The Patriot Cooks

04/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans have done a lot of great things since our forefathers limned our democratic identity, but we've never collectively known how to eat. American culture developed fast, without centuries of agricultural subsistence to define our landscape and our habits. Unlike any other nation, we came of age in the post-industrial era, when great things were accomplished on assembly lines. In less than two hundred years we went from being colonists to being consumers. Now, we get what we want, whenever we want it -- especially when it comes to food. But the belief that we can have it all, with no reverence for the natural restraint of seasons and regions, has created a food culture that is destructive for our bodies, our society and our land.

Because America existed for just over a solid century before industrialization reshaped the food landscape, our regional and seasonal eating patterns did not have time to fully take hold. Gumbo still defines Louisiana cuisine and New Englanders love apple pie with cheddar cheese, but by and large, we are without the lasting culinary specialties that characterize virtually every other culture. Without strong traditions borne from seasonal and regional limitations, Americans have adopted the only diet in the world that is killing rather than sustaining its people and natural resources. Although diets across the globe are completely variable, all have managed to sustain a system of human life in conjunction with the land. What other food cultures have in their unadulterated form is a unified understanding of how precious food is to grow and prepare. Eating with delight, appreciation, community and pleasure comes with an understanding of the cost and value of real food.

Americans, on the other hand, have drive-through windows and weight-loss books. Most of what we eat comes from or passes through a factory, whether it's bread, lettuce, milk or the cow itself. Our industrial approach to sustenance has effaced any broad-scale appreciation for how precious food is: the last few generations of Americans have not been brought up with an awareness of what it takes to bake a loaf of bread; grow a head of lettuce or raise, milk, slaughter and butcher a cow. We have chosen detachment instead of engagement with what we eat.

Yet the less we participate in our food's life cycle, the fatter we become. You might think that a French woman spooning butter over snails and enjoying Roquefort and Bordeaux on a daily basis would be more zaftig than someone who opts for protein bars and skim lattes, but you would be falling into precisely the trap that is required to sell diet books and fitness magazines. In total, Americans spend more than $35 M a year trying to learn how to eat. All of this thinking about eating has created a bizarre culture of intimidation with food, which is only perpetuated by our food system: the less we interact with what we eat, the more confusing it becomes. We are obsessed with calories and carbs, shun butter, eschew eggs and refuse to touch toast. And a staggering percent of our diet comes from a package.

Even un-bagged salad scares us: I recently watched a cooking show where the hostess recommended using pre-made salad mix because she, "Hates lettuce that is dirty." She failed to mention that the leaves she was using had been sprayed with chlorine to make them clean. At my last Thanksgiving supper, when talk turned to the origins of the bird, one diner put an end to the topic, saying, "I can't talk about this turkey being alive." But it is precisely the recognition that our food touched dirt and blood that makes what we are eating so valuable and so important. If we thought more about that than about the protein grams we were consuming, we would feel immensely more satisfied and appreciative of our food. In turn, we would eat better food, feel more satisfied, and support the people who send truly clean and humane food our way.

Cooking at home is the best way to begin appreciating what you eat. It is an extraordinary feeling to prepare your own food on a regular basis. It is the beginning of a positive cycle: the more often you invest in feeding yourself, the more aware you become of where you are getting the food you prepare. You may begin to feel uncomfortable with chicken that has been through an assembly-line slaughter; or high fructose corn syrup in your cereal. If you've ever bought a freshly killed chicken from a regional supplier or eaten recently baked bread, you've known how real food is supposed to taste.

A food culture is bigger than signature dishes: in our case, repairing how we appreciate and consume our is the only way to give the next generation hope for health and full-scale social integration. Moving away from a system of mass-production and relying more on regional producers will help prevent the continued destruction of our natural resources and the perpetuation of the food mania that has enslaved most American minds. When you eat good quality food, the right amount is enough. It's at the heart of the "French paradox:" you won't catch yourself eating a dozen diet ice cream bars if you're satisfied by a single scoop of the real thing. Moreover, if you prepare your own food, you're likely to be doing it for someone else as well. While the communal element of eating may seem sentimental, it has never been more important. Food nurtures friends, families and communities in ways that are essential to our bodies, our landscape and our nation at large.

If Americans increasingly focused on whole, regional foods we would also address the social justice issue surrounding low-income communities that lack access to fresh, affordable nourishment. By supporting regional growers and insisting that farmers and local gardens be allowed to sell reasonably priced produce to people with limited income, we can solve the inequalities that corporate eating has created. This is critical in lowering heath care costs. It is also essential if we are to stop the degradation of our land and waterways.

Over-fed and under-nourished is not a natural place to be. Food is at the heart of any culture and the process that good food requires -- the patience, the practice, the understanding -- is what keeps people engaged, integrated and healthy. Nature gave us boundaries and when we ignore them, we lose what it means to live in step with our health and our communities. Americans have been the first to do many things -- why should retroactively creating a sustainable food culture be any different than establishing a successful democracy?