I’ve been thinking a lot about labels and definitions lately. It seems like no matter where you turn in the food world these days, there’s some label you’ve got to confront; whether it’s the classic nutrition label on the jar of peanut butter, the “front-of-label” nutrition claims jockeying for your attention in the cereal aisle, or the new scoring systems like the ANDI measurements that are giving shoppers a healthy eating scale for whole food ingredients, it’s hard to escape the constant stream of (mis?)information. Prevalent, too, are the labels we have for ourselves as eaters. Just off the top of my head, I can think of friends and acquaintances who are self-proclaimed vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and flexitarians.
It’s confusing and mind-blowing, really, when the bottom line is that we all just want to eat. And adding to the confusion and frustration, at least for me, is that we humans can’t seem to stop at labels; we can’t be satisfied by simply checking off the boxes and adding up the numbers. We have to constantly attach some sort of value — and subsequently, our old bugaboo, judgment — to the labels we create. It’s apparently pathological. We just can’t help ourselves.
Just in the past few days alone, I’ve encountered a heated online debate about breakfast cereals; holier-than-thou arguments over bacon; various discussions devoted to the proper role of Nutella; and scathing remarks about the inclusion of fruit in children’s diets (of all things). Some of these discussions were relatively civil and well-reasoned, even humorous; others turned into little more than a virtual nose-thumbing, “I’m better than you because I eat (or abstain from) x,y,z food” sort of verbal shootin’ match in which nobody could really come away feeling anything but mildly offended, on all sides. We’re not helping ourselves by laying down all of this attitude.
I used to think that if the world could just read Michael Pollan’s work, we’d all be okay in the end; I’d feel myself tipping towards the point of madness, where I’d be mumbling “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants” under my breath endlessly ala “Franny and Zooey.” But even that simple, breathtakingly articulate statement has become too complex to bear, as Mark Bittman so eloquently points out in this NY Times column. What’s a semi-conscious eater to do?
Right, wrong, I can’t say, but I’m proclaiming here and now that I am no longer the flexitarian I thought I was — I’m aspiring to be a common-sense-itarian. What does that mean? It means I’m calling for a truce, here, people. Can’t we all espouse our own beliefs and ideals about food and eating without necessarily smacking down the people around us who eat differently? I mean, do we really need to create a 21st century “Free to Be…You and Me” for eaters? (Although it’s an intriguing thought….I may be on to something there.)
In my common-sense-itarian vision of the world, it’s okay — necessary, in fact — to have passionate beliefs and opinions about food and eating. It’s okay — and again, necessary — to read and research and learn about the food we eat and the systems that produce it. It’s okay to take a stand against the things that our learning tells us are not good for us, for others, or for the planet. Because learning and action are part of common sense in its purest form.
However, a common-sense-itarian should carefully weigh priorities. A common-sense-itarian should consider others’ circumstances and worldviews. A common-sense-itarian should understand that what may be the ideal may not be the attainable, not for everyone, and give All the Other Eaters in the World a break already. (I didn’t say this was an easy path.)
I keep thinking about a class I took in my college days. One of my majors was in Religious Studies, and as part of one of the many courses I took, we naturally discussed dietary restrictions in the context of belief systems around the world. I’ll never forget the idiot in the back row who smirked, “What if you were starving and dying of thirst in the desert and a pig wandered past with a can of beer? Sucks to be you!”
The professor paused and pondered the statement with far more seriousness than I thought it warranted. Then he said carefully, “I guess that’s why religions that survive and thrive have scholars and leaders who interpret the teachings in a modern context. Because people who think like you do would need somebody standing there to actually tell them that God’s intention is not for you to die clinging to principles while ignoring His gifts.”
Boo-yah, kid in the back row!
I’m not trying to bring religion into this discussion, per se, but in the broader context that statement should serve to remind the aspiring common-sense-itarian that principle is all well and good, but sometimes, you just gotta eat. And some of us can leave the grid and raise our kids on our own organic farms, and some of us can’t. Some of us have the luxury of speaking passionately about the evils of the extruded grain and how parents who feed any type of processed, un-sprouted grain product to our kids might as well give them rat poison, and some of us are going to nod and smile while we vacuum the Cheerios out of the cracks in the couch cushions. Some of us are going to know, in our heart of hearts, that we should be feeding our families organic, pastured, sustainable, un-processed foods, but we may also be facing the choice between doing those things, and paying the mortgage. And the person behind us in the checkout line doesn’t have any insight into the bottom line on our bank statements, the special needs and dietary restrictions of our children, or any other piece of the equation that might factor into us making a decision about food and eating that doesn’t measure up to somebody else’s standards.
Yup, that’s it. I’m aspiring to be a common-sense-itarian, and I hope others will join me. If you want to try it, start with these steps: Read. Think. Think again. And if you see somebody eating the pig in the desert, don’t judge them from your vantage point in your own snug home; be glad for their sake that the pig came along. Because common sense dictates that, one way or another, we all gotta eat.