Hy(p)steria and the quest for moral food

August 31, 2017

In a scene from one of my favorite movies "Reality Bites", the yuppie nerd Ben Stiller wonders out loud about the huge plastic container held by oh-so-cool Winona Ryder in both her small hands. She takes another big sip of Coca-Cola from one fast food chain or another - "The Big Gulp," she explains, "The most profound, important invention of my lifetime." In the film, which most accurately documents the world of young people in the early 1990s, they eat bad food. Well, bad food at least according to the standards of 2017. The movie is full of funny I-don’t-care-what-I-eat quotations such as "This girl is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs”; “Let's order a pizza - The owner of Domino's supports Operation Rescue (A US anti-abortion organization, M.L) - Oh, please. No one gives a shit right now. We're starving”, and many more. Those shows a pretty clear picture of the eating habits of the generation-X: A preference for fast and oily food, worship of cheap food, exaggerated consumption of sugar, and generally - a complete indifference towards the source of the food, it’s health aspect or any ethics involved in producing it. In other words - all the values that generation Y started to care for, and to the millennials are seems as the obvious.


Reality Bites and generation-X - The answer is... Pizza 


We are a generation that seeks moral food. This is expressed most clearly in the vegan trend, in the slow food movement, in the growing interest in artisanal food, in the “farm to the table” concept, the self-roasting coffee, our home-made pickles, hand-made caviar, local, seasonal, fresh, natural and a whole set of words that describing food traditions that were so obvious one hundred years ago and 30 years ago no one knew. And it’s great, isn’t it? Because what could be wrong with real honest moral food?


This is a good question, and with it comes another: Who is more moral - the vegan who buys his industrial vegan cookie in the supermarket chain like LIDL and supports god knows what, or the one going to buy his meat and traveling all the way to the farmer who grows 30 sheep, humanely raised, and directly supporting his family? And in the “real food competition”, who wins? The one who goes to those authentic ethnic restaurants in the city, thus encouraging increasing prices and genetic menu changes, or the one that makes her own homemade Sriracha with vinegar she bought at the big supermarket? And here we are now standing in front of the main question - is there such a thing as "moral food"?


 Avocado toast - is it really that good? (oh, yes)


Because in humans, with food comes appetite - the appetite for more exotic traditions which are coming from the other end of the world, an appetite for knowing first about the next trend and dictating the one after that, to be healthier, more just, more knowledgeable. If you call a spade a spade, it is nothing less than the desire to conquer - a pure colonialism of food, if you will, or simply: Food gentrification.


Here, let's take for example the most trendy superfood recently - avocado. The term Avocado Rose is skyrocketing on Google searches, and it will be hard for you to find a coffee shop in the West that does not offer an avocado toast - the unquestioned Instagram Star of 2016 - in its menu. This meteoric rise seems to have come hand in hand with the vegan trend, the end of the fear of calories and fats (Paleo diet gave it a great push and so did the awareness for our need in omega-3), and indeed - avocado is one of the most nutritional and healthy fruits that nature has to offer.


But what happens when all these liberal-vegans are flooding the coffee shops and demanding their quinoa-kale-avocado toast just to upload an image on Instagram and to hashtag how much their choices are so much better than others? Well, the hy(p)steria around avocado, for example, has led Mexican farmers, who want to meet the ever-increasing demands of the gluttonous of the world of plenty (aka: foodies), to deliberately destroy thousands of acres of natural pine forests to plant avocados in their place. Since growing avocado requires a double amount of water, avocado orchards dry everything around them, and many animals die from water shortages. Moreover, in June 2016 a report of theft of avocado plantations was reported in New Zealand due to the cost of the fruit ($ 3-4 per unit), and a few months ago there was a great storm over the article of the writer Bernard Salt, who claimed in The Australian that the reason that the younger generation could not afford to buy a house is that they pay 22 dollars for an avocado toast. Right or wrong, Sydney's coffee shops, in response, combined forces to make discounts so that their customers could buy both "a house and breakfast" (Sydney Cafes Discount Smashed Avo So You Can Buy a House and Breakfast).



