I'm beginning to hanker for the days when all we had to worry about when we ate was whether our food was high in cholesterol, heavy on carbs, soaked in sodium, dyed with carcinogens, riddled with nitrites and harboring trace amounts of the bovine growth hormone that may or may not turn little boys into little girls by the time they reach puberty.
You know simpler times.
But eating is starting to get a lot more complicated. After a generation of simply worrying about whether food is good for us, we have started to worry about whether WE are good for our FOOD. Did our dinner lead a pleasant life? Was this egg born in peace? Is this lettuce local or did it waste gas to get here? And shouldn't we be switching to yak, anyway?
Those questions, long bubbling up in food circles, are now widening out to well, me - and all the other folks who used to happily eat a hot dog without considering its trip from farm to bun. Although this newfound consciousness may eventually make for a cleaner, kinder world, it's also going to make us even more neurotic about eating. Compared with the American dinner table, Freud's couch is going to look like a yoga mat.
"I feel bad," says Jason, a Manhattanite whose eco-consciousness has lately risen to the ozone layer. "I left Al Gore's movie thinking, 'Oh my god, we're all going to be under water!' So buying local produce became very, very important to me." Since local food doesn't have to travel too far, said Jason, it burns less gas, thus contributing less to global warming, thus keeping the polar ice caps from melting, thus keeping New York above sea level. See? That's the new way of thinking. "But at the end of the day," he continued, "I still want to have organic strawberries. And they're usually shipped from California."
There you have it in a nut-case: A truly conscientious consumer can no longer eat organic berries without feeling bad.
Eating meat is even harder. Thanks to books like "Fast Food Nation" detailing the horrors of the feedlot, buying a plain old burger is starting to feel like green-lighting torture. And it's not just the cows we have to consider anymore. It's the grass beneath their feet.
"Yaks have softer hooves," says Jay Weinstein, author of "The Ethical Gourmet," explaining why he recommends eating yak as an ethical alternative to beef. "Cattle tend to trample the prairie, and it takes a lot longer for the natural grasses to come back."
Okay. Noted. Add it to my "New Things To Feel Bad About" list.
Whole Foods is aware of this list and is ready to address it. Maybe even add to it.
"We want to go beyond organic," says Jeff Turnaff, vice president for product purchasing in the Northeast. "'Organic' doesn't take into account the way an animal is raised from birth to slaughter." A new line, set to debut in a few months, will: "Whole Foods Animal Compassionate."
Wonderful! Let's hope some of us can afford it. But once the Compassionate brand hits the market, we'll also know that anything else is less compassionate Mistreated Animals that First Went Out and Trampled the Prairie-brand beef.
Try getting your teenager to eat that.