I am fluent in the languages of guilt and apology, both of which come to me as naturally as eating. But until recently, I had no idea just how radically my own moralism had infused my choices and behaviour around food. My generation's degree of education can be perceived as either liberation or imprisonment, depending on how you think about it. After all, exercising the right to vote requires one to learn about the candidates.
People have stronger opinions about food than ever before, and we feel compelled to voice them and entitled to live them. Because there's so much information out there, many of us sense a new obligation to understanding the processes behind the production, purchase and consumption of our food - and anyone who's tried will know how unsettling this can be. How can we address our moral responsibilities and ethical concerns without reducing food to matters of principle and survival?
Today, we are engaged in dialogues about food that our ancestors would have found unimaginable. Outside the topic of family, contemporary discussions about food are among the most inflammatory, perhaps because they're simultaneously the most intimate and the most universal. There are the obvious diets, fads, televised cooking shows and trendy restaurants that now constitute part of our cultural vocabulary. But the panoramic view includes issues of sustainability and starvation, water and waste, vegetarians and pescetarians, freeganism and veganism, nutrition and wars of attrition. Did an animal suffer for your dinner? Did anyone?
There's no doubt that my generation converses, logs and blogs about food in a way that would have been unthinkable to my grandparents during times of scarcity, tribal living and conflict. Is the freedom to consider the moral implications of food a luxury or a responsibility? How do you decide what to eat, assuming you care in the first place? And if you care, why do you? If you don't care, why not?
For most of my adult life, I made the naïve assumption that I'd successfully protected my love of food from the excruciating overanalysis I apply to the study of it, but as it turns out, I overestimated myself. It's true, I occasionally admonish friends who should know "better" than to use a microwave, or eat processed foods, or drink diet soda. Seeing the nature of my own double standards makes me question why they exist. Sometimes I hold on to them and sometimes I work hard to demolish them. But having said that, it will probably come as no surprise there are certain arbitrary and highly personal preferences I'm about as comfortable brandishing in public as a bad case of adult acne.
Before I could come clean about my newfound rediscovery of iceberg lettuce, I had to admit it to myself. For a while, I remained a closet fanatic, hiding the iceberg lettuce on the bottom shelf of the shopping cart. At the time, I hadn't yet figured out that I could simply have called it "retro" and served it to sceptics with a smile on my face. Iceberg lettuce, oft-maligned as a worthless green devoid of charm, flavour and nutritional value, is something that some people see as an iconic relic of a past best left behind, considering it went out of fashion as a salad green roughly around the same time I retired my crimping iron. My favourite food writer, Laurie Colwin, wrote that the only thing anyone needs to know about iceberg lettuce is how easy it is to remove its core, and that "when a head of it falls to the floor, it bounces, ever so slightly".
Hedonism and ascetism cannot coexist. In spite of knowing this, we make constant references to guilt in the context of food. I have to wonder if perhaps there's an underlying reason for that guilt that doesn't deserve to be dismissed. Is it insensitive and elitist to worry about food? Is it antithetical to morality, or to culture, or to style? I say no.
This is the loose recipe I use to make the world's best blue-cheese dressing for slathering on crunchy wedges of wonderful, unfashionable iceberg lettuce. Part of its magic is that all of the quantities can be adjusted to taste.
100g of your favourite blue cheese, crumbled
45g buttermilk/ayran (if you can't find any, substitute regular milk into which you have shaken a few dashes of lemon juice or white vinegar, then let stand for five minutes)
45g sour cream or crème fraîche
15g of your favourite vinegar
Hearty pinch of sugar
Hearty pinch of garlic powder, or half a clove of garlic, mashed
A dozen or more snipped chives
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, mash 75g of blue cheese with the buttermilk. Stir in the other ingredients and season to taste. Spoon on to quartered heads of cold iceberg lettuce. Use the remaining blue cheese to sprinkle on top before serving and serve with a final grinding of freshly ground pepper.
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