catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 13 :: 2012.06.22 — 2012.07.05


Fast food and forgetfulness

Fast food is one of the most basic manifestations of a society adept at achieving efficiency. We see this not just in the production and preparation of the food itself, but also in the transfer of the food (the giving, the transaction), as well as, and perhaps most significantly, in the consumption of this kind of food. We want to have food ready for us, when and where we want it, we don’t want to spend long eating it (and often not with others), and we’re not surprised that those we expect to prepare the food don’t want to spend too long on the task themselves.

Almost all of us, at some point or another and for widely varying reasons, have taken advantage of fast food outlets, so we should be wary of judging the phenomenon too harshly. Nevertheless, there are countless good reasons to be concerned about fast food and other efficiency-seeking endeavours.

Often, efficiency comes at a cost, whether it be jobs, environmental impact, community cohesion or relationships, or simply disengagement between individual consumers on one hand, and the processes, products and other people they would interact with on the other hand. These can all be very serious problems, and often underestimated. What causes us to uncritically accept efficiency in so many areas of our lives is what I’ll talk about briefly here: with efficiency comes the danger of forgetfulness.

When I speak of forgetfulness, it’s not having trouble with names or leaving the gas cooker on at home that I’m referring to (serious as they each may be), but rather a deeper forgetfulness. It is when we forget how we survive, where we come from, even who we are — that is the loss of awareness that we can risk when we commit too heavily to efficiency as a priority.

And fast food is a highly loaded example. Few aspects of our lives are more primal, more basic than our need for food as a people. Food is central to our survival, and has been important (sometimes too important) to cultures and faith traditions throughout history. For the majority of our existence as a species, a significant portion of our time has been occupied with the finding, growing, preparing and consuming of food — the decline in emphasis on food in our daily lives is really quite astonishing.

As I suggested before, efficiency is not in principle a bad thing, and that we no longer need to invest such great effort into our food survival is something to be celebrated (how else would we carve out time to watch American Idol?). Similarly, efficiency, although in this piece usually meaning time and financial cost, also applies to things like energy, and we’d in big trouble if we returned to the days of heating homes or cooking food with open fires.

There is however, a threshold we might cross (I won’t dare hazard where that might be) beyond which we no longer really know the meaning, or the importance, of certain parts of our lives, including food. Although fast food is perhaps the pinnacle of our divorce from food (until we broach the territory of meal-by-capsule), it is of course a wider issue that impacts our food life far beyond McDonald’s and Subway. The contemporary supermarket at least brings us into contact with base foods (with ingredients), but that is of course alongside ready-made meals and Cheez Whiz, and we might be forgiven for having no idea how it all got there.

The forgetfulness that I’m talking about is not a phenomenon of individuals, but of society. We should not be surprised when a child grows up never having witnessed produce growing in the ground, or milk coming from a cow, or the keeping or slaughtering of chickens, and then doesn’t hold food in a high regard, or care where it came from. The amnesia around food is a collective one, and requires collective attention.

It matters that we not become forgetful about food because it changes how we treat food. Our habits of waste; our understanding of the connection between our food and our health; our appreciation of the need to protect land, soil, the environment at large — all of these are seriously impacted by our separation from food. The faster the food, the further the food — not geographically, although this might often be true as well, but conceptually. In buying a Big Mac (or, in my case, a greasy veggie burger at the local kebab shop), we skip seeds being sown, grown and harvested, the pounding of wheat into flour, the baking of bread, the raising of cattle, the transporting of all these foods to us, the cooking of the ingredients, and all of the human labor along the way. Many authors (Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry come to mind quickly) have written ever so eloquently about our separation from processes of food growing, I can only point in the direction of their excellent articles and books.

I’ll say, again, that this separation, from time to time, isn’t necessarily a problem at all. It’s certainly not bad (air travel ethics aside) to have easy-to-prepare food thousands of feet in the air (we certainly can’t be waiting for yogurt cultures to do their thing up there), or that we can eat Powerbars on the way up mountains. It is the cumulative impact of persistent ignorance of where our food comes from that we need to watch out for. Weeks, months, years without being reminded what we’re surviving on, and we will forget.

How do we remember? We remember by inserting ourselves into the process from seed to “ready” to witness what needs to happen. Cooking ingredients from a supermarket is okay, buying ingredients from a farmer’s market is very good, and growing food with our own two hands — even better!

And that is of course only the “before” to “ready to eat” stage of food life. We are perhaps even more forgetful about the “I can’t finish that” and “what did that come in?” twist of the story and onwards. The waste of both food and the packaging it comes in is sometimes unavoidable but often scandalous. Composting reminds us of the biological cycles we reside in and allows us to reduce the extent of waste, but actually witnessing a garbage dump may be the best way to drive home what it means for us to throw out the foam padding our fruit was packed in.

When we become forgetful in this way, we make bad decisions, and we take for granted both people and the work they do as well as land and the growth we so desperately (but often so ignorantly) depend on. However, one aspect of this forgetfulness that I haven’t yet mention is that we are at risk of forgetting God.

I don’t of course mean that, for those of us who believe in God, we will lose our faith if we pass some Big Mac quota. No, instead I mean that chronic divorce from where food comes from will lead us to forget God’s connection with our food — God as divine Creator, Nurturer, Provider.

Even if we’ve passed through stages of reminding ourselves who prepared our food, and then to who grew our food, and then to the land the food was grown in, we are still forgetting God as the source of all life. If we have no gratitude for the people who provided us with nourishment or no appreciation of the processes that had to take place for us to eat, how will we remember to thank God for the gift of food?

I’ll leave this open question, mentioning too that it’s much more than food that we should be wary of being forgetful about. Housing, transport, all manner of products of a modern society — we are highly prone to seeing only what is in front of us and forgetting about everything hidden. It will be lifelong work for all of us (as collectives, not individuals) to find ways of shaking ourselves out of dreamy obliviousness to fuller understanding of the people, processes, and costs behind so much of what we interact with.

And we should remember that there are many, many tried and tested methods and good role models out there to help us. One example that comes to mind is from a book I recently reviewed by author and speaker Nancy Sleeth, called Almost Amish. She cites one Amish practice of using diesel generators and an inverter to run small household appliances, and explains, “The conscious decision to make power loud, costly and inconvenient leads people to use less of it and to live more mindfully.” Although we might not go to such lengths ourselves, this example of how to avoid forgetfulness could help us imagine other places in our lives where we might want to eschew efficiency to help us remember.

One practice to leave you with I draw directly from the wonderful catapult senior editor, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma. From eating many meals with her and her husband Rob during a summer spent in southwest Michigan, I recall fondly a regular practice of going item by item through the constituent parts of the meal being shared and naming where they came from and how they were prepared. What a wonderful ritual of remembrance! Imagine replicating this in other areas of life…

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