On food, and how we talk about it

Today’s news brings us the new government guidelines for all eaters: eat less. On one hand, very simple advice. On the other hand, is it maybe too simple?  Is the act of the government coming out and saying what Weight Watchers has been telling the world since 1963 really going to provide anyone with new information on how to reduce their weight?

It’s math, people.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite that easy. For example, if people ate more, say, mushroom bourguignon with a side of kale (full disclosure: my dinner tonight), I don’t think they’d be getting quite so large. It isn’t only how much you eat, but also what you’re eating. Admittedly, the guidelines also call for half of your plate to be filled with fruits and vegetables, which is a helpful hint, but still doesn’t hit another issue that may be turning people away from healthy foods. Let me put forth another idea, as a person who has always preferred English to math. My hypothesis (science now) is that the language we use to talk about healthy food is a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic.

For example, let’s start with your basic items on your basic fast food menu. What do you have? Hamburger. Cheeseburger. Chicken Nuggets.You can picture them all, can’t you? You have absolutely no questions about what they look like, and certainly no doubt about how to pronounce them. What about the signature fancy dishes: the Whopper; the Big Mac; and my favorite, the Baconator, which does not fuck around with things like “lettuce.” While these words may not mean anything on their own, they’re still friendly and easy to pronounce, which–by association–sound easy to eat. What’s in a Big Mac anyway? Special sauce. That in itself means nothing either, but gosh-darn does it sound fun. Really makes eating fast food seem, well, special, doesn’t it?

Let’s compare this with my aforementioned dinner. I’ll be the first to admit: even for a college-educated girl, bourguignon is way easier to cook than it is to spell. What about some other words I’ve come across reading foodie articles in the past week: radicchio, braised, au jus. Growing up in a Betty Crocker household, I can promise you that these are words we never used in the kitchen. Furthermore, when I first came across them–whether in a menu or in a cookbook–2 things immediately came to mind:

1) This shit is fancy; and

2) I can’t (eat/make) this–I don’t know (what it is) and/or (how to pronounce it)!

Some version of thought 2 ALWAYS followed thought 1.

I think I would have likely made the bourguignon sooner if we used the old fast food trick of calling it what it is: a dish cooked in alcohol. In fact, I may have made bourguignon about twice a week in college. I’ve never cooked raddichio, but knowing that it looks like cabbage makes me pretty confident I can tackle it with ease (it also helps that when I see it on the menu I now think “rhymes with ‘geek,’ not ‘radish.’) As for braising, I’m sure I’ve done it, but I wouldn’t know to call it that (a glance at the wikipedia page confirms my assumption). As for the “au jus?” Just juice baby. Sweet meat juice. (Why is this not an item on a fast food menu?)

In sum, (math again) healthy food needs a little modern marketing to be more accessible–mentally, not just in proximity. Think quick, easy dishes dishes described in USA Today instead of New York Times language. Don’t believe me? Call your friend who’s favorite meal is a Big Mac and tell him you’re making either beef in booze or chicken with meat juice for dinner. He’ll be right over–and may even try the radicchio while he’s at it.

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    • Carrie
    • February 2nd, 2011

    I usually comment only with something substantive to say, but I just wanted to tell you this is my first time discovering your blog and just that I enjoyed reading your post.

      • Lindalee
      • February 2nd, 2011

      Thanks Carrie! This blog is a relatively new endeavor for me, and I’m thrilled to hear you like it!

    • Laura Schmidt
    • February 2nd, 2011

    What a great article! YOU are a great writer and I now want some meat juice myself….especially if I can have it with some wine….but your point is excellent…debunk some of the hoity toity and present it for what it is….really good…not hard to make…good for you…..FOOD!

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