Monday, November 30, 2009

Organic, Vegetarian, or Vegan?

As a restauranteur, I have committed myself to serving food. That may sound obvious but it’s really a novel concept. You see, all too many restaurants today are just retailers for big companies that push large volumes of food, filler materials and chemicals through factories that spit out product in frozen, canned, or dried form. It’s my feeling that if I am going to cook you lunch then I should actually be in the kitchen chopping onion, celery, mushrooms, garlic and throwing them into a big stew pot with olive oil, salt, and pepper – not opening a can or a bucket.

This process is definitely not rocket science but it takes a lot of commitment to stick to fresh ingredients wherever possible and to continue cooking food on the day it is to be served. Everyday that I toil away in the kitchen I can’t help but think of all the brochures on my desk for frozen or pre-processed ‘product’ that could eliminate so much of my work. The most noticeable difference between ‘real’ and ‘factory’ food is in the colour of the finished product. The colour palette of factory food is heavily weighted towards browns and grays. After colour - aroma and flavour are the next casualties of factory processing. Reduced nutritional value may not be readily noticeable, but how good could it be after so much colour, aroma, and flavour have been removed?

Even worse than factory food, is ‘convenience’ food. This is food that is not only factory processed, but it is even further manipulated to make it easy to eat while on the run – with little or no regard for the nutritional pitfalls that this extra processing compounds. It’s no secret that even a small serving of convenience food can pack a walloping dose of carbs and fat while still leaving you hungry. The same amount of carbs and fat from real food often results in a portion size that could easily satisfy two people.

Recognizing this, the factory food industry tried to solve the problem that they had created with convenience food by introducing ‘diet’ food. This food is artificially manipulated to reduce carbs and fat while at the same time still failing to deliver colour, aroma, or flavour. To convince you that diet food is the panacea you’ve been searching for, processors drop in some vitamins or minerals to help you overlook the lack of naturally occurring nutrients which results after so much processing.

It’s interesting to look through an archive of high school yearbooks that spans as early as the 1960’s up to today. If you also grab a stack of magazines that span the same period, you will quickly notice a disturbing correlation between obese teenagers and the types of ads carried in the magazines. As the magazines become inundated with ads for convenience foods, teenagers begin to look fatter and there is a noticeable increase in acne. Then, as the convenience food ads begin to share space with diet food ads, the teenagers begin to look worse; not just fatter, but at that point some look malnourished and others look just plain ill. Don’t take my word for it, please try this experiment at home kids.

You start out eating convenience food and your body doesn’t know what to do with all those empty calories. Without the nutritional components required to maintain a healthy body there is little to do with all the excess energy aside from storing it as fat. Now you are fat and undernourished so you reach for a package of low-carb, low-fat flavourless goo – after all, the package says it contains ‘riboflavin’. What the package doesn’t tell you, however, is that the ‘riboflavin’ is only one of dozens of nutrients that your body will need to repair the damage you did with the convenience food. You push the goo into your pie hole and discover, to your amazement, that you are remarkably unsatisfied. Your body still doesn’t have the materials it needs to make you healthy and now it doesn’t know what to do with all the other non-food crap that’s piling up from this factory diet.

What you are doing is the dietary equivalent of using sleeping pills in the evening, amphetamines in the morning, popping a vitamin supplement in the afternoon, and trying to survive on espresso and bonbons. Something has got to give, and most likely it’ll be your internal organs. I can’t begin to tell you how different you would feel if you just stopped eating all that factory food.

The problem with avoiding factory food is that it takes a lot of time to do all that shopping and cooking – trust me, I know; I’m still thinking about those brochures on my desk that could save me so much time in the kitchen. It’s human nature to avoid taking responsibility for your own situation and that is why people turn to religion. Why go through the hassle of facing the problems that you have created for yourself when you can much more easily follow some arbitrary set of dogma that promises you absolution?

