Every now and again, I sit back and question why we do some of the things we do. Make no mistake, tradition plays a huge part and sometimes tradition makes sense – coming in the house before the street lights come on is not only something I’m glad I had to do, but now as a parent I shoo other kids home right before they come on, too – but sometimes, tradition stands to be questioned.
A tradition that I’d like to question today, is that of the “big meal.”
You know what I’m talking about… the idea that a “meal” is several starches, several veggies, a bread, a meat and a giant dessert. You’re not eating until you’ve had a meal. This kind of meal, in particular.
When I listen to people tell me what they had for “Sunday dinner,” they rattle off a list that sounds pretty similar to what I mentioned up there. To make matters worse, when I ask how often they cook, they say “Oh, I only cook Sunday – I can’t cook like that every night!” (…and this becomes their excuse for why they can’t cook.)
Why does that matter? Look at it like this – if you think that kind of a meal is what cooking really is, your conversion to clean eating is going to be a pricey one. There’s no possible way I could eat scalloped potatoes made with real cream, real cheese, real butter; a baked sweet potato; baked chicken with carrot, celery and onion dressing; peas and peach cobbler. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. I mention this because, well, the people who complain the loudest about the cost of clean eating are usually the ones cooking ridiculously large meals. Obviously, it’s time to start thinking about where this line of thinking originated.
Where did this crap come from? This idea that you’re not living unless you’re eating large? Why is it so ingrained in us, we don’t even notice that we’re eating and living larger than ever? We don’t even stop and think about whether or not this is the problem?
Once upon a time, a large feast was considered a sign of prosperity. A large meal was something heads of state (think Empresses, Emperors, Queens, Kings, Politicians, etc.) enjoyed each day, as it was reflective of her state (or how well she was taxing them, however you see it.) Not only were they eating giant meals, but they weren’t cooking them, either. Chefs, maids, butlers… all prepared a massive offering for their Master, and all Master would do is sit at the table, bang the ends of her silverware on the table, waiting for someone to come feed her. Neither she nor her family did the cooking. Or prepping. Or cleaning. It was even seen as being “beneath” them. It’s always been a sign of “success” to be able to enjoy the fruits of the labor of others. (See: capitalism.)
Meanwhile, the average person and her family… wasn’t getting down like that. Very little money was available to them, and they were reduced to making do with what they had access to – things they grew on their own, things they could barter for or the few things they could afford at the nearest store. A family could have a large meal every now and again if the harvest allowed for it, but otherwise? It was a matter of getting creative with the things easiest to grow. Corn, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, peas, carrots, green beans… had to be very clever. It was a struggle – especially with things like rationing – but with a few key ingredients, you could flip the same ingredients into five different meals and be happy. (Well, not everyone, because not everyone could cook… but that’s no different today… just sayin’.)
Don’t think the “average family” was unaware of how the rich were eating. Also, don’t think that the waistlines of the rich were unaffected by their eating habits. Oh, having that jolly-ol’-Saint-Nick-style belly was a sign of prosperity! “Eating well” was a luxury afforded only those of money! So a little extra padding wasn’t a problem at all! “Oh, you’ve been eating well!” was a compliment of high order in those days. It was letting people know that you could afford to have such regular and recurring access to the best of foods, that you were eating them enough to carry this physique. Only the poor were ever caught dead looking emaciated.
If you think about it… this mentality carried on in America up and through about the 1950s. Look at your ol’ school movies – not the ones made in the late 1900s to look like the 50s, but the movies made in the 50s – the women had curves… and were desired! (Heaven forbid, right?)
What else was happening in the late 1900s in the US that might’ve countered this attitude? Processed foods.
Ohhhhh, yes. Processed foods – made food more plentiful, made it more accessible, more available… made that average family – the one who often wants to enjoy a little luxury every now and again, and enjoy a night of “feeling rich” – more able to enjoy the finer things in life more often. Keep in mind, this is back when processed foods were actually made of, well, food.
Around the 70s, when Nixon was so generous in doing what he did to make corn, soy and wheat more available, there was a boom. The thinking became… “These real ingredients are now cheaper than the other real ingredients… so let’s do what we can to flip these real ingredients in as many different ways as possible. That way, if we’re spending less money on ingredients, we can reap more in profit.” Around here is where the chemicals came in.
