Around dinner with a philosopher and a sailor

I return home after some hours of preparation for a class on the current “health” hysteria. The main text is an article by Michael Pollan (“Unhappy Meals“), in which he chronicles the rise of this thing called Nutritionism. Not to be confused with nutrition, Nutritionism is the ideology – or, collection of unquestioned assumptions – that science is the route to good health. In other words, that we base our food choices on so-called nutrients (proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins, antixodants) rather than on context, desire and taste.

He reiterates the little known fact that while many of us glug olive oil in the belief that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest because of some statistics about lower rates of coronary disease amongst European peasants, we’re all missing the point because it’s not only about what you eat, but how you live. So, the reason the inhabitants of those picturesque Greek fishing villages live long, strong lives and grow into old people whose creased faces are full of character and history is not only because they eat lots of olive oil, but because they labour. If you did 12 hours of hard work in the sun every day, you could probably eat what the hell you like.

The main point is simply: eat food. Not things that boast all sorts of health and nutritional benefits. Choose the thing that proclaims the least about what it does for you and you are on the right track.

I am pleased to say that dinner this evening would not have upset my new friend Michael Pollan. It involved a baby chicken that yesterday had been braised with bacon, olives, mushrooms and vermouth. On the packet was nothing of free range or grain-fed. Just “baby chicken”. Likewise the bacon, which was so timid that it did not even declare that it had been smoked in oak for three days.

One of the ways I am lucky in life is to know a butcher. Not the kind who stands behind the meat counter at Pick’n Pay, or who owns a quaint (expensive) butchery on Kloof Street, but the kind who lives on a farm with wife and children, and who gets up at 4 in the morning on Saturdays to travel to the big city to sell his produce to a bunch of organic-freakish people (the kind who will ask, “Is it organic?”, not even knowing why they care). He makes his own duck-liver pate. His wife makes relishes and jams. His sons fry eggs and bacon for weekend shoppers. I, selling wine by the glass at the next stall, watch them work and stroke my Romantic fantasies about the simple life, in the country. And I go home laden with farm produce, some bought, some gifted.

Of course nothing is simple about their life. And neither about what they produce.
The simplicity is a mythology, but how we love stories, and how they shape how we think. I can live a city life of multivitamins and lime cordial in my vodka, but come Saturday and an afternoon next to my butcher at the organic market, and I fancy myself someone who wouldn’t, when it comes to the crunch, “settle” for supermarket chicken any other day of the week.

How laughable it is to recognise one’s own contradictions. Yet these are the things that give some impetus to life. What I ate tonight was left over from a dinner cooked for a philosopher last night, and attended by a sailor who is sometimes a sociologist. The three of us come from (apparently) radically different disciplines, but we could quickly agree on the fact that life often has its own agenda, no matter how you approach it. All that remains is whether or not we subscribe to metaphors of defeat. Americans consign their lack of restraint to the “French Paradox” (how can you eat cheese and chocolate and drink red wine and still not be fat?), which, at once defeatist and xenophobic, also upholds the Frenchman as the mysteriously sensual philosopher. Then again, who can resist the charm of Sartre and De Beavoir making lives and history over red wine at Cafe Les Deux Margots?

And I will know no mad land
More lustful than my head.