Is It Food?

Somewhere in the Talmud (I’ll find the reference sometime), the definition of something which isn’t food is, roughly, “So disgusting that a dog won’t eat it.” If a dog won’t eat it, it really isn’t food. (Unless it’s orange peels, which is about the only thing that Sadie won’t eat. Oh, and vinegar.)

OK, nifsal doesn’t really mean “disgusting,” and vinegar is actually one of my favorite foods. Nifsal means “inappropriate” or “unusable” or “unfit.” So the phrase could mean, “Something you wouldn’t even feed to your dog.” Which is, in my admittedly limited experience — Sadie is my first dog — a much larger category! Since we wouldn’t intentionally feed her old tissues, but … well, you get the idea.

Either way, the phrase refers to substances which might be ingested by human beings (e.g. pills, lipstick) but which really have nothing to do with food.

An article in last week’s New York Times Magazine suggests that an awful lot of what we (Americans) eat really has little or nothing to do with food. Worse, the way we think about what we eat has little or nothing to do with food. Food is what grows or develops on the planet: Plants, animals, the occasional mineral or fungus or mold. But we think about “nutrients” and “micronutrients” and “fat” and “carbs” and “fiber” and so on, and try to eat the right things and avoid the wrong things. I see it in my teenage foster daughter, who wants to know “should I eat this?” The question, of course, is misleading; what she and we should be eating is a healthy combination. Of real foods. In appropriate amounts. There aren’t actually “good foods” and “bad foods.”

The writer of the article, Michael Pollan, gives us the complete instructions in the first 7 words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Then he goes on to explain why we don’t understand what “food” is anymore, why we rarely get advice that tells us to limit a specific kind of FOOD (e.g. beef, as opposed to limiting e.g. “fat intake”), and why the hunks of meat that are the centerpiece of our eating are still there after all these years. (Did you ever learn, like I did, that an appropriately-sized serving of meat is about the size of a deck of playing cards? I’m still incredulous. Except that if I think of meat as a flavouring, as it is in e.g. much Asian stir-fry, then it makes sense.)

It mostly comes down to powerful producers and manufacturers and their lobbying groups, to nobody’s great surprise.

When I was in Israel 3 years ago, I saw a neat exhibit in the Children’s section of the Israel Museum. It was a huge shopping cart, regular sized but as tall as the 30-foot (or so) ceiling. And in that shopping cart was a year’s worth of groceries as bought by an average Israeli family. No, not real food, but artful representations, stratified into layers by kind.

What really struck me was the proportion of cans and boxes and jars to fresh veggies, bread, and dairy. Fresh far outweighed pre-packaged or pre-prepared anything. And I just know that it wouldn’t be the same in America. And yet we are constantly looking for “healthy” and “natural” and “nutritious” — on boxes and labels of processed food, right?

By focussing on “nutrition” instead of “food,” we are mucking about in delicate symbiotic relationships between us and the world, relationships whose balances have evolved over millenia. We really have no idea what we’re doing, thinking that we can make a list of “nutrients” into a menu. There are 38 anti-oxidants found in garden-variety thyme alone! (See p. 44 of the magazine, if you have it.) One little herb! One category of micro-nutrient!

So here’s the deal: If your great-great grandmother wouldn’t have recognized it, don’t eat it. Get it fresh and local if you can. Grow your own or know your grower. Cut out corn syrup entirely; scratch “hydrogenated” from your shopping list. Take the time to cook the beans from scratch. That means taking the time and planning ahead.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Because it turns out that an awful lot of what we eat is nifsal mey-achilat kelev, something that even your dog wouldn’t recognize as food.

(You can read the Intro and first chapter of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, on-line here if you have Adobe Reader.  It’s worth it.)