This is why the dietary religions have begun to thrive. The first one is the ‘organic’ movement. Now, by the classic definition, real food IS organic, but that’s not what disciples of the organic movement mean when they use the word. Followers of this movement use the word ‘organic’ to refer to food that has been produced without the use of man-made chemicals. It’s hard enough in our modern society to avoid factory processed food, but to try and follow a diet that goes one step further and requires that no factory products were used in the production of the food is veritably impossible. Sure, you can go to the local ‘organic’ market and buy some naturally farmed asparagus from some Birkenstock-wearing hippy, but that isn’t going to undo the damage done by that mini-tub of Haagen-Dazs cookie dough explosion you sucked down last week while watching An Inconvenient Truth.

To make matters worse, the factory food industry has latched onto this ridiculous religion and started producing a plethora of organic convenience food. This food may at least be free the traces of agricultural chemicals found in other convenience food, but it still usually fails to deliver colour, aroma, and flavour. Organic coffee has to be the most ludicrous development in the organic movement – as emphasized by the fair trade coffee movement. The fact is that most coffee beans are grown by small operators who can barely make a living. How then does anyone suppose that they are importing expensive agricultural chemicals to boost their production? Furthermore, with the United States flying clandestine operations to spray herbicide on drug crops throughout the coffee belt, how can anyone certify that coffee crops from these countries are untainted?

The only compelling arguments that I have heard for organic food are not based on nutritional aspirations at all. The philosophy is that by trying to eat mostly organic foods a person can help reduce the amount of farm chemical being used and thereby save the world from pollution. That sounds great to me, I guess, but all too often the disciples of this philosophy are such hypocrites that I just can’t muster the courage to drink their Kool-Aid. One day I actually encountered such a potent sample of this hypocrisy that it’s almost impossible for me to believe that so many elements came together at once. A large SUV screeched to a halt in front of the bistro and a tiny woman jumped out, bleeping on the alarm, only to leave her environmental assault vehicle running. She strode in and headed straight for the washroom with her cell phone to her ear.

As she passed the register she commanded, “One grande sugar-free caramel half-caf organic fat free soy latte to go!”

I tried to interject but she just gave me the ‘talk to the hand’ gesture and sped straight to the washroom. Normally a bistro with an espresso machine can make a fortune off of an order like this, but being in Humbug there was no way I could afford to keep soy milk in stock for the few occasions that some big city big shot sped through. There is no way to appease them once they realize there is no soy milk so, early on, I decided to just torture them instead. I went about my business and savoured her return.

Returning from the washroom still at full stride she began to pull out her platinum card at the register. She looked around and said, “Where’s my coffee?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, “I tried to tell you that I don’t have any soy milk.”

“What!” she exclaimed.

“There just isn’t much call for it around here,” I explained.

“Well make it with skim then, I’m in a hurry!”

“Sorry, no skim either. This is a small town and it just goes sour between orders.”

“The place that used to be here always kept both soy and skim on hand,” she scolded.

“They also went out of business,” I chuckled.

“Do you at least have 1% milk?” she asked.

“Perhaps I should first tell you that I don’t carry organic coffee.”

“What! How can you NOT have organic coffee?”

“Again, just not much call for it around here.”

“Well don’t you at least care about the pollution from all those farm chemicals?”

“Last I heard, Monsanto wasn’t exactly doing a brisk business in Columbia. Mostly I focus on more practical things, like driving a fuel efficient car and turning it off when I leave it parked,” I said, smiling and looking out the window at her SUV.

“Look,” she said, angrily, “I am a sales rep for a big company and I have a HUGE territory. I need to have a vehicle that is dependable on icy roads. That’s just the nature of my job!”

“I see,” I hummed, “so what do you sell?”

“Organic snack foods,” she answered.

The irony was just too priceless and I burst out in laughter.

“What’s so damn funny about that?” she demanded.

“Oh, I was just thinking about my commitment to natural ingredients.”

“You don’t even carry organic coffee,” she said, accusingly.

“That’s true, but I also don’t carry artificial ingredients. That means that I don’t have any sugar-free caramel flavouring either.”

“What’s wrong with sugar-free caramel syrup?”

