So gassy are the arguments about our food system and its effect on life and health in America -- arguments that hop from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to GMOs to food deserts to e coli to high fructose corn syrup -- that it's easy to miss a heartening truth, one we can be thankful for in this season of eating. The truth is that America is in the middle of inventing a new food culture, and no one, not the foodies nor the food activists nor the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, can predict how powerful a force for change it may be. This food culture, spreading across the land like the bloom on a soft-ripened cheese, has the power to cure a lot of what ails us. Deep cultural change is the one force that can overcome generations of political and market inertia that have led to our overweight condition. A taste for better food could lift us from the adolescent excesses of our 20th century eating habits -- and begin to reduce the obesity that has been the result.
American food culture in the last century swallowed the factory-to-table promise whole, a promise that seemed validated by the triumphs of nutrition science: Diet was perfectible for the shiny, fast-paced life that was God's destiny for Americans. Daily we would rise to vitamin-enriched spongy white breads and toaster pastries and powdered breakfast drinks; we would lunch on mass-manufactured hamburgers; we would snack on Hostess Twinkies; dine on huge steaks. We would replace water with soda, and make our beer taste like water. We would conquer the world on this high-octane fuel, in vast portions for our growing bodies. The anonymous food scientist was the de facto head chef of the nation. None of the factory foods, taken alone, was or is bad; taken together, though, and dominating our diet: That turned out to be a different story.
The perfectible diet revealed its fatal flaws when chronic disease rates (first heart disease, much more recently Type 2 diabetes) rocketed and were linked as early as the 1950s to the supersized, supercharged, supersalted, superfatted foods we loved. But we would also awaken, slowly, to the limitations -- in variety and in taste -- of the food we ate. Newly prosperous Americans traveled and encountered deep food cultures abroad, in Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. Maybe pasta in cans wasn't the best pasta? Among the travelers were people like Alice Waters, who brought the real-food word home and insisted that a whole new story about American food was possible. The environmental movement blossomed, throwing light on problems with farming and fishing, and beginning to reconnect the idea that quality of food supply depends on quality of farming practices.
Better taste leads to better health? Why the hell not?