Politics & Policy

The Locavore’s Lament

The most important meal of the day (Dreamstime)
The foodie netroots go bananas over unsustainable breakfasts.

It’s a fine summer day, kind and blue. What shall I feel guilty about today? I know! Breakfast.

I had raisin bran. Wonderful, nutritious, unsustainable raisin bran. It was an old box, so most of the plump, unsustainable raisins had moved to the bottom. I also had sliced bananas, to indicate my complicity in global despoliation; juice from oranges whose existence should make me grey with shame; and milk saturated with the moral turpitude of immoral farm practices. And yet I ate it all, washed down with coffee that should have had UNFAIR TRADE stamped on the package, with a picture of Juan Valdez bent under a foreman’s whip.

At least the sausage was high-minded: I slaughtered the hog in the backyard and dressed the carcass, my arms bloody to the elbows; I ground the meat, noting with grim pleasure how the salt of my sweat would spice it. I packed the results into tidy patties, then put it in a box that said JIMMY DEAN and hid it in the grocery-store freezer, where I picked it up later. Really! If anyone asks, that’s my story.

It is necessary to have a qualified defense of your breakfast, because there are people who are annoyed by it. Worried. Angered. YOU HAVE BANANAS. YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE BANANAS.

From a site called Nutritional Anarchy:

Have you ever thought about how wildly unrealistic and unsustainable our current diets are?

Only when I’m at a fabulous new restaurant that’s charging $47 for kale-dusted medallions of artisanal suet, but I have the feeling that’s not what the author means.

Items that don’t grow within the same season are commonly consumed together. Things that don’t grow on the same continent are combined into all sorts of meals. We eat blueberries in December and drink pumpkin spice lattes in the summer. We eat tropical fruit with Midwestern grains. Without the transportation system, there would be absolutely no rhyme or reason to our “normal” diets.

If this were 1956, the sentiments above would precede a breathless description of the wonders of the modern age — a time when housewives can just pop open a can and schump! out comes a cylinder of solid frozen substance that transforms into juice. Wholesome, delicious juice! No more waiting for “orange season” to grind them individually into a precious ration; now your entire family can consume quarts of orange juice until their urine is almost 100 percent Vitamin C. No more rickets in the Rocket Age!

But this is 2014, and the sneer quotes around “normal” tell you that eating “blueberries in December” is precisely what’s wrong with this society. The article, “The Unsustainable Absurdity of the Average American Diet,” was passed around the Internet by all the usual Concerned Sources, and while it provides absolutely no sensible reason not to eat blueberries in December, it’s an instructive guide to what some people are worried about.

Namely, blueberries in December. But also:

Imagine if the grocery store supply lines shut down. If you had to eat what you could acquire without the national food transport network, how likely would it be that you could replicate that breakfast? It seems so simple, but it’s not going to happen.

Because we don’t grow oranges in Minnesota, any more than Florida grows wheat. In related news: People in desert climes use paper grown in distant forests. So? I can well imagine what would happen “if the grocery store supply lines shut down,” because now and then I think about an Iranian EMP taking out the national grid, and I pick up some canned beans to put in the storeroom. I think about getting a generator. Then I remember, John Kerry’s on that, and a strange calm comes over me, like a man who heard them building the gallows all night and finally sees it complete in the light of dawn. I put the beans back.

But I digress.

Think for just a moment about how ridiculous such a combination would have seemed to our ancestors.

You can just hear your great-great-grandfather scoff, can’t you? Why, there’ll be men on the moon before there’s bananas on my breakfast table. We eat a mush of crushed pig-knuckle gristle flavored with gravel, because there ain’t no fancy stores with doors that open before you get there and a nice lady handing out cheese on tapered sticks. But here we see the wisdom of the ancestors, and I’d like you to hold that thought.

If you live where wheat is growing, I’m going to guess that you do not live where bananas and oranges are growing. You’ve just invalidated the typical American breakfast in that sentence.

She’s right! Speaking the sentence aloud makes the breakfast vanish before your eyes.

Here’s an example of a breakfast you could acquire at the right time of year without a visit to the store. It took less than 5 minutes to make — it was truly as fast as that hypothetical bowl of cereal with the sliced banana. We picked the berries ourselves a short walk from our home on Friday. The duck eggs came from a nearby farm. It was filling, healthy, and delicious. You could easily add some local meat to the breakfast, or a bowl of porridge made from whatever grain grows nearby (like corn, rice, oats, or quinoa, depending on your location). Nearly every agricultural zone has a grain that grows well if you wish to acquire or farm them.

