Friday, December 28, 2012

The Problem with America's Food

     The problem with America is that we have no good fast food.
     Ambitious people in every country need fast food in order to accomplish anything.  We can't all spend time cooking what we eat from scratch, every day.  In most areas of the United States eating a healthy diet would now have to entail growing our own food as well, because we have so few healthy choices at grocery stores--and nothing produced by mega-companies can be trusted.
     Industrial foods are bad, as Michael Pollen tells us, and our fast food outlets are narcotizing us with devitalized calories.  Buying microwavable and plasticized meals from the grocery store might be a little better, but something essential has been lost when it comes to eating in this country, and we all feel it.
     Every country in the world has fast food, and most of it is really good.
     Step into the street in China, and vendors are preparing fresh, satisfying, cheap meals from honest local ingredients for you to buy and eat on the run.  You might fill up on steamed dumplings with meat, vegetables and multiple savory sauces for a dollar--all wrapped up in biodegradable bamboo leaves.  Or buy freshly made yogurt in clay pots that can be returned for a deposit.  There are homemade noodles, fermented duck eggs, crepes filled with tofu and vegetables, just-cut watermelon and pineapple on skewers, fish and veggie shish kebabs.  This is real fast food.
     My son, Eli, described the fresh-baked bread he saw in Senegal:  it's taken by wheelbarrow or rickshaw every morning to the fast-food stalls where sandwiches with fresh-mayonnaise sauces, vegetables and hard-boiled eggs are sold to people in a hurry.  In southern France the stalls are piled high with open-face pastries called pissaladiere, topped with onions, thyme, olives, and anchovies, or la socca, a chickpea pancake that used to be a morning snack for laborers.  These foods are made from local beans, grains and herbs, and are quick, hot meals served in paper cones and eaten on the go.  France is the size of Texas, but the French are proud of their regional foods, especially cheeses, wine, bread and olives, many of which are featured in fast food stalls with blue-and-white striped canopies, and cater to people on their way to work.
     Tunisian street food might be local fish, eggs and spices wrapped in thin pastry and deep-fried, like bite-sized bouquets called briks, or quail eggs and mint tea.  In Iran you'd pick up a lunch of labu, a dish made of red beets roasted in coals and served in wedges of newspaper, or loubia, fava beans cooked whole and flavored with angelica.  Italy sells local peppers, onions, sardines and beans roasted in olive oil and served with crusty bread as take-out food, along with the ubiquitous paninis stuffed with cheese and salami, or bubbly individual pizzas covered with sliced San Marzano tomatoes and drizzled with regional olive oil.
     I am told that street food in Turkey is the best in the world.  Balik-Ekmik is cooked fish on a bun, made right next to the boat that caught the fish.  Steam carts carry midye dolma, mussels with rice, pine nuts, lemon and olive oil, or garlic meatballs, smoked tongue, baked potatoes with a variety of homemade stuffings.  There are stuffed grape leaves, creamy eggplant baba ghanoush, and cracked wheat salad.  Grilled kofte, a meatball made with lamb or beef and spices, topped with sauces and served between fresh layers of bread, is readily available, and so are candied fruits, yogurt, and falafel.
     When I visited Thailand I was impressed by all the carts selling very cheap meals--for fifty cents you could fill up on plates of rice and vegetables seasoned with fiery sauces, or fresh-cut fruit and coconut water on your way to the office.  Along country roads we ate roasted corn on the cob grown in fields right behind the roadside stands, and sticky rice flavored with spices and packed in hollow cuts of bamboo.  In Israel you can pick up a pita stuffed with eggplant, mango pickle, tahini and a hard-boiled egg, or buy borekas, a phyllo pastry filled with meat, caramelized onion and peppers.  When I lived in east Africa I found harissa, yogurt, chermoula, chapati, and papaya on the streets.
     Why don't we have fresh, nutritious fast food in this country, in every town?  My employees run out at lunch time to pick up a meal and invariably come back with fried chicken from Popeyes, or fast-food burgers, and large plastic containers of soda or sweet tea.  My patients are obese from eating these foods every day.  I don't blame them, because there aren't any good alternatives, and they eat because, in reality, they're starving.  Our foods are fat, artery-clogging stuff, without nutrition.
     Obese, and starving:  that's America.  Day after day I stare at lab results that tell me my patients' blood is full of fat and cholesterol, and deficient in vitamins, minerals and protein.  I think the problem is not that we have "fast food," but that we don't have good fast food.  Our manufactured diets are killing us.
     I know that we doctors can't hold back the gargantuan problem of obesity and malnutrition in this country--or the fatigue, depression and cognitive breakdowns associated with bad food--by talking to our patients about "diet and exercise" all day long.
     Hardly anyone cooks, and very few people have the interest or know-how to grow food and prepare it in delicious ways.  But this isn't the problem.  We need good fast food, sold from carts in every town and on every street corner.  We need cooks who take pride in what they grow and make, and health departments that don't forbid individuals from selling what they cook on the street.
     We can't boycott McFastFoods unless there are McHealthy food alternatives out there.  The United States may be the only country in the world that doesn't have healthy, delicious fast food available to sustain those of us who are hurrying to work, or need to pick up lunch for the kids, or need to stay late at the office, or are on the way to the subway.  I'd like my lunch today to be locally grown bok choy cooked in olive oil with onions and garlic, a quinoa burger with real, crock-fermented sauerkraut and freshly whipped mayonnaise, and grated carrot salad with ginger, raisins and lemon juice dressing.  Where is this food?  Why aren't people cooking and selling it?  Let's demand real food, now!  
     I vote for relaxing the FDA and health code restrictions on preparing and selling street food, so the rest of us can decide what we want to eat for lunch, not what fast-food mega-corporations want us to eat.  The way things currently stand, health departments and zoning officials are legislating our deaths by forbidding mom-and-pop food carts from offering fast food up and down the main thoroughfares of American towns, under the pretext of "protecting" us from food-borne illnesses.  In fact, the government is allowing the food industry to be monopolized by corporate-owned food chains whose government-subsidized, chemical-laden, agribusiness-grown, food-like substances are killing Americans by the thousands. 


  1. Who needs to open a candy store??...I am seeing a drive thru coming to town!

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