I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.
This is a great question because it taps into one of the fundamental questions that really drove me to write The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.
I began caring about what I ate when I became a vegetarian. As I’ve covered in one of the earliest posts ever on this blog — for better or for worse — that decision came as a result of watching a PETA video in college.
I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, which means that I truly did not know what a farm looked like. As far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store. So when I first understood the reality of a concentrated animal feeding operation, I was so horrified that this was the normative standard that I quit, cold turkey.
But even as a vegetarian, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the larger issues of food. I barely even spent time thinking about how well I was eating. So while being a vegetarian was designed to help me become a ‘better’ eater, I wasn’t concerned with the state of food until seven years later…
I began caring about the state of food when I began thinking about eating meat again. Or rather, thinking about the state of food is what made me consider eating meat again.
In the summer of 2009, I bought and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And while much of that book was a revelation to me (as it was to the country), the aspect of the book I found most illuminating was Pollan’s discussion of the corn monoculture industry.
In tracking a fast food meal backs to its origins, Pollan ends up in a corn field in Ames, Iowa. At the time I read the book, I happened to live in Ames, Iowa, so I had some sense of how much of the land of the Midwest was taken up with growing corn. What I didn’t know was how much of that went to cattle feedlots, or how much damage was being done to the land in the industrial growth methods being used. What I really didn’t know was how much the federal government was invested in corn growth — so much so that corporations were practically being paid to come up with non-cattle uses for all the excess corn.
I went home and started checking the ingredients lists on all my vegetarian foods, and found either corn or soy byproducts in nearly everything — yogurt, salad dressing, whole wheat bread, lemonade, and certainly in my fake meat substitute products — and I was pretty horrified.
The realization I had standing in my pantry on that day in mid-August was that being a vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean that I was opting out of the larger, flawed system of industrial agriculture. Sure, perhaps I wasn’t eating animal meat (though this is often also cleverly hidden in seemingly-innocuous foods) but I was still spending my money within the same system. Corn and meat were part of the same agricultural behemoth.
I spent a few weeks feeling very angry and very disillusioned. But then I kept reading the book, and discovered, along with Pollan, that there was such a thing as a farmer who actually worked with, rather than against the land. And while I read along while Pollan toured one particular farm for his book, I began to wonder whether there may not be some of those farms around me.
As it turned out, there were many. Perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of industrialized agriculture in Iowa, it also seems like a hotbed of sustainable innovation. I met biodyanmic cattle farmers, toured family-run organic vegetable operations, and bought wild, sustainably-harvested Alaskan salmon from Inuit fishermen through an affordable, no-membership-fee buying club right there in Ames, in the middle of the cornfields.
As a result of all this, I was forced to re-examine my initial way of thinking about food. Clearly, being a vegetarian and “opting out” of the system had not solved all the problems, or absolved me of input into the industrial system. And on the other hand, it appeared as if I could buy meat that did side-step that system, and instead supported
At any rate, what I began to learn that summer and fall was that the whole question of what to eat, and from where, was much more complex than I had initially thought. My interest was piqued, but more importantly, so was my conscience. I knew that if I wanted to eat meat again, I was going to have to establish some standards and hold myself to them.
And as I began to do research, to meet more farmers and read more books, I found so much information, so many great inspiring ideas, and so many horrifying, disgusting realities, that I couldn’t turn away. I was sure that many people were in the dark, like I had been, and may be inadvertently supporting things they disagree with.
So I decided to write a book about my realizations. And two years later, here we are.
What moments in your life have made you care about food — the state of food, your dietary choices, or just how to cook a particular ingredient in a new, illuminating way? Leave a comment or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your “becoming a foodie” story, and you may end up in a future blog post!