Pumpkin Pie
I like pumpkin pie. I still would probably never think to write about one, though.

Lydia Schoch tweeted this the other day:

…and it reminded me that this is one of my big weak points as a writer. I can’t describe food very well.

Partially, this might be related to my well-documented issues with describing anything. But only partially. If I buckle down and get in the right frame of mind, I can describe a landscape or a building or even a piece of clothing. But food really is the hardest one for me.

Part of it is that I don’t think much about food. My mind pretty much checks out after I ask the following questions about food:

  • Is it good for me?
  • What side effects will it have?
  • How does it taste?

The answer to the last question is either “good” or “bad”. I’m not someone who can write at length about how something tastes. I’m always baffled by people who can describe food or drink in complicated terms.

In all my time writing this blog, I’ve covered quite a few subjects. I think I’ve done three posts about food, and one of those was about Doritos, which barely qualify.

I’m a bit better about having characters in my stories drink stuff. I think that’s because I once wrote a story where a character drinks something with poison in it, and in order to keep that scene from standing out, I had to constantly (it felt like) make references to what people were drinking in other scenes.

There’s a scene in The Directorate where two characters have lunch together. That was at the suggestion of a beta reader who specifically complained about people never eating anything. I think I even specified that they ate sandwiches. That’s about as much detail as I could stomach. (pun intended.)

I know plenty of authors who do a great job describing food, though. Two  came to mind when I read Lydia’s tweet: food is a key thematic element in Carrie Rubin’s Eating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, there are vivid descriptions of the meals that characters eat while on a scientific cruise.

Later, I thought of a couple more examples of the use of food in fiction I’ve read recently: in Mark Paxson’s One Night in Bridgeport, there’s a running joke (for lack of a better term) that the protagonist keeps craving a cheeseburger. (Mark himself is a skilled cook, as he documents on his blog.) There’s a similar idea in Ben Trube’s Surreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.

I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’s Imperial Passions, and I happened to be reading a chapter in which the characters are having dinner. It occurred to me that it is very important for historical fiction to describe what people are eating, not only by conveying authenticity to the reader, but by helping to describe the structure of the society they live in.

This is why food is a key part of world-building generally. One of the famous questions asked by (good) designers of fantasy worlds is “what do the people here eat?” Because if you can answer that question, you end up answering a lot of other questions about the society you’re creating. When you write historical fiction, that information already exists for you, but you have to research to get it right. (e.g. “in the 1800s, Americans founded cities and towns along bodies of water over which agricultural products could be shipped…” etc.)

So food is a very important part of any story. (Well, any story about biological life, anyway.) I need to do a better job keeping that in mind. But I still don’t see myself writing an extended paragraph about the texture and aroma of a meal anytime soon.

In the last year and a half, two things happened to that made me understand calories better. The first was that I started doing cardio workouts and monitoring the calorie counts on the machines.

A half-hour of jogging burns about 300 calories. (The machine estimates a bit more, but I’ve heard these things tend to add about 15%-20% over the true amount) Then with a bit of time on a machine called “Jacob’s Ladder”, I can usually add another 100.

On my best day of cardio ever, I got to 500 calories. I was exhausted and sweaty, but it still felt good. 500 calories! I thought that was pretty awesome.

The second thing that happened was that I started following author Carrie Rubin on Twitter. She frequently discusses health/nutrition issues, and specifically menu-labeling. I never thought about it until I read what she has written, and after that I started paying attention to calorie counts on restaurant menus and food labels.

What I saw was horrifying. There’s no other word for it. For example, the typical plain bagel with cream cheese at most restaurants seems to be about 450 calories.

Before working out using calorie counts, I had no frame of reference to tell me whether that was good or bad. But now, I can roughly translate the number on the menu to how hard I have to exercise to burn that any calories. And the results aren’t pretty: I have to do my maximum cardio workout just to negate the calories from one bagel.

Once you see things in these terms, you take a whole different attitude towards food. When you see a delicious thing that contains 1000s of calories, you don’t think: “Yum! I want that.” You think: “My god, I’m already tired from all the running that’s going to require.”

Many food sellers are, naturally, reluctant to do menu-labeling, precisely because they know that people will see those calorie counts and change their purchase decisions accordingly. The good news is that they are–or at least, will be–required to do so.

(My fear is that restaurants will raise prices to make up for it. This leads to an even bigger problem: The fact the healthy food is also more expensive. It already seems like only the middle-class and above can afford to eat healthy, and the poor are stuck eating junk food because it’s cheaper.)

But menu-labeling is only half of the battle. The other half is for the consumer to be able to translate the calorie counts on those menus into something meaningful—specifically, the amount of effort it costs to burn those calories later on.

I have a pet peeve: people complaining about food having “chemicals” in it.  Three of my co-workers have done this in the past few weeks.  I can’t really blame them, though–some foods are actually advertised as being “chemical-free”.  I wonder how that works.

See, everything is composed of chemicals. So having them in your food is not inherently good or bad. It really boils down to what the chemicals are, and how they interact with the chemicals naturally occurring in the human body.

Then I read about this lady named Vani Hari, who calls herself the “Food Babe“, and who has been blogging about the pernicious influence of chemicals in food.  She’s even succeeded in getting stores and restaurants to pull some from their shelves.

