Thursday, July 16, 2009

If jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge were given an elegant Italian name, would you jump?

Here, in one post, is what's wrong with the food movement. I so want to be a full movement participant, but things like this keep pushing me away.

On Bitten, Edward Schneider extols the deliciousness of - wait for it - raw pork. But not just any raw pork - "honestly raised, wonderful, full-flavored pork." It is his belief - albeit not, he admits, one founded on science - that pork can be eaten raw so long as the pig in question was either a) happy, or b) European. While in Italy, he had some raw-pork sausage and lived to tell about it. Says Schneider:

Now, when I described this to a friend, she kindly said that I seemed like a sane man and wondered whether I would worry about eating raw pork. Sure, I’d worry about eating some raw pork, but not the raw — though slightly, minimally cured — pork they fed me in Italy or the raw pork in my own house. I am, very obviously to anyone who knows me, not a scientist of any description; I just cook. And I cook based largely on precedent, tradition and my own experience.

Precedent and tradition are in favor of eating this raw sausage (neither restaurant that served it to us was blazing any kind of gastronomic trail; quite the contrary), but prudence dictates some personal context as well, and the pork I use comes from a New York state farm that Jackie and I have visited and whose pigs (and owners) we have met. And my gut feeling is that pork from that source is as safe to eat in any state of doneness as the pork we were served in Italy and which gave rise to no illness.
Where to begin?

First, we need to get past the notion that food-borne illness is unique to modern times and to processed foods, industrial agriculture, etc. People have been saying, 'Must've been something I ate' since the dawn of time. While industrialization leads to some dangers, it prevents others - apparently in the case of the all-mighty pig, an animal raised in a way that gets the food-movement seal of approval is also one less safe to eat raw. Should dangers in the way food today is produced be exposed and corrected? Yes. But that shouldn't mean assuming all foods eaten by our or someone else's distant ancestors were inherently safe. That people in some locale have eaten something for years reveals only that it didn't kill off enough of these people prior to reproductive age to off that community altogether. "Precedent and tradition" are in favor of all kinds of behaviors that do not contribute to contemporary ideals of reaching 100 with minimal physical discomfort along the way. If someone wants to reject what they consider bourgeois/American/unaesthetic modern-day ideas of Health and live off raw-milk cheese and raw oysters, more power to them, but that's not what Schneider - or the food movement more broadly - is about.

Next, we need to get past the idea that food is better because it was consumed in Europe. One gets the sense that if Schneider had been offered a local Kentucky specialty called Raw-Pork Breakfast Links, rather than "salsiccia cruda" served "at the trattoria Antiche Sere (9 via Cenischia, Turin; +39 011 385 4347), where the nice-weather dining room out back was over-canopied with grape vines, and where for part of the evening the electricity repeatedly and somehow charmingly gave out," he might not have dug in with such gusto.

If the food movement finds itself accused of snootiness, it could be because of the way too many of its members evoke Europe as this magical place where nobody snacks between meals, worries about their weight, or eats food that came from a plastic package. Or if such phenomena exist, then it's the fault of the US.

But while no doubt some American companies - and European imitations thereof - have contributed to food-related mess in the US and abroad, encouraging American self-flagellation ignores the (diverse) realities of how Europeans actually eat and, more to the point, suggests to those not yet convinced that there's a problem with how we (Americans, but not only) eat that the movement is not about health, the environment, or even pleasure, so much as about a certain set of upper-class pretensions. Food-based Europhilia is not in itself nonsense - with the exception of certain whole-wheat rolls in the Netherlands, the bread really is better on this continent - 20 (euro) cent supermarket white-flour rolls even here are better than that from New York's finest bakeries. I can't figure out why. But the food movement in America should not depend on Europhilia, any more than it should on nostalgia or on a love of nature.


Amber said...

The paradox (?) of European food: Regular food (grocery store/restaurant meals) in Europe is on average better than regular American food. European junk/convenience food (not including candy) is incredibly gross relative to its hyperengineered American analogues. (Possible exception: British flavored crisps.) Why?

Phoebe said...

