Guilty (?) Pleasures

Ways to take the fun out of brunch:

What are your guilty pleasures? I bet you can conjure up half a dozen or so in a few seconds – corn chips, Ding Dongs, PBJ’s on Wonder Bread, root beer floats? You betcha. There’s hardly a chef or a starlet, who couldn’t list a culinary foible or two one would not wish to own to in public.

Why on earth, though, do we think of them as guilty? When did eating become a moral challenge?

What part of America’s puritan heritage grabbed our sense of food and fun by the short hairs, turning lunch into an ethics exercise and a battle of social one-upmanship?

Obviously, part of this is stuffiness – we are too cool for pop corn,  and tuna melts are not sophisticated. Botarga on points is so much more hip, but the uncoolness of classic American snacking is only half of the matter.

Guilty pleasures have been assigned increasingly profound ethical contexts in the past couple of decades. A fast growing population of purist food advocates and a meme sensitive eating public has sharpened our awareness of the impact of every nosh on everything. Servers – people we pay to bring food – have become sustainability lecturers. Learning that our steaks walked grassy knolls on a  small farm has become part of the dining ceremony. We choose our wine for its local and organic labeling rather than because it takes you to a higher plane and recalls that summer in Burgundy with the beautiful French boy/girl. We’ve been brainwashed.

Moral food ideologues have slipped  into our heads and convinced  us that our simple pleasures are in fact sinful and destructive burdens on society and the planet. KInd of like highly moral pod people. How did we let them do that?

So you’re a highly engaged foodie, right? You have two walls of cookbooks and can quote Craig Claiborne, MFK Fisher and Julia Child, have touched the robe of Rene Redzepi and kissed Alice’s ring, and stuff like pig skins is too schlocky  for you, too unhealthy, too industrial for your liberal gustatory sentiments? Hide the fig newtons when the doorbell rings? Wouldn’t be seen dead with a Coca Cola on a 110  degree day? Oh, piffle. We need to get over ourselves.

Not even The Church (you choose which one) considers food a transgression. It is after all, the one carnal pleasure you would never consider confessing, because it’s not a sin. If you insist on being spiritual about food, then consider the blessed  joy of MFK Fisher, Claiborne, Beard and Julia
Child, all of whom licked their fingers and ate whatever pleased them without shame or apology, generally accompanied with several martinis. Tony Bourdain got it right, when he said, your body is not a temple, but an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

“Guilty Pleasures” are only one aspect of the American nutrition/guilt complex.  There is a vast network of concerned citizens, public advocates and experts afoot whose self appointed goal is to make sure that you understand the ethics,  morals and politics of food,  follow the principles of healthy eating and feel bad if you do not.

The culinary busybodies and public advocates of our days have developed a litany of rules and admonitions to assure that we  do not spoil the planet, degrade the sacredness of  our bodies,  or have fun with our food.

They are doing good work in their own minds and the minds of their purist circles, godbless’em. Unfortunately they are a batch of priggish  gustatory busy bodies, who in an earlier epoch would have probably got their kicks by dunking witches to save their souls or looking for communists in the local book clubs.

Their dialectic successfully redirects your objections that what you eat is your own damned business to a question of social and community responsibility – your soda consumption burdens the national health budget, your meat consumption the planet. The public advocates, non human animal advocates, health advocates, eco advocates, slowness advocates have a long list of fiats and verbots.

What you are supposed to feel bad about:

Water Footprint. The water footprint fanatics claim that two pounds of steak is 15,000 liters  (400 gallons) and suggest that your profligate use of H2O deprives Sudanese babies. The idea seems to be that the water stays inside the cow. It doesn’t.

Carbon footprint:  Carbon is an element. It is part of fossil fuel.  which contributes to greenhouse gases, bad air days and the ozone hole.  Carbon footprint adherents maintain that anything you eat stresses the environment. They maintain websites that calculate just how much carbon was used in producing, harvesting, processing and transporting your burger or Twinkie, so that even if you give in,  you will know that you were responsible for destroying the planet. (You can assuage your conscience by giving them money to offset your footprint – kind of like the Catholic Church in the 15th century, Guilt begets Geld.) If masochism is your pleasure, this is the sweet spot. It is the basis of Locovorism (no bananas for you) and  attacks on bottled water.  There’s a lot wrong with this approach to food (as opposed to jumbo jets, coal plants and hummers) but it provides the worriers with constructive anxiety.

