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August 31, 2007

Mr. Henry gets religion

Filed under: American Food,Japanese Food,Mr. Henry,What Mr. Henry is eating — Mr. Henry @ 12:57 pm

Mr. Henry is not a person of faith. For him, ideology is bunk, and religion is über-bunk. Nevertheless, even cynical hounds have to decide what to eat.

The final sentences of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma read:

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few remarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.


At the instant of this writing Mr. Henry is snarfing down blue corn tortilla chips.

Although organic and without trans fats, these are surely more the product of industry than of nature. Reflecting upon his personal feeding habits, he tries not to despair, for he has not forgotten that despair is one of the seven deadly sins, right up there alongside gluttony.

Should we structure our eating around belief systems? Don’t we do that already even if we pretend we don’t? Isn’t what we call culture or tradition in fact a set of rather arbitrary beliefs, many ungrounded in logic or science?

Cuisine marks culture more distinctly than any other lifestyle choice. It’s the most conservative cultural trait. (Japanese-American families keep umeboshi in the fridge no matter what fashions they wear, music they listen to, or ideologies they favor.)

Organic is good. Local is better. Taste should be your guide. The perfect, most harmonious marriage of these virtues, however, is sustainability.

Eating from a farm like Polyface that achieves a balance of beast and field, of nature and nurture, in which each creature and each plant achieves its full biological potential, is the holy grail of sustainability. The land improves, our health improves, the beasts live happy lives (right up to their moment of demise), and the energy to run the place comes almost completely from the sun.

Prince Charles
started talking about these issues years ago. Although in the Diana legend Charles has been cast down as the frosty fogey, the emotional retard, it may come to pass in the long judgement of history that Princess Diana’s media successes will wane and Charles’ push for sustainable development will rise.PrinceCharles.jpg

Now that he has converted, Mr. Henry feels obligated to pursue the virtuous life. As soon as he finishes this marvelous bag of chips, he will begin casting about for information regarding local farms in the New York City area. (Query to the faithful: Must the convert lead an impeccable existence, or merely a good one? Temptation is everywhere. Sustainable farm products are scarce.)


  1. I believe the convert must do his best with the resources available to him. After all, if he lacks a local, organic, sustainable farm in the area, he may starve if he is unwilling to bend at all in his fervor…but once he finds the resource he needs, he should do his best to use it consistantly and recommend it to anyone who sounds willing to listen.

    Godspeed with your quest to eat lightly on the Earth! I’ll hoist a pint of Ben&Jerry’s to you.

    Comment by Twistie — August 31, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

  2. I sort of got stuck on the word “gluttony.” Then I looked it up because I thought, there has to be some measure of what “too much” is (there’s not really). THEN I saw the synonym “gormandizing” and I liked that even more!!

    Anyways…Thinking about local farms in NY is weird to me because having spent not nearly enough time there and all of it in Manhattan, and having seen only the occasional grocery store, it seems it is destined to be limited to “what you see is what you get.” (I had an apple from a shop the first time I was there, and I felt bad that THAT is what New Yorkers think fruit tastes like. But I know there must be some better options out there.) I resigned myself to think that when I finally get to move there, I’ll have to send away to my parents for produce and my precious Tillamook medium cheddar. I’d be curious to know how far away from the city one would have to go to find a farm they could actually visit to buy produce fresh off the land.

    Comment by la petite chou chou — September 1, 2007 @ 12:42 pm


    It’s not that hard. Local eating is getting much more popular and you are not in a bad place for it (trust me, I’m writing from a desert and I have found local food resources, in a major city you should have it easy). I am just finishing a lovely book by Barbara Kingsolver called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that chronicles her year of trying to live and eat sustainably and locally. She is doing it in a farm town in VA so she’s got an edge on us but her book is full of great resources. And it’s not a guilt trip, it’s pretty inspirational. So it’s not worth agonizing over but you start to realize how nice and fresh and flavorful things are when they were picked the same day instead of gassed and flown from half a continent away. It becomes worth the effort.

    Comment by Anne (in Reno) — September 5, 2007 @ 9:50 pm

  4. It can be difficult to be faithful, even here in agriculturally rich California. As a woefully underpaid graduate assistant struggling with the high cost of housing, I find that shopping at places like Whole Foods (they’re not perfect, but they’re trying) tends toward what a friend of mine calls “Whole Paycheck.” I know it costs more to grow food naturally than it does with pesticides and genetic/hormonal alteration, but it’s awfully hard to look at the $6.45 organic milk, and look back at the $3.29 regular milk, and reach for the right one. That, coupled with the fact that not everything you want to eat can be found from a local/organic/sustainable source, can almost turn grocery shopping into torture.

    Although, I am happy to say that I do my bit for the environment by walking to the grocery store, and bringing my own cloth bags.

    Comment by JaneC — September 7, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  5. We often make treks to Polyface for meat and poultry (you have not lived until you have had chicken livers from happy chickens!), but I can’t always rely on food from there (expense and carbon footprint of travelling 4 hours each way!). I think if we each maximize our use of local foods, that is the most anyone can expect!

    Comment by Deborah Dowd — September 8, 2007 @ 7:07 am

  6. It’s hard work, finding sources for good food…even if you are in an area where there is a great deal of agricultural activity taking place. But there is something that’s not been mentioned: no one is actually encouraging us to grow our own food, even in the smallest measure (which is all I’m able to do). Small cold frames for greens throughout the winter, manageable container gardens for those of us with only a rooftop or a square of concrete on the other side of a sliding glass door in summer….it’s not a massive yield but it is food that’s fresh and available at its peak. Food that fits Pollan’s description above.

    I’m known far and wide as the botanicidal maniac…but this kind of small scale, heirloom variety, just enough for me and hubby and a guest or two “farming” activity is something I can manage successfully. It makes finding real, fresh produce that much easier (and I don’t have to resort to Whole Bank Account).

    Comment by chachaheels — September 11, 2007 @ 7:54 am

  7. la petite chou chou — there are many wonderful farmers’ markets in Manhattan. The largest is on Saturdays (and I think Wednesdays, too) at Union Square. The selection of apples is truly extraordinary — in season, of course. There are also local purveyors of fabulous upstate cheeses at the market, but if you want Tillamook medium cheddar I suggest you go to Murray’s in the West Village. New Yorkers do know what apples taste like, and they also know cheese.

    Comment by CBOT — September 11, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

  8. Living in Southern California, I am especially spoiled by all the local and seasonal options that I have. I am not, however, a purist and I pick and choose what I want to spend money on. I will spend far more on organic whole milk and good butter than on produce. For produce, I still think that you can’t beat your local farmer’s market. They are popping up everywhere now and, organic or not, they produce the best tasting local produce, in my opinion. They are also lots more economical than places like Whole Foods.

    Also, if you find a particular vendor at a farmer’s market who you like and patronize regularly, they can turn you on to all sorts of great new crops and often give you great deals! My local fruit vendor turned me on to emerald plums, which are simply heavenly, though, tragically going out of season soon! He also gives me at least a pound of whatever he has lots of that week for free, because he knows I shop his stand regularly and often bring friends.

    If you get inventive and are willing to spend a little more time looking, buying local can be tasty and affordable.

    Comment by Eilish — September 14, 2007 @ 12:20 am

  9. yes, in california, particularly,sf bay area, we are blessed with many options. I’m no fan of whole foods, for many reasons.. but we have wonderful farmers mkts and many groceries that give us lots of options. common sense and a desire to do the right thing by our planet and the people on it are good guidelines, I think. thanks as usual to mr. henry.

    Comment by verna — September 28, 2007 @ 9:37 am

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