If you can walk to the berry patch, go to a duck farm, and cook it all up in five minutes, well, aren’t you in great shape. But I’m not going to feel bad for buying a box of cereal instead of farming it. FARMING IT. Wheat, waving in the backyard! Wheat, bending to the humble scythe! Wheat, threshed and separated! Wheat! Noble honest home-grown wheat! I admit it would come in handy if you’d been eating hypothetical breakfasts, but when you have actual loaves of bread from the store, you’re less inclined to start the day by firing up the peat-fueled oven and yoking the oxen to grind the grains.#page#

As for missing out on berries when it’s not berry-hunting season:

When your fruit needs a passport to get to you, it can’t really be considered “fresh fruit.” Nature knows just what you need and when you need it.

You could say the same about typhus and e. coli.

It’s time to look at your diet very differently, because I can almost guarantee that transit supply line won’t be there indefinitely. And even if the stores do remain open, how long with [sic] this food be financially viable? With the petrodollar teetering on the brink of obsolescence, extreme weather causing food shortages across America, and the price of fuel climbing by the day, even if you can acquire the food at your local market, the price is going to increase so dramatically that to get your food from far-flung locales will be completely out of the price range for the average person.

Now. You can make the case that it’s wise to stock up and prepare, good to know how to garden, penny-wise to put up beets in the cellar, and so on. But it takes a certain mindset to look at a bowl of cereal with bananas and shriek UNSUSTAINABLE. Most of us might think, “This is a high achievement of civilization, and these gains must be preserved against the forces of entropy and anarchy that constantly threaten our hard-won gains.”

The website, however, is otherwise inclined. It has articles like “The Gluten Intolerance Epidemic: Monsanto’s Hegelian Dialectic Dream Come True.” Really. Thesis, antithesis, SIN-THESIS. And “Is Your Depression Caused by Inflammatory Foods?” If you call next-day regret over ordering the extra-hot vindaloo “depression,” perhaps. There’s also a piece on the Great Grocery Store Hoax, which insists that the stuff in grocery stores is a cruel simulacrum:

Your ancestors would not recognize this as food at all. If you dare to eat this, you are consuming a food substitute that is being passed off to you because there is no food left for the likes of us. Most of what is being sold in the grocery store is NOT ACTUALLY FOOD. It is food-like substances.

Again with the ancestor worship. Yes, they would have been baffled by pizza; granted. But I think they would recognize milk, cheese, bread, and various red-and-spongy slabs we call “meat.” The comments on the article are laudatory:

Excellent article . . . now all we have to do is get rid of fluoride, vaccinations, chemtrails and GMOs, to name a few. Without an overhaul of the system, shutting down the FDA, EPA and most of the crony infested government . . . the sociopathic banksters will continue to create an unhealthy befuddled herd.

Everything is bad! Except tinfoil, which occurs naturally and comes out in nice thin sheets from a secret spring in the Andes.

Here’s the question: Weren’t our ancestors racist and sexist?

Back up a moment. A recent piece in the Guardian excoriated Beyoncé for posting a picture of herself as the “iconic” WWII welder with her sleeves rolled up and her resolute face expressing the well-let’s-get-on-with-the-Hitler-whupping determination of the era. WE CAN DO IT. The Guardian author was angry — I know, I know, what are the odds — because Rosie the Riveter did not lead immediately to a reevaluation of gender roles in 1945. Because the past is just a stinky pile of things. It is wrong to celebrate the Iconic Image. Here, then, is the great question that must gnaw on the minds of people for whom these things are terribly important:

‐Would the real Rosie, who did her part to shake up prevailing concepts of female roles, have accepted or rejected GMOs?

‐If Rosie had been permanently freed from domestic drudgery, due in part to labor-saving things like frozen orange juice, wouldn’t her triumph in shattering traditional gender concepts also have been poisoned by unsustainable breakfast-fluid assumptions?

‐Didn’t the militarism of the WWII era give rise to post-war anti-Communist paranoia, which was partly responsible for the interstate highway system, which made it possible to truck produce from Florida to the Midwest, and is Rosie thus complicit in the creation of the unsustainable breakfast?

Things to consider. One more thing: The model for Rosie was Geraldine Doyle, who did indeed work in the factories for a while, and caught the eye of a touring photographer. She quit working at the plant after a week, because she was a cellist, and worried that the machinery might hurt her hands.

This was also a legitimate reason for refusing to climb up the ropes at Normandy to capture the Nazi gun emplacements.

So: Do you have a cello sitting around? A nice, shiny, gorgeous symbol of Western civilization, an object capable of making sounds both jolly and achingly bittersweet? Your ancestors would not recognize that as a musical instrument at all. When the instrument-industrial complex collapses because they’re using GMO wood and fossil fuels are no longer available to transport instruments around the country, would you be able to make a cello, using locally sourced materials? Probably not. The strings alone require industrial facilities capable of making wire in extremely narrow diameters.

So you should learn to make simple flutes from a tree branch, or the femur bone of an animal. Bone is hard and lasts a long time, and your ancestors would recognize it. The music might be limited in tonal range and quality, but it will be sustainable. Unlike the rest of civilization, which is doomed, and deserves it. Blueberries in December; what are we thinking? Our time will come.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make a nice breakfast.

—  James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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