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Devoured: We Are What (And How) We Eat

This article is more than 4 years old.

With guest host Jane Clayson.

A mixture of salty snacks and chips is shown left on a table in Pittsburgh's Market Square on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
A mixture of salty snacks and chips is shown left on a table in Pittsburgh's Market Square on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

There are certain truths about American eating that seem all-too familiar. The sad desk lunch. Skipping breakfast. The rise of gluten-free dining. Therese are just a few pieces of the vast, complicated culture of American food. That culture is the subject of the new book Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies: How What we Eat Defines who We Are.

Guest

Sophie Egan, director of programs and culinary nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America. Contributor to the New York Times' Well blog. Author of Devoured: From Chicken Wings To Kale Smoothies, How What We Eat Defines Who We Are. (@SophieEganM)

From The Reading List

The Sugar in Fruit — "To minimize spikes in insulin, it’s best to eat fruit whole. That’s because with whole fruit the cell walls remain intact, said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. This is how fiber can offer the greatest benefit, he explained, because the sugars are effectively sequestered within the fiber scaffolding of the cells, and it takes time for the digestive tract to break down those cells. Four apples may contain the same amount of sugar as 24 ounces of soda, but the slow rate of absorption minimizes the blood sugar surge." (New York Times)

More Than Half of What Americans Eat Is 'Ultra-Processed' — "The researchers, from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, defined “ultra-processed” as: Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product." (The Atlantic)

Sophie's recommended recipes: 

1) Simplest Roast Chicken, from Mark Bittman. The beauty really is the simplicity: just four ingredients of chicken, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and minimal hands-on cooking time, for a satisfying dish that can serve a whole family. The New York Times has more ideas as part of their great collection, "Practically Magical 3-Ingredient Recipes."

2) Cherry Tomato & Bocconcini Caprese Salad. I pulled this recipe from a blog called Ricotta & Radishes to show how beautiful it turns out, but make it just once and you won't need a recipe, because as with the roast chicken, you'll see the satisfying result of combining just a few simple ingredients. This one requires even less time and effort: Halve some cherry tomatoes and mix with mini fresh mozzarella balls (ciliegine or bocconcini), olive oil, white wine vinegar (I personally prefer balsamic, but both work great), basil, and salt and pepper. That's it!

Read an excerpt of 'Devoured' by Sophie Egan

When it comes to food today, we’ve got a lot on our minds. We’ve always been concerned about the price of food, but today we’re concerned about the price to the planet, too. Eating “ethically” in America can mean caring about everything from whether your waitress gets paid sick leave to the square footage of a chicken coop, from the carbon footprint of a sandwich to what type of fishing gear was used to catch your tuna.
In the daily game of food decisions, convenience and health are veterans on our mental rosters, though now they’re getting more play time than ever before. Ditto for novelty and personalization, while rookies like water footprint and antibiotic use have gained attention.
How do our shared values as Americans shape our eating habits, for better and for worse? In short: Why do we eat what we eat?

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I have zeroed in on ten phenomena that illustrate what our food shows about who we are. Some food trends come and go, but the cultural patterns I focus on speak to these three abiding values of the American character.

Long known for our work ethic, today we are out- working even ourselves: Americans now work 200 more hours per year than they did in 1970. From the realization that “sitting is the new smoking” to the chronic stress and the brunt we bear with our food, our workaholic culture is killing us.

As a result of longer hours, we’ve had to bring food into the workplace. Forty percent of us dine at our desks, participating in the national pastime known as multitasking. We make a point of minimizing the time spent obtaining, preparing, and consuming food—to maximize the time spent, yes, taking BuzzFeed personality tests and binge-watching Game of Thrones, but mostly working. Ironically, though, many of us will gladly spend half our Sunday in pursuit of brunch. Making a day of the weekend meal suggests a silent protest against our workaholic society. It also suggests a rejection of all the solo dining and of the idea that food is fuel. That’s the notion promoted by some nutrition and fitness pros that our bodies are machines and food the gas in our tanks. It reduces food to a balance of energy in and energy out.

In the United States everyone is free to make their own choices, from carrying a weapon to eating a Doritos Locos Taco for breakfast. Individualism is at the heart of how we think about everything from health and disease to the economy and free enterprise.
As a result, we customize our eating experiences. We’ll look at why and how we insist on having it our way.

Individual rights also make it socially acceptable to dine alone. Even families who sit down together are increasingly eating different meals, tailored to different preferences and sensitivities. But most of the time, we eat exactly what we want, where we want, when we want, as fast as we want. And again, it’s our loss. But it’s so second nature not to share tastes or conversation anymore that we may not even fully understand what a loss they are. We’ll look at why and how we insist on having it our way.

In America, we also share a fundamental belief in the idea that we can always find a better way to do something. The idea that today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. Progress, ladies and gentlemen.

Pew polls consistently reflect Americans’ confidence that science and technology can solve just about everything. We’ve put men on the moon, vaccines in clinics, and personalized computing in the pocket of every tween from Cupertinoto Cairo. We’ve had good reason to pride ourselves on progress, and I can’t imagine my life without traffic lights, Tupperware, or texting. And thank God for lint rollers. But we don’t often stop and think about whether it’s such a good idea to apply that same faith in innovation to our food.

Rather than trust our intuition or common sense, we look to scientific solutions or sexy new strategies. We put nutrients first. Tallies of grams and percentages.

Our nutrient-centric environment often makes us buy foods not because they contain worthwhile ingredients, but for the crazy reason that they omit something (fat, calories, etc.). And it’s not only that our lack of a stable food culture leaves us jumping from one fad diet to the next. Our faith in progress gives us the unshakable assurance that the holy grail of healthy eating is just around the corner—or rather, awaiting us in a lab somewhere. I’m talking about the antioxidant pills, the dietary supplements, the meal-replacement bars, the juice cleanses.

Consider one extreme, Soylent, a meal-replacement drink whose producers argue that food is inefficient, and Soylent makes you feel amaaaazing. Promising whiter teeth and a stronger physique, Soylent will—wait for it—completely change your life! Just a few daily doses of the beige, gooey cocktail (which claims to contain all the key nutrients), and you can forgo food altogether. We’ll see that converts to each new fad share a common habit: proselytizing about having found that holy grail, once and for all.

When I get to “stunt foods,” you’ll be dazzled by novelty.

By extension, our deference to science and new food products means deference to food scientists, which means—whether we intend it or not—deference to food companies. We take cues on what to eat not from, say, our parents, but from the marketing magicians of the food industry. They are behind the fabricated food shortages on Super Bowl Sunday, which are just one example of how food companies create both the chaos and the supposed solutions.

A melting pot is defined as “a place where a variety of races, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.” Americans take immense pride in this notion. How this concept influences our eating relates to the term’s second definition: “a process of blending that often results in invigoration or novelty.” This means that the hope for the future of food in America sits on the positive side of the coin of reinvention. It’s why we are willing to embrace new norms around dining, like wine for the masses, food trucks, Tex-Mex, and Italian food that is really a distinct Italian American genre, without which there would be no “American” food to speak of.

Harried Americans want to know why our lifestyles are making us sick. Why, along the path to chronic illness, we often sap the small pleasures out of life. We’ll see how our values shape our eating habits, who and what we allow to influence us, and the upside of that very instability.
If we can laugh at ourselves, it might be the first step to saving ourselves. We might add years to our lives—or at least joy to our years.

Adapted from Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are © 2016 by Sophie Egan. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

This program aired on May 3, 2016. The audio for this program is not available.

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