Tuesday, September 4, 2012

mindful eating

Eating is often a knee-jerk reaction: we cook and eat what is most convenient, what is least expensive, what appears to taste good. But deciding what to eat involves consequences that are wide-ranging and long-lasting, even if we don't recognise what those consequences are. We can only make good decisions about what actions to take by knowing the consequences of those actions. And we can only know these consequences if we investigate, inquire, and gather more information.

Meat is a good example. Meat is environmentally costly. Most easily available meat is intensively raised and processed in operations that raise ethical and food-safety concerns in addition to the environmental ones. Learning more about meat production allows you to make better decisions about the meat you choose to consume. You may choose to eat less meat, and buy what meat you do eat from producers who claim to raise and process the meat in ways that minimise the risk of food-borne illness. In doing so, you are choosing to eat not the least expensive or most convenient meat, but rather the meat that is produced with attention to health or environmental impact. Or you may continue eating the meat you've always eaten, with a better knowledge of the risks that you are exposed to.

Another example: You go to eat at a very good restaurant. The food has been made with care from good ingredients. The check comes—it is for a staggering amount. Yet the prices, though high, are subsidised by chefs, stagiers, and producers who work long hours for little money; there is not much profit in food sourced and made with care. Fast food, in contrast, is inexpensive. It is often indifferently made with indifferent ingredients. There is much profit in fast food. Questioning what goes into the price of the food you eat may make you decide to cook for yourself most of the time and to eat out infrequently and only at restaurants that cook with care. Or it may not.

All this has been said before. Being mindful of the consequences of eating sounds like submitting to nothing but limitation, restrictions, and unaffordable food. Acknowledging, for instance, that eating food grown far away seriously damages the environment means for the most part restricting the food you eat to things that can be more efficiently grown locally than elsewhere—invariably a smaller and less predictable selection.

But the limitations imposed by mindful eating are not the full story.

Questioning what, how, and why we eat limits us in some ways but also opens up new possibilities. Limitations are like frames that, by excluding much of the view, allow you to look more closely at whatever is within the frames. If you decide to eat only local, seasonal fruit, you have no choice but to begin to pay close attention to the fruit that is around you. But you come to realise that strawberries taste different from day to day as the season progresses, that there are in fact different varieties of strawberries that ripen at different times, and you begin to eat strawberries only when they are at their very best.

Asking questions about the food you eat can lead you to discover techniques and methods of cooking and flavour combinations that are new to you but well-known elsewhere and to other people. For cooks, asking questions and finding answers is a way to learn how to express a particular sense of what tastes good and what is good to eat. It is also a way to develop that particular sense, the style of cooking that distinguishes you from other chefs: a way to develop a vocabulary for communicating your values in food, the reason why you cook.

We should ask ourselves a multitude of questions about the food we eat. Our decisions about food will be informed by the answers we find. The point is not to find the single right answer to each question—it doesn't exist—but rather to begin to ask the questions.


  1. Thanks, nice post.

    Acknowledging, for instance, that eating food grown far away seriously damages the environment means for the most part restricting the food you eat to things grown locally—a smaller and less predictable selection.

    A minor correction here: that should be "foods that are grown more efficiently locally than elsewhere", because 83% of greenhouse gas emissions due to food occur during production; only 4% are due to transport from producer to consumer -- so we should be aiming to reduce the emissions due to production, not transportation.

    (As an example, it's environmentally far preferable to eat rice grown in Bangladesh than California even if you live in California, because of the difference in rainfall.)

  2. i agree and should have been clearer to start. it is often true that a particular crop is more efficiently grown far away from where we are consuming it, but we can decide to consume instead a crop that is more efficiently grown close by. shifting to consuming crops adapted to local conditions seems like an unequivocally good idea, even though the selection will invariably be narrower and the crops will be more prone to local variations in condition. thus for bulk carbohydrate needs, it might be the case that californians should eat dry-farmed california rye and wheat instead of bangladeshi rice. (until the crop fails in an extra-dry year. and where does that leave those who must be gluten-free?)

    1. "local variations in condition"

      Which in the extreme case include crop failure and famine. Humans ate locally for most of history, not always well, or at all; local food and local starvation. The global food trade network is a most excellent thing, IMO.

      Captcha failure: 1

    2. certainly what you say is true.

      on the other hand:
      1) many people don't live where crop failure and famine are very high-probability events. most people in the us and europe, for instance. in these regions, taste rather than necessity drives distance consumption (and thus distance production).
      2) shifting consumption to favour local production (of efficiently locally producible crops) doesn't mean eliminating global food trade. but it does mean reducing global food trade and being much more thoughtful about what to consume and where to produce it.
      3) more geographically decoupled production nodes may mean that some nodes are more fragile than others but probably also increases systemic stability. for an illustration in a different sphere, i would look to the finance industry in the last two decades.