“Well, first off, there is no such thing as sugar-free syrup. Syrup, by definition, is a solution of water and sugar. Secondly, caramel is really just burnt sugar. The only way to have a sugar-free caramel flavouring is to use some chemically simulated caramel flavour and then sweeten it with a chemically simulated artificial sweetener. I would think someone so devoted to an ‘organic’ lifestyle would already know this.”

She huffed and she puffed and she blew herself out the door while I laughed a good hardy laugh. Perhaps it was cruel of me because, I have to admit, if I had opened my bistro in Cuspidor I would have loved customers like her. Maybe I was beginning to absorb some Humbug ‘redneckedness’ and starting to lose my ability to commune with city folk. It was also possible that the espresso machine was just having an effect on me and I was becoming one of those arrogant baristas that just seems to revel in belittling coffee drinkers of all shapes and sizes. All things considered, though, I have always hated the hypocrisy of dietary cults.

The second dietary cult that gets on my nerves is the vegetarian movement. First off, there is no nutritional benefit to being a vegetarian. Cheese can often contain far more saturated fats than good cuts of pork or beef. Vegetarianism is really more of a warm and fuzzy movement by those who think they are saving the animals. My counter-argument to this is that if bald eagles tasted as good as chicken then they wouldn’t be nearly extinct; there would be huge warehouses chock full of eagle coops just ripe for the slaughter. If you really want to save an animal then you should start a high end restaurant that serves it to discriminating diners, then you’ll find all sorts of farmers interested in breeding the animal and its population will grow.

The other problem with vegetarians is that they have even more variation in their dogma than Christianity. Some vegetarians are fine with eating fish while others go so far as to eat chicken. I once stood in line behind a self-proclaimed vegetarian who ordered a veggie burger topped with bacon. There is just no end to the hypocrisy of vegetarians. They expect you to serve them a vegetarian entrée when they dine in your home but never feel the slightest bit compelled to prepare some good old fashioned flesh for the carnivore guests who visit their homes.

The third dietary cult is veganism. I can actually tolerate vegans who have taken the time to learn a bit about nutrition. A properly balanced vegan diet is actually incredibly healthy. The trouble is that most vegans subvert their intellect to a ridiculous dogma that declares the thirteen essential amino acids to be a myth. This goes all the way back to the problems with factory food. There is a lot more to proper nutrition than carbs, fat, and protein. Animal sourced proteins provide all of the required amino acids for repairing muscle and maintaining healthy organs. Vegetable proteins have to be combined to produce the same effect. This is why so many vegans walk around looking like a bag of antlers. It’s rare in North American to run across a vegan who isn’t suffering from mal-nutrition.

One such skeleton hiked into my bistro one day and approached the register. I was a bit frightened by this creepy looking little woman because I was half expecting her to scratch the counter and wail, “More brains!” To my horror she actually did scratch at the counter as she groaned, “What are me veeeee-gan options?”

“What?” I asked - a little frightened.

“My veeeee-gan options?” she rasped.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure. Mostly salads, I guess.”

“Don’t you have any couscous?”

“Really I don’t.”

“Then I’ll have a latte,” she blared.

“I don’t actually have any soy milk,” I said, apologetically.

“That’s fine, I prefer whole milk.”

Scratching my head, I turned to prepare her a whole milk latte.

Oddly enough this woman kept coming back. She rarely asked if I had any vegan options but always had a plain, whole milk latte. She often came in with friends and sipped her latte as she told them how she didn’t need whole proteins to be healthy. I always felt that if it weren’t for the whole milk in her lattes, she might very well wither and die.

Her hollow, dark eyes gave me a little insight into the Humbugger penchant for ‘SUPE’, however. Almost every time I heard a Humbugger exclaim, “YUCK!” it was in response to something that contained vegetables. All of them hated bell peppers and they had an incredible aversion to wraps. I repeatedly ran across Humbuggers who had never seen fresh spinach before as well.

Perhaps the vacant, hollow eyes of Humbuggers were caused by malnutrition from not eating their vegetables. They usually behaved like children so it wasn’t a stretch to think that they avoided vegetables at all costs. With their bodies craving vegetables and their childlike minds despising greens, they wandered like zombies through the streets, seeking out the nutrition in the broth of ‘SUPE’.