Keeping it Real

I've been thinking.

I've been thinking about food - and Ideas - about education and eating habits - about health care as a social justice issue and health care as an individual responsibility.

I've been thinking about the way my own tastes have morphed from Kraft Singles on white bread spread with Miracle Whip (what a name! "miracle" "whip"!) to crumbs in the bed and stinky cheese. (Do you think that blond child with the red ribbon pigtails looks slightly manic?)

I'm not that far removed from American culture at large. My morphing has been within the context of the culture's morphing, I think. In the 70's, I packed lunches for me and my two brothers on school mornings, and we ate Kraft Singles on white bread. That was the decade that also included Spiced Tea Mix (chemically invented Tang, metallic tasting instant tea, and spices that never really dissolve) in the mom's club cookbook and for sale in cute containers in the fundraisers at our Christian school. Tang tea and Kraft singles are things my children wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.

This past week I heard my 23 year old son telling his father about his very regrettable decision to eat the kind of Kraft microwavable Mac-n-cheese that only needs water added to it. He was at school, and it was the only thing in the "pod" to eat, so he made some - and threw most of it out. He preferred semi-starvation to the fake food. This is the same kid, by the way, who used to eat the boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese with a lot of delight. It's not like I fed him leaves and twigs when he was little.

Also during the 70's, along with the "cheese food" and white bread, my mother also had an Adele Davis phase, and apparently that was the one that stuck with me. Let's Have Healthy Children sat on the kitchen counter, and all the talk about getting enough protein started during those years. We ate some weird food - but mostly, we started to eat more natural foods. It must have happened during an impressionable moment for me. I need things to be real - things like food.

You can still get Kraft singles, and that microwavable mac-n-cheese (which even has a fake-word name) is not only available, it's a newly invented "food" we didn't have in the days of Five Can Casserole recipes. Obviously, the fake, invented, "convenient," and heavily marketed fads du jour are not gone from our national Gotta Have It lists.

But along the way, with Julia Child breaking barriers for cooks at home (really, she started the ball rolling in a lot of ways), we have gathered up such notions as the 100 Mile Diet, the Slow Food ideas and methods, and most recently, authors writing philosophically and practically about Real Food and the reason the planet and we the people need to pay attention to the dilemma we've gotten ourselves into.

I think our country's tastes in food has paralleled our metamorphosis in education as well. In the 80's, most states in the union not only frowned on home schooling, for instance, they would actually declare a child not in the mainstream as "truant," and proceed according to the law. It took a lot of overt, conscious, and sustained effort for the country to wake up to the idea that real education could happen in real homes for real families -- and then for most of the population to realize that you didn't have to be a denim jumper wearing hippy freak or a religious zealot to school your kids in an unconventional way. Now colleges recruit homeschooled kids. It has turned out that kids who aren't constantly interrupted while they are trying to think become young adults who can think - and who enjoy doing just that.

But it's not just home schooling - it's magnet schools and alternative schools and satellite schools. The once exotic notion of the correspondence school - Calvert is the firstborn of this creation - has become just one more option for people who opt out of the mainstream of pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped, cheesy brain "food" that nourishes nearly no one while giving the impression of being part of a healthy meal.

And what has happened? In food and in school? The breaking out and liveliness of the various options have had the backwash effect of contaminating the sterile main stream of stuff and thereby reviving it. In schools we have more and more organic, real, and sensible ideas about children and the information they gather; in grocery store chains we have store brand organic options. The medical world is going through a similar integration (there is a Monday cancer patient shift for Classical Chinese Medicine at the naturopathic college - complementary medicine for the conventional and unconventional health seekers), and even in the worlds of print publishing and music, the genre blend is making it more and more difficult to tell the difference between disparate things that used to seem as if they were worlds apart. (This also makes it more difficult to shelve books at the library, by the way. I'm not saying it's all good.)

So here's what I think.

I think that it is rarely a good idea to follow the loony fringe. The compelling and consuming agenda blinds people to reality. But we'd also better never shut them up. I think the ideas at the edge work like wild yeast. Sure, it can lead to rot. But it can also make it possible to ferment things all the way to yum. As a culture, we are learning how to make and use the cultures. We're learning to "eat food that spoils, and eat it before it does." We're learning to keep it real.

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