I have discovered the last stronghold of processed food. Even after we’ve rooted out high-fructose corn syrup from our school lunches and vanquished preservatives from our weeknight dinners, even when whole carrots and fruit salad reign as the snacks of choice, processed food will still cling desperately to one last dominion: the on-the-go market.
When we’re strapped for time, the kids are shrieking, and we’re starving, is it any wonder that we become vulnerable to some of the food industry’s most bizarre convenience products? I’m looking at you, Go-Gurt.
When we think about eating unprocessed foods, it’s important to remember the parable of the unfortunate college freshman with the strict upbringing. The lad moved into the dorms and, finally free from the ironclad rules of his parents, proceeded to go buck-wild, boozing, philandering, and snorting his way to academic probation by midterms.
Lesson: We should all indulge once in a while -- especially when it comes to eating. True, it’s much easier to strip out the processed stuff when you eat only home-cooked meals and never, ever have dessert. But to hold ourselves to such inflexibly high standards is only to invite a Keith Richards-style bender that ends with us twitching in a bathtub full of Mallomars.
That’s why, in my quest to eliminate processed foods, I cannot impose a blanket ban on indulgences like meals out and sweets. Luckily, I don’t have to. After a little trial and error, I’ve discovered that one can walk the unprocessed path and still enjoy a luxury item once in a while. My report from the trenches:
Make no mistake: Processed food is out to get you. “No!” you can say. “I only want to eat whole foods! Just leave me alone!” But does processed food listen? No. It just kicks back and laughs. “Just try to get away from me,” processed food says. “I’m everywhere you look. I’m at the convenience store. I’m in your favorite restaurant order. I’m lurking in your pantry right now. That 'natural' box of cereal you bought? Full of high-fructose corn syrup! Bwahahahaha!”
It’s true. Processed food is a mighty foe. But, as I’m finding out, there are strategies we all can use to cut back. In my last post, I laid out a five-point challenge for rooting processed food out of my diet under the toughest of circumstances. Today, I tackle my first -- and live to eat another day.
Hey, locavores and whole-foodies: Want to know if a new acquaintance shares your worldview? Simply offer him or her a bag of Doritos. If you get a wrinkled nose or a gagging sound in reply, bingo! Revulsion for processed foods is the great uniter among those of us who believe that caring for the planet starts with looking at what’s at the end of our fork. (It is possible to get a false negative with this test; your new friend might just be polite. Offer a bite of kale-quinoa salad next, just to be sure.)
We have good reason to despise processed foods: Packaged, chemically preserved edibles are often high in sodium and sugar, upping the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and all their attendant ills. Processed meats in particular are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Nutrition experts almost universally recommend a diet high in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains -- apples over Apple Jacks, in other words.
But for most Americans, cutting out soda, bologna, Cheetos, most cereals, and all other processed foods would be a mighty challenge. After all, a recent analysis found that we spend the largest portion of our grocery budgets on processed foods and sweets. Hey, they’re convenient, and often cheap.
For Grist readers, eating close to the ground is probably old hat. And I, too, have wild success with whole foods in the kitchen. (This is helped by the fact that I actually like stuff like lentils and beet slaw.)
But what about those times when you couldn’t plan ahead? What about when you’re at the mercy of another cook? (You’re putting Fritos on the chili? Nooooo!) What about when you’re really hungry, and your only option for miles is a mini-mart overflowing with cheese dogs and Ruffles? Those, my friends, are the true crucibles for the unprocessed eater.
This is why I decided to dig deeper for solutions to the toughest culinary situations -- the times when I’m at high risk for slipping into the processed jungle. I’ll be tackling these challenges and reporting back on what works.
You know what drives me crazy? When movie and TV characters are getting ready to bathe, and they turn on the shower and then proceed to take off their clothes, fluff their hair, get chased around by serial killers, etc. While everyone else gasps and frets over the protagonist, I can’t focus on the plot at all. “Hey!” I think. “Hasn’t anybody noticed that the water’s still running?” I mean, really. Such a waste.
I offer this as proof of my good intentions when it comes to saving water and energy, because I’m about to confess my greatest eco-sin: I love me a long, hot shower. Let anyone among you who could deny the soul-warming luxury of a steamy sudsing when you’re cold and stinky throw the first loofah.
Hold on a minute, now: I don’t always indulge these dark desires. I try to be reasonable about the length of my showers. But until now, I’d never really subjected my bathing habits to a critical eye. Turns out, it’s long overdue: Showers account for almost 17 percent of our indoor water use, and keeping that water hot ‘n’ ready (for showers and all other hot-water activities) accounts for about 15 percent of the average household’s total energy budget [PDF]. That’s a significant opportunity for savings. So, vowing to take a hard look at the state of my cleansing and to slash minutes wherever I could, I ventured to peek behind the shower curtain.
