Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Crunchy Cons: Food

This chapter of Crunchy Cons has directly changed my behavior. Dreher quite graphically describes the process that some industrialized meat processing plants use in “advanced meat recovery systems”: “taking a beef carcass that’s had most of the cuts taken off of it, and using a blast of high-pressure steam to remove ligaments, tendons, cartilage, spinal cord, every bit of tissue left on the bones – people wouldn’t want to eat it. That goes into hot dogs, luncheon meat, all kinds of processed meats.” (71) Because of that very paragraph, I can no longer eat hotdogs, bologna, chicken nuggets in odd shapes – if I don’t have a pretty good idea that this is an intact cut of meat, I just can’t bring myself to eat it anymore.

Once again, Dreher shouts, begs, wheedles, cajoles, and otherwise provokes us to ask questions about things we take for granted. We eat our fast food, take what the grocery store offers – no questions asked. We act as though we trust them completely to supply inexpensive, healthful, delicious food. I wonder if we gave our food suppliers the kind of scrutiny that we gave to our investment portfolio, how might our decisions be different.

Much of this chapter is taken up with telling the stories of a few organic ranchers – and hearing their voices on why they believe that their product is healthier, tastier, and better than industrial processed meat.

Dreher introduces us to Robert Hutchins, a Rush Limbaugh listening texas rancher who says “…we raise our cattle the natural way, and feed them only what they were designed to eat. They were created only to eat certain things, with their ruminant stomachs: that’s grass and forage They weren’t created to eat grain, so we let them eat what they’re supposed to eat.” (67) But what grabbed me about the story was when Hutchins followed up with this quote: “The real philosophical issue behind why we do what we do, is because we’re Christians…We would be called evangelical Christians, and probably fundamentalists also. We try to align our lives with what we understand from Scripture would be a God-honoring lifestyle.” (67) Here is a man who is working hard to bring his vocation in line with what he sees as scriptural teaching. That really got my attention.

Dreher talks about the Slow Food Movement – begun in Italy to celebrate, encourage, and preserve local traditions of cooking in the face of incursions by McDonald’s and other fast food chains. As the Slow Food Movement grew beyond the bounds of Italy, its proponents realized that they could never succeed by trying to stop McDonald’s and its ilk. Rather, they had to show people why the Slow attitude toward life – esteeming tradition, celebrating particularity in the face of mass culture, and taking time to enjoy life – is more sensible, more fun, and more human.” (63)

He talks about Weston A. Price, a dentist who in the 1930’s began to be concerned about the poor health of his patients – he began to travel to societies that had different eating habits from ours. He traveled the world to explore the connection between diet and dental health. He found that in cultures where there was good dental health, there was an avoidance of highly processed grain and sugars. There was a preference for animal proteins and fats and a preference for homecooked over processed foods. He set up a foundation to promote and further advance the insights found.

As often before, Dreher sometimes gets preachy: “We are told that small scale farming is inefficient – this is true – and that because our factory farms feed the masses, and do so cheaply, we should be satisfied. And that’s a deal that makes sense to nearly all of us: just keep the stuff showing up in produce bins and under cellophane in the supermarket cooler, and keep it relatively cheap, and we’ll ask no questions. But in striking that devil’s bargain, we sign away our responsibility to what’s in that food, how it got there, and what was done to human communities to close the deal. To participate in a system and a way of thinking in which the act of eating is merely a commercial transaction is to sell out our spiritual and cultural patrimony. I understand the free-market reasons why Americans do this. But I don’t understand why it’s called conservative.” (62)

The main point, however, is to get us to ask questions. The industrial food industry does produce lots of cheap and filling food – but they make very few reliable promises about personal health. For years, we accepted partially hydrogenated oils in almost all our processed crackers, breads, and foods. We didn’t know what it was, didn’t bother to ask. Now, doctors are telling us that this artificial preservative is even worse than saturated fat for heart health – but this is after decades of simply trusting the food industry. Now high fructose corn syrup has come into the crosshairs of health researchers – but again, it’s been used for decades without anyone batting an eye.

Dreher posits a very conservative idea – we have to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. We need to be stewards of our bodies and what we consume. We cannot abdicate to the food industry the responsibility for selecting the range of foods that we eat. It’s tough to do – it takes us putting ourselves out and doing some research and putting effort into cooking. But, he’s convinced that in the end, it will prove a superior set of choices than mindlessly receiving what is offered us.

Looking forward to your thoughts on food.

Soli Deo Gloria

Index of interesting Links:
Other reviews
* Jonah Goldberg from National Review -- a withering attack (while admitting there's lots of good in the book)
* Kevin Holtsberry from RedState online
* Maxwell Goss of Right Reason gives one of the more balanced critiques I've read.
* The Wall Street Journal's review
* Michael Dougherty giving a reasoned and balanced critique.

Crunchy Con resources
* Atheists, Agnostics, and Conservatives by Amy Welborn – a good view of the difference between faithbased crunchy cons and uberlibertarian agnostic cons
* Joe Carter's Evangelical Outpost on materialism and Jesus Junk
* Russell Kirk Center
* Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog
* The Immaculate Direction a blog that is very crunchy connish
* Cerulean Sanctum’s series relating the book to 21st century Christian life. Very thoughtful and thought provoking.