That's not quite what I've found - I think it depends which country. In Belgium, fries, waffles, and chocolate are all (or at least the first two) street food, cheap and delicious. And in France, crepes and croissants are readily available and (often) tastier than the Twixes that make up (my, at least) stateside junk-snacks.

My knowledge of restaurant-restaurants is more limited, but it wouldn't surprise me if overall, quality is better and prices are higher in European ones. It seems, from the countries I've been in, that eating out (or ordering in) isn't as popular as sitting outside with a drink, then going home for dinner.

What does seem to be the case is that fast food and soda here are very expensive compared with food from the supermarket, costing more along the lines of what alcoholic drinks and real-restaurant meals do in the US. It's certainly not that processed foods (or 'lite' foods) are absent in Europe - they're all over the place. It's just that (local, delicious) bread and (local, for better or worse depending where you are) cheese and fruit will always be the far cheaper option.

(Also, in the Netherlands, nearly everything is fried, but there's the fact that calories are going for reasons unknown - to me at least - to height, rather than weight, for much of the population.)

Matt said...

I was quite surprised at how much I liked some pre-packaged sandwiches and bean salad type things from Mark and Spencer (I Think- a fairly nice chain grocery store) in England this last spring. They _looked_ a lot like things I've had many times from convenience stores and stop-and-shop type places that were nasty. But they were pretty good. It turns out that they make them every day and use pretty good ingredients, something that can't be said for the similar looking US products I'd had. (There may be good versions in the US, too, of course.)

Phoebe said...

I was in England for about five minutes as a child, and so have no idea about food there. What you're describing, however, does sound like upscale versions of everyday foods one also finds in NY. (Such as.)

But I can attest that packaged cheese in Belgium is one of the best foods there is. Looks a whole lot like packaged cheese in the US, but then... mmmm....

Amber said...

Okay, I stand corrected re: the M&S sandwiches (those are better than their typical US versions). I was thinking less of freshly made street food and more of packaged stuff like you'd get at a corner shop/7-11. For instance, why are European fresh pastries & cookies delicious but European packaged breads and cookies often nasty? My various backpacking trips always ended up relying less on picnic-lunches from groceries than anticipated just because the stuff you can buy and stuff in a pack was flat gross half the time.

PG said...

The EU seems to have stricter inspection than the U.S. (another thing adding to the cost of food there, I reckon). So instead of just relying on freezing and cooking to kill the larvae, they actually check the pigs. Not yet true in the newest Eastern European member states, though. But supposedly German and Italian immigrants to the U.S. used to (i.e. around the late '70s) make up a significant part of reported trichinosis cases here because they assumed there was the same level of testing here as in their home countries. So while I think this man is a fool to assume the Pigs Are Alright because he's visited the farm in the U.S., he's probably right about Italy. There are only 50-100 cases of trichinosis in Italy each year, and most of those seem to be from eating stuff like horse and badger, which of course doesn't get thorough Ag Dept inspections.

Phoebe said...


Which countries? I'm still having trouble picturing what you mean by packaged foods that aren't so edible - at least in Belgium and the Netherlands, there are supermarket-brand packaged foods that are basically better versions of Whole Foods store-brand ones. And my sense of the Netherlands is that packaged bread from the supermarket might well be the best food around until you hit the Belgian border.


It could well happen that Schneider was right re: Italy and pork, but he was going not on statistics or info on inspections, but rather on a sense that oh this trattoria is so pretty and authentic, so blissfully free of Americans. Moreover, his point was that since raw-pork sausage is a dish that's been made in the region since time immemorial (i.e. pre-EU, even pre-unified Italy), its safety derives from the fact that it's always been made and thus always been safe. If he had outright said that pigs should be inspected in the US the way they are in the EU, that would have been a fair point. But instead what he offered was, look, I didn't get sick, it must be alright!

Anonymous said...

If you are eager to eat raw pork, New Zealand is the place to do it; no trichinosis in the country. His upstate farm with happy pigs? Not so much, get a lot of trichinosis from contact with dogs and wildlife.

I'm with you, this 'always been made' business is silly romanticism. dave.s.