Critical thinking about food
January 23, 2009 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What made you first think about how your food is produced?

I want to know what books, websites, films, podcasts, experiences, and so on are best at getting people to start to pay some attention to where their food comes from. (In my case it was probably The Omnivore's Dilemma, followed by local farmers' markets, Deconstructing Dinner, etc. But I started off with an interest in food, so I might not be typical.)

It seems to me there is a big mental gap between conventional food and any alternative systems, and that it does take something substantial to bring about critical evaluation of food choices.
posted by parudox to Food & Drink (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Jungle.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:42 AM on January 23, 2009

Someone showed me eBrandAid once and I immediately freaked out about what horrible things were probably in my food. Eventually convenience won out, but I am still mindful of what I buy. If I have the time, opportunity and money to do so, I do my best to shop smarter.
posted by bristolcat at 11:48 AM on January 23, 2009

For me it was reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer when I was in 4th grade. I've been a vegetarian ever since.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:49 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a girlfriend with a Smith's "Meat is Murder" t-shirt and I read an article in the Atlantic(?) about how gelatin is made.

Once something is read it can't be unread.

I also remembering reading a short blurb in Scientific American about Mad Cow / Prion diseases really early on which made the Atlantic article pop out for me.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:51 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Full-color, multi-page PETA pamplets were dropped in lockers by militantly vegan hippies at all the high schools in my home town. I was only 11, but it got passed on to me by my sister, and I went vegan for two years in the middle of about 5 years of vegetarianism. I was the spelt&tofu eating, totally annoying vegan cliche.

I probably started thinking about trying to consume ethically, sustainably produced animal products when I started raising my own chickadees, and thought more about it when I befriended a member behind the Eastside Egg Co-operative in Portland.

Now I am going to ruin how conscientious I sound right now by admitting I have a Strawberry Creme Nilla Cakesters addiction. Also, budget constraints will always win out over ethics.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:03 PM on January 23, 2009

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

The Jungle got me thinking about food safety, but at the time I figured "that was a long time ago, surely they've got it all sorted out by now."

That said, what really persuaded me to switch to cage-free eggs, organic milk and grass-fed beef was the taste more than food safety or animal welfare. But I never seriously considered buying "the expensive stuff" before I read Fast Food Nation.
posted by CruiseSavvy at 12:05 PM on January 23, 2009

Omnivore's Dilemma.
posted by nat at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Toronto's Royal Winter Fair and seeing the display of latticework floor grates and tubular steel pens filled with naked piglets and thinking how they spend their entire, horrible little lives like that. It took the enjoyment out of bacon, which is hard because I really liked bacon.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2009

I grew up on a farm. So I guess that was a pretty formative experience.

Even just going to a you-pick farm might start a dialogue. An organic farm would be even better. For a fuller experience, you might approach a vendor at a farmer's market and ask to trade a day's labor for an insider view of the farm.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

...also, a year or so later, stopping at a highway service station near a truckload of screaming pigs. They were probably headed to a slaughter house, which is fine but it was during a horrible cold snap in '94. The truck was one of those open air, double-decker things and it seemed awfully cruel to have them travelling at 100kph in minus 30C temperatures.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:18 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a teenager I worked seasonally at a turkey farm, herding turkeys from one house to another when the houses needed to be cleaned, and herding them into trailers to be shipped off and slaughtered. More than anything it taught me that (some) food was dirty, smelly, and covered in poop before it was nicely packaged and in a grocery store. And also that being nice to the turkeys wasn't really a consideration for the farmers, and that being nice to each other wasn't really a consideration for the turkeys.

My girlfriend says that when she was little the fable about the little red hen first made her think about how food was produced.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 12:23 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does growing up on a farm count?

Probably an example of an introspective moment would be when we slaughtered our own chickens to eat (rather than shipping them to the slaughterhouse) because of a salmonella scare. The lesson being that others may not care about your food safety as much as your you do. Though what I learned at the time was that working in a slaughterhouse was a crappy job.

