Every year on July 4th, we set off fireworks to commemorate when the fireworks were bombs. I celebrate Independence Day – love it, actually – because as I mentioned in my last post, I think the creation of the United States of America, and the Constitution that came along with it, was some of the most radical, optimistic thinking in the course of human history.
But most of us who went to high school know America’s not such a simple idea anymore – or that it ever was. We know the millions of Native people who were killed so that we could start from scratch on a new continent with our new ideas. We know how slavery and inequality was written in to that radical document. And we know that the building of America was, and continues to be, a bloody affair.
I learned this past week of a new HBO minisereies documentary called “Citizen U.S.A” in which filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi traveled the country, visiting citizenship ceremonies and interviewing immigrants, both famous and everyday, in order to answer the question, What does it mean to become an American? (For those interested, the film premieres tonight on HBO.)
In the driving spirit of that question, I hope your holiday moods will allow me to indulge my creative side today with a list that seeks to marry the complexity of the American idea with the musings on food, sustainability, and equality that I try to work through on this blog.
What does it mean to eat like an American?
To eat like an American is to overeat. To eat more calories, to eat larger portion sizes, to eat more frequently.
To eat like an American is to eat a lot of meat. Or, to be more accurate, it is to eat a lot of highly processed meat laden with saturated fats that cause cancer and cardiovascular disease. And to eat a lot more of it in caloric intake than matches our level of exertion to get the meat.
To eat like an American is to eat a lot of corn.
To eat like an American is to eat out, to eat in restaurants and diners and convenience stores, to eat in our cars, out of drive-thru paper bags.
To eat like an American is to eat food that comes in a package. To eat like an American is to favor the fast, the easy. To eat something that lives in the freezer and is cooked in a microwave. That is, to eat foods stored and prepared with technology that many in the world cannot even access.
To eat like an American is to eat the food of many other cultures, to eat foods invented in other times and places, to meet other cultural needs. To eat like an American is to alter those foods and reclaim them, for better or worse.
To eat like an American, as to do anything like an American, is to rely heavily on oil, on automobile gas and electric power.
But for all that, to eat like an American is, fundamentally, to eat better and with more hope that to eat almost anywhere else in the world.
Not for all of us. But for the lucky percentage of us who were somehow able, through circumstances of birth or education, to access that elusive American dream of middle class, to eat like an American is to eat well.
To have access to some of the best, most creative farmwork being done anywhere in the world, and to have access to places to buy that food at a fraction of its true worth.
To eat like an American, then, is to eat with the weight of a great responsibility. To eat with the full appreciation of all that we’ve been given and to eat with our hearts, to eat knowing that each time we do, with each bite we take, we are making a choice. Our food choices determine how much the workers picking our produce get paid, and how many tons of chemicals are dumped onto our land and into our mouth. Our American choices dictate land use across the globe, dictate the number of animals raised and how they are slaughtered, dictate how much fossil fuel is extracted from our planet.
To eat like an American isn’t unlike most of our American existence: to be grateful, every day, for all that we have been given. To try our very best to honor all that has been taken from others on our behalf, by using our massive influence to give back, and give back, and give back.