I went on a bit of a rampage a couple of weekends ago, tossing out a dramatic amount of the food in our refrigerator — even food I thought was good. Why? Because I was angry. I had been away and brought back a big jug of orange juice. It was received with much joy and delight, even though we already had orange juice in the refrigerator.
But the orange juice in the refrigerator, (made from a frozen concentrate, but could easily have been freshly squeezed) didn’t come in a transparent container with an expiration date. It wasn’t professionally packaged and hermetically sealed. Nor did it have a shiny happy reassuring logo next to the word “fresh” or anything like that.
Now, for various reasons, this orange juice is probably a terrible example of the phenomenon I was raging against. But it’s still a phenomenon worth an outcry. Here’s what’s going on.
1. We don’t trust ourselves.
I’ve recently been reading a book called Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis, which explores the way the industrial food system arose in the United States, and how our conception of food has changed as a result. When Americans began moving to big cities, she writes:
“…shoppers could still pinch a goose’s webbed foot, look a fish in the eye, or talk with a farmer.” Later adding that, “It took a relentless legion of admen and home economists about five decades to convince America’s skeptical homemakers to adopt the new products and new ways to think and ‘know’ about foods…. knowledge of brand names, which had seemed at first rather trivial, became the hallmark of a contemporary woman’s food savvy in the new industrial age.”
So, we no longer “know” when food is good or fresh, in part because of the trickery employed by modern food makers, who use artificial colors and flavors to impart the “goodness” that shoppers use to discern the quality of food.
The other factor is our own ignorance. When we’ve grown up depending more on brand names than on tried and true information about our food — what did the cow eat? how old was it when it was slaughtered? was it healthy? — we don’t even know what questions to ask.
And the information we do have is often colored by a fear-mongering attitude. From a recent NPR story about Michael Ruhlman’s new egg cookbook:
“Some people are afraid of their eggs,” says Ruhlman. “I’ve never gotten sick from an egg — that I know of.” He adds: “We’re taught in many ways to fear our food. It does a great disservice to the people who want to cook their own food.”
So, why did my husband grow up in Scotland leaving eggs out of the refrigerator, while I was taught to panic if an egg sat out for more than a few minutes? Because the industrial food system actually damages the egg’s natural protection against invasion — the wax-like cuticle — for the sake of sanitation. Producers in the U.S. must wash and refrigerate eggs, whereas that’s not the standard in Europe.
2. We buy into the marketing.
We’ve been trained to distrust food and distrust ourselves, and to pay more attention to brand names than to more natural markers of food quality. We want to see that neon-shiny orange on the box of orange juice, so we know that what’s inside is good.
We also religiously observe sell-by dates, throwing out all food that’s lasted past their designated day, even if the date is chosen by determining when something should be sold, not consumed. Even “best before” language doesn’t actually say that something is bad after that date, it just says that it’s at its peak of quality before that date.
This is why America, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council paper (PDF), wastes 40% of its food.
3. We’re out of touch with real fresh food.
When my father, an agriculture teacher and farmer/rancher, came to visit me when I was living in New York City, one of his comments took me by surprise. “All of these people,” he said, “and none of them raising food. Where does the food come from?”
It took me by surprise because I’d grown up in cities, where I never even thought about where food came from. It comes from the supermarket, right?
When I began to try to eat more responsibly, locally and sustainably, I was sometimes taken aback. I bought some eggs from a local lady who raised chickens, and the eggs were all covered with dirt (I didn’t know about the cuticle). I bought a ham and some uncured bacon, and was dismayed by the fact that they weren’t bright pink and red like all of the pork products I’d had in the past.
Meanwhile, those gorgeous-looking tomatoes and other produce you find at the supermarket often have very little taste at all. They’re bred to look good (while being transported hundreds of miles), not to taste good.
4. The consequences — the waste, the nutritional loss — are huge.
That NRDC paper estimated the typical household’s financial cost due to lost food. But there’s so much more when you look at the big picture. There’s the land, the water, the energy and the toxins produced by food rotting in landfills.
According to that paper, which cites sources including the USDA, “getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of fresh water consumed in the United States.”
Depressing, huh? Well, the good news is that there’s a growing movement to rectify some of these wrongs, bringing people into closer contact with their food and its producers, and teaching us not only to prepare our own food, but to trust it and trust ourselves with it.