Facing our fears

Last week I played around with blogger a bit and discovered the "survey" function. A few of you responded to my survey on "foods you are afraid of" -- thank you! -- but, being a social scientist myself, I realized that I started with the wrong kind of study design in the first place. What I should have done was to first elicit answers from you, my readers, and then compile a long list of "food fears" divided into major categories, perhaps things like "food contamination," "foods that are perceived to be unhealthy," "food exotica," etc. Instead, I started with some of my own fears -- past and present -- and assumed that yours would be the same. Are they? What are you afraid of eating? What do you avoid? Which labels do you read? Feel free to leave comments below. If I get enough responses, perhaps I can even venture a few generalizations...

I'll confess myself: I read labels to see what is so chock full of preservatives that it would last a nuclear winter; to guestimate the number ingredients are in the food (too many scare me); and to see if anything in the first few ingredients says "hydrogenated" or is otherwise unrecognizable as food. But I don't buy that many packaged foods anymore, so this is less and less of an issue. I owe all of this to Michael Pollan's influence. (If you are interested in food and our "national eating disorder," as he would say, The Omnivore's Dilemma should be required reading. But you don't need me to tell you that, now do you?)

As for other fears: I have been known to drink the water in foreign countries without a second thought; 
I used to have a terrible fear of ice cream because it was so difficult to stop eating; antioxidants are good but they aren't everything; and I never much cared for French fries past the age of 13 or so. You won't catch me eating bugs -- yet -- and industrial meat scares me but I still eat it because we can't afford to shell out the extra money for free-range moo-moos and oinkers, like the ones at left. (By the way, more people voted for "industrial meat products" as a fear-inducing food than anything else.) I prefer my vegetables organic (who doesn't these days?) but I don't terribly mind conventionally-grown products. 

In my experience, every effort to restrict food comes with its own madness. And so I prefer to expand my palette, to focus on what I can have and want to have, as well as what I can make with my own two hands, rather that what I cannot eat (for invented, monetary, or biological reasons). Fear can expand in strange and unexpected ways, taking up far more of our attention and energy than was our original intention when we first decided to "cut back on cholesterol" or "eat only raw foods." I would rather nip such fear in the bud by facing it head on -- by making the foods that once scared me, such as ice cream and butter, wheat bread and chocolate cake. Cooking is my remedy for food fears.

I don't have any experimental evidence to back up my claims yet -- my research interests in food are still limited to my own narrow experience -- but I believe that cooking food for oneself and others is one of the best ways to jump out of the diet rut that we too often find ourselves in. Cooking has also allowed me, perhaps ironically, to stop obsessively about what I think is in the food (fat, sugar, wheat) and actually take part in the food's making. Butter, sugar, and eggs seem a lot less frightening when you are putting together a cake for a loved one, and not thinking about your waistline. Ditto for meat and salt: when you're participating in a collective barbeque, a fear of bloating should play second fiddle to your delight in the conversation and the smell of the grill. For me, this is what cooking has allowed me to do: pay more attention to the food itself, and less attention to my fears and my obsessions.

Perhaps this is why, of all the possible food fears, packaged foods feature so high on my own list: devoid of character, practically devoid of origin, they are disorienting and deceptive; they are, I think, what got me in trouble in the first place, what spurred on my eating disorder. There is not much of the libertarian in me, but when it comes to industrial products, I feel the urge to go down to Times Square on a Sunday afternoon and wear a sandwich board that reads "GET OUT OF MY FOOD." Perhaps I won't be as entertaining as the Naked Cowboy, but at least I'll have had my say.


Tiptoe said...

Fears and obsessions can definitely take a hold of you. You're right that it is often easier to try to nip it in the bud first rather than let it take hold.

I think it is great that you're using cooking as a way of facing fears. Cooking/baking is kind of a double-edged sword with me. I love making foods for other people, just not necessarily for myself. That was pre-ED but just continued on through my crisis bouts of ED. I do remember making beautiful cakes and dishes. Everyone thought I was going to go to culinary school for awhile.

To answer your question about label reading, I'd say ingredients, fat, and sodium content are high on my list of tings I look at before buying. I read both of Pollan's books and found them very interesting, except his last book made me feel a little guilty about eating too much processed foods. Financially, if I could, I'd probably eat everything organic.

As for fear foods, I'm not really sure the foods I think of as "fear" are really about fear or more that I simply do not like them. Cheese, for example is one.

Anonymous said...

Thought you would like this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/17/dining/17diet.html?em

Ai Lu said...

I have known other people with eating disorders who cook for others without eating the food themselves -- that hasn't been the case for me, but I can understand how it might be another way to channel food obsessions. What a fine line there is between health and illness, passion and obsession!
I also have foods that I just don't like the taste of -- dill pickles and black olives, to name two. These aren't food fears so much as dislikes, I think.
Ai Lu