We’ve been talking about real food all wrong.
We talk about real food like it’s an obligation or a duty, or something old-timers eat. Even when we’re trying to praise real food, we kind of flub it, like when Michael Pollan calls real food “the sort of food our grandmothers would recognize as food.”
He might be right, but who wants to eat grandma’s food? For many people, that categorization brings to mind bland texture, small bites, and a distinct lack of salt. Grandma’s food is, at best, comfort food: the plate of lasagna you eat while sitting in a yellow kitchen, crying and trying to explain (even though you never really can) the break up of your latest relationship. Grandma listens well, and she’s a great hugger.
But Grandma isn’t sexy (nor do we really want her to be). So why do we lump REAL FOOD in with Grandma’s lasagna?
Because it’s easy to do so. Real food has been categorized as something “good for you” and we don’t think of “good for you” in the same breath as fun or sexy or decadent. And all the food and drink that is bad for us (desserts, liquor, etc) seems to fall into that fun/sexy/decadent group complete with dark lighting and a whiff of sin.
But here’s the thing: real food is kick-ass, and we should talk about it like it’s fun and thrilling and will whisper something dirty in your ear. Real food should feel like a massive indulgence, because IT IS. Real food isn’t cheap, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t waiting for you on every street corner. You have to court real food. Seek it out and treat it nice and pay for it. And that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Nothing worthwhile comes easy in this life and we shouldn’t expect our real food to be easy. Real food is worth the effort and the cost.
I didn’t really think about real food as an indulgence until my son texted from college the other day. He goes to an elite school back East, with beautiful wood-floored dorms, famous lecturers, and every advantage you can imagine.
“I’d like to get out of the dorms when I can, just so I can cook for myself,” he said. (Now, keep in mind that this is a school where most of the students live in the dorms for all four years, and housing is guaranteed.) But I wasn’t surprised by his statement. This is a kid who has been cooking for himself since he was old enough to push a chair over to the counter and the stove.
“Is the food bad?” I asked.
“Oh no. It’s quite all right, ” he said. “I’d just like to make real food for myself. I got to cook with some upperclassmen the other day, and it was lovely.”
Real food. There it was.
Now, my son has many options in the dining hall (stir fry station, panini station, salad bar, etc.) so it’s not the variety he’s seeking. And while he is a lover of mac cheese, he’s not the type to eat fast food. But here’s the thing: kids today aren’t like us. They’re smarter. They’ve grown up in a United States that’s made some bad mistakes when it comes to informing Americans how to eat. The post-nuclear age (from 1945-onward) kind of nuked our food habits too. We got caught up in speed and processing, thinking those were okay things, and it was only a little late that we realized their true cost in declining health and rising obesity rates. But these kids know different. They’ve grown up looking at our nutritional choices (low fat/high carb then over to low carb and no carb, etc.) and learned to raise their eyebrows at us with every change. They’ll make their own decisions, thank you. But one thing’s for certain: their generation hates fake—in people, in politicians, and in food. When you think about it, that is a great turn of events for all of us.
So, if you’re an 18-year-old college student and you’re not wanting someone else to wait on you and serve you food, but instead want to make your own “real food”? That tells me something about him and about his generation and how they perceive food and how we all should perceive real food.
Real food is not just good for you. Real food is cool and sexy and worth the trouble.
Real food is not just what we should be eating, but what we want to eat now. Like the famous chef Lee Schager recently said, “It’s no longer just about indulgence in food. People want to indulge in something, and know that it’s good for you too.”
Real food is indulgent and marvelous. We just need to learn to talk about it with real words that reflect how it really makes us feel.