Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hunger Pangs

With this past weekend's release of The Hunger Games DVD, it seemed not entirely inappropriate to discuss the movie on a blog centered of all things food.  Over the past few months I have peppered my summer reading with The Hunger Games trilogy, mistakenly believing it was light fare. These highly engrossing page turners are anything but light. They provide a sort of post-apocalyptic look at a fragmented society divided into distinct districts that are enslaved to a gluttonous and frivolous group of wealthy rulers in the Capitol who amuse themselves with a televised fight-to-the-death competition of peasant children of Panem each year. It's Shirley Jackson meets Cormac McCarthy meets the Olympics. Though written for an adolescent audience the books have become bestsellers amongst kids and adults alike and as all bestsellers do, they spawned a movie franchise as well. At the forefront is protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who cleverly survives the Games and sparks a rebellion while sharing her every thought and conflicted feeling about her deceased father, her innocent younger sister, her broken healer mother and her two love interests with readers.

I made a point to read the entire series before seeing the movie, lest my mental images be corrupted by someone else's casting and style decisions. I was glad I did, not only for this reason, but because the film is less tightly framed around Katniss's character development and emotional experience. And also, because it proves once again that Hollywood can take a subversive novel and turn it into eye candy.

It’s hard to resist looking at the parallels between the alternate world of Panem and the reality we inhabit today. The all-pervasive media, the competitive reality-television, the fabrication of images through highly stylized fashion, interviews and back-story and the obsession with power, money and material goods is something that one needn't look to fantasy literature or the movies to find. The concept of hunger, an issue worldwide and in this country as well (where 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure) is explored far more thoroughly in the books than onscreen, and while The Hunger Games  movie is promoting the anti-hunger work of partnering agencies Feeding American and the World Food Programme, it doesn't make clear what the causes of hunger are (the organizations' sites and bonus materials do). The social inequities that keep the rich well-fed and the poor starving with government mandates of monoculture-type local economies was evenly conveyed in the books and could have provided a more interesting and compelling visual narrative. Instead, the movie succumbed to the very same tendency the book rails against by favoring style over substance, image over content. 

The Hunger Games provides a great opportunity to engage audiences in a dialogue about media literacy. What is the veracity of images conveyed to us? Whose hidden agenda controls those images? What agency do we have as viewers to change the types of images we are fed and expose the power players who work to promote the status quo?  It's a worthwhile exercise to ask young adults (or anyone, really) who read the book about their impressions of the film. What were some of the differences? What was left out of the film and why? Why were these choices made by the screenwriter/director/producer/studio and what can we learn about the role of media in shaping our social consciousness? Critical takes on popular works are some of the most potent and exciting way to  take a mediocre work and elevate it to an important classic while promoting our engagement as active viewers. Watching The Hunger Games left me hungry for this type of discussion. It may not have started yet, but there's always the sequel...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mastering the Art of Cooking

When I moved to Seattle I was determined to learn how to cook. Sure I already knew how to bake salmon, boil pasta and roast vegetables, but I wasn't comfortable in the kitchen, didn't speak the language of cookbooks (braise? blanch? julienne? chiffonade?), didn't own the right appliances (food processor? immersion blender?) and was terrified of dried beans. I remember confessing this to the man was not yet dating but would later marry. I had just burned another pot and ruined an entire batch of soup. "I can't cook," I explained in frustration. "Anyone can cook," he said matter of factly.Julia Child would have agreed.

Today marks 100 years since her birth. She is remembered by chefs, celebrities and lay folks alike for bringing cooking - specifically French cooking - to the masses in a straightforward manner that was also joyous and celebratory.  It's true that my only memories of her from childhood are brief blips on the television (accompanied by an oddly high-pitched voice) as I quickly flipped channels to a some more flashy and exciting programming, and it was only later on in life that I met the woman through her work and her legacy. Years ago when I read Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, the famed blog-turned book-turned movie, I grew interested in Julia Child, having discovered small bits of information about her. She was over six feet tall, she was in her thirties when she got married and she signed up for classes at the Le Cordon Bleu to learn to cook because she was bored living in Paris. It was enough to drive me to read My Life in France and learn more about her personal life. She adored her husband. She valued taste over nutrition. She built a successful writing and television career later in life.

photo source

I have never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and probably never will. But I'm inspired by Julia Child because she didn't take herself too seriously and believed that anyone could cook. She pioneered cooking programs, paving the way for the Food Network and celebrity chefs, for better or worse. And she taught people like me how to have fun in the kitchen.

