I just spoke on the phone for 22 minutes, in my gravelly early-morning voice (with a cold coming on yet), with an Italian radio interviewer about Italian/Mediterranean food and its influence on the great American public. I have to confess I’m pretty chuffed at my ability to do that, even though I had to look up a few words in advance to get ready for it.
But once I get talking, even in Italian, it’s hard to stop me! In preparing for the interview yesterday, however, thinking about things, looking things up to be sure I had my facts straight, I discovered something that threw me:
Despite Michelle Obama’s efforts, despite all the words I and so many of my colleagues in the food-writing business have written over the decades, despite the constant dissemination, from influential bodies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Harvard School of Public Health, of unassailable statistics showing that consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is key to better health, longer life, and protection against catastrophic illnesses—despite all that, the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in recent years has not increased. In fact, the opposite: it has actually decreased.
I can only imagine what Italian listeners to that radio interview will think when they hear that—Italians who eat pasta with vegetables, and lots of them, at least once and often twice a day, whose idea of a serving of meat is 4 ounces or less, who end almost every meal with a simple salad and possibly a piece of fresh fruit, Italians who have such a resource at hand, even in winter, of fabulously tasty fruits and vegetables that it is impossible to resist their appeal. These are the same Italians who spend almost 15% of their disposable income on food—unlike lucky Americans who get away with just under 7% according to a survey from Washington State University, leaving more income for alcohol, cigarettes, and cable TV.
Should we be congratulating ourselves on our low food costs? No way! Because one reason why the cost is low is this: We are content to buy cheap mass-produced food—the kind of thing Michael Pollan called “edible food-like substances.” You know what they are—I don’t need to detail them for you.
The question I keep asking myself (and the good folks at USDA and the CDC and even, I bet, Michelle Obama also ask themselves) is this: How in heck do we make a change? How can we seduce Americans into embracing vegetables as a delicious, delightful, tasty, fun, easy, crunchy, salty, sweet (I’m using all those adjectives that people say they want in their food) treat instead of a duty to be borne?
Could we start with carrots? Sweet, crispy carrots? Take a handful—maybe four or five depending on their size. Scrub them well, grate them on the large holes of a box grater, toss them in a bowl with two spoonsful of extra-virgin olive oil, a small spoonful of fresh lemon juice, add some salt, a little pinch of sugar, a bit of black pepper (lots or little, depending on your taste), and maybe, if you like spice, a pinch of a not-too-hot ground chili pepper. Toss and let rest for half an hour so the carrots soften slightly in their dressing, then serve. They can go at the start of a meal or at the end, or they can accompany a little piece of grilled fish or meat. Any way you slice it, they’re delicious. I guarantee!