked or what animal is inside chicken nuggets. Scary.
Just before we left for our summer holidays this year I watched the movie Fast Food Nation (based on the book by Eric Schlosser, which I also own). Not surprisingly I had to close my eyes during the final scenes on the “kill floor.” The industrialization of food consumption in the US is so disgusting, it’s almost unbelievable that it can continue to exist. It freaks me out that I have been eating food that is produced in such a horrific way, and that somehow, our culture seems to have been convinced (myself included) that it tastes good. As you might expect, I steered well clear of any sort of chain restaurant (as well as meat in general) this summer.
Around the same time I started learning about the eastern garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Our reliance on plastics, and their inability to biodegrade, is terrifying. And the fact that almost everyone I’ve talked to about the topic has never heard of it, is even more scary. I shared a few videos with my relatives and have started talking about it with my students when we learn about water.
Last year I watched The Story Of Stuff which got me thinking about how casually we throw things away, and to now see some of the direct results of this “disposable” plastic totally freaks me out. I mean who thinks about the plastic granules in their facial cleanser not being able to biodegrade and ending up eaten by fish who mistakenly think it’s food, and who are then, in turn, eaten by us. How much plastic have I consumed unknowingly?
During our time in Oregon, my mother-in-law loaned me a book called My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. It’s a work of fiction, but based in truth with tons of references and citations. The stories of hormone injected meat and the impact those drugs can have on human development (beginning puberty at 5 years old in some cases) got me thinking about what kinds of foods I may have been exposed to as a child – when we were less informed about what goes into the industrial food chain. I actually still feel scared, although considering I’ve made it this far, I must be reasonably OK.
Of course Eugene, Oregon is the perfect place to have these kinds of discussions. If there is one community in the US that has their heart in sustainability and healthy living, I think it’s those lucky folks that live in Eugene.
Unfortunately for me, I really do love living overseas, so even though I feel right at home in the Pacific Northwest, once we headed back to Bangkok I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself – foodwise.
So I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And then, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. If I wasn’t already in a panic about making food choices before I started reading, then I certainly am now.
It’s clear that I should be buying local produce – not only do I know it will taste better and be fresher, more full of vitamins and nutrients – but it will also help support a more sustainable method of farming and feeding ourselves. Plus, I don’t want all my foods flown in from all over the world, using more fuel and spewing more carbon emissions into our already polluted environment, just to have a strawberry in December in Thailand.
But I’m also worried about safe food practices in my local environment. I routinely walk through a fog of pesticide spray designed to keep us free from insect invasion, and see that the poor person doing the spraying has no mask, the cloud of poisonous gas working its magic not only on the bugs, I’m sure.
A standard sign of life in the developing world, for sure, but what does this mean about how vegetables and fruits are grown in the countryside? Or how animals are raised? And what about the horrifying business practice of our political neighbors, like China. How do we even know where all of the local items are really coming from if the labels are written in Thai and so many international corporations have parent companies to mask their true origins?
So here I am, loving life in Thailand, but wondering what to eat. And how to make ethical choices in a developing country. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin… Anyone have any advice?
German Sausages & More from reiner.kraft
Veggie’s Splendor from suviko
Packaged Chicken Image
Garbage Patch Image
My Year of Meats Cover
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Cover
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Cover