Sunday, October 14, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 37: Fake food, real reality

When I was younger, and up until relatively recently, I wondered how I could ever be satisfied by a typical middle-class adulthood in the US.  My interests tended toward subsistence farming and working with the agrarian poor, so professionally the US didn't have much to offer me.  Plus I often felt that the way many things are set up in the US (from interstate highways to TV to air conditioning to narrow interest groups) so as to limit your exposure to elements of the real world, to anything beyond your own navel.  I like challenges and adventure, so this aspect of the culture didn't suit me at all.  Even things I love about the US, like the avid consumption and discussion of film, are to some extent escapes from reality.  And thus reality devolves into a predictable, comfortable, sterile routine with little room for adventure and imagination and novelty. 

I now know that my perception was only partially true.  There are indeed many people in the US who insulate themselves from reality, but there are also very many who lead rich, varied lives thanks to their work, their surroundings, or their values.  More importantly, as a husband and father I now believe that the greatest passion, the greatest drama in life tends to come not from big Indiana Jones-style adventures but precisely from the small family relations, the story that we weave in our everyday lives, all those things that I'd previously written off as bourgeois and boring in my youthful rashness.  Hell, right now I'm writing from what until very recently was an action-packed warzone, and in fact I'm a scant few miles from what continues to be a conflict area, and all I can think about or get a thrill from or look forward to is getting back home to see if my kid is pronouncing "car" better, or what my wife has been thinking about her job plans.  What I'd first thought to be most meaningful and transcendent is mere background noise, and what I'd dismissed as petty routine is what is most profound and amazing.

This isn't to say that I no longer believe in or care about my work.  I am thankful and thrilled and honored to work in a fascinating, exciting job, and I would surely be bored or feel inadequate if I weren't working as an agronomist on interesting projects.  But I do have more of a sense now that I should devote less thought to work and more to my family.

One of my favorite movies is Parenthood, with Steve Martin.  I've always enjoyed the silly comedy of it, but since becoming a father I experience the film in a more firsthand way.  I have been through long nights when a teenage daughter doesn't show up, I have been through kids in trouble, drug scares, ear infections, social maladaptation, worries about height percentiles and IQ.  And in this respect I appreciate the film ever more.  It is an odd film in that it shuns the typical cinematic preference for the outrageous and the eye-catching, in favor of a contemplation of little, authentic moments.  Again, it shows that the bourgeois, boring outward trappings of life are just window-dressing, and that what matters, what defines people from Burundi to Buffalo Grove, is living and growing in a family.  I realize this all the more so because in the past year I've spent my weekdays away from my family, ostensibly working in something exotic and fascinating.  But as I've said, what seems most riveting for me these days is the thought of just having a normal, domestic life, with its infinite variations on a few central routines.

Another area in which I've started to shun artifice and embrace sincerity is in junk food.  I eat very healthy normally.  I like balance, fruits, veggies, beans, grains, not too much animal stuff.  But I also enjoy binging on chocolate or other sugary shit from time to time.  I guess I inherited this from my mother, a wispy woman who eats like a bird, except when she's downing a whole bag of bite-size Halloween Mars bars, then feeling Catholic guilt and self-loathing about it for days.

Now that Sam is closely watching whatever I do and imitating it, I have become more careful about not eating lots of Oreo cookies (at least not in his sight) or other junk food.  I actually don't mind if he eats a cookie now and again, especially if he's eating well otherwise.  But I have begun to notice that Sam is picking up some bad food habits.  He mainly likes bread and rice, though he is a good bean and lentil and egg eater, too.  Actually, he's good with fruit and has even been known to down broccoli chunks like an Apatosaurus.  What I worry about is that he eats mainly Western-style food.  My full-time job consists mainly in promoting Andean roots and tubers so that people recuperate the custom of eating them and planting them.  I like these foods, but my hectic traveling lifestyle has not allowed me to be judicious in their purchase and preparation this year.  As a result, Sam is eating the same non-Andean foods that peasant kids all over Boyaca are adopting in place of rubas, cubios, arracacha, and ibias.  So I feel bad about that.  I hope that once we're all under one roof again, we can get Sam back on track with his Andean food.

What most concerns me about Sam's eating habits though is his newfound affinity for shitty cereal.  I blame this entirely on his teenage sister and cousin, who are addicted to generic choco-krispie-type things and fake Froot Loops (I am proud of them though in that they've shunned brand names with no qualms).  Sam used to be content to eat unseasoned corn flakes (which I actually like the flavor of, since I long ago lowered my need for constant sugar stimulation), but now he always goes to the cupboard to grab these other junk food cereals, and not everyone in the house is as strict as I am about saying no.  Again, I'd have no problem if Sam ate a handful of Cookie Crisps or some such shit now and then--I'm a big fan myself.  But I don't want him to think that eating synthetic, sugar-laden junk counts as a real meal. 

This brings me to the question of sincerity in processed food.  I have no problem that Nabisco makes cookies that aren't good for you, or that El Corral hamburgers in Colombia are selling fatty food, because it is clear to anyone with half a brain that this is a once-in-a-while treat, and not the basis of a healthy diet.  As such, it's easy to tell your kids that they can eat this stuff sometimes, but not all the time.  What I have a problem with is a cereal company that tells you it is normal to eat the equivalent of a frosted sugar cake every morning.  When I was a kid, cereal ads always had a sort of disclaimer that said their brand could be a part of a balanced breakfast (thus implying that it in itself and alone would not be a balanced breakfast).  They would show a plate of eggs, bacon, orange juice, toast, pancakes, and then a bowl of Cap'n Crunch on the side.  Shit, you could claim that a can of diesel fuel is a part of a balanced breakfast if you drank it with milk, OJ, and hand-made biscuits and gravy.  Everyone knows though that cereals are not a part of a balanced breakfast for most kids, but rather the entire breakfast.  With or without a disclaimer, junk breakfast cereals make an effort to place a toxic product on your kid's plate, and to rob you of the common sense to insist otherwise.  Likewise McDonald's, with its incessant pandering to kids, aims to create addiction to their slop.  It is not honest to push a once-in-a-while treat as something you should consume every day.

So in the end, I have a big problem with companies that sell shit food but are not honest about its being shit.  I can accept and respect a good cookie company.  I can't respect someone who's trying to get my kid hooked on those cookies or anything else.

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