Americans were still clamoring to live like the rich, because that’s “The American Dream” – an effortless life filled with lots of… things… and very little work to maintain them. Spending less time in the kitchen made it easier to work a little more, and a little harder. And with the fight for gender equality making it more common place for women to work as well, there was lots more working.
“Wait – you mean I have to do all this working, and I still can’t eat well? Oh no, that ain’t gon’ work!”
In a desire to live a lifestyle reflective of the family’s hard work, but not necessarily their income, they clung to the notion of the “big meal” while still remaining frugal. Processed foods allowed for that. But when the quality of those foods changed… it was for the worse for the family relying on them to thrive. Not only for their waistlines, but their health. It was at this time – the 90s – where the reality of this clinging to “living richly and eating poorly” began to set in:
In the early nineteen-nineties, a researcher at the C.D.C. named Katherine Flegal was reviewing the results of the survey then under way when she came across figures that seemed incredible. According to the first study, which was done in the early 60s, 24.3 per cent of American adults were overweight—roughly defined as having a body-mass index greater than twenty-seven. By the time of the second survey, conducted in the early nineteen-seventies, the proportion of overweight adults had increased by three-quarters of a per cent, to twenty-five per cent, and, by the third survey, in the late seventies, it had edged up to 25.4 per cent. The results that Flegal found so surprising came from the fourth survey. During the nineteen-eighties, the American gut, instead of expanding very gradually, had ballooned: 33.3 per cent of adults now qualified as overweight. [source]
It was hitting us, and we never even realized it.
Meanwhile, an interesting shift happened for the rich – that “little extra padding” could no longer be seen as a sign of prosperity and success because, well, the less successful were doing it, too! Well, how the hell could they afford to eat like us? They couldn’t. And well, since the rich had no desire or need to eat processed foods, they started scaling back. Hard core. Dishes with five ingredients – of high quality – yielding high flavor and proper nutrition by default became the standard. The big meal? A rarity. Now, a slim and trim physique was a status symbol. A sign of affluence. You couldn’t possibly be living – or eating – well if your body wasn’t slim.
At the same time, you’ve got businesses springing up all catering to the idea that “you deserve a big meal, and you can come here to enjoy it!” Ohhh, you don’t think those big franchise restaurants with the massive portion sizes are selling you that because they truly believe you deserve to eat like the rich, right? No – those dishes are making them money. “If we serve them a larger portion, keep the price affordable and tell them ‘Ohhhh, they work hard all day..they deserve to be treated every day… they will come… and they will come often!!!” It quickly becomes a numbers game. For maybe 50 cents of extra product on a plate, that business can enjoy an additional $5 of profit. 50 cents can buy an awful lot of chicken and pasta when you’re buying it in bulk. Well, maybe not an awful lot, but it can buy enough to make you say “Wow!” when it’s brought to the table… and make you feel like a Queen when it’s laid before you. On the other side of the dollar, however, the smaller the dish, the bigger the real status symbol.
What originated as a desire to simply live better… turned into a capitalistic ploy to keep people convinced that they “deserved the treat of a big meal” every day. Buy these boxed and canned products and you, too, can enjoy the pleasures of a gigantic meal. If you cannot cook, come to my restaurant and eat like a Queen! If you cannot cook like this or go out to eat like that, buy my quick heat-n-eats! It became a way to show love for us – I love you enough to give you these things that are usually reserved for the rich… while those better off are eating in much smaller portions and more creative dishes. Really, it’s nauseating.
I don’t even know where the real problem lies, here – if it’s in our inability to notice we were gaining weight.. in the processed foods containing more hyphens than actual food ingredients… if it’s our desire to live above our means and feel like we’re enjoying the fruits of our labor… or what. Either way, we need to let go of this notion that “eating well” means “gigantic meals,” especially if it’s affecting the way we see cooking for our families. Using our money to compete with non-existant competitors, trying to show ourselves how far we’ve come financially by buying the cheapest “food items” and overeating on them, and showing that we “love and care for” our dependents by shoveling this stuff down their throats isn’t doing anything for our collective health. Dare I ask if this is a form of fostering emotional eating? Nah. This one’s long enough.
So.. I ask… at what point do we start to let “tradition” go?