But there’s been a backlash against her–people saying she has no scientific basis for her claims.  She responds by saying these people are shills for the powerful food chemical industry.

What I know from skimming her blog is that she seems to equate ‘processed” with “bad for you”.  While it’s true that there are probably preservatives and such that are used in some foods that do have harmful effects, I also don’t think you can just say “oh, that food is processed! It’s not good.” Cooking food is processing it, and that’s been a major development in human evolution.

I think there are a lot of things wrong with some of the commonly-available foods, and some of Hari’s advice is good.  (Avoiding McDonald’s, for example–their food is dreadful.) But I think some of the other stuff she says is built more on irrational fears of “chemicals’ than on concrete issues.

Say this for Thomas Friedman: he was right that Michael Bloomberg could unite moderate Republicans and Democrats. I think that they, along with all the libertarians, agree that his soft drink ban is rather absurd.

The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited…“–The New York Times.

I know Republicans–particularly those in the “Tea Party” faction–will say otherwise, but in my experience there are precious few Democrats who will draw a line in the sand and fight to the bitter end to prevent the sale of medium-sized soft drinks. Yes, liberals want to regulate big business, but it’s Kochs, not Cokes, that they are concerned with.

No matter how hard Friedman wishes upon stars, (specifically, these stars)* Bloomberg isn’t going to be President, because banning soft drinks is not the sort of thing that the average voter takes kindly to. It is saying not merely “I know what is best for you,” but “I cannot permit you to even have the chance to act otherwise.”

Is there anyone who doesn’t already know that drinking carbonated corn syrup is worse for you than drinking a bottle of water? I very much doubt it. It can be inferred from the scientific principle that everything that tastes good is bad for you.

It would be different if the ban was on selling the stuff to kids. That would be something people could understand. But if a consenting adult wants to drink a gallon of sugar water, who can say that person hasn’t the right to do so?

Are there any other instances in history of unhealthy beverages being prohibited? Any famous ones that didn’t work at all? Someone should investigate that.  In the meantime, you have to wonder just how much this can possibly change obesity in New York City. Maybe Bloomberg should eliminate all forms of public transportation in the city instead, thus forcing people to exercise. (True, they could try driving. But this is New York City we’re talking about.)

Of course, this isn’t in any way a massive infringement on New Yorkers’ rights. They’re not even banning all sodas; just certain sizes. What could be wrong with that? The mayor himself commented upon the sheer banality of his plan:

“Your argument, I guess, could be that it’s a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a sarcastic tone. “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away.”

He’s right, you know. It doesn’t even make a difference! A trifle, nothing more!

Hey, wait, why do it then? And why tell the portly partakers of Pepsi the loophole that they just have to buy more drinks? I mean, is he serious about matters of public health or not? This is where trying to be a centrist gets you into trouble: you end up doing just enough to annoy the Republicans without solving the problem the Democrats want solved.

I rag on the libertarians a lot on this blog, mostly because I used to be one and I can see so many of their errors. We need government regulation to protect the public health. We need it for big things that private industry might cut corners on, such as making sure that the sewer system and the drinking water system are two distinct things.

But not this sort of thing. This stuff makes the libertarians feel justified. I realize that the government feels like it ought to do something, just to make sure it still can, but in this case it really would be better to just put up some posters telling people to eat and drink healthy stuff, silly as that may seem.

*This is what I am alluding to regarding Mr. Friedman

Sometimes I like to go looking for blogs at random. One pattern I’ve noticed, both on Blogger and WordPress, is how many blogs there are about food. It’s a terribly popular topic; which makes sense, I guess. Food blogging was never my thing, though. If I tried, it would be like this:

  1. Get two slices of bread.
  2. Put cheese between the slices.
  3. Add mustard (optional)
  4. If you aren’t a vegetarian like me, add dead animal of some sort.

Anything more complicated than that, and I’d have to refer you to a specialist.

I’m also not that into critiquing food either, although I’d probably be better at that. The problem is, I’d have to sample all kinds of new foods, and thereby incur the risk of eating something I didn’t like. And, oddly enough, while I can enjoy reading political pieces I disagree with to critique them, and while I can watch awful movies for the purpose of criticizing them later, I don’t think I could stand eating bad food just for the fun of talking about it later. “A bridge too far” for me as a critic, I think.

But I saw one foodstuff the other day that piqued my interest: Taco Bell’s Doritos taco. I was reminded of this by Nameless Cynic’s post about it. In his post, Nameless Cynic wrote:

[T]he only real component the Dorito shell adds to a taco is mental: if “Doritos are awesome!” is tattooed somewhere in your forebrain, then the idea of eating this taco has a certain mental thrill for you that I don’t experience.

Well, that could almost be me. I really liked Doritos. Alas, I’ve heard that many (not all) varieties of them are not vegetarian, so I don’t eat them anymore. But I can easily see myself as the guy who thinks “Doritos are awesome!”

But to me, this begs the question: even if you are a giant Doritos fan, why wouldn’t you just eat a bag of them since, according to NC’s review, you can’t taste the Doritos anyway? I mean, the only reason you could have such brand loyalty is if you like the taste, right? And Frito-Lay still gets your money, so no worries there.

All I know is I used to love the taste of Doritos, and if I were a still a Dorito-eating man, that’s what I would do. So, it sounds to me like there is no real reason for even a brand-loyalist to eat the taco.