Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

The first word in healthcare is…

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“You say you want a revolution…”
John and Paul

I don’t make it a habit of reading the editorial pages of newspapers. However every so often, in a rare while, I’ll find a piece published that almost universally restores my faith in the print media. Several weeks ago the New York Times published what is possibly the most intelligent article I’ve read yet in the whole sordid healthcare debate. It was the kind of article that made me want to jump out of my chair, pump both fists in the air and scream “Yes!” at the top of my lungs.

Where does healthcare begin – with the individual or the doctor? Surely not the insurance company? So why is it that the individual is so reluctant to accept responsibility for their role in the drama? We live in a nation plagued by obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. While other areas of the world suffer from diseases over which they have little control, Americans seem almost completely unwilling to accept that they, to a large degree, control their own healthcare destiny. Michael Pollan, writing in the Times, does an excellent job pointing out that there can be no real debate on healthcare without first focusing on the root cause of the problem – health.

click here to read the whole Michael Pollan editorial

Now, the article notwithstanding, I can’t claim to be a full blown supporter of Pollan either. He elicits more than a small amount of derision from farmers and agricultural interests, both big and small. However, in a certain sense he has a point – we are what we eat.

As I was prepping this post I happened to pick up a library book addressing the other side of the coin. In 2002 Jeffrey Steingarten published a sequel to his inaugural best seller The Man Who Ate Everything. Titled It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, one chapter addressed the growing American susceptibility to food allergies. Steingarten railed particularly strong against those who proclaim themselves allergic to MSG. The piece is called “Why Doesn’t Everyone In China Have A Headache”, and should be required reading for anyone who believes that they suffer from allergies to food. This is not to make light of those who truly suffer, sometimes at the risk of death, from contact with shellfish, etc. But if your worst symptom is constipation (or the opposite), chances are it wasn’t what you ate, but more likely, what you didn’t – namely the right balance of foods to sustain proper functioning of your entire bodily system. In this country we tend to overcompartmentalize things, we like to wrap up problems in neat little packages with labels. We’re too quick to draw conclusions, and too impatient to realize that sometimes it’s the absence of something, not its presence, that is the real problem.

click here to see Amazon’s Jeffrey Steingarten page

It’s usually around now that someone in the discussion points out how economically and environmentally unsound eating meat really is. Anthony Bourdain has made a reasonable argument that the future of the American diet may come to more closely resemble its Asian counterpart, where meat is used as a complement to the meal and not as it’s main focus. Those who are most vocal in speaking out against the American meat centric diet inevitable point to hormone laced cattle and inhumane practices in poultry cultivation, which sheds light on their true argument even if they sometimes don’t want to admit it themselves. It’s not the meat that’s the problem, it’s what we’re doing with it and how we’re consuming it. But far be it for me to cede ground in the great omnivore debate – I’ll let the BBC do all the talking. Turns out howler monkeys – one of the most studied and documented primates and previously though to be exclusively vegetarian – have been caught on film raiding chicken coups and eating eggs. Almost predictably, researchers are blaming the behavior on environmental changes causing the monkey’s diet to evolve as more traditional sources of nutrients become scarce. Somewhere there’s a commune of hippies besides themselves in soy soaked angst. We’re always told how smart primates are, so I wonder if anyone ever thought they just decided to branch out and explore other culinary avenues.  Kind of like Food Network contest winners.  I hope Anthony Bourdain has heard about this.

click here to see the whole story from the BBC Earth News

In 1841 British journalist Charles Mackay published a seminal work entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In it he details how the psychology of groups can often cause otherwise well meaning people to believe the most ridiculous things, often in the face of more than sufficient evidence to the contrary. The book’s second chapter is entitled “The South-Sea Bubble”, and contains a moral lesson every real estate and stock market investor should take to heart. It seems when the CEO of Whole Foods came out in opposition to President Obama’s healthcare plan, choosing as his platform the pages of that bastion of the conservative bourgeoisie The Wall Street Journal, the organic food cult in this country suffered a fit of collective apoplexy. You could say the food snob bubble just burst. It turns out the head of the largest natural and organic grocery store chain in the country is, gasp, a capitalist!

By the way, shares of Whole Foods were training under $10 in January. Market close Friday was $29.21.

click here to read John Mackey’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal

America is at a culinary crossroads. Prosperity since the end of World War II is responsible both for the convenience movement of TV dinners and pre-packaged frozen food, as well as the average American’s expanding culinary exploration of foreign cultures and what they bring to the dinner table. Jeffrey Steingarten, in the introduction to It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, terms it the Calamari Index (C.I.) – the weight of Calamari eaten by the average American over time. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s the C.I. rose dramatically, evidence of our ever increasing culinary sophistication. At the same time, we often lost sight of what was good right outside our front door.

Now the movement is coming full circle, and proclaiming oneself a locavore is the latest badge of foodie honor. Lexington has just wrapped up a major food show (for our town anyway), sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the Kentucky Proud Market and featuring cooking demos by none other than Bobby Flay. What’s a New Work celebrity chef have to do with the Bluegrass locavore movement? Well, Flay has horses at Denali Stud in Lexington, so he at least qualifies as a part-time transplant.  The show promoted all things Kentucky.  I wonder how many attendees stopped to think what would happen to our bourbon industry if the world suddenly switched to drinking only local spirits?  Ninety five percent of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and while I know a few friends along with myself who wouldn’t back away from the challenge, I’m pretty sure supply would still out-pace even what we alone could produce in the way of demand.  Our local agricultural economy is tied, inseparably, to global consumption.

So where does this lead us? Does taking responsibility of our health really mean enriching Wall Street barons? Is what’s far away really bad, and what’s close to home always, necessarily, better? Or has our increasing paranoia over what we consider healthy become part of the problem? I suspect it’s more than a little of all the above. The secret to good health is, like in so many things in life, a balancing act. Too much of a good thing is just that, as is too much of the bad. In your kitchen, where do you stand?

“Daddy, you shouldn’t drink so many Ale 8’s. Soda’s bad for you. You should drink more milk. Milk makes you strong.”
my son, age 7, every damn morning on the way to school

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2 responses

  1. I disagree about Pollan’s feelings on farmers and (small or local)agri-business. In reading An Omnivore’s Dilema it is clear that he is unhappy with the way (he feels) the government has created the problems we have in this country with our food sources. Farms that used to rotate crops now plant corn year in, year out and to prevent the corn industry from collapsing-using GMO varieties. The respect he shows for the small family and organic farmers is quite noble.

    October 5, 2009 at 1:09 pm

  2. Carol

    Amen, brother (mostly). So well written! However, without composing a diatribe against personal responsibility (because I do agree personal accountability should be the forerunner to “personal” health “care”) – I’ll just say what’s closer is usually better when it comes to fresh (real) food. Otherwise, if it’s not organic is has been poisoned by conventional farming. It’s just that simple. Super veggie lover, Carol

    October 20, 2009 at 12:09 am

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