Here are a few things you should know about keeping backyard chickens: Poultry are “poop machines” -- but cleaning up after them is “less maintenance than a cat’s litter box.” You can let them range free around the yard -- just watch out for predatory eagles (and your garden: “Chickens will annihilate it.”). Chickens are “not pets,” except when “they’re very much our pets.” Clearly, fowl guardianship is a highly personal endeavor.
I gleaned these scraps of wisdom last Saturday, when I attended a citywide open house of sorts for backyard chicken enthusiasts. On Seattle Tilth’s annual Chicken Coop & Urban Farm Tour, the keepers of the local flocks open up their coops and let the curious poke around. Of course, I was among them. I’ve been taken with the fantasy of backyard chickens for awhile now -- waking in the morning to soft bawk-bawk-bawking, whipping up fluffy omelets with just-laid eggs -- so I had to see how closely real chicken husbandry matched my daydreams. Is it difficult? Is it stinky? Do I really have what it takes to be a hen mother? It was time to find out.
What a gift it is to have close friends. Fun-loving friends, who support you, and laugh with you, and who won’t balk when you serve them fried dandelions for dinner.
Emily and Ben are such friends, and they came in from Colorado for a visit last week. My boyfriend, Ted, suggested impressing them with a quintessentially Northwest salmon feast. “Great idea!” I said. “We should get some local beers, too.” In fact, what if we gave the entire meal a Northwest theme? What if we sourced everything locally -- wait, no, hyperlocally! What if we made foraging the theme? Dinner-party transcendence achieved!
Reality check: It takes a lot of time and planning to pull that off. When Michael Pollan so famously foraged and hunted his dinner in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, taking measures like evaporating his own salt from seawater and slaying a wild boar, he didn’t do it in two days -- which is how much time I had to prepare Friday night’s dinner after that foraging brainwave. But, never one to back down in the face of adversity, I set forth to find out just how many delicacies I could manage to get on the table using free ingredients, hand-picked within city limits, at the last minute.
If you ranked a list of household chores in order of how much dread they inspire in me, laundry falls somewhere between “feeding the cat” and “eating the leftover cupcakes before they get stale.” In other words, not so bad. Perhaps it’s because conventional clothes-cleaning is so automated these days. You don’t have to do or even think much about it, especially if your building or (oh, the luxury!) home has a washer and dryer: Load it, soap it, come back and tumble-dry it.
Convenient as it is, though, all that laundry demands an ecological tariff payable in loads of water and electricity. Once you put a little thought into reducing the impact of your hamper, getting your tighty-whities sparkling clean isn’t quite so simple anymore. In fact, if your solution is a handheld washing stick, it can be downright exhausting.
I didn’t know products like the Breathing Mobile Washer existed before my mom showed me an ad last week. "This glorified toilet plunger thinks it can improve on my laundry habits, huh?" I thought at first. But when I heard the washer’s claims to de-stankify my clothes without using any electricity and very little water -- while providing a solid arm workout to boot -- I knew I had to try it.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The success or failure of my No New Stuff challenge hinges on a bottle of mousse.
I stood in the hair aisle of the salon for a good five minutes a few weeks ago, holding an intense internal debate. Was I allowed to buy it? Pro: Mousse could technically be considered a toiletry item, therefore exempt under my original No New Stuff terms. Con: I already owned a bottle of a different hair product. Pro: But that stuff doesn’t work. Con: But shouldn’t I finish the bottle -- which would take months under my intermittent blow-drying routine -- before re-upping?*
Banning new purchases, even if it’s just for a month, certainly brings fresh philosophical questions to the formerly simple act of buying stuff. Do I really need that dress, that toothbrush, that couch pillow? Could I get by instead by repairing something I already own? And if only a new one will do, does it have to be brand-new, or can I save money and materials by picking up a new-to-me item?
I handled a few key repairs and refurbishments last time around, so it’s time now to consider the secondhand solution. I’m already a huge fan of resale shops and online marketplaces, so I figured that used shopping would be an easy out for my retail desires. That coveted lime-squeezer thingy? That shoe rack I’ve been meaning to buy? Surely Craigslist would have my back.
Nothing like deprivation to muddy up your understanding of “want” vs. “need.”
For instance, here’s a sampling of items I’ve considered “needs” over the past two weeks: new sports bras, shower curtain, new couch pillows, lime-squeezer kitchen gadget, iPad case, duchess satin bridesmaid dress, cat scratching post, and a handmade silver ring shaped like a poppy. This is doubly remarkable, as I’m not really the shopping type. But I’m also in the middle of a self-imposed No New Stuff May, and we all know what happens when you start branding the fruit forbidden.
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is Grist's "Greenie Pig" -- weathering all manner of inconvenience and insult in the name of forging a more eco-friendly life. She is a freelance writer and special projects editor at Backpacker magazine. Her writing has also appeared in 5280 (Denver's city magazine), Women's Adventure, and Spry.