Though I've taken a tour of a hot dog factory and I still happily eat them, so possibly I'm not the kind of person this question is aimed at.
posted by Ookseer at 12:24 PM on January 23, 2009

Fast Food Nation

The Jungle

Anything by Marion Nestle. She also has a blog.

not to mention news relating to food recalls, and illness out breaks. Also understanding that most people do not report food related illnesses, thus they don't make national news as often as they rightfully should.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 12:26 PM on January 23, 2009

My parents grew veges in the backyard and had a few fruit trees (lemons, apples, plums, pears, cherries) since I can remember. Our next-door-neighbours also sold us eggs from their backyard chicken coop - their cock crowing every morning really helped reinforce where those eggs came from!

I then went on the full, unabridged tour of an abattoir aged 9 and have been vegetarian ever since. Later, in high school, I saw a doco about fairtrade coffee and chocolate, and another one about agribusiness (specifically Chiquita and Monsanto, I think) and its political ramifications. Unfortunately I can't remember the names of the docos now, I'm sorry, but they had a great influence on me.
posted by goo at 12:28 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a farming community and was always cognizant that meat didn't just show up on a foam tray, but one thing I recall that made a particular "factory farming, ewww" impression on me was watching this Frontline - particularly the revelation that the ground beef in something like a McD hamburger is processed in such a way that it contains a mixture from the carcasses of literally thousands of cows. It really struck home to me that these processes are completely divorced from any conception of the individual animal.
posted by nanojath at 12:31 PM on January 23, 2009

Having a child with eosiniphilic gastroenteritis and going through a crash course in food processing, cross-contamination issues, additives etc.
posted by mattholomew at 12:33 PM on January 23, 2009

When I was 6 or 7 my uncle shared some of the meat from a steer he'd just raised and butchered. I remember thinking about how different the taste was from store bought. I talked with Mom about it. I talked with Uncle about it. In the process, I learned a lot about where our food comes from. I decided hand raised beef was better. Today, I'm still a rabid omnivore.
posted by onhazier at 1:01 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Much Depends on Dinner was the first place I read about how pervasive corn-derived products were in processed food. It's from the 80's but is very similar in some ways to Pollan's book.
posted by yarrow at 1:14 PM on January 23, 2009

I got into being a food nerd because one of my closest friends was first diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, and then with an amazing plethora of food allergies, including gluten. In eating food that was safe for her, in all its permutations over the course of her illness and now recovery, she went on a path of trying to eat as naturally as possible to avoid chemicals that could be aggravating her various conditions. Now, I know way too much about what I eat. But I'm fine with that, and my food tastes better.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:16 PM on January 23, 2009

I feel like I've been thinking about it all my life, although my understanding of the implications has deepened over the years. We always had fruit trees and vegetable gardens growing up, and home stuff ALWAYS seemed superior. I didn't really think about how meat was raised until I visited dairy farmer relatives when I was about ten. Met all their cows, drank their milk (cream top, mmm), and had steaks for dinner one night. The steaks had a name.

This didn't turn me veggie at all - the relatives were pretty small-scale dairy, and took really good care of their cows. But it did get me thinking, especially when I heard the farmer talking about the ways bigger operations worked.

Reading The Jungle at 14 was pretty central also.
posted by Knicke at 1:28 PM on January 23, 2009

And although I was already vegetarian when I read it, Ruth Ozeki's novel My Year of Meat was a great read, highlighting the effects of feedlot farming.
posted by goo at 1:43 PM on January 23, 2009

It's kind of dated now, but Diet for a Small Planet is a good read on this topic.
posted by Daily Alice at 1:57 PM on January 23, 2009

Growing up as one of seven children on a farm the amount and type of labor required to produce our food was never taken for granted. The only real way to fully understand it is to spend time immersed in doing the same specific kind of hard work while exposed to the elements through all seasons. Reading books and watching movies while sitting in comfort may give someone an inkling of the realities of producing food.
posted by X4ster at 2:33 PM on January 23, 2009

My parents had given my older sister three little books by Victor and Patricia Smeltzer called the Thank You series that walk young children through various simple processes of production: Thank you for a Loaf of Bread, Thank You for a Glass of Water, and Thank You for a Drink of Milk (I think there are more, but you get the idea), and I borrowed and read them around the age of five or six. They no longer seem to be in print, which is unfortunate because I really credit them for starting me on the path of thinking more deeply about the things I consume.
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:38 PM on January 23, 2009

My Grandfather.