Monday, August 13, 2012

High Maintenance Guests

Four and a half years ago I eliminated gluten from my diet. Going gluten-free was a bit of a challenge at first, but in time with reframed dietary parameters I easily adapted to my new diet. The aspect that continues to be challenging is how to tell hosts about my eating practices, so I came up with some practical pieces of advice for hosting "high maintenance" guests. Read all about it in my post on The Jew and the Carrot.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How Bout Them Apples?

An Apple A Day: The Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths About the Foods We Eat
by Joe Schwarcz
354 pp. Other Press. 2009
The key to perfect health?
Click here for photo source.

The title was appealing enough (no pun intended). Last year a nutrition friend of mine was reading this book and I was curious about it. Myths? Misconceptions? Truths? Count me in. About midway through the book I wanted to count myself out. But I stuck with it, despite reading the author's introductory disclaimer on page three: "Chances are that most of you will be as picky with this book as you are with your food." Indeed.

An Apple A Day is divided into four sections, each looking at hot science topics in food. "Part One: Naturally Occurring Substances in Our Food Supply" primarily examines the claims around phytonutrients, such as antioxidants and other bioactive compounds that have been isolated in research and touted for their health benefits. It's like taking a tour of Super Supplements and asking whether any of the supplements are worth the investment. Presented in the proper format, this section has the potential to be very insightful. Perhaps because I spent several months studying bioactive compounds during grad school or the fact that the book is now three years old and already feels dated, but I found this section to be lackluster. After nearly every chapter he comes to the same conclusion: phytonutrients have potential to be miracle substances but lack conclusive evidence to back up their claims. Many of these compounds (resveratrol! lycopene! sulforaphane! lutein!) likely rely on a specific synergy that can only be achieved through the entire food matrix. Incorporate whole foods into your diet and cover all your bases. I agree with his bottom line and just saved you from reading the first 150 or so pages of the book.

In "Part Two: Manipulating Our Food Supply," Schwarcz looks at additives like MSG, natural and artificial sweeteners, nitrates, food coloring and GMOs. In each he mentions (but doesn't cite) research debunking the "alarmist" claims made against these substances. He goes even further in "Part Three: Contaminants in Our food Supply" where he finds no convincing health concerns regarding pesticide use, hormones, and endocrine disruptors in the research. His conclusions are weak concessions. On the issue of BPA he wonders why we're considering banning a substance that is only theoretically harmful when both cigarettes and alcohol lead are known to kill millions of people theoretically. He hesitates to tell people to only buy organic produce or wild fish because they are expensive and eating conventional apples or farmed salmon certainly outweighs the potential harm of pesticides or PCBs. There is a certain truth to these arguments but the problem is that they justify the status quo rather than rely upon emerging science to stir a change to the food system system so that we wouldn't have to choose the lesser of two evils to incorporate into our diets.

Lest you wonder, Joe Schwarcz has a PhD and has some serious academic cred as the director of McGill University's Office of Science and Society. Which is why I was confounded when the 330+ page book contained no footnotes. Where are the citations for all the studies he refers to? In Kessler's book there were over 100 pages of references alone (just one of the reasons that it was a faster read). Schwarcz's tones is uneven and changes over the course of the book, from light and curious in the Part One to more neutral and probing in Part Two, growing more conservative in Part Three to downright cynical and dismissive in "Part Four: Tough to Swallow," a section that discusses kosher diets, detox diets, goji juice and green tea and seemed more like a miscellaneous addendum to the book.

By the end of the book I was looking for something redemptive about the whole experience. I found it in the three page conclusion, which could be further whittled down to this clumsy sentence:
"When you carefully scrutinize the scientific studies that are being rolled out on a daily basis, most amount to no more than tinkering with the basic nutritional princiles we have tried to lay down: eat mostly foods based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, and don't overeat."

Sound familiar? It's yet another iteration of Michael Pollan's Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much. If healthy eating is so simple, why is it so hard for people? Now that's a book I'd like to read.