Eek of the Week – the Real Food Challenge

Having just used “threat or menace,” albeit jokingly, I don’t suppose I can say the same about the “Real Food Challenge” (reported here) that’s currently sucking up so much internet ink. In fact, it’s probably unwise to give the thing any more PR by giving it an Eek.

But I can’t resist, because it’s such a classic example of the all-knowing self-righteous preaching that helps the processed food industry keep its stranglehold on the American diet.

Some are ok, some aren't. Can you guess which of these foods you're supposed to make yourself, or never heat - or not eat at all?

Left to right: Back row – Butter, smoked Spanish paprika, olive oil, hard cider, whole wheat flour, center – local cheese: Barat, from Sprout Creek Farm, and Shaker Blue, from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, (home made cherry preserves, here for another reason), cocoa, thick cut rolled oats.

Having a contest or challenge is widely recommended as a way of driving traffic to one’s blog, so I will follow the “Real Food” example and issue a challenge of my own: how many logical contradictions, dubious pronouncements, definitional confusions and needless make-work can you find, between the challenges themselves and the responses of those who took them up?

Why, for instance, must you make your own fresh sauerkraut instead of buying same? Why must you render your own lard if the only acceptable raw material is coming from the sort of butcher who’s almost surely selling rendered lard already?

Why is the soft cheese made by a local dairy somehow non-U, while the cheese you make at home from the very same milk is just fine?

Have to confess my challenge probably won’t have a prize, though the how-to-drive-traffic people say that’s a very important aspect. It’s not that I’m stingy, it’s that I can’t bear the thought of dwelling on this one moment longer than necessary and can’t imagine you don’t also have better things to do with your time.

But if entries do appear, and there are more than, say, ten of them, the prize will be a jar of cherry preserves, processed right here at home by me. Be warned the preserves contain a small amount of white sugar, the devil incarnate, and were flavored with a vanilla bean that was of course quite complexly processed.

Last time I looked, American consumers were still buying 300,000,000 (yes, three hundred million) boxes of Jello every year. That’s Jello, festival of noxious artificial flavors and colors. Suggesting that the best way to graduate to something better isn’t to mix fresh fruit juice with unflavored gelatin but rather to source some local calves’ feet and start boiling isn’t just silly, it’s counterproductive. Or it is if your goal is to help people see how easy it can be to eat well, and thus create a mass movement toward purer, less processed food.

Important Note: as far as I know this example is fictional, invented for point-making purposes. If she really did say you ought to try making your own gelatin I don’t want to know about it. Please.

This is a revision of an earlier post that contained inaccuracies.

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  • Julia Said,

    Great rant. I find all this tiresome: the preaching to the choir, the holier than thou, that asks attention in its do-good gold star-ishness. It’s just another way to get people to NOT think for themselves, and instead adhere to rules. It’s also not very much fun. That said, I wouldn’t mind some cherry preserves. I have no problem with white sugar and its evils.

  • Rochelle Said,

    Great Post..;) I wish people would just stop listening to all the hype and just listen to what feels right. Doesn’t it feel right to know you neighbors and where your food comes from. It’s food, it’s personal, its enjoyable, it’s one of those things that make life lovely. Sure if you want to churn your own butter, do it because you love it and share it with as many people as you can, but if you can’t just buy it. There are aisles in the grocery that are not worth traversing ever…and the less they are traversed they less desirable they become. I think our taste buds have been dumbed down, people who eat alot of crap think it tastes good, but as they move away from it, and start to eat real food, powdered flavoring and fabricated food start to take like the chemicals that they are. It becomes a natural choice. I love your site and hope you keep filling my head with great recipes and thoughts on living a life a little closer to the source. I raise a cherry, sugar and vanilla filled jelly jar to you.

  • Frankly, I find much of this “real food” blather just another example of puritanical myopia, induced mostly by Pollan, but also by Waters and her ilk. He casually throws down dictums like “if it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” And (my personal favorite) “shop the periphery of your supermarket.” How long has it been since he’s been in a supermarket? The periphery of mine is filled with the salt-doped rotisseried chickens, the processed meats, the processed cheeses, and lots of gack-inducing stuff in the produce section, as well as the bread that comes frozen on a truck from God knows where. I’m not saying there’s not good stuff on the periphery, too, but those center aisles have things like maple syrup (perhaps America’s original artisanal product), whole grain flours, and brown rice. Seem pretty good to me. Such oversimplification is “simply” an excuse in masochism, tricked up to look like do-gooder nostalgia. And to boot, I write a blog about “real food”!

  • Robin Said,

    My current favorite crazy food rule – don’t eat food with more than five ingredients. I imagine making seafood chowder with five or fewer ingredients. What do I leave out? And why would I want to eat it if it’s missing wonderful ingredients?

