Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Netherlands

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” -Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (and in other stuff written by the author)

I was making my dinner last night, pasta with tomato sauce and anchovies (nothing but the best for a Monday), and it just suddenly popped into my head that Niek and I eat quite differently than we used to.  That's due to quite a few factors, actually, and is tied up in the practical concerns of keeping our weekly shopping routine within our budgetary constraints, my desire to eat a more well-rounded diet, my unexplained loathing for taking vitamins, all while we continue to truly enjoy what we eat.  I love to eat; I see it not only as a necessity but also a daily pleasure.  I also hate hearing that there are bad foods and good foods.  Food is just food, isn't it?  Shouldn't it exist outside some sort of moral sphere?  Food never makes choices about what it's going to be or how its going to be consumed.  Those are choices for an individual to make.  You can talk about good and bad systems for growing or slaughtering or processing and packaging foodstuffs if you are talking about those things in terms of their impact on the environment or causing suffering. You can talk about good or bad diets, although I also take issue with moralizing a diet.  If you watch The Biggest Loser, which I have been known to do on a weekly basis occasion, you can see how easy it is for the trainers and the show to demonize inanimate objects (food) and watch as the contestants are redeemed from their unhealthy (bad) ways and become reborn as happy, slender, healthy (good) individuals.  The show icks me out a bit, and yet I continue to watch it.  Hmm.

If you think I'm starting to sound like I've read too much Michael Pollan, then you would probably be right.  I've only read his Omnivore's Dilemma and in that book I found an individual grappling with the choices he makes daily about what he is going to eat.  I loved that he wanted to understand the systems at play in the U.S. that bring him so many food choices, and I loved that he wanted to find a balance between feeling good about his food choices without making every trip to the grocery store a moment of crisis in his life.  If you haven't read the book, I would suggest it as a a nice, easy weekend read. I've heard great things about In Defense of Food, too.  His revelations aren't groundbreaking by any means, but he presents them in an easy and entertaining way.

Pollan's book was just the last in a series of progressions in my life that have truly forced me to think about my food.  In my early twenties, I saw Supersize Me just like the rest of my cohort.  I read Fast Food Nation, which to this day has put me off chicken nuggets.  (If you want to know about the lives of packing plant employees you can read Fast Food Nation, or you can also ask my mom about the summer she spent teaching English to Mexican immigrants working at a local meat packing plant in Nebraska.  They did not have easy lives and most definitely did not have easy jobs.)  I have perused countless articles in magazines like The Atlantic, The New Yorker and the Dutch De Groene Amsterdammer.  I'll just mention in passing a pretty disturbing program on PBS about aquaculture that ended my love affair with farm-raised salmon and shrimp.  Reading Pollan's book was no big jump for me, and it reinforced the ideas behind the way I eat more than it changed it.

Do I sound like an overly-sensitive, overly-educated, tree hugging, organic cotton wearing academic/intellectual to you yet?  I think that I do.  For the record, I don't own any organic cotton clothing...yet.  I would say, however, that growing up in the Midwest with parents deeply committed to conservation efforts (shout out to Ducks Unlimited and Quails Forever) and eating well had just as much to do with the way I look at food as the books and articles I've read as an adult.  My dad often went hunting and fishing when I was a kid, and I cannot tell you number of times he reminded me that we should only ever bring home as much as we could eat.  Seriously, I'm pretty sure he said that every single time I sat with him the boat.  My dad deeply dislikes trophy hunting, and I think he gets a little sad when he thinks about it.  Do not ask me how my mom found the time to cook a nice supper every night or how she was able to can like crazy at the end of the summer when all the produce from the garden started coming in.  She doesn't can anymore (although she freezes a lot of summer fruits), but when she gave me her canning equipment a few years ago it was like Christmas in August.  Sometimes I feel like some sort of strange amalgam between Midwestern practicality and liberal higher education with a sprinkling California Cuisine philosophy for good measure.

So what does all of this have to do with food and the way I eat in the Netherlands?  Well, quite a lot.  Los Angeles made it easy to eat and cook the way I wanted to without much effort, much easier than in the Midwest.  Do you realize there is more than one strawberry season in SoCal?  I would notice it every few months when the price of strawberries would drop in the stores.  "Ah, must have been time for another harvest in the Central Valley," I would think.  I could splurge on some locally grown stuff at the farmer's market when I felt like it, buy conventionally grown produce at the Persian Market for the whole week for about $15, and get my hormone free milk and Greek yogurt at Trader Joe's.  It was fabulous, and I loved the routine I had created for myself in L.A.  I hated that I had to drive to get to all of those places, but I loved that I could go months without needing to set foot in a regular grocery store (except for baking necessities like highly refined sugar and cake flour).  Now almost two years after my move to Amsterdam, I am still struggling with my shopping routine.  The struggle is probably why you have to read about it so often on this blog. So, sorry about that.

