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The Tyranny Of Food & The Freedom Not To Eat

In a land in which food has become a secular religion I have chosen to become a heretic and a non-believer. Once upon a time, I lived to eat. Now I eat to live. Not eating or even eating modestly feels like a subversive activity when all around me in northern California I’m almost constantly urged to eat three meals a today, enjoined to go to restaurants, buy lunch and dinner to go, shop and cook and then sit down to a meal. Just thinking about food makes me feel exhausted.

Once upon a time, eating was a labor of love, whether it was eating fish and chips with vinegar in England, or mussels and French fries with mayonnaise in Belgium. Now, eating feels like a labor-intensive activity, and, while I try my best to eat healthy I have come to believe that almost everything I put into my body, including alcohol, does my body little if any good. Of course, it’s all about dosage, portions and servings. I read the labels. I notice the junk that’s in much of the food I buy and it makes me sick just to think about it. As often as possible, I eat organic fruits and vegetables, very little if any red meat, some grains, no pasta, no rice, and no white bread, except on the rare occasion when I don’t want to offend a host. That’s as good an excuse as any to have a slice from a baguette.

Eating is one of my occupational hazards. I write about food, farming and eating, which Wendell Berry calls “an agricultural act.” The trouble is that people eat as though it’s a clear blow for the environment and agricultural workers.

I also review restaurants for publication, and I belong to the local chapter of an international organization called Slow Food, which was founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini, an ex-Communist Party member. Only a left-wing ideologue could have created an international food organization that was meant to help the downtrodden of the developing world and to defend the rights of the peasantry in Asia, South America and Africa.

In a country like the U.S.A., where there is no longer a peasantry it is difficult if not impossible to live up to the letter if not the spirit of the organization that Petrini founded in large part to halt the spread of fast food globally. Petrini had a good idea, much as “Peace, Bread and Land” was a good idea, as is the slogan “Love People and Feed them” which was coined by a Hindu guru and mystic named Neem Karoli Baba Maharajii. Fast food is right now unstoppable. Just look at China, Russia, India, France and Italy and notice the spread of fast food chains.

My own parents, who were long-time Communist Party members, would no doubt join Slow Food U.S.A. provided they were still alive. And if they were still alive they would no doubt still argue about food. My father was pro-Soviet. My mother was pro-Chinese in the days of the Sino-Soviet split which rocked the Communist world, and that was indeed all over the world. My parents battled about Mao, Stalin and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but food was the real issue that divided them.

My father craved meat and the organic potatoes, which he grew with his own hands on a small farm in western Sonoma County, along with the marijuana that was his cash crop. When I was a boy, my mother gave my father what he wanted, but in her 60s she converted to brown rice, tofu, yogurt and leafy greens. My father rebelled against her regimen and I helped him rebel by smuggling pizza home that he devoured as fast as possible behind my mother’s back. On the communes all around us, food was also an issue, with the vegetarians at odds with the meat eaters and with communards occasionally coming to blows about sprouts.

Food has always been a political issue now perhaps more than ever before. A friend who is constantly organizing events and urging citizens to march, rally and protest, told me recently that in order to motivate people you have to give them either sex or food. Once upon a time you could provide sex, or at least create situations in which sex was likely. I can remember events in say 1969 and 1970 when I’d be perfectly happy to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread and to be in bed with a young woman. Now, the sex or food option seems to be expanding with new alternatives. Maybe now you have to give citizens marijuana, especially if you want to rally citizens around the cause of cannabis.

There is always food at events sponsored by Slow Food, U.S.A. Indeed, eating is the primary activity at Slow Food events. Carlo Perini’s slogan, “buono, pulito e giusto”—which has been translated into English as “good, clean and fair”—has gotten lost in the sheer abundance of food on the table in the homes of Slow Food members.

If you want to be part of a crowd, to belong to an organization, and to join movements, you are obliged to sit and break bread with you fellows. That is, unless you’re on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions or torture. There, too, food is a weapon. If you’re a prisoner and you don’t eat, you will likely be force-fed. You will not even be allowed the freedom not to eat. "I am human, I eat" might be my clarion call.

Those of us on the outside of state and federal prisons usually have the choice of what to eat, where and when and how. I do. I think about what I’m going to eat everyday and everyday I make decisions. I don’t see what other path there is unless it’s the path not to eat all and to end one’s life. Sooner or later that’s how it ends for many of us, though to the end my father wanted to eat pizza and my mother wanted to feed him tofu.

I used to travel to destinations near and far to eat. Indeed, eating was the paramount reason for traveling, whether it was to the town of Mendocino where I enjoyed meals at Café Beaujolais, or to New York where I made a beeline for the Gramercy Tavern on East 20th Street and where I sometimes had to fight for a seat at the bar. Competition was fierce. The last time I was there I sat next to a woman from Chicago who had come to New York to be interviewed for a job in an architecture firm. She had hours to kill before her flight back home. There she was at the bar of the Gramercy Tavern picking at her food and sipping her Manhattan while I sipped a Prosecco and tried to enjoy the entrée that didn’t taste nearly as good as I wanted it to taste.

The Gramercy isn’t what it was years ago—a kind of sacred place where my older brother always paid and never complained about paying. I knew he loved me because he took me to the Gramercy. Still, the next time I’m in New York, I’ll probably go back if only to see if the menu is the same, or if it has changed, if the bartenders are new, and if the dining room is still packed with gentlemen in ties and jackets and women with furs and jewelry. Eating at the Gramercy is a way of spying on the rich. I’ll never be able to join their elite company, but at least I can pretend to be part of their world for a couple of hours. I suffer the food and enjoy bourgeois life as an interloper.

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