Monday, January 25, 2010

Shame on Me (Part II)

img_9975Differences of taste are tricky ameliorate, let alone legislate. Take for example, The Breadcrumb Debacle.

Last week, with a renewed vigor for dishing out the best a food-forward life has to offer, Erin and I decided to cook dinner together in lieu of hitting up a neighborhood hotspot. I made vegetables and dessert; she was responsible for planning the entrée: meatloaf. As we shopped together for ingredients, we reached a point of reckoning when we realized I had filled the cart with a baguette, garlic and onion, while she had collected a tub of processed breadcrumbs and a packet of powdered onion dip flavoring. Now either option can produce a tasty meatloaf, and in this case, the real foods option was actually less expensive, but we were at an impasse.

She wanted to replicate the recipe from her youth; I all but demanded we jump ship and venture forth on a real foods version of her Mamma’s meatloaf, made instead, from freshly toasted breadcrumbs seasoned with caramelized garlic, onion, sea salt and fennel. Dizzied but undaunted, Erin asked what I would do if I had been invited to her house and served processed meatloaf. Would I refuse her hospitality? “Of course not,” I clamored, “but in this moment we have a choice, and it’s small choices like these that add up to big consequences for our bodies, our economy and our shared ecology. I do not want to eat that.”

On the verge of tears, Erin gave in, and we made meatloaf my way, but not before I made her cry. In an effort to advocate for real foods I made my best friend cry. Shame on me! If this was living a food life to be proud of, where’s the joy in that?

Later that night, after a scrumptious meal and plenty of best friend banter about boys and Vermont vacas, business and Hollywood Oscar buzz, I got to thinking about shame and its role in shaping our society. A Google search lead me to a recent Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times, wherein he quotes Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures. Speaking to the problem of jihadists (not imitation meatloaf, mind you!) Seidman states, “When you want to foster more responsible behavior in people, you can’t just legislate more rules and regulations. You have to enlist and inspire people in a set of values. People need to be governed both from the outside, through compliance with rules, and from the inside, inspired by shared values. That is why shame is so important. When we call a banker ‘a fat cat’ for taking too big a bonus, we’re actually being inspirational leaders because we are telling them, ‘You are behaving beneath how a responsible human being should behave.’ We need to inspire the village to shame those who betray our common values.”

Powerful stuff. Seidman seems to be suggesting that we must shame our friends, and foes alike, into compliance. He might applaud my supermarket showdown as an example of how to use shame as a tool for cultural change. He might defend my choice to shame Erin into making breadcrumbs from scratch, believing that small acts like these can add up to a profound movement for progress that may not only be more effective than legislative food reform, but may prove the most persuasive tool at our disposal for initiating the sort of cultural changes that are necessary before a voting majority could ever find itself in a position to not only advocate but legislate progressive food policy. Shame as sugar! Turns out the cook’s best tool for sweetening up anything, even heritage breed roast chicken, may help the medicine go down as easily in Washington as it did in my local Gourmet Garage last week. Sweet Vidalia, garlic and baguette in hand, I made Erbear cry, but Seidman might argue that you can’t make meatloaf without cutting a few onions, and as any good cook knows, onion tears are an inevitable part of the feasting process.

Michelle Obama hints at this societal sweetening of American food policy when she talks about using her political capital to advocate against the childhood obesity epidemic that plagues this country. Planting a green garden on the White House lawn, inviting culinary students into the White House kitchen, feeding the homeless in Washington’s soup kitchens and talking about the importance of eating locally and sustainably raised real foods, could be but a start for this First Lady who has launched an anti-obesity initiative that aims to debunk the false options that parents and principals face when examining school lunch programs. Choosing between books or carrots is a reductive attitude that Mrs. Obama hopes to dismantle as she tries to do more to connect the dots between student nutrition an academic performance. As the most influential, can-do component of health and healthcare, The Chicago Sun-Times reported that diet may be the key to unlocking childhood obesity rates that threaten “one-third of U.S. children, with a much higher rate in African-American and Hispanic communities…and is also one of the biggest threats to the American economy.” To obtain an optimal education for America’s youth, I’m guessing Michelle Obama will need to shame communities and families into action before politicians will be shamed into following our lead.

Erin forgives me. She wasn’t the first person I love who I’ve offended on this journey to joy through my passion for food, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. As I reconsider the role that shame will play in my life as a blogger, chef, friend and FOOD Maven, it feels apropos that I might have to start weeding out my dates with a simple test to see who has the culinary chops to tackle my shame sugar! I’ll prepare a home cooked meal, set the coffee table and cuddle up next to him on my couch before quizzing him on the last time he ate at McDonald’s or bought a frozen dinner. If he answers, “Not since high school,” I’ll sit back and relax, settle into the evening, and once the wine has set in and dinner’s done, I’ll reward him with a sweet treat.

Get your mind out of the gutter. I meant chocolate, of course—Shame on you!

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To read Part I of this story click here.

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