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Holy Ted Nugent, we're all foodies now

Op-Ed

Many Americans care a lot about their food. But many also find it difficult to improve the quality of what they eat.

March 04, 2012|By Tracie McMillan

A few years ago I bought a cookbook titled "Kill It and Grill It" for my boyfriend, a Yale grad who hunted and fished. Admittedly, I offered the gift ironically. I'd been drawn to it by its cover photo of '70s rocker Ted Nugent and his wife, Shemane, each clad in a denim vest and clutching a rifle and knife, respectively. As a native of rural Michigan, I saw the image as both funny and dismaying. They kind of look like families I grew up with, I thought. But who buys a cookbook with a gun on it?

And yet, thumbing through it at home, I found passages that were eerily similar to the books and articles on local food I was beginning to read with regularity. On Page 121, I found something that could have been written by Michael Pollan. "The closer we can get to eating fruit from the tree, meat off the hoof, or vegetables from the ground, the better," wrote Shemane in the 2002 book.

Shemane also warns that, in analyzing food ingredients: "If you can't pronounce it, chances are it is not real food." Sound familiar? Pollan's Food Rule No. 7, formulated nearly a decade later, advises us, "Avoid food products containing ingredients a third-grader cannot pronounce."

It would be easy to dismiss this overlap as little more than a missed opportunity for a reality show: A boar-hunting battle between Nugent and Pollan, or a cook-off between Alice Waters and Shemane. There is plenty on which ardent pro-gun supporters and the marquee names advocating for local and sustainable food do not agree. And yet, maybe that's precisely the point.

One reason those imagined contests are funny is that we tend to think that taking food seriously is the exclusive domain of those who are affluent, well educated and — let's be honest — liberal. These assumptions are made by all sides, whether it's Alice Waters insisting that some people don't eat well because they prefer "to buy Nikes, two pairs," or Sarah Palin tweeting thatMichelle Obama's efforts to make school food healthier represent a "nanny state run amok!"

Both comments are painfully far removed from the reality of most Americans' lives. I know this not from my daily life as a writer in New York but because, in 2009 and 2010, I worked — and ate and lived — undercover researching America's food system for a book. I made use of food banks alongside indigenous Mexicans I met in California fields, shared lunch breaks with single moms on my shift at a Michigan Wal-Mart, ate with my fellow kitchen workers at a New York City Applebee's. If there's one thing I learned, it's that Palin and Waters are missing a very important fact: Many (and I would guess most) Americans care quite a lot about their food and health. The problem is that many of them find it incredibly difficult, because of time and money and access, to do much to improve the quality of what they eat.

It was Patti Good, a Kmart cashier from a declining Detroit suburb, who drove that point home for me. I was interviewing people who receive federal food assistance and participate in a matching-funds program called Double Up Food Bucks at the city's Eastern Market, a bustling retail and wholesale farmers market spread across five massive sheds that have stood there for 150 years. Patti had driven 13 miles to get an extra $20 for produce. "You can't afford stuff like that all the time," she said of oranges, adding that last year, with Double Up's help, she'd been able to afford a real splurge: a pineapple.

Eastern Market is a bright spot in Detroit's food landscape. City residents there have only about 1.6 square feet of grocery store per person; industry metrics consider 3 feet per person to be necessary to facilitate a sufficient food supply.

Nationwide, 23.5 million Americans live in "food deserts" — neighborhoods with insufficient grocery stores. The traditional explanation for food deserts is that there is insufficient demand for groceries in some neighborhoods, but Patti made me wonder if this isn't a semantic hiccup. People everywhere have to eat; there is always demand for food, just as there is always demand for water. The challenge isn't that people don't want fresh food; rather, it's how to get it to them at affordable prices. Supermarkets are one way, though their absence in communities, one expert told me, is an example of a "market failure." Eastern Market offers another — and one, I noticed, that kept prices competitive by nixing the middleman.

Between Patti and the Nugents, I've lost any patience for the idea that caring about food is elitist; that's just culture war posturing. Now, when people spout off about foodie pretensions or the poor's misplaced priorities, I tell them about Patti, or I urge them to read the first few pages of "Kill It and Grill It."

"It is good to know exactly where one's food comes from," writes Ted. "We sure as hell wouldn't waste good hunger or any one of our much anticipated family mealtimes on fast food or junk food."

So is Nugent a foodie? Given the term's liberal, urban connotations, I doubt it. But the ideas he shares with the people who are offer a compelling reminder that good food is something on which most Americans already agree.

Tracie McMillan is the author of "The American Way of Eating and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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