Non human animal treatment and murder of non human animals.  Surely a valid concern, Nobody wants bunnies or furry things to suffer. Some people don’t want us to eat meat at all. The animal rights discussion of what you should feel bad about occasionally slips its moorings.  France has recently accused some farmers mistreating pigs by withholding toys from them. KFC has just announced their policy to stun chickens in hyperbaric chambers . It’s odd that we treat our poultry better than we treat our prisoners.

“Food Justice” issues – a newer term to cover everything from low wages paid to servers,  Walmart shelf stockers and farm workers. The concept of green staffing means that everyone should be earning a “living wage”, which means a comfortable wage. This is just a catalogue of things you can feel guilty about, so we won’t go into the economics of food work, except to suggest that one take with a grain of salt anything written about it with passion. (all passion should be taken with a grain of salt..it is the opposite of rational thinking.) A new restaurant app permits you to eat only at restaurants who treat their employees well. (Dollars to Donuts there is a Union connection here.)
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Fair Trade: Assumes that all Third World  producers are exploiting their suppliers, who are exploiting their laborers, unless their products are certified “Fair Trade”, making distant politics and trade issues the responsibility of the diner. Smart companies like Starbucks, Pete’s and numerous chocolate producers have been able to monetize this concept extremely well.

The environment, pollution, global warming:.  Nutritional environmentalists point out that not eating mindfully will destroy the planet. That’s doubtful, and the impact of what you may think is virtuous can cause collateral damage – the rush to soy has prompted Chinese and American producers to  clear vast stretches of third world forests and indigenous crops for monoculture, for instance. Since there is really no way to assess accurately the impact of your burger, you might just as well give up trying and feel awful about it.

Monocultures, loss of diversity, depletion of species.  You may not yet feel guilty about this one, but it’s an easy target for self flagellation. GM practices, genetic patents, maritime depletion, seed company monopolies and many other factors are endangering the vast diversity of produce in the world. The single commercially raised species of banana is threatened by a slowly spreading endemic which is projected to wipe it out in a few decades. Mindful eating would thus dictate rejection of granny smith apples and Chiquita bananas. God bless seed banks.

World Hunger:  How do you reconcile your fabulous $250 dinner at Coi (and it is fabulous) with pictures of pinch cheeked babies in the Sudan? Is this your responsibility?  Most of us manage to keep our own pleasure and our awareness of others’ needs neatly separated, but it’s still something you can feel bad about.

World obesity: What do you mean it’s not your responsibility? Of course it it. If you drink Coca Cola,  you support the mega national corporation that is causing type 2 diabetes  in ten  year-olds.  You should be ashamed.

Your own body: There’s the temple thing again. It’s a sin to debase what you were given. Salt, trans fats, HFC.. the stuff that makes food taste good will kill you. (so will living longer, but that’s not the issue here.)  You owe it to the world to keep away from sugar and eat your spinach, have five healthy meals of fruits and vegetables a day, avoid junk food, no matter how much you want a Snicker’s bar.  Non whole grain pleasures are guilty. Shame again.

Other people’s bodies: Michael Bloomberg is so concerned with the effects of salt on health that he has forbidden certain donations to food banks, disallowed large sodas for sale and waged a campaign on salt and trans fats. Center for Science in the Public Interest and other public advocacy groups would have the government tax or forbid “unhealthy” food. Nutritional meddling has become an international sport, affording all who participate great rewards in the form of self satisfaction.London is cracking down on medium burgers. The justification for this is that if you get sick it will cost us all money, so since you are so inconsiderate that you don’t take care of yourself, the rest of us will make sure you do. Have I already mentioned saving witches’ souls?

Waste: The newest scream in the field of virtuous food concerns is the accusation that we Americans throw away up to/over 50% of our  food. The math on this is unclear to me, as is the argument that our waste takes food from the mouths of the third world. I didn’t buy it when my  mother told me that Children in China wanted my spinach, either. Mario Batali has made a great show of his dedication to restaurant waste control on NPR.

Loss of small industry. Was your food grown by a subsistence farmer, or by big AG. Big Ag is another guilting point.  This is easy enough to fix, and I have friends who do by eating only in and buying only from independent owned businesses. The trade off, of course, is price and sometimes quality.

Beef is bad: Mark Bittman’s recent Tedd commentary dealt with the meat issue much more cogently than I can. The Readers’ Digest version is that we eat too much of it, and it messes up the environment and plays  havoc with International economies. Since I personally don’t eat a lot of it, this is a comfortable philosophy. Should you feel bad about the next burger? Your call.