He was born and raised in Iowa on a farm. I lived about 40 miles away in a town, but visited nearly every weekend. He was quite a beef cattle man apparently. His name carried enough weight for him to exclusively market his meat to portions of Belgium and France.

He raised the cattle on hay only. No corn or byproducts. This is apparently weird in other areas, but in Iowa if there's not corn or beans, there's grass as far as the eye can see. I used to ride with him to the stockyards and slaughterhouses. We'd watch the auctions and eat lunch, then unload his cattle into train cars and then they'd be off on their way.

In between though, there were the slaughterhouses. You could see it, you could watch it if you wanted. No one was too keen on that. I don't remember a time when I didn't know where meat came from, but that really solidified it, well that and all the deer hanging from the machine shed rafters every winter.

It's just a part of life where I grew up. Vegetarianism is still a foreign concept to my parents and grandparents. They just don't understand even the concept of not eating meat.
posted by sanka at 2:41 PM on January 23, 2009

I still don't pay as much attention as I should to what I eat, but I'm certainly more aware of it now.

One intro was through reading Fast Food Nation for a book club, which I went into w/o many expectations. I wasn't really a foodie and I didn't (and don't) eat much fast food (at least compared to the avg American, if not the avg MeFite), so I didn't think I would be that interested. I came out really loving the book - it was so much more than just fast food and really got me thinking about industrial food production, especially meat.

The other was living in North Carolina and being aware of the ongoing controversy with the hog farmers/pork producers - I first moved here in 1996, when it was becoming a state-wide issue that even folks who didn't live near a hog farm were aware of. I'd never read that Rolling Stone article hades linked to, but it was fascinating.
posted by clerestory at 2:46 PM on January 23, 2009

Working at at a start up that dealt with animal genetics and data mining. I had to read a lot of trade journals, marketing, veterinary and science articles. I decided to switch to organic meat but was half hearted about it until having it re-affirmed with Fast Food Nation.
posted by jadepearl at 2:55 PM on January 23, 2009

i pay a lot of attention to what i eat and where it comes from.

i grew up on a farm, and the difference between happy, free-range, had-names and-were-pets chicken eggs and the store ones is so striking. my parents have also been members of food co-ops since my sister and i were little, and i was involved in a csa during college.

i read the jungle, but like others above, that was in oldey-timey days. surely, in this age of reason, we had eradicated such horrors! fast food nation really drove the point home about large-scale farming, and its negative effects on people, animals and the environment.

from living in maine, escaping the on-going debates about the ecological ramifications of over-fishing and the destruction of the cod industry is difficult.

at the moment, i don't eat meat, unless it is from local, happy animals (and i am way too poor to afford such things, plus the boy is veggie too, so we just don't buy meat). at home, unless i can afford to buy local fresh eggs or milk, i go without or drink local(ish) soy milk, out in restaurants or at friend's houses, i just eat whatever vegetarian things they offer, as i have no desire to be "that kid" who asks about the origin of EVERYTHING. more than happy to explain the very lengthy and weird conflicting dietary stuff if someone asks!
posted by chickadee at 3:44 PM on January 23, 2009

"What made you first think about how your food is produced?"

Formative experiences:

1) When I was very small, seeing a blood spot after I cracked open an egg. "Mama! Whyyy?!"
2) When I was about four or five, seeing the news coverage of the Red Dye #2 ban and asking my mom why they started putting it in hot dogs and M&Ms in the first place.
3) Noticing the cancer warnings on the Sweet N Low bottle. "Oh no! We might DIE from this, why is it on sale?!"
4) Getting a can of Underwood Deviled Ham in my lunchbox and being afraid of the devil on the label. What is 'potted meat product' and why doesn't it taste like regular ham? "Partially Defatted Cooked Pork Fatty Tissue"? Damn, no wonder Dancing Happy Satan is their mascot!
5) Being shown how they milk cows at my uncle's ranch...and wondering if it hurt.
6) Taking a tour of a Wonder Bread/Hostess factory in the second grade...and wondering why they put in so many ingredients we never used at home.
7) Reading "The Jungle" in Junior High school.
8) Being grossed out that one of the first ingredients in fake-SlimJims was "beef lips".
posted by aquafortis at 6:20 PM on January 23, 2009

