I grew up in a small town with little to offer in the way of fine dining. Shoney’s aptly named Big Boy Restaurant was considered a festive destination, and on Sundays you could barely reach the French toast sticks and cheese grits on the breakfast bar for the jostling after-church crowd. Given that my mother, grandmother, and aunts were able cooks, my family rarely ate out, so restaurant dining acquired considerable allure for me.
Imagine, then, my mouth-watering wonder at the abundant offerings of this restaurant-crazy town when I moved to Atlanta. Thai food, soul food, Mexican food, bar food—almost any cuisine I could think of was just minutes away, and there were no parents around to discourage me from dining out several nights a week (an indulgence that claimed an alarming portion of my anorexic budget).
But all those options came with another price. In addition to the toll on my waistline and my wallet, there was all the time—hours, certainly, maybe even days altogether—my friends and I spent debating the question, “Where should we go to eat?”
It seems the quandary of where—and more to the point, what—to eat is captivating our national consciousness these days, and at the heart of the matter lies the mixed blessing of choice. Michael Pollan’s best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, opens with the simple question, “What should we have for dinner?” and then requires more than four hundred pages to illuminate how complex the answer has become.
“When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you,” Pollan writes.
Should we have pot roast that was once a cow confined to a few square feet and fed processed grain, or organic grapes that traveled from Argentina via planes and trucks that poisoned the air for thousands of miles? What about genetically engineered corn tortillas, or organic spinach grown in dubious soil with the help of immigrant laborers who are likely underpaid?
Many at Emory are exploring these questions and more, examining the food we eat through various lenses: our health, our happiness, our politics, our values, our environment. And this ripple of interest is only part of a swelling grassroots movement to come to grips with the dramatic changes in our diet during the past century—and maybe even challenge some of the damage done in the name of progress.
“In the last thirty years or so in the United States,” writes Amy Bentley—associate professor in nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University— in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “we’ve witnessed an emerging food ‘revolution’ that has attempted to counter (or at least circumvent) the worst aspects of the industrialization of food.”
Some changes happen more easily than others. Emory’s Office of Sustainability Director Ciannat Howett, for instance, has revealed an ambitious plan to incorporate more local food into campus dining, cutting down on the fossil fuels used in food transport. Current agricultural production in Georgia can’t keep up with such demand. In the meantime, a committee led by anthropology professor Peggy Barlett is creating a series of small gardens on campus and planning a local farmers’ market.
Public health experts—including Jeff Koplan, vice president for health affairs, and Venkat Narayan, professor of global health and epidemiology—are striving to raise public awareness of the exploding “diabesity” epidemic, while researchers scramble to find new detection methods and treatments for diabetes.
At the same time, Emory students are demonstrating unprecedented interest in healthy eating. A new cooler in Cox Hall offers organic food options; a fledgling social club gives students the chance to cook and learn about food together; and thanks to popular demand, the salad bar in Dobbs University Center is three times the size it was last year.
One of the best things about the current food craze is that although major problems—such as the sweeping prevalence of corn syrup and trans fats in our grocery-store comestibles, or the way the meat industry houses and feeds livestock—can seem overwhelming, individuals can make small changes that matter. Last week, rather than shopping at my usual megagrocery chain, I went to a farmers’ market and bought fresh cabbage from a community garden I visited while compiling this magazine. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed to taste all the better because I had walked in the field where it grew.
“To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden,” Pollan writes, “but in practice few things in life afford quite as much satisfaction.” Or, as Emile DeFelice 87OX 90C, a pig farmer, puts it: “The tools of revolution are a knife and fork.”
My ten-year-old son, unlike myself at his age, is no stranger to dining out. But it’s funny—given the choice of dining out or at home, he’ll choose home every time. Even though he has to set the table.
The tools of revolution, indeed.
—Interim Editor Paige P. Parvin 96G