We Are (Not) What We Eat

Hello, here are some of the things I ate for dinner last week:

  • Pan-seared grassfed steak with salsa verde, served with farro, roast broccoli and sweet potatoes from my friend Nicki Sizemore’s brilliant new Build A Bowl cookbook.
  • Rigatoni with homemade eggplant sort of caponata sauce. (No recipe; a lot of capers and winging it.)
  • Pasta primavera with grilled chicken at Ruby Tuesday’s.
  • Chicken thighs simmered with butternut squash, peas and Maya Kaimal Tikka Masaala Simmer Sauce.
  • A locally raised rotisserie chicken from our butcher, served with salad, cold soba noodles and a ginger lime soy dressing.
  • A six-inch turkey sub with spinach, tomato, pickles and Chipotle Southwest dressing, plus two chocolate chip cookies and a Diet Coke from Subway.

Depending on the day of the week—heck, depending on the meal—I’m a supporter of local agriculture, a from-scratch home chef, a disciple of store-bought convenience foods and a consumer of fast food. I have found all of these meals delicious and satisfying. If I had to rank them on culinary excellence, I’d say we peaked with steak and salsa verde, and and valleyed with the chicken tikka masaala (I always want that sauce to be just a little closer to restaurant-quality than it is). But minor flavor successes and failures aside, no meal here was better or more worthwhile than any of the others. Each met my needs, or the needs of my family on that particular day: Did I have time and inclination to cook a new recipe? Were we stopping for a quick bite on the way home from my daughter’s swim lesson? Was it rainy comfort food weather? They were all reasonably nutritious—they even all contained vegetables!— but more importantly, they worked for our scheduling needs, taste preferences, and general 5pm crankiness level.

This is why research like the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is both fascinating and maddening. Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combine interviews and physical examinations of a nationally representative sample of Americans and draw conclusions about our national eating habits. In a report released last week, they announced their key finding: “During 2013–2016, 36.6% of adults consumed fast food on a given day.” As you can probably guess, this is now being reported in the mainstream media as “almost 40 percent of Americans eat fast food every day.” Because 40 percent sounds a lot bigger than 36.6 percent and fast food, as we all know, is the devil’s favorite lunch.

Actually, 36.6% of us eating fast food on any given day does not mean we’re eating it every day. It also doesn’t mean that nutrition has been sacrificed on the altar of convenience in every one of those incidences. Researchers didn’t break down the data to find out what we’re eating at fast food restaurants. Nor did they put those meals into the context of the rest of the fast food eater’s day or week. Hence the pearl-clutching media coverage about our wanton drive-through ways. Americans are now divided into basic Ruby Tuesday diners and hipster home cooks; into Happy Meal parents and kale smoothie parents; into good and bad eaters. But what if there is no good and bad? What if we’re all of us, all of those different kinds of eaters? Maybe we could stop categorizing ourselves by what we ate for lunch.

It is useful and interesting to collect national data on eating habits. It is neither to report on that data with fear and loathing in our hearts. Today I was a fast food eater; tomorrow I may be a farmer’s market shopper. I’m the same complicated, imperfect, and yet entirely worthwhile human being at both meals. We are not, in fact, what we eat.


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    The Eating Insinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America by Virginia Sole Smith

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