MERCURY IN the tuna. Mad cow and E. coli in the beef. PCBs in the farmed salmon, salmonella in the chicken. Frankenstein genes in the corn, hormones and antibiotics in the turkey. Veal calves living in boxes, pigs in factory farms. Winter produce? Largely imported, irradiated, gassed with pesticides, and probably last federally inspected under the Carter administration.
Once upon a time, eating was a simple and grateful thing, not a political act, moral statement or calculation of risk. Canned meant convenient. Imported meant upscale. And meat was merely part of a meal, not a mortal question.
But in Pugetopia, an abundance of choice, disposable income, information and of course, our culture of gravitas ("We love the rain! It makes us read more books!") combine to form the natural habitat of the Earnest Eater.
A sober citizen who wants to be kind to animals; to family farmers; to Third World countries; who yearns to be gentle with our dewy glade of a planet and avoid E. coli, antibiotics and all the rest.
But for the Earnest Eater, eating industrial is lazy! Uninformed! One step up from daytime TV and pulp fiction! A weakness indulged under a busy whip of scorn.
For the trouble with Eating Earnest in Pugetopia land of the fresh, local, seasonal, organic, sustainable, humane, third-party-certified mantra of pure is that the means for eating virtuously are everywhere. In grocery stores that are temples of political correctness. On snug little boutique farms or in the markets they supply. And even by subscription from farmers who, in return for a fat check, will deliver weekly installments of foods fairly shining with beatitude.
Which only means that every time the Earnest Eater chows down a factory-farmed chicken, it's a character flaw. Every fast-food burger inhaled is a stain on the soul.
It's the food we don't want to be seen with, that libidinous mouthful of luscious mall pizza, grease pooling in the cupped pink slices of pepperoni.
Never mind that we nearly all once ate industrial for a reason.
It's quick. It's cheap. It's everywhere, all under one roof.
REMEMBER WHEN distance from the actual stoop labor of farming, slaughtering, canning and even cooking was considered convenient?
Never in the history of the world have people been able to spend so little money, time and attention on gathering and preparing food if they so choose. A gift of liberation, especially for women.
The Coast Salish tribes created one of the most complex societies known in aboriginal times in part because their primary food, salmon, swam right to their door.
When the white guys showed up and tried to make them farm, interest was scant.
Farming, once considered the root of democracy, has since become more like a military campaign, with efficiency uber alles.
Add the chemists with their flavorings, colorings, stabilizers, homogenizers and preservatives, and some of this industrially produced stuff won't even rot. Ever try your basic white bread for bait? It stays in a nice, tight, little ball on the hook underwater all afternoon.
But somehow, what's been understood as drudgery chasing after and fixing food since we first crawled out of the ooze has, of late, been elevated to virtue.
"Organic, non-genetically-modified, whole-kernel corn, ground by traditional handcut volcanic millstones," promises the sack of very earnest tortilla chips.
But the trouble with Eating Earnest is the more you know, the worse it gets. By now, unless you grew it yourself, or know who did, you might as well just eat that pepperoni pizza with a smile.
Ours is, after all, a food system just perfect for a people who have elevated denial to a national art form.
A food system with meat in little track-lit trays, resting in peace on tissue doilies to sop up the blood, lest it puddle in unseemly rebuke under the shrink-wrap.
What if produce came stamped like a passport with all the borders it crossed to get here? Or a little odometer, to record the miles traveled? What if pesticide residues still there, the food police warn, even after washing glowed on those lustrous, sexily out-of-season goodies from hither and yon?
What if slaughterhouses gave tours?
Denial? Bring it on. For the average eater, "Who knew?" in the realm of the dinner plate quickly gives way to "Who wants to?"
But not so for the Earnest Eater, who insists on probing ever deeper, to Know Where Food Comes From.
Fish? It must be wild! Never farmed! Caught with hook and line, never a net. Chicken or eggs? Off again to the local farm for naturally nested, hormone-free. One grocery for cruelty-free milk, another for organic vegetables and meat. And don't forget to stop again for the fair-trade, shade-grown, organic coffee.
Even an Earnest Eater can't help wondering, aren't those eggs and chickens at the store good enough?