I don't think it's a question of exposing people to the idea that meat is dead animals or that some factory farming methods are cruel. I think most people know and have chosen not to care. You can't wake those who aren't sleeping.
posted by salvia at 6:28 PM on January 23, 2009

This probably isn't the response you are looking for, but here it is.

My first real thought about where my food came from was after I shot a bird & had to kill it by hand (Holy crap!!! you mean I'm actually eating something that was really alive!?!?) It made me think about the whole food chain and where our food comes from in all forms. I actually stopped eating meat for a few months until I came to terms with the fact that my eating meat was tantamount to killing the animal with my bare hands.

My second revelation was when some frinds of mine worked in a McDonalds. I saw the things that went on there and was totally disgusted. Then I realized that I had been eating that sort of thing my whole life and had never gotten sick and was in fact pretty damned healthy. For thousands of years people had been living off of things that were in worse than that and I stopped worrying about it.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 7:04 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, and my earliest memory of "Hey this food came from someplace" was seeing a vein in a chicken leg when I was eating it. That made it very clear (and I don't think it was up that point) that chicken was "Chicken"
posted by bottlebrushtree at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2009

Gramps had a large garden in his back yard, and a field of corn down the road a bit. Seeing half a hog up on the counter being cut up to throw in the freezer. Hunting culture, I remember grabbing a deer's antlers (just the head sitting on a TV tray) and having it burp. For many years dinner was go down to the cellar and get the oldest jar of beans. Going camping and hitting up trout farms and fishing for dinner (I don't like fish), and just stopping by a field of corn and doing the rural thing (first 3 rows from the road are free game) and picking some cobs to go with the fish. Days of stringing beans and picking apples from trees and hoeing out potatoes. I've always known where food comes from.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:51 PM on January 23, 2009

A few instances (before I became vegetarian but these aren't really why):
-Once I was making scrambled eggs and a little fetus fell out. And I thought that wouldn't happen with grocery eggs.
-A large artery emerging from my sister's frozen burrito
-Realizing super strawberry candies were from Mexico and their wrappers soaked in lead
-Realizing early that everything at the Vietnamese market was sort of sticky
posted by mmmleaf at 1:37 AM on January 25, 2009

It's more a case of when I found out other people didn't know, which would be fourth or fifth grade, when other kids mom's sent them to school with whatever ideas.

People find out where food comes from, then they find out how hard it is for some people to get food... it's all very complicated.

I like to be heartbroken about where food goes - that is, the trash. The amount of perfectly good food that is tossed into home and restaurant garbage cans is staggering.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an excellent choice - if you're thinking of other people. The book not only solid and a fun read, but also he uses his personality to reach people who are not exactly the crunchy granola type.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2009

"moms" - retyped from "mom's ideas" and didn't fix that one '
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2009

For me, the tipping point might have been Fast Food Nation, but I'm sure there were other influential factors waaay before that.

I think the biggest cognitive leap I had to make was that none of the brands of things my mother used to buy were actually the same food now as they were when I was a kid (I'm in my 30s). Sometime in the past 20 years, there's been a near-complete turnover in the ingredients in supermarket food. Maybe there used to be one or two preservatives, or some artificial color when I was younger, but for the most part, that stuff was still basically "food". It no longer is. For example, Pepperidge Farm used to make bread. But now almost all of their "bread products" have HFCS in them. HFCS is not a valid ingredient in anything I call "bread".

This realization was a huge and rude awakening for me. These brands used to be signifiers of quality, but they're not any longer.
posted by Caviar at 7:30 AM on January 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers, they were exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.

Above I said I started with The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I've since remembered I got to that by way of MeFi.
posted by parudox at 7:45 PM on January 29, 2009

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