When I met David, I started every morning with three cans of Diet Pepsi. It had to be the cans, because the bottles never had enough fizz for me. And it had to be Diet Pepsi, because although similar, I preferred the taste to Diet Coke. Coffee didn't do it for me. Hot tea didn't either. And the diet part of it made me feel happy that I wasn't taking in any extra calories. Diet Pepsi was my long and trusted friend.
But David started calling it "The Cancer Juice". It was annoying, really. He was bludgeoning my morning routine. I mean, there was nothing more hopeful, more expectant, more intense with possibility, than the moment I heard the crisp cracking open of the can, as I pulled back the tab, and the bubbles pinging my nose. That first burst of effervescence on my tongue, and later the hit and rush of caffeine. Seriously, I'm smiling just writing about it. It was my morning ritual for years.
David was not wrong, however. There is a strong link between brain tumors and aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Pepsi. As it turns out, I had a brain tumor in 2000. I'm not saying Diet Pepsi gave me a brain tumor. Seriously, I'm not. For all I know, the tumor was pre-coded into my DNA in the womb. But it is weird and kinda nutty that I had a brain tumor and all that aspartame in my system for all those years. I mean, it probably didn't help things.
I'm fine now. The tumor was benign. Nothing that couldn't be fixed by cracking open my skull and canoodling around in there for 10 hours, and ultimately developing a host of mildly-annoying neurological deficits that will stay with me the rest of my life. Not that knowing any of this would've deterred me from drinking Diet Pepsi. I was always of the "Something has to kill me, why not this?" school of existentialism.
And besides, that beverage was a fundamental part of who I was. I'd been drinking it since I was a teenager. Maybe even before, although I don't remember. It was what I did, and how I got my day started, and what I put in my body. I never questioned it. I just did it.
Until David. And then, I had to question it. Mostly because he was a nattering pain in my ass about it. And when we had kids, which was remarkably soon after we met, I really had to look at it. He forced me to. I had no choice. My choices would be Lucy's choices and now, I was choosing beverages for two.
That is, I think, how many people make food choices. They just do what they learned growing up. Or they make up their bad habits all by themselves in adulthood. They don't question or have inner debates about food choices. They're just trying to pay the rent, and keep their job, and hold their marriages together, and be happy.
Unless you are a food lover, food writer, or food advocate you probably aren't sitting at your desk day-dreaming happily about what you're going to make for dinner tonight. And if you grew up with Gortons' Fish Sticks as a typical meal, there's a good chance you're going to think that's a pretty easy, tasty, affordable meal that the kids will eat up. That might be a no-brainer after a crappy day at the mill.
It seems to me that people choose fast and pre-packaged food over whole, cooked foods because they don't even see it as a problem. It's not that they know better and choose to buy their kids Happy Meals for dinner anyway. It's more that they like the Diet Pepsi. They drink the Diet Pepsi. They don't even see that drinking the Diet Pepsi is a problem. And if you never end up falling in love with a man who starts maligning your beverage of choice every chance he gets and telling you everyday, "That shit's gonna kill you" well, then, maybe you drink the Diet Pepsi for the rest of your life and never ask the big questions.
So, that's why all this discourse around food - Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, people cooking with their kids, food bloggers showcasing easy recipes for home cooks, Rachel Ray, and even the much-maligned and beaten-up star of Semi-Homemade, Sandra Lee - it all matters. It all means that someone somewhere is maybe going to sit up and say, "I never thought about that. I can do better. Hey, let's make macaroni and cheese from scratch tonight." Or "Hey, Alton Brown's crab dip looks easy. I can do that."
That's why the discourse matters. That's why the kitchen disaster stories matter. That's why the food love matters. That's why messing up your kitchen with your kids and writing it down for people to read, matters. Because what will change things is the talk, the trickle down, the stories, the images, the work in the community, the idea that cooking is not just for extremist cooks who think the only way to eat food is if it has been doing time in a sous vide machine.
And so, I'm not for all the food nazi rules that make people feel like they are children - rules about what people can or cannot eat on food stamps, how many sweets a kid can have at a class birthday party, or whether a school can host a fundraiser with bake sales, or pie eating contests, or the towns that ban fast food, or people who want to zone fast food restaurants out of poor neighborhoods. This is stuff that the boring people can fight over. The uninspired. The bureaucrats. The talking heads. The non-artists.
These initiatives are well-intended, but obnoxious. They feel bad. They have the stink of stupidity and band-aid solutions on them. They are paternalistic and short-sighted and patronizing. And I think, people will squirm, and fight, and wriggle their way up from under their smothering tenants, and run to the baked goods section of their local supermarket and fill their carts up with Hostess Twinkies in protest. Or they should.
This is not the way to get people to LOVE food, or LOVE cooking or discover the simple joy of roasting a chicken for their family and reaping the untold countless rewards for that, or inspire them to see things differently about what they are putting on the table. This isn't about the love. And it should be. Because that's how you create a culture of food lovers. That's how you get people to stop drinking the Diet Pepsi.