I’m in The Buff. No, I’m not naked. That photo is meant only as a ploy to get you reading about processed food. The truth is, I’m spending the week with my Mamma and celebrating my cousin Frankie’s high school graduation in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. Affectionately donned, “B-lo” or “Buff” when I’m feeling racy!
So far my visit has been exceptional. I’ve gone hiking ’round Hoyt Lake, biking through the ‘burbs, stopped for Beef on Weck sandwiches and pistachio ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles at Anderson’s, ate an entire plate of Spaghetti Parm at Chef’s, hit up a Mighty Taco for late night munchies after baking pot brownies and peanut butter balls with my cousins, got down on some serious pizza and wings at the Screening Party for Anthony Bourdain’s latest Buffalo edition of No Reservations, and gobbled up more than a few pieces of my Aunt Susie’s graduation cake with frosting made from a Rich Products substitute for butter-cream called better-cream…it takes exactly like that marshmallowy icing used on every ice cream cake I’ve ever had! My Mamma and I are about to cross into Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake community to do a wine trail and take in some theater at the Bernard Shaw Festival, but what’s been truly exceptional has been that all this time, throughout the entirety of this eating and exercising frenzy, I’ve felt like I’m running a low grade fever.
I don’t get it. I’m not sick. I’m happy. I’m relaxed. I have a killer appetite, but I feel like shit. I feel like every bone and muscle in my body is rejecting Buff. I feel achy all over and terrifically tired. There’s a sort of fog in my head, making it tricky to sit down and write, stand up and cook, or even drive confidently. (Watch out Buffalo road warriors, I don’t have the best track record behind the wheel!) In short, I feel like I’ve been poisoned.
I was sitting out back by my Mamma’s pool, watching my bloated belly rise and fall when it hit me: I’ve poisoned myself! I’ve been eating nothing but processed food since I’ve come home. My body is rejecting all the junk I’ve poured into its engine. In a matter of five days I’ve become a fast food junkie.
A little history might help here…
I’m not a fighter. I shy away from confrontation like a true passive-aggressive half-Jew. But like any young woman searching for a life beyond Buffalo’s boundaries, I once was an impossible teenager. When I lived in Buffalo, my parents bore the brunt of my pimpled dysfunction. My extended family was revered and saved from my snot-nosed punkishness, except that one time. There was a singular occasion when I got into it with my cherished Aunt Susie, and if my memory serves me correctly, the source of my gripe was processed food.
I was the sort of kid who grew up in the classic blue collar American suburbs, but was intent on dreaming my way into bright lights, big cities, and if not white collars, then at least white halter tops. I moved to New York City when I was 18 to study acting at NYU. The summer before I skipped town Aunt Susie treated me to a cousins’ sleepover in Toronto, for what was meant to be an initiation into city life and one last childhood hoorah. We spent the weekend touring museums, shopping along Queen St., and eating at chain restaurants. For our last meal I was given the choice between two equally unappealing industrialized food chains where the biggest draw was the flashing red beeper handed out to guests waiting to be seated and the white paper tablecloths waiting to be scribbled on with a rainbow assortment of defunct crayons once we got there. I refused both options. We fought. I caved. I think I ordered chicken fingers and shared a pitcher of pop with my cousins.
At the time, I wanted something almost unattainable in Buffalo, or perhaps even in Toronto on our shoestring budget, I wanted fresh food. I wanted a dining experience. I wanted sophisticated fare. I knew nothing about seasonally driven menus, organic vegetables or free range chickens, but I instinctively knew the difference between fast food and real the deal, and I was looking for quality. Growing up in Buffalo, I developed a hunger for hard-to-find artisanally crafted, high-end, slow food. I had traveled around enough with my Dad to know what good food tastes like, and my palette responded in kind. Though I had been reared on the average American diet of fast, frozen, and canned food products, I knew that something better was out there. In 1996 I moved to Union Square and found it straightaway, with a farmers market at my doorstep and the hub of Danny Meyer’s budding restaurant empire ‘round my block. Today, my Tribe knows me as the difficult diner with a heart of gold, who asks as many questions about the food I’m being served as I have answers for politely refusing (and trying to encourage them to refuse) any dish that even approaches tasting processed.
