Mom's Cooking, So Hold the Arugula

By Andi McDaniel
Sunday, July 15, 2007

I confess. I'm one of those "thoughtful" eaters you've been hearing so much about -- the ones interrogating the arugula in the produce section or scrutinizing the ingredients on each box of Annie's mac and cheese. When there's a traffic jam in Aisle 3, it's usually us, commandeering the tortilla chips, weighing the question of local vs. organic against any number of other eco-socio-ethical concerns.

I shop like this because, according to what I've learned from books such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Fast Food Nation" and from spending two summers working on organic farms, it's the most effective way to "vote" for a healthier food system.

But for all my pondering in the produce aisle, there's a point where I draw the line. The few times a year when I visit my folks at my childhood home in suburban Chicago, you won't hear me talking about food miles or the sheer horror of a transcontinental February tomato. When Mom's cooking, I check my dogma at the door.

It wasn't always this way. It used to be that when I went home to visit, Mom would have to get up to speed on my latest food philosophy.

"Are you eating meat these days, honey? Or are you still worried about those poor cows being all cooped up?"

"I couldn't find organic yogurt, sweetie, so I just got you low-fat."

"I can't remember. What is it you're boycotting this week?"

Looking back, I'm amazed at her diplomacy. But at the time, I thought I was the one with the admirable values.

It all started about six years ago, when I was 20. Leaving behind my Kraft cheese childhood, I'd gone off to get a first-class liberal arts education (financed by Mom and Dad). It was at college that I began thinking systemically, questioning authority and reading books with titles such as "Milk: The Deadly Poison." Before long, I'd learned so many dark secrets about the all-American diet that I completely lost my appetite.

"Natural flavors" are manufactured in New Jersey? Milk really doesn't do a body good? Oranges are picked by underpaid immigrants? Easy Cheese isn't cheese at all?

I was fascinated to learn how things really work, but on a deeper level, I was confused. How could my mom -- with her loving hands and her legendary sloppy Joes -- have been enabling such a compassionless industrial food system? How could her careful nutritional nurturing have been based, at least in part, on lies and misinformation? She meant well, right? So what went wrong?

I tried to realign the incongruent parts. If I could just explain to her what I'd learned, I figured she'd come to the same conclusions I had. Soon we'd be eating sprouts-and-hummus sandwiches together while watching documentaries for fun.

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