But if those hens can't go outside to scratch and cluck as they like? Are they de-beaked? Force molted? And what does that stamp on the egg-carton flap, "animal care certified" mean, exactly?
It's winter, after all, and the farmer left a nice little hand-written note on his price list, saying it reflects his higher costs in winter. And the Earnest Eater is supposed to eat with the seasons, yea, bow to their rhythms, support the family farmer.
See for themselves the hens zipping around the barnyard, the pigs rooting lustily, and the sheep snoozing in their thick, fleecy coats. Put money right in the hand that feeds you, support Pugetopian agriculture. Serve chicken purchased so fresh that (gulp) it's not even cold yet.
Never mind that spending more time and money getting the shopping done means less time and money for the Earnest Eater's own little life.
Never mind, either, about all the greenhouse gasses expelled as the Earnest Eater turns one errand into five.
IT USED TO BE everyone knew where their food came from and how it was produced, because they grew it, or knew who did.
To not know or care where food comes from is to have your head and hands busy with other things.
Industrialized, depersonalized and globalized, nearly all our food gradually became mystery meat.
But a steady drumbeat of dire headlines from tainted hamburgers to the country's first mad cow right here at home have made it hard for even the most blissful ignorance to remain intact.
More than a decade since the E. coli scare in Washington state in 1993, not a food group remains beyond reproach. And the voices of doom are everywhere:
Along with their upscale outdoor gear, customers at Seattle's Patagonia can pick up a free Seafood MiniGuide for their (newly emptied) wallets.
IF THE BEEF doesn't kill you I will, says a chicken pointing a loaded gun on billboard advertisements put out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which clearly sees opportunity in our mad cow.
"Seafood and Produce Top Food Poisoning Culprits," intones a news release from the Ralph Nader spin-off, Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, D.C.
"Think organic fruits and vegetables free of pesticides? Think again," says the Associated Press in its account of pesticide residues found even on organic produce.
The feds report that fewer than 2 percent of approximately 6 million entries of imported food from more than 100 countries were inspected in fiscal year 2003, up from less than 1 percent in 2001.
And responsibility for food safety is split among at least nine federal agencies from the Department of Agriculture to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. Even when tainted food is discovered, the feds can't order a recall. It's voluntary, up to the producer.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control reports food poisoning is on the rise, with contaminated food causing 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States. Home to the much-vaunted safest food supply in the world.
ANOTHER TROUBLE with Eating Earnest is it can't fix everything. It is, in fact, replete with ironies all its own.
Buy local, decides the Earnest Eater. This is Pugetopia, after all, land of plenty.
But all those lovely, locally grown Washington specialty crops? Asparagus? Cherries? Apples? Peaches? Pears?
They are the fruit of the labor of largely illegal immigrants, upon whose shoulders America's cheap-food policy rests.
Buy local, and in so doing profit from the labor of workers crawling from makeshift camps along irrigation ditches, in the woods or their cars to be on cherry ladders by 4:30 in the morning.
Support U.S. growers and family farms, keep them in business and their land in agriculture? Yes, oh yes, says the Earnest Eater.
Yes, and with price supports and import duties to ensure their market, despite lower costs of production nearly anywhere else, shut out producers in Third World countries for whom market access can mean living in huts made of sticks instead of mud.
Shun genetically modified crops, and in so doing see more acreage gassed with more chemical insecticides.
And, of course, the Earnest Eater's diligence has spawned a parallel industrial food system all its own: the organic food industry. It's the fastest growing segment of the food biz, with everything from organic hot dogs to organic beer.
So the Earnest Eater must be ever more vigilant: Food must be not only organic but virtuous.
In Pugetopia, even this is possible: Look hard and long enough and pay enough and you can get vegetables third-party-certified as not only organically grown but picked by workers with health insurance and housing.
Then again, you can always go back to where this all started and raise at least some food yourself.
None of this, of course, is easy for people lulled for decades into eating on automatic pilot.
Ultimately, that's the trouble with Eating Earnest.
The American Dream of eating anything you want, anytime you want, for less trouble and money than anywhere else in the world?
Too good to be true.
Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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