That’s not all of the baggage you can schlepp to the dinner table, but it will do for our purposes. The problem is that some of these issues are real, so how do you keep your moral compass while not profaning the communion of dinner?

I wish I knew. For my part  I seem to be able to block out the noise when it comes to eating and really nearly never feel abashed about what I like. My own policies are neither to tell others what to eat or to let them tell me, or even approach something like a sermon. My dining friends, many of the best met during a stint as a Slow Food leader, are gracious and non judgemental – a surprising blessing, considering the fact that Slow Food not only has a mission but a manifesto.

Perhaps, too, what we unfortunately term “guilty pleasure” is, in fact, visceral pleasure. Something more rooted in our genes or our childhoods, as disassociated from our intellectual processes as breathing or sleep. We in America have always had a troubled relationship with our bodies and our urges.  Pity really. If Fig Newtons transport you to the thrill of your 2nd grade lunchbox, or you just love to sit eating only the green M&M’s, that’s just ducky. Nobody else’s hang-ups should spoil the tiny bits of hedonism that brighten our lives.

My own schlocky pleasures are guiltless (your’s should be too): They may be junk food, but they’re  my junk food.

 

High end Cheese Doodles: Microwave a little piles  of  really good hard cheese on a Silpat for about thirty minutes. They are great.

Toast:  I like mine white with good texture, Keep your benighted sprouts. Possibly potato bread. Spread with salted butter and jam or honey.  Eat with hot chocolate. Forget dinner.

Orange Julius: Throw about a cup of orange juice, a couple of ice cubes, a little sugar or sweetener and vanilla into a blender, give it a whirl and voila, close enough.

Honey (Jam/Nutella) Spoon. Basta.

Candied Orange and lemon peel. Put in heavy simple syrup and simmer until soft. Drain. Use syrup in tea. Eat peel. Easy. Good. Melt some chocolate and pour over peel. Break off pieces and eat whenever.

Emmentaler crackers: Put Emmentaler on crackers and microwave. Or Gruyere. Or Manchego. Those oblong crackers with sesame seeds on top from Trader Joe’s are especially suited. Eat.

Bacon: Crisp. BLT if you must justify your food with a vegetable.

Chinese Lemon Chicken:  The irresistible combination of fat and sweet and meat and salt, plus the tang of vinegar and garlic shows that white trash food has crossed all ethnic demarcations. I have no idea  how to cook it. You find it at really cheap Chinese restaurants. It wants steamed rice, not fried. Requires chopsticks. Forks won’t work.

Gas burner s’mores. The chocolate must be Hershey’s. At least I assume that’s real chocolate. It’s like Wonder Bread for Bar B Que and Jiffy peanut butter for PBJ’s.

Microwave quesadillas: Chese zapped in a cheap taco.

Hot Dogs  Not the gourmet links. Ballpark kinds in sweat, soft industrial bun  with lots and lots of ketchup and Heinz relish.(Don’t zap the hotdog Put it in cold water and bring to simmering.. )

Taco Chips.  Give me a bag, put me in a corner, and if I stroke out, bury me with some.

PBJ’s.

Gelato. Any kind except pistachio.

Cinnamon Toast. The ultimate cure for the duldrums. Possibly with tea with a few mardarin orange peels thrown in. (Toast, butter, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I guarantee it works.)

Pate on anything. Ditto smoked salmon. Lacking anything, use a fork. Or the tip of a knife.

A roll of salami, a knife, bread and cornichons.

Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce made from the huge bar of Trader Joe’s cooking chocolate, milk and sugar on the stove top. Licking the bowl.

Tortillas heated in a pan or microwave or steamed then rolled up and dripping with salted butter.

Toaster oven raclette with baby potatoes.Or Triskets.

The occasional Oreo. Don’t we all?

French Toast in an ocean of real maple syrup. 

Tiny egg/flour/milk pancakes with lemon juice and sugar.

Figs and Gorgonzola.

Cheerios for dinner

There are, really , no rules.

If you are still burdened with the weight of an unsustainable world, just forget the ethical conundrums and ideologues  and channel the greats for the length of a snack or a meal or a vacation and bask in the benediction of your food, simple or fancy. What would Julia say?

If you read this, please feel free to add your own visceral addiction..I have a chef friend who would kill for Nutter Butter. I haven’t got a clue what it is, but it’s on my list of things to try.

 

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