I’m back stateside… and happily so. South America was exhilarating (and my Spanish improved tremendously), but to be from the US is to be accustomed to a constant supply of consumer goods that isn’t available everywhere. Being cut off from such luxe living can, in many ways, be a good thing, offering the opportunity to discover life beyond such consumption (even I can go three months without Scooby Doo fruit snacks) – but what I missed more than anything, and what I have been savoring since my return, is vegetables. Produce. Green things; just the sort of thing that North Americans, by stereotype, don’t eat – but salads (rich salads, with romaine and leaf lettuces, fruits and vegetables and flavorful dressings, the kind of thing you can get at Panera anywhere in the US for five bucks) are a puzzling thing to the Chilean and Argentine diets, which consist mainly of meat, meat, meat, and bread. (Sometimes, there is pasta.) To order a salad in a restaurant is to overpay for a sad pile of iceberg lettuce with some shredded carrot, dressed with vegetable oil and salt. Produce sections in the grocery store reflect this sensibility: they are woefully small, minimally stocked, and poorly perused. To come back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and walk into the local supermarket was like returning to a playground of the garden-fresh, where one might purchase things like escarole and red-leaf lettuce, chard and portobello mushrooms and beets with the greens still on. BEET GREENS, YOU GUYS! That shit is off the chain!
The whole experience has me re-evaluating the way the American diet is often characterized. We’re portrayed as being the worst eaters in the world, but the truth is, we’re also the best – the options for healthy eating here in the Land of Plenty are nonexistent in other parts of the globe. Sure, they have less fast food in Chile and Argentina, but holy shit, y’all, salads! We have actual, non-pathetic salads!
All in all, I suspect much of America’s perennial schizophrenia about how to handle its own public health and nutrition (don’t eat saturated fats! Eat nothing but saturated fats! Carbs are evil! Calories are evil! JUST LOOK LIKE A SUPERMODEL AND EVERYONE WILL KNOW YOU ARE HEALTHY AND PRETTY AND PERRRRRRRFECT!) is a product more of our wealth, and our wealth of options, than anything else – when you can choose to eat whatever you want, from McDonald’s to Whole Foods, “what to eat” becomes a much more complicated question. The Chileans and the Argentines seem to worry a hell of a lot less about what they put in their mouths – there exists in both countries a generalized culture about food that seems to guide most choices – and both nations subsist mainly on red meat and white starches (bread, pasta, potatoes), probably the two most demonized categories of food in recent (American) cultural memory. Yet their public health is in less of a crisis, or at least is treated as less of a crisis.
There are anthropologists and comparative nutritionists who have traveled and data-gathered and written reams about how poorly the American diet stacks up against others. I’m not a professional observer of such things, but I know that in my own life, the plethora of produce available here affords the opportunity to eat much better than I did in my travels – instead of cornflakes, steak, and potatoes I am stuffing myself with, well, salads – and contrary to the traditional depiction of America as the ultimate Fast Food Nation, whilst abroad, as I struggled to explain the concept of Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions to Chilean strangers, I longed for the American foodscape that exists in parallel to so much crap: Farm-Fresh Nation. I returned just in time for a long summer of heirloom tomatoes and multihued bell peppers, Gilroy garlic and Ohio corn from my parents’ backyard, lettuce of a dozen different varietals and the endless season of greens – kale, mustard, beet, chard, year-round crops in Oakland. In Argentina I ate steak about three times per week, practically vegetarian by their standards but still I felt like I was sweating cow; now the juicy red beefsteak that makes my mouth water nightly is a tomato, sliced, barely dressed, at its best directly from the dirt.
It’s good to be home.