So what perplexes me about my current state is how an honest to goodness FOOD Maven could manage to poison myself like this? Whereas I once threw hissy fits in protest of deep-fried frozen fish filets and bottomless soda fountain beverages, I now crave these nostalgic relics from my past food life and glorify them anew in NYC. The cultural and economic moment is New York has comfort chic written all over it. Daniel Boulud’s hotdogs are now more sought after than his arugula soup; it’s harder to nab a bar stool for David Chang’s East Village chicken wings than it is to share a table for Jonathan Waxman’s West Village brick oven roast chicken. Both are delicious, and I’m all for touting rustic neighborhood bistros over white tablecloth affairs, but still, what gives?
A native New Yorker for most of the past 13 years, and a natural foods chef and writer to boot (!), I still return home and gorge myself on nothing but fast foods for days at a time. It’s easy to do here, as I’ve said before, the junk food in Buffalo is sublime, the bars are open late and always within walking distance of a Jim’s SteakOut, and most Buffalonians I know can’t resist this city’s deadly diet from which industrialized food giants and their better-cream food substitutes hail. Even Anthony Bourdain loudly toasted “I love Buffalo!” in last night’s No Reservations episode filmed in what he calls three of the most fucked up cities in America: Baltimore, Detroit, and you guessed it, B-lo. I’m proud to come from rustbelt Buffalo, the city of good neighbors with a steel backbone and a guaranteed White Christmas, I just wish it were easier to eat here.
I’m not a perfect eater, and with these roots I likely never will be, ‘cause as I say in my bio, “though I believe that food is culture and culture is food, and that we can change the way we live through attention to what’s on our plates, I’m not above cheese fries.” So maybe perfection is too lofty a goal, but I’m trying to improve and make a more committed effort to rid my diet of industrialized foods. Maybe not 100%, but at the very least, I don’t want to purchase processed foods. I don’t want to hand over my hard earned cash to support companies who are profiting off the ignorance, poverty and illness of their customers. This is tricky enough to pull off in the supermarket, but how the hell are you supposed to avoid the processed food trap when dining out…in Buffalo no less? The Amateur Gourmet blogged about this a few weeks back when discussing Film, Inc. He wrote about foods we all know are too good to be true, like a $1.50 slice of sausage pizza, asking us to rid our diets of these anonymous meat substitutes and use the power of each of our purse strings to vote for healthy, delicious, real foods with every bite we take. Anonymous sausage aside, it isn’t always quite so obvious to spot the industrialized foods in our diets, but I’m prepared to make the following promises to clean up my dirty dining habits:
1) Ignorance is Not Bliss – I will ask questions about the food I buy before eating it. I will not be pressured by a waiter, or a butcher, or a friend to unwillingly join a processed food feast. I will make ethical food decisions, though on occasion, if processed food is put in front of me by someone or some city dear to my heart, I will permit myself to indulge.
2) Cheaper is Not Better – I will make a conscious effort not to buy processed, industrialized or anonymous foods. I will never throw down dollars at fast food chains or the suburban temples of industrialization, such as Applebee’s, Chili’s or The Olive Garden, that clog our arteries and our economies.
3) Buffalo is Not New York – When in The Buff, I will seek out naked foods. I will plan ahead to visit Wegmann’s or the Lexington Co-op and stockpile my Mamma’s house with real foods. I will not take New York’s access to fresh foods for granted, but will take the lessons I’ve learned there back home to share with my Buffalo friends and family, among them, the woman who taught me to love life in a kitchen…my very own, very dear Aunt Susie.
How about you? Ready to clean up your dirty diet? It’ll be eaiser if we do it together!