Every One of Us Can Struggle With Food—But Solutions Are Coming
Some of my favorite memories revolve around food. Black-tie New Year’s Eve potluck, happy-hour snacks and drinks with treasured coworkers, hot dogs and peanuts at Giants ball games, birthday cake with extra frosting, summer barbecues with plenty of Nibbi’s pimento cheese to start. The impressions of flavor, love, and pleasure are so intertwined for me that I knit them together synesthetically in my recollections, one indistinguishable from the other. Even when we were anything but flush, my family celebrated good grades and professional accomplishments with a luxury (at least for us): a steak dinner, beef carefully grilled over oak charcoal on a Weber in the backyard. Steak is still my favorite meal. And the giddy feelings of my incipient crush on my now-wife create a salty-sweet taste in my mouth, like the cherry brown butter cake from Gramercy Tavern, where we had our first date.
Some of my worst memories also revolve around food. I’d watch horrifying news dispatches from Somalia as a grade schooler, starving kids wasting away to skeletons on my TV screen while my mother urged me to not waste food that “kids in Africa could be enjoying.” My dad, a psychologist, got work as a counselor in a West Texas slaughterhouse, comforting the men and women who made sure the butcher counters in our supermarkets were brimming with meat. He became an active member of PETA, rightly condemning the practices of industrial-scale factory farming. For a while, money was really tight. I know well the particular relief of getting a cheap, calorically dense meal from a fast-food joint.
But that’s not the only darkness around food in my life. Nothing I’ve gone through has compared to the body-destroying illnesses of anorexia and bulimia. I haven’t ever publicly acknowledged my own battles with these diseases, but even today, years beyond my most acute suffering, I am still racked with grief, guilt, and paranoia over calorie intake and my own perceptions of health and body dysmorphia. There are days when I loathe eating—days when food feels … wrong.
While it’s not always so severe, all of us face some form of food struggle—how to eat pleasurably, ethically, healthily. Almonds? Healthy, but too thirsty. Beef? Nope, grain-fed cattle are environmentally catastrophic. Bacon on that? Pigs are smarter than your dog, you know. Garlic? Allergic, sorry. Bluefin tuna? Do you want to force one of the ocean’s apex predators into extinction? Gluten? Let’s not get started on gluten.
This has to be a solvable problem. And indeed, some of the smartest chefs and technologists are working on ways to eat that are good for individuals and good for the planet. As usual, the answers depend on your priorities. Science and sourcing, nutrition and access, sustainability and flavor—the point of this issue is to find a tasty meal that’s not environmentally bankrupt or physiologically deleterious. (And this is today, at the onset of climate change, with fewer than 8 billion people on the planet. Tomorrow is another story.)
I’m comforted by one truth. For human beings, eating is a social activity. Our search for meals that are healthy and ecologically sound isn’t driven by cold statistics. If anything is going to keep us connected—as families, as neighbors, and as a species—it’ll be a search for delicious meals we can eat together, building happy, healthy memories.