The older I get and the more I read, the more shopping for food becomes a conscious act of making choices: choices for nutritious food, choices about sustainability, choices in support of humane livestock operations.  Some things are really easy for me; I just don't buy chicken or eggs unless I know the chickens did not live their lives in cages.  (I have been to large-scale chicken operations, and I hate them.  You try not feeling disgust at a factory farm.  Go ahead, just try it.) The gray areas begin and the choices becomes more difficult when I consider grains and produce.  With the newest catch word in "responsible" food choice, "local," swimming around in my brain, I start to wonder about the food in my basket.  Can I buy that kiwi? It had to be flown from New Zealand to get here, so I don't think it's particularly fresh or environmentally friendly, but it would taste so delicious in a fruit salad.  Should I buy this bag of bulgur even though it had to come from Turkey to be here?  What about the figs from Morocco and the blood oranges from Spain? I can't quite give up imported produce and subsist on the fruits and veggies grown locally in the Netherlands in the winter.  That would involve months of nothing but root vegetables and stored apples, and that sounds not at all appealing to me.

The way people eat is also just so different here.  Correction, the way I want to eat and the lengths I need to go to eat that way lead me to conclude that people eat very differently here.  I didn't notice it at first, but it's become more and more apparent to me in the last year.   Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, "Duh, Diana.  It's a foreign country, of course it's different."  Obviously I know it's going to be different, so maybe what I should say is that it seems like food is unvaried.  I can't really say with any authority at all how varied a typical Los Angeleno's diet is, but I do know that the options felt so limitless when I lived there, and I feel kind of fenced in here.

I suppose my efforts for better eating, and to some extent more responsible eating, has focused on cooking as much with whole foods as possible (whole grains, dried beans, good nuts, butter, olive oil, blah, blah, blah), giving myself lots of choices, and not overdoing it on the processed foods.  I love sweets, and I eat something sugary everyday, but I wouldn't define that as overdoing it.  Eating should be enjoyable and I enjoy my sugar.  Creating too many rules and restrictions around food could make anyone, but definitely me, cranky and unhappy.  I "heart" Michael Pollan's book so much, because he wants you to enjoy the food you eat, and part of that process is through variety.  This, unfortunately, is why Amsterdam  can continue to feel like a foreign place to me.  I want variety with my food choices, and I haven't been successful at finding that here.  Maybe I'm not looking hard enough, but I keep finding the same food wherever I go.  I find lots of Gouda cheese (yum), lots of bread, lots of meat, and a few of the same fruits and vegetables.  When I want whole grains or beans, I go to the Moroccan market and shop with the other immigrants.  If I want fish that doesn't show up on a list of unsustainable species, I have to work really hard to do so.  And when I want whole wheat flour, well you already know, I throw a temper tantrum and realize I'm not going to get it. 

So last night as a I finished eating my spaghetti I thought about Michael Pollan and his eating philosophy.  I thought that sometimes it can be really frustrating here to find the ingredients I want in order to enjoy my dinner.  I also thought how much easier it is for him as a resident of Berkeley, CA to eat the way he wants to.  I thought that I might have taken my time in L.A. too much for granted, although I don't regret leaving it.  Living in Amsterdam, in any foreign place, comes with its challenges, and as an ex-pat food is one of my greatest challenges and joys.  I can eat the way I want here, but I have to be willing to work a little harder at it.

Hey, Regan.  I loved your posts about the market.  Looks like you don't have a problem finding lots of locally grown food. :)


  1. You reminded me of last summer, when I went to a race in South Dakota and the representative raw vegan runner was complaining that the local idea of salad was iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato. There is a terrible disconnect on both sides as to people and their relationship to food.

    Be reasonable in your food choices and be reasonably unreasonable at times. I've been attacked for giving nutritional advice and then eating a bag of Doritos. Obviously, I know that's not a great food choice, but it's not the end of the world to eat something because you want it once in a while.

  2. Hey, I grew up eating iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing as my salad. I would say that my desire to get connected to my food has been the culprit behind my frustrations, so I hope that this post didn't come off as too much of a rant. I'm obviously complaining a wee bit, but I recognize that SoCal spoiled me and that I need to find a good balance with the foods available to me here and how I want to eat.
    Also, pass the Doritos, please...and the ice-cold Diet Coke.

  3. I realize this was posted a long time ago, but I just read it now and have a question. I just moved from LA to Utrecht, so I'm hoping you can help me. Do they sell yams in the Netherlands? I didn't see any at the only two grocery stores I've been to here, should I try a local foreign market?

  4. Hi, Tony. Did you really just move from L.A.? Man, I miss that place sometimes. Are you looking for yams or sweet potatoes? You can definitely find sweet potatoes, sometimes at the Albert Heijn and most certainly at lots of the produce stands. Be forewarned, most sweet potatoes here are white on the inside and not orange.
    Some of the foreign markets should carry yams. There's a large Toko near the Blokker by Central Station. They might have what you're looking for. The Saturday market might also have yams.
    Hope you can find what you're looking for! Let me know what your search turns up.

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