December 27, 2010

The (Overly)Plentiful Table

If you look through older cookbooks, say from the 1970s and 80s, you may notice the photos of tables jam-packed with dishes. You know the type: there's probably some middle-aged woman with a lavish hair-do standing gracefully over a table filled with a gleaming fresh roasted piece of meat (or two) and surrounded by an absurd number of side dishes, condiments, and so on (gelatinized vegetables, anyone?). These tables literally could not be more packed with food. What is our obsession with having so much food?

Now having a bountiful offering of food has been part of many cultures' culinary traditions for a long time. The ability to provide a lot food is a marker of success, of good hospitality and of generosity.  Generous helpings are often the centerpiece of holiday celebrations and family gatherings. It can be a great joy to provide others with a overflowing table of goods. It's what made those depictions of overflowing tables so attractive when cookbooks starting coming out with photos. Excess food has been a part of the American tradition since the Pilgrims sat down with the Native Americans. What would Thanksgiving be if not a day of unrestrained gluttonous consumption?

But in this glutton, is there not some guilt?  We've all regretted the excessive second, or third (or more) helpings at a big holiday dinner. In fact, we've all regretted eating too much at many meals, significant or not. But that is personal guilt, and I'm not going to go into that here. Rather, what larger picture are we missing every time we put forth a more-than-we-really-need-to-be-serving meal?

In our culture of excess - we use too much energy, eat too much food and drive too many miles - it's inevitable that this excess would spread to our dinner plates. I'm not talking about eating too much on a personal level, important as the problems of diet and obesity are. Rather, I'm talking about what it means that we place so much value on making as much food as we can, as big as we can have it, whether or not our bodies want to consume it.

If your family is anything like mine, you probably throw out a lot of food. As I discussed in an earlier post, 25% of edible food is wasted. We buy food, thinking we'll use it, and it rots. We cook food, not really thinking about how much we're making, we store the leftovers in the fridge, we get tired of them, they start to rot, we throw them out.  We go out to lunch, order a sandwich, and instead of taking it home for lunch tomorrow, we throw it out (I mean who wants to carry half a sandwich around?). No one of these things is an abomination - everyone wastes food, and often we don't mean to. But if, as a country, we continue to waste so much food, it becomes an issue. Why? For one, you waste money by throwing out food that you buy. No complicated math required. It's also an issue for the earth: wasted food harms the environment - including the food in landfills that creates a huge amount of harmful greenhouse gases. It also takes a huge amount of energy to produce and ship food - which too often doesn't even get eaten once it reaches your house.

It's also an issue when you consider that the 25% of edible food that we throw out could be going towards, say, feeding the hungry. And with recent statistics, it's more of an issue than ever, right here in the United States:
The number of Americans who struggled to get enough food last year remained at a record high, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 50 million Americans lived in households that had a hard time getting enough to eat at least at some point during 2009. That includes 17 million children, and at least a half-million of those children faced the direst conditions. [NPR]
That 17 million children are facing hunger is reason enough for me to think about what I'm doing with the food I buy. Now I realize that it's not as though the food I don't buy at the grocery stores goes right to the hungry. We need to think about our food allocation on a large, holistic scale.  But changes you make in your life do affect the system and are important.  Tell people you know about the consequences of putting that food they made last night in the trash.

 Perhaps the best example of American gluttony is the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.  It's no surprise that Americans are eager for a place where they can shamelessly eat as much as they want, no barriers but the capacity of their own stomachs (just see The Travel Channel's "All You Can Eat Paradise"). Bon Appetit, the management company that runs Wesleyan's dining services, decided to change the message a little. They call it "All You Care to Eat." And while its a little corny, it's a valid idea. I'm not saying not to eat until you're satisfied, not to eat well, not to buy and prepare the food you want to eat. And I realize that some wasted food is often a reality - nobody is perfect. But when the cost of consuming and wasting so much food is so high, it might be a good idea to forget about eating all you can eat, and just eat all you care to.