The high prices for a product that was originally considered poor-food do not start and end with avocados. Collard greens, a food that until recently served as a staple food for low-income families in the south of the United States and had become trendy in the last few years, was sold at the Neiman Marcus online store at $66 for a frozen dish (Plus $15 per shipment). This sale caused a scandal on the social media, and the hashtag #gentrifiedgreens was leading the protest against the delusional price, which, by the way, ended with a complete Sell Out. Would you like to guess on which side of “food morality” were the purchasers?


Quinoa is totally 2012, and everyone already knows that the demand in the West caused the price to triple itself between 2006 and 2013. Today, quinoa, the staple food for the majority of Peru's population, will cost them more than chicken, so now locals can afford for their own consumption mostly junk food which comes from the West, and as a result they gain weight, and have to pay money for diabetes treatments. Isn’t it just delicious to be so moral?


In the US, you can see a similar trend with Kale, which was marketed as a superfood in 2011, and since then the world has gone insane. In the last 5 years, the average price for these not-especially-tasty leaves has increased by 25 percent. From 88 cents to $ 1.10. The EU is trying to fight this phenomenon, and already in 2007 it was forbidden to market food products as superfoods. The rise in prices, according to those who support the ban, is a result of aggressive marketing, and the phenomenon must be mitigated.


Neighborhood gentrification is a worn-out subject that has already been written and researched. Stories about slums filled with artists, setting up a cafe that must be in their taste, running in local bars and raising prices, and from there the road to Soho has been paved. But what about food? It seems that the field of food gentrification stems from the same motive - urban boredom and the desire to conquer. We play at being the Christopher Columbus of food - find a cheap and exotic goal, and take over it with all our strength: Kale dipped in chocolate, a Palestinian tartare by Israeli chef Meir Adoni who just opened a restaurant in NY, a matcha cappuccino, or a hummus with a calamari in Jaffa.


And there is not only the price, but also the matter of sustainability. Almond milk, for example, a healthy substitute for those who for some reason stopped to consume milk, causes quite a few environmental problems. More than 80 percent of the almond crop comes from California, which has been suffering from drought in recent years, and a significant percentage of it comes from Sicily, where the mafia has taken over. To grow one almond you will need 5 liters of water (!), While for 100 ml of cow's milk our ecosystem will have to pay only about 100 liters of water, making it more eco-friendly. Also to be taken into account is the fact that cows can be raised anywhere in the world, while almonds grow only in a certain climate, and their transport is harmful to the environment as well. Soy plantation are mostly GMO’s, nothing else can be grown around them, and generally they are pretty destructive to their environment, unless it is organic farming, and then the price rises ridiculously. The transportation of chia seeds, which come from South America, costs us huge quantities of energy that produces hot gas which contributes to global warming, and it does not end there. And what is the calculation that one has to make in order to understand the total environmental damage caused by our culinary choices? What resolution should we aim for and what will be the final equilibrium?


In a skit from the series "Portlandia", a series that represents the hipsters of our generation in a funny yet accurate way, a couple sits in a restaurant and orders a dish of chicken. The couple is not happy with the waitress's detailed explanation: "This is a heirloom species, chickens that grew in the forest, fed with sheep's milk, soybeans and hazelnuts at a farm some 50 kilometers south of Portland." They want to know what kind of organic certification the chicken has; whether the walnuts are local or not; how big is the open area where the chickens were raised, and more and more questions which above all resemble the religious minutia of the kosher laws. In other words - everything that "Reality Bites" and the 90’s are not, we bought and proudly so. Lena Dunham does not spare her whip from the duplicity inherent in the desire for moral food. In a scene from the fifth season of "Girls", Ray is threatened by the new cafe, which for ecological reasons does not give its customers coffee covers for takeaways. Those customers, in a particularly “moral” response, buy their fair trade coffee in the new place, and go through Ray's bad coffee to steal his covers. The Brooklyn moral standard in all its glory.



Unfortunately, most families nowadays who want to buy organic food, fair trade products, or food that is being marketed as “superfood”, simply can not afford it. The recipes I have added this week can be include only by a small percentage of the population in their daily diet. But do not get me wrong - I don’t think there's any way to get away from it. As in any cultural field, food culture is also a fluid matter that is influenced by an endless number of factors, and there is no black and white here. So next time, before you launch into someone’s “immoral plate”, survey your own plate and take responsibility. There is no choice that can be one hundred percent moral.


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