I'm sure most people experience the daily battle between the little devil sitting on one shoulder telling you what you'd like to eat and the little angel sitting on the other, telling you what you ought (and, of course, ought not) to eat. The moralising of food and its consumption is as old as the hills; Gluttony isn't one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing.
In an affluent post-industrial nation like this one, though, the stakes have changed a lot. There's now chemical input and genetic modification to consider as well; and the morality of international trade (such as the export of live sheep); and the treatment humane or otherwise of animals farmed for food and profit. The idea of what's "good" in the way we eat has become a lot more complex than it used to be.
Tomorrow's Festival of Ideas session 'Before You Eat' (Elder Hall, 11.15) features nutritionists Dr Peter Clifton of the CSIRO, Professor Marion Nestle from the USA (author of 2006's What to Eat) and Professor Kerin O'Dea from the University of Melbourne, with the redoubtable Dr Norman Swan as participating Chair. The program notes for this session end with the following list of things that 'we could afford to know more about':
-- The risks to health (real as opposed to imagined) from chemical inputs in the food chain
-- The costs and benefits to individual health of highly processed foods
-- ‘Food miles’ – the costs (nutritional as well as environmental) of having everything in season all the time
-- The further dietary implications of affluence that mean most people in the developed world can eat what would once have been luxury foodstuffs most of the time
-- The alleged ‘obesity epidemic’ and what we can do about it
-- The other risks of industrial-strength agriculture.
'What,' the notes conclude, 'are the desirable alternatives to the way we eat now?'
To me, the short answer to that question would be 'Produce as much of your own food as you can, eat it in season, and cook it yourself.' As a farmer's daughter of a certain age, I've got robust memories of childhood eating that make contemporary supermarkets -- much less fast-food joints -- look pretty lame.
Where I grew up, if you were hungry you went out and killed a sheep. Or, if it was a special occasion, a chook. Or you caught a fish, or shot a rabbit, or went yabbying down at the dam. In summer you ate tomatoes that your mother had grown, and in winter the gargantuan field mushrooms you'd picked yourself from up around the shearing-shed (no prizes for guessing the connection). You ate eggs that had been laid only hours before, with toast made from bread baked that morning before dawn in the big old ovens at the township bakery.
(Peace to vegetarians everywhere, but I don't apologise for the sheep, the chooks, the rabbits or the fish. I can attest as an eyewitness to their free, happy and well-looked-after lives, as I can to their quick and humane deaths; the worst thing that ever happened to most of them was getting bossed around by a Border Collie, which is a great deal more than can be claimed by most human beings.)
In the cities in 2007, most of us have lives that preclude the taking of time and trouble to maintain a close connection with the food we eat, which is why, although I still never eat fast food or even pre-prepared meat, I had never in my life grown a tomato until last summer. The astonished pride I felt when I picked my first three ripe Romas, brought them inside with some fresh basil cut from the pot growing on the back doorstep, did this with them
and then ate them is something I won't ever forget. It's not just that there's a powerful, primitive connection between producing food and then eating it; it's also that the process is beautiful and satisfying and will make you very happy.