Saturday, April 4, 2015

(Processed) Food for Thought

As I chewed over the idea that remnant morsels of my luncheon salad of kale, beet chips, quinoa and edamame might possibly linger in my teeth for an entire afternoon’s entertainment of picking the bits out, I congratulated myself on such a “good-for-me,” nutritious meal.

Meanwhile, every fiber of my being screamed, “Good for me?!? Bleccccchhhhh!” 

If someone had told me when I was a kid – a vegetable-hater of a kid – that I would someday eat edamame, I would have launched a spit wad of mashed potatoes off a spoon at them. These modern health foods certainly were not in my family’s diet out there in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. What WAS good for us, according to my mother, was whole milk, bread crusts, mashed potatoes and canned cream corn. “I don’t LIKE mashed potatoes!! I don’t wanna eat my bread crusts!!! I hate creamed corn!!!!!” I’d whine.  “Too bad. Eat them anyway. They’re good for you.” The ultimate Mom sentence that shut down any debate about leaving the kitchen table until your plate was cleaned off.

And what about the advice you hear from nutrition experts these days that we should avoid processed foods and only consume food that our grandmothers ate?  I am old enough to be a grandmother so I am not sure what age group they are referring to. If they’re telling younger generations to eat what we did, then it would be Kraft dinner and bologna on white bread.

Processed foods aren’t exactly new. My grandmother was born in 1891. Growing up, she probably ate Campbell’s canned soups and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, both of which came on the market in the 1890s. Foods like these were thought to be not only labor-saving but healthful! Today they're considered poisons by the Whole Foods set. My grandmother lived to 83.

Looking back, I’d have to say that by 1950s and 60s standards, my mother fed us fairly wholesome meals. In those days, when everyone except my family owned a freezer, my mother shopped for fresh food every day. Today, she might be considered a true revolutionary. During the short Manitoba summer growing season, my parents traveled far and wide to gather fresh veg from farmers’ markets and roadside stands. The rest of the year mother walked to our neighborhood Tomboy grocery to buy meat, potatoes and vegetables for dinner. “Fresh” veggies in those days, out on the flats in the Canadian midwinter, consisted of turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions. The occasional Brussels sprout or cauliflower that might be available was cooked to mush with every drop of nutrition boiled the heck out of it. Other veggies, too exotic for the Prairie winter, came in cans: Niblets corn, tomatoes, beans and peas that had a sinister grey pallor to them. I was 17 before I ever saw a stalk of broccoli.

My mother’s menu had a comforting weekly rhythm to it: roast beef and potatoes on Sunday, left over roast on Monday, fried chicken legs sprinkled with dehydrated onion flakes on Tuesday (with mashed potatoes), one of mother’s famous ground beef concoctions on Wednesday (with mashed potatoes), pork chops cooked in Campbell's mushroom soup on Thursday (with mashed potatoes.) Dinner was eaten out at a restaurant on Friday (Rae and Jerry’s for you Winnipeggers reading this) and then she’d prepare something “casual” on Saturday, like burgers or chili con carne or fried rice with shrimps.

Up the street, my friend's family ate all the new, amazing, packaged, processed foods her parents bought at the Co-op. Her family had a freezer, into which they stuffed Swanson’s TV dinners, Pillsbury crescent rolls, Bird’s Eye peas and marvelous loaves of Wonder Bread. I thought everything at their house tasted better than at home. I was fascinated by the chemically, sharp, bright tastes. I was awe struck by the fact that a wad of Wonder bread with a little saliva added could be crafted into a marble just perfect for playing Ringers. My mother despaired when I’d come home pleading with her to buy Tang orange “drink” or Green Giant frozen mixed vegetables. And then she’d serve us what my brother and I called “Halloween Surprise”: mashed carrots and turnips. “They’re good for you!”


So here’s the thing: whenever I hear THOSE words, “Good for you,” my teeth clamp together, my lips slam shut and I assume my best pouty face. Can’t help it. Kale and quinoa might as well be canned peas to me.