A is for Apple
One of the best things my mother said to me and my siblings over and over again was to not assume that everyone has had the same education we had. She usually said this while we were talking about how someone had done something really stupid and should have known better, or we were bring flippant about someone not knowing something that we thought was basic knowledge. If I were a betting woman, I would pretty safely place my money on the supposition that my mother told us that more often than not while we were in the kitchen, because that’s where she spends an awful lot of time, either cooking, cleaning, or doing dishes. While we managed to weasel our way out of a lot of cleaning and dishes, we usually didn’t fight against cooking too often. Like every kid young enough to know everything, I was gracious enough to whine an “I know, Mom!!” while I thought to myself that while they may not have had the same education, they should know these things.
A few years ago, celebrity cook Jamie Oliver decided to take on some of the school lunches that kids are eating in the United States. In one of his early episodes, he went to a school in California where a notable number of third graders couldn’t identify a whole tomato as a tomato. I remember thinking that it must have been an exaggerated instance, because really, every third grader knows what a tomato looks like.
When I lived in Illinois, I knew a family that struggled with stomach trouble, and to combat it, the mother was convinced that adding table sugar to everything made it better. The sugar cut out the acid in the spaghetti sauce, she said, and no matter how many times I explained that sugar is an acid and that commercial spaghetti sauce is already full of sugar, she was convinced that adding heaping spoonfuls of sugar to her kids’ plates helped them.
While standing in line for coffee about six weeks ago, I was bored and eaves dropping on the conversation between the women in front of me. One of the women had lost about 15 pounds in the previous few months, and she was gushing to the woman with her that she had swapped fat for sugar “because a teaspoon of sugar has fewer calories than olive oil, so it’s really better to have cake than a salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing.”
A couple of weeks ago, I walked past a young mother with her two kids, none of whom knew what it meant on the outside of the package when it said “early potatoes” – the mother, who looked to be in her early 20’s, didn’t know what an early potato is.
Tonight, while I was teaching my young troop of boys, one of the ten year old boys asked me, in all honesty, if crab patties come from cows. He had just been caught off guard by the information that hamburgers come from cows and was wondering if any more of his food came from them. When I’d heard about the tomato ignorance in California, I had thought that just maybe the issue is that they were kids in an urban area and hadn’t had much of an opportunity to do a lot of gardening, but here, in Iowa, 92% of the land is farmland. There is farmland within city limits, and yet, I find myself having to assure a ten year old that crab meat doesn’t come from cows.
I’m not a health food freak. I eat my share of things I shouldn’t, and too much of it, too. When I was talking to a friend in Australia today, she said that she has a secret desire to go to an American supermarket because she has heard about how very processed our food is. I told her that what I have learned is to try to stay away from the aisles because that’s where the worst of it is. If I stick to the perimeter, I’m more likely to go home with produce than products. While I’ve been trying to eat better, I’ve noticed that many of the processed things don’t taste like they used to. I am not as used to them anymore.
I’m not going to jump on some crazy bandwagon and campaign against Kraft. I’m not going to suddenly believe in the magical power of kale.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that maybe this has gotten a bit out of control. People seem to be increasingly food illiterate because so much “food” doesn’t look like food anymore. I know that heavily processed food is cheaper and faster because they’re so heavily subsidized and marketed. I know that it takes longer to cook real food and that’s time that we don’t always have.
Honestly, though, it breaks my heart a little to know that so many people lack even basic knowledge about what their food IS. If you don’t know what it IS, you don’t know how to make better decisions about the options you DO have. I was lucky to have a mom who was able to teach me what she knows – and is still teaching me. When I have a question about how to do something in the kitchen, my impulse is to call her instead of googling it.
Somewhere along the way, between getting rid of home economics and gutting science classes and parading billions of subsidies through Congress and a broken food assistance program, we made it harder and harder for people to know what their food is. So now, in the age of robots on Mars communicating with computers on Earth, I have kids who tell me that they are allergic to tomatoes except when it’s on a sandwich from Subway and that their “Fruit by the Foot” really is fruit, just like a banana.