    I think it’s great that a bunch of people signed up for the challenge. I’d feel safe betting that a lot of them have little idea of what’s involved in processing food. I’m glad they’re giving up Jello (that’s not food..seriously…not food) and Aunt Jemima but how discouraged are they getting in the mean time?

    I’m a farmer. My first hand knowledge of real food starts from birth and seeds. I grow food for a lot of people. I buy or barter what I can with other food producers in my area. I can make cheese but it’s do it once a year or so because I think it’s fun. I’m not giving up cheese just because I don’t make it for myself. We could put all of the producers in the county together and still not have everything we need so I do shop in a grocery store. Not often, but I do. I’m not giving up my King Arthur flour, yeast, black beans in a can (they’re supposedly organic) or purple sticky rice.

    Food is an interesting subject.

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    Bravo, Leslie, on this great post–and no surprise that it has spawned such interesting comments! I hope it will not be taken amiss if I raise a small word in defense of Michael Pollan: I don’t think he’s to blame here, but rather those folks taking his simple guideposts to absurd extremes. I really like the idea of eating food, mostly plants, not too much–but it’s never occurred to me (and I doubt it would have occurred to him) that this means rendering your own lard. Instead, we now take trips up to McEnroe’s Farm in winter for better veg than can be found at the local Hannaford’s, and we stop by Red Devon for decent bread. And I make absolutely sure my daily dose of chocolate (yes, for me, every day has an “s” in it) is from a wonderful chocolatier like Mondel’s on upper Broadway in Manhattan . . . . As a friend of mine said when we were both confronted with the specter of a low-fat diet (for reasons since disproved) and chose to ignore it: “Oh, so now we eat wheat grass and then we die.” I say, forget the wheat grass and home-rendered lard and just eat good stuff!

  • I think Americans LOVE extremes–in politics, in religion and now in the very secular world of politically correct food choices. Somehow, simple common sense is not exciting or extreme enough for a lot of people. The day I have to render my own gelatin from a calves foot is the day I turn to JELL-O for good.

  • Maggie Said,

    I would like to suggest that, like Madison Park, you are somewhat misrepresenting this challenge and perpetuating unbalanced reporting. I will give you one thing up front though. Jennifer McGruther’s ideas about food are extreme today. But she was only half the challenge. What the CNN article really did not accurately portray was what the participants, myself included, did with the challenge, and why.

    I am glad I did the challenge. I learned a lot, although I am not convinced about some of Jennifer’s ideas and not inclined to worry about some others. But then, I’m a middle of the road kind of gal. Still, I appreciate, tremendously, the things I came away with that I do intend to continue to incorporate into my life. I grew up without any instruction in the kitchen and without any desire to spend time there. By the time I realized what I didn’t know, my life was where I am now: single mom of two teens, responsible for supporting my household, shuttling non-drivers to and from activities, helping with school work, and taking fifteen credits a semester to finish my degree so, hopefully, I can make enough money to pay for them to go to college too. Having someone send me one assignment per day toward improving my family’s diet seemed manageable. I had no idea, going in, what those assignments would be. I did lose my perspective and get kind of stressed about the whole thing part of the way through. But other participants straightened me out and I finished the challenge in a better frame of mind.

    I believe that this challenge, like Pollan’s work, should not be taken uber-literally. When Pollan says “if it came from a plant, eat it” I am confident he is not really telling people to go eat digitalis. When Jennifer told us to toss all the processed foods in our kitchen, it got me to take a hard look at what was actually in my kitchen. I did toss a bunch of stuff. I also set aside a bag of things that the Boy Scouts picked up this morning for their food drive. And I continued to use some things that, by Jennifer’s rules, should have been tossed. If you had read the weekly recap blog postings of the participants, you would have found that pretty much everybody else adapted the challenge to their individual situations too.

    I realize that it is far easier to bash the picture of the challenge Park lay out than to actually slog through the “data” produced by the participants in order to develop a balanced perspective. It’s also far easier to grab a Stouffer’s frozen dinner than to prepare a meal yourself. But neither of those easy choices is the healthy one.

    Please also keep in mind that Jennifer McGruther told people how to do things. She encouraged people to try making cheese. She didn’t say not to purchase cheese from your local dairy. But you know, not everybody has a local dairy! Telling someone how to render lard is not the same as telling someone not to buy pre-rendered lard from a butcher. And again, not everyone has a local, old-school butcher. I don’t! Used to, but not for many years now. I really don’t see anything wrong with encouraging people to try methods of food prep they’ve likely never tried before, and that get them to think about their food from the ground up, especially in this culture where so many are so disconnected from food origins. Whether people continue to use those methods or not is really irrelevant if their consciousness about their food has been raised even a little.

    • Leslie Said,

      Thank you so much, Maggie, for taking the time to post this thoughtful defense of the parts of the challenge that turned out to be helpful and useful to you. If I’m reading you correctly, those things were (not exclusively but primarily) the support of your fellow participants and the instructions for home-making foods that can indeed be difficult to find.
      Neither of these is unique to the challenge; there are many web based and local ! interest groups dedicated to helping members look more carefully at their choices and also find, prepare and enjoy minimally processed, non-industrial foods. Likewise, if there’s one thing the web is good for, it’s instruction in techniques for rendering lard, making cheese, fermenting sauerkraut etc.

      My unhappiness is not with the challenge’s guidance in making these foods, and certainly not with the mutual support, it’s with the “challenge” framework itself and with the self-important, schoolmarmy tone of its organizer. You are right that taking exception to these things was easier than “actually slog(ing) through the ‘data’ produced by the participants,” but to the extent that I did slog – the right word for it, btw – I found a wide disparity between them, from sensible people like yourself to fanatics who made Ms. McGruther sound like the voice of sweet reason.

      I do take exception to your equating my calling out of the challenge’s tone and some of the idiocy it evoked with “grab(bing) a Stouffer’s frozen dinner,” because it’s not myself I’m trying to feed. If I’m guilty of a bit of hyperbole, it’s because after many years of writing about food and food gardening, teaching cooking classes, editing magazine food sections and other forms of outreach and outreach facilitation, I’m distressed by sweeping pronouncements, rigid prescriptions and short term contests that have an uncomfortable similarity to fad diets. One way and another they’re everywhere, but as far as I can see they raise more “consciousness” than confidence or competence, and they do it for people who are already quite strongly committed to reevaluating their relationship to food.

      To each his own and all of that, but when the pronouncements, prescriptions etc. get a lot of publicity there’s a non-trivial downside. The literally millions of people who are just at the edge of change and might be helped forward by a gentle, user-friendly approach have all of their industry-fanned fears about “elitism” ” too hard” “too expensive” abundantly confirmed.

      All that said, I remain very happy you wrote, delighted the challenge was a positive for you and hopeful that others will also join in the discussion.

  • Joan Said,

    Very interesting reading, both your initial post and the subsequent comments. As you allude to Leslie, in your last comment, the original blogger sets people up for frustration by insisting they change everything in their kitchen so drastically.

    It is unrealistic, sweeping pronouncements like her challenge that cause people to throw in the towel, and just go to the nearest drive-thru! A better approach in my opinion, would be to educate people on how to make smaller, meaningful changes. But that wouldn’t get the same “internet ink” as the big challenge, I fear.

  • fern Said,

    Actually, I do feel that this is a topic that deserves attention. Clearly, most of us don’t have time to make sauerkraut from scratch, or their own lard. But if someone wishes to experiment with it, God bless ’em.

    I think the point should be to raise others’ consciousness, to help others become more aware of what they’re putting in their bodies. But there has to be a balancing point, somewhere between sending us all back to the eighteenth century in terms of hard labor in the kitchen versus willingly consuming all sorts of unnecessary additives, food colorings and preservatives along with unhealthy doses of corn syrup, sodium and sat fats.

    Sometimes, pushing the limits of doability can be helpful because it makes more moderate efforts seem downright reasonable. Not everyone is prepared to become a Greenpeace activist to challenge Japanese whaling ships, but after learning of their courage in pushing the envelope, the more rational among us might be more inclined to buy dolphin-safe canned tuna.

    I think that the degree of effort and time one wants to put into food choices is a very individual thing. For one person, growing brocco-spouts is a breeze, while someone else can’t be bothered. To each his own.

    In short, I think there are a lot more distressing things to get excited about than a well-meaning effort to engage people in their food choices.

  • Lynn Said,

    Is your stove blue? Cool!

  • Bladerunner Said,

    I’m just commenting because I want to win the cherry preserves. 🙂

  • MaineMan Said,

    In the spirit of the thing, I thought I’d try to make my own Chateau Haut-Brion (my apologies to Joan Dillon). Then it occurred to me that – living in Maine and all – it might be easier to try making my own Berkasteler Doktor. I’ve got the SE-facing rocky slope, and a basement that could pass as a wine cellar. Now all I need are a hundred vines, more or less, of the same Riesling cultivar and a few odds and ends. Like casks, bottles, etc.

    Oh, and I need to figure out how to live to age 113 or so.

  • She probably can only afford the time for these laborious preparations b/c the real estate market is so